Tag Archives: Megaliths

The Megalithic Structure of Trilithon in the Worldwide Architecture

The definition of trilithon or trilith is derived from the Greek words, which stand for “‘having three stones’ (τρι-/tri- ‘three’ + λίθος/lithos ‘stone’)” (“Trilithon” 2021). The word trilithon was primarily applied by an English antiquarian, physician and Anglican clergyman, William Stukeley (1687-1765), who had “a significant influence on the later development of archaeology. [He] pioneered the scholarly investigation of the prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire [and] published over twenty books on archaeology and other subjects during his lifetime” (“William Stukeley” 2021).

Haʻamonga ʻa Maui in the Kingdom of Tonga, a Polynesian country and archipelago including 169 islands. An appearance of such structures as trilithons in the furthest corners of the word means that the architectural solution was applied worldwide. Photo by Sarah Kelemen (2009). CC BY 2.0. Photo source: “Trilithon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Precisely, trilithon is a megalithic structure consisting of three boulders: two vertical and the third arranged horizontally. In such constructions, the two large vertical stones, called posts, constitute the only support for the third stone, which is set horizontally across the top, referred to as a lintel.

The definition of trilithon “is commonly used in the context of megalithic monuments”. Trilithons were built in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, possibly as religious objects or astronomical observatories. “The most famous trilithons are those of Stonehenge in England, those found in the Megalithic temples of Malta […] and the Osireion in Egypt. […] The term also describes the groups of three stones in the Hunebed tombs of the Netherlands and the three massive stones forming part of the wall of the [so-called] Roman Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek, Lebanon. Far from Europe and the Middle East, another famous trilithon is the Haʻamonga ʻa Maui in Tonga, Polynesia” (“Trilithon” 2021).

Typical and most famous examples of trilithons at Stonehenge, England. Photo by Daveahern (2005). “Stonehenge Closeup”. Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Featured image: Although the three successive megalithic blocks are positioned here horizontally, they are also known as a trilithon. They are the main feature of the Temple of Jupiter Baal (“Heliopolitan Zeus”) in Baalbek, Lebanon. Photo by Brattarb – Own work (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Trilithon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Trylit” (2013). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fuUCTn>. [Accessed 27th May, 2021].

“Trilithon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3vxh6Jd>. [Accessed 27th May, 2021].

“William Stukeley” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3yOIm7W>. [Accessed 29th May, 2021].

Daveahern (2005). “Stonehenge Closeup”. In Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3yVuUiX>. [Accessed 29th May, 2021].

Language of the Megalithic Tiya and its Translation

The site of Tiya is among the most important and representative of all (Rey 2015; UNESCO 1992-2020). It contains thirty-six monuments (UNESCO 1992-2020), including “[roughly] aligned over an axis of [forty-five metres] a group of thirty-three stelae, with another [cluster] of three stelae a short distance from [the larger group]” (Rey 2015). Among them all, there are thirty-two carved stones, covered in symbols in low-relief; although some of them can easily be identified, most still remain difficult to decipher (UNESCO 1992-2020).

When the site was discovered, all of the stelae, except for one, were fallen on the ground. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The standing stones on the site are generally taller than the monoliths found elsewhere in the region (Reese 2019). Most measure between two and three metres high with the tallest reaching over five meters (Finneran 2007:244; Reese 2019). Tiya’s sanding stones can be divided into three types: anthropomorphic, phallic (snake-like), and non-anthropomorphic (Reese 2019; Mire 2020:20). While anthropomorphic stelae resemble a human shape, though highly schematized, the phallic or snake type looks like a tall and thin shaft (Finneran 2007:244; Reese 2019). The final groups contains flat monuments with irregular edges but usually resembling rectangular blocks (Derara 2008; Reese 2019). Yet, most of them narrow up to the pointed end, looking like a knife sticking out of the ground (Mire 2020:20). Furthermore, all the monoliths “may [originally] have been coloured in organic pigment” (Finneran 2007:244).

Plan of Tiya stelae field (after Joussaume 1985). Source: Finneran (2007:243; Figure 6.16).

Either type bears a series of particular symbols carved on them. Their combination predominantly includes engravings representing a sword, the so-called forked branch sign, and what Joussaume (1995) describes as la triade symbolique (the three signs), consisting of the design similar to zigzag (Σ), Х, and finally discs or circles (Mire 2020:11) Most stelae in Tiya also have mysterious perforations on their bottom part (Ibid.:11). Just one stela was still standing at the site of its initial studies, and this in situ stone revealed that the perforations had once been below the ground (Ibid.:11).

Weapons on the megaliths

Among the symbols carved on the Tiya standing stones, the most frequently utilised is the ubiquitous engraving of a dagger, lance or epée (on around twenty-eight stelae), which also widely appears at other megalithic sites in the region, such as Odotibo, Firshi, Seden and Lalou (Finneran 2007:244; Mire 2020:11).

Some steale are covered at least in four different types of symbols of unknown meaning. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Its symbolism is ambiguous; it may refer either to general weapons used in the community, or to the occupation of men buried beneath the stones (Finneran 2007:244; Derara 2008:70). In the latter option, the symbol of lance could signify a burial of a hunter or a warrior, while the number of daggers carved on a particular stela would signify the rank of the warrior or the number of killed enemies (Derara 2008:70). Hence, it is also possible that some male remains belonged to individuals who were killed in battle (Reese 2019). The signs of daggers may also refer to the ritual hunt or slaughter (Mire 2020:21). In further hypothesis, such weapons as represented on the stones were possibly made of iron, which would be another significant insight into the economy of the megalithic community (Finneran 2007:244).

The group of three stelae at closer look. Like others, they are all covered with typical enigmatic symbols. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

However, to make the whole picture complete, it should be also mentioned that the position and layout of the so-called weapons on stones vary; sometimes, the dagger’s blade points up, the other time, it is directed down. Certainly, it must once have had a meaning; nonetheless, it is unknown today. Maybe it was a symbolic representation of warriors fighting against each other, providing that each dagger would represent a warrior on each side of a combat. There is even a theory saying that the so-called daggers pointing at each other look more like starting or landing space rockets than weapons. 

Signes ramifiés

Unlike the symbol of the lance, which form is observable in a material world, some of the designs at Tiya, or elsewhere in the region, are more abstract than others. Likewise, a few of the megaliths “at Tiya carry a very distinctive Y-shape, described by Anfray (1982:126) as signes ramifiés (vegetable signs or a branch of a tree) (Finneran 2007:244; Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:11). Like other engravings, it is also accompanied by other different signs, including the daggers (Mire 2020:11). This is probably why Anfary (1982) also compares it to a projective weapon like a spear (Derara 2008:71). Still, there are many other alternative theories on its possible meaning.

The enigmatic symbol of signes ramifiés translated in various ways by scholars studied the megalithic culture of Ethiopia. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This enigmatic image features the rectangular base and branched pillar attached to this base (Derara 2008:71). “In connection with this depiction, there are different plausible but still controversial views” (Ibid.:71). Assuming it is an actual representation of a tree, the sign could suggest its religious and ritual meaning in a society and so “be interpreted in the light of the tradition of sacrificial flora, sacred grass and trees associated with the fertility rituals currently practiced in the Horn of Africa” (Mire 2020:11). In the burial context, the symbol may stand for continuation as much as continuous is the circle of nature (Ibid.:17). After a Swedish-Somali archaeologist, Sada Mire (2020:17), “[this] would make sense in Tiya in terms of the archaeology as the place is clearly linked to ritual and, perhaps, the blessings of the ancestors and the protection of a family […]. The sprouting or a ‘vegetable’ sign of Tiya may therefore be associated with the regeneration of the lineage. [To this day], plants are also part of ritual meals and are used in many local [religious rites].”

A bifurcated stick carried by the pilgrims of Dire Sheik Hussein. Source: Mohammed Ademo (2011).

 There is also another evidence indicating a ‘vegetable’ nature of the symbol; it is linked to present-day beliefs of the Arsi-Oromo people who represent a Cushitic ethnic group of Ethiopia (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17). They believe in the powers of the so-called dhanqee or dhanquu, which is a short and bifurcated (rather forked) stick, carved from a sacred tree and carried as such by the pilgrims of Dire Sheik Hussein (a holy site for Muslims) (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17). Although it is today mostly associated with Islam, the symbol of dhanqee is as well a part of the long lasting tradition of the Sky-god religion as practised by the Oromo today and in the past (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17).

Wooden ‘pillows’ of headrests (Gime) are used by many groups in southern Ethiopia to support the head during sleep and in some instances to preserve a complicated coiffure. Source: Hamill Gallery (2020).

Nonetheless, an archaeologist Worku Derara (2008:71) claims that although the Tiya symbol’s “branches at the top resemble the stick, [its] rectangular base cannot be correlated with the pointed metal called Ankase, which is attached at the base of the stick held by pilgrims.”

Another theory, which is widely accepted, is based on the oral information from the area suggesting the enigmatic design represents the traditional wooden headrest (Derara 2008:72). Such wooden ‘pillows’, locally called Gime, are used by many groups in southern Ethiopia to support the head during sleep and in some instances to preserve a complicated coiffure (Derara 2008:72-73; Ethnix 2012). However, as Derara (2008:73) points out, morphological differences between the Y-shaped symbol and the wooden headrest does not allow to openly connect them.

Gender ambiguous

On the other side, the engraving of the forked branch is “not unlike the bucranial symbol from the prehistoric rock art of the north” (Finneran 2007:244), which is usually interpreted as manhood or male virility.

One of the two anthropomorphic stelae in Tiya dedicated to female burials. The standing stela represents typical of the Soddo region female features, such as a necklace and schematized breasts. The woman’s image is, however, deprived of the arms and head. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In this context, the sign “may be related to fertility symbolism” (Ibid.:244). Accordingly, if a standing stone is read in an analogous way to a human body, the Y-shaped symbol is found approximately at the level of human genitalia (Ibid.:244). Simultaneously, two other megaliths of Tiya “are [distinctly] feminine in nature [by their form and decoration]” (Ibid.:244). The anthropomorphic slabs, of which one is standing and the other fallen on the ground, both reveal the visible outlines of woman’s breasts below a sort of necklace (Finneran 2007:244,248). The standing one is already deprived of the arms and head, but there is still the lower half of the tombstone, exposing the feminine features (Adventures … 2012). it is obvious that such stone slabs were obviously reserved for buried women (Finneran 2007:244,248; Adventures … 2012).

Similar representations among the stones of Soddo indicate the notion of strong gendered associations (Finneran 2007:244,248) that go “beyond the narrative of [male] heroism [and] so may [turn out to be the key to] the meaning of [the Tiya] symbols [in general]” (Mire 2020:21). It also happens that two genders are even combined and exposed by the shape of a single stone, as it is in the case of Tiya fallen anthropomorphic stela and almost identical representation on Gora-Shino stela (Finneran 2007:244,248; Mire 2020:21). In both cases, the phallic-fashioned monolith additionally bears a schematic female figure, standing akimbo (with hands on the hips and elbows turned outwards) with noticeable breasts and a more intricate necklace than in the first case of the Tiya standing stela (which probably indicates a woman of significance) (Finneran 2007:244,248; Mire 2020:21; Adventures … 2012; Reese 2019).

Such a combination of genders, however, is not exclusive to Ethiopia. As a matter of fact, it has got a much longer tradition than the megaliths in the region of Soddo, providing that the latter are dated accurately. Similar iconography had already been applied in abstract forms of art as early as in the Bronze Age, or even earlier, the most striking exemplum of which are the so-called Anatolian Discs from Cappadocia.

Phallic or snake shaped stelae?

Among the stelae of Soddo, also present at Tiya, there are monoliths described as phallic as they resemble penis in erection. Nevertheless, some scholars interpret them as snakeheads (Mire 2020:20).

Gora Shino Stela, which is similar to the fallen female stela in Tiya. Both reveal a mix of genders by means of phallic/snale head and female breasts. Source: Finneran (2007:246; Figure 6.19.b).

As a matter of fact, there is a visible connection between both images, not only in the context of their physical appearance but equally “between snake worship and phallic symbolism” (Ibid.:20), which is also strongly interwound in ritual use of fertility stones (Ibid.:20). These may be additionally covered in patterns resembling reptile skin, as it appears in the form of sinuous zigzag shape on the phallic, mixed gender stela of Tiya (Ibid.:20). This is not merely the matter of iconographical interpretation; such analogy is visible in current practices associated with the Cushitic religion, where phallic ritual objects are also covered in snakeskin (Ibid.:20). Moreover, in the tradition of Africa snakes are generally seen as symbols of renewal and fertility, as much as it is expressed by phallic imagery (Ibid.:20). “The occurrence of phallic symbolism, therefore, may be seen not just as a symbol of a victorious battle and masculinity but also as a symbol of reconciliation […], purification [and by extension, the continuation of the family and resurrection” (Ibid.:20).  

The fallen female stela in Tiya; the frame around its rectangular part is covered in sinuous zigzag patterns resembling reptile skin, which may introduce snake symbolism. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Snake rituals may have been also related to the perforations on the stones of Tiya (Mire 2020:20). Such holes feature the stela part initially buried in the ground; snakes as chthonic animals are believed to live and move underground and the perforations at the base of stones stuck in the ground may have been intended to make this movement possible (Ibid.:20). This may also “relate to the notion of ancestor spirits moving in the form of snakes underground”(Ibid.:20).   

Zigzags

Another engraving appearing profusely is another abstract sign, which resembles the letter W or M in a reversed position (Derara 2008:70; Mire 2020:11). Others compare it to the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, epsilon (Σ) (Stardust’s Shadow 2007). “As noted by Anfray (1982) this representation has remained mysterious because no possible explanation can be given” (Derara 2008:70).

The abstract sign in the shape of the letter W or M in a reversed position, or the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, epsilon (Σ). Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nevertheless, the symbol may be read as a metaphor for a ploughing trace, as it is represented in a scene at the Eritrean rock art site of Amba (Baahti), dated back to the first millennium BC (McCann 1995:39; Finneran 2007:84-85).

Ploughing scene, Baahti Focada, Eritrea (after Graziosi 1941). The zig-zag symbol from Tiya may be a metaphor for ploughing and so a symbol of the cultivation of land. Source: Finneran (2007:85; Figure 3.5).

Although the pastoral scene shows a continuous zig-zag design left by the activity of ploughing in the field by a long beam plow driven by oxen (McCann 1995:39), creators of medieval stelae may have used just its section to represent the very same idea. Moreover, it was easier to represent it in such an artistic abbreviation due to limited surface of the stela they worked on. Additionally, carving in relief took longer than painting the scene on the rock. If it is the case, the abstract design possibly symbolized the land owned by the buried man or the significance of land cultivation itself.

Eyes of a god

Discs or circles may be interpreted as the eyes of the Sky-god, a supreme deity of the Cushitic or Nilotic-speaking pastoralist groups of southern Ethiopia. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Another mysterious symbol on the stones of Tiya looks like a circle or a disk. Two such engravings appear on nearly all the Tiya monoliths and on others in the region (Mire 2020:11,21). They are carved on the same level of the stone and usually in the proximity of one or two of the three mentioned above symbols: the forked branch (ϒ), zigzag (Σ) and (Х/H), which are usually depicted between or below them (Ibid.:21). The disks may signify the eyes of an omnipresent, all-seeing deity and so are possibly related to the cult of the Sky-god, who is usually associated by contemporary believers with the eye and seeing (Ibid.:21). As Mire (2020:21) claims “belief systems […] tend to linger”, and so the same deity may have been also worshiped by the megalithic builders.

Scarification rituals?

Alternative theory says, however, that all the signs highlight again the significance of gender symbolism and so they expose intimate detail of a human body (Mire 2020:21). In this context, the two discs would stand for male breasts (Ibid.:21), especially if they are placed above Y-shaped symbol, earlier identified as male genitalia. More problematic are attempts to interpret two other symbols, which appear in the proximity of the previous ones.

The engravings’ placement, form and configuration must convey a meaning, yet not revealed so far. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The X or H-shaped sign, is usually positioned between the discs and the forked branch and may refer to the stomach or naval. Sometimes, however, it is replaced by the zig-zag design. Otherwise, either of them is carved on the right or left side of the first two. Are these scarification signs on the belly area? Among Somali, such decorating of a human body is still applied as a healing ritual; this could have been also practised by the megalithic culture (Ibid.:21). Irrespective of a possibility of such a link, the engravings’ placement, form and configuration must convey a meaning, yet not revealed so far.

Ringing stones

“Another interesting [finds] at Tiya are drum stelae” (Mire 2020:22). They may “have been related to ritual and have been symbols of status or used to call upon or ward off spiritual beings. [Such] stone drums are still used in Lalibela to call people to prayer” (Ibid.:22) as they give a particular metallic sound, like gongs, tin drums and bells usually do, especially while being tapped with a metal object.

Rigning stones serving as stone chiurch bells at Christian Monastery on Lake Tana. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The stelae’s ringing ability is attributed to the iron content of the diabase (“Ringing rocks” 2020). Little is known, however, about the ‘drum stelae’ discovered through archaeology” (Ibid.:22).

Finding the key

The stelae of the Soddo region can be a link between the ancient megalithic culture and the current peoples living in southern Ethiopia. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The carved designs on stelae in the region of Soddo may have been “used for regulating and organizing people as well as the material world. The may [have] simply [conveyed] information [in time, from generation to generation, or signified] power, social organization or cult system, or [else] the economy of a given society” (Derara 2008:69). Equally they must have played a transcendental function by witnessing to “the relevance of the community in association between the dead (ancestors) and the living”(Mire 2020:3). These and similar hypotheses have been proposed by scholars for centuries. Generally, many scholars suggest that “a megalithic tradition in the Horn [of Africa] seems to go back millennia” (Ibid.:3). Nevertheless, “it is problematic and [highly ambiguous] to infer the meaning of symbols [without] the presence of a living culture similar to or comparable with what the stelae exhibit”(Derara 2008:79). It is the missing piece that would probably shed light on mysterious character of the megalithic culture of the Soddo region and its ancient creators (Ibid.:80).

There is a need for further exploration of the site and its symbolism. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The “anonymity behind [the symbolism of the Tiya stelae] can be, [however], resolved through ethno-archaeological studies conducted on the material culture of the diverse communities living [over the wider part of southern] Ethiopia. It is also valuable to look into the evolution and relation of megalithic art in the Horn of Africa because of the long-standing contacts and cultural ties over the centuries” (Derara 2008:79). Apparently, the monoliths of the southern Ethiopia “represent the archaeological evidence for Cushitic or Nilotic-speaking pastoralist groups of the southern highlands, whose lives, […] were disrupted by the migration of the pastoralist Oromo (‘Galla’) who emerged from their ancestral lands on what is now the northern Kenyan [and] southern Ethiopian border and in a series of massive population movements thrust northwards into the highlands during the sixteenth century” (Finneran 2007:248)Although Oromo people adopted in time either Christianity or Islam, they have maintained their special identity which may be a bridge between their contemporary rituals and those once conducted by the megalithic builders (Ibid.:248).

The living reveal the secrets of the dead

Today, “despite some Semitic speaking clusters, the majority of people living in southern Ethiopia are Eastern Cushitic speaking people” (Mire 2020:10) and “[it] is noteworthy that there are systematic cultural similarities within [their groups, such as Oromo or Konso], and that these commonalities are crucial to an understanding of Tiya cemetery in particular and of stelae traditions in southern Ethiopia in general” (Ibid.:11).

The fallen stela with visible perforations at the base, probably once being set in the ground. A series of hypotheses are proposed for such marks. Some are related to the snake and ancestors cult. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

For instance, “a close study of Oromo funerary material culture, which is hugely distinctive and symbolically expressive, in the case of Oromo in the Arssi region may have  drawn upon certain elements derived from the earlier megalithic carving traditions” (Finneran 2007:248). Among the Eastern Cushitic speaking groups, both the Oromo and the Konso (Ibid.:5), the “stones erected for the dead served not only as grave stones but also as symbols of ancestors and fertility and the preservation of the family. […] Their traditions and […] archaeology of indigenous practices furthermore offer important insights into the site of Tiya and the practices that may have once taken place there”(Ibid.:11).

The people who live today around the site of Tiya, in the Gurage Zone, are called the Guraghe themselves (hence the area’s name) (Mire 2020:10). They are Ethiopian Semitic group who originally come from the Harar region, not the Tiya area itself (Ibid.:10). Nevertheless, like the Eastern Cushitic people of southern Ethiopia, they also “share a belief in a traditional deity they call the Sky-god, Waaq” (Ibid.:11), which shows, they have probably absorbed it from an earlier Cushitic culture, like Oromo (Ibid.:10-11), “given that the Sky-god religion is a region-wide belief and [its rituals] are recognised by all the people” (Ibid.:17).

Southern Ethiopia is a real mosaic of peoples, their rituals and cultures. It is a real paradise for both ethnographers and photographers. There is equally much work to do for archaeologists who can look for some evidence of still present customs in reference to the monuments, decorations and burial practice of Tiya. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the other side, it is likely “that the Oromo [people] themselves would feel affinities with the religious culture of the people who had created the stelae of Tiya” (Ibid.:17). It is also why they trace their ancestry also to the part of Soddo, where the site in question is located (Ibid.:17). The Oromo “imprint upon highland society is evidenced by a distribution of their language, yet they transformed socially in response to their new surrounds in the case of the adaptation of their Gada social system (a system of an age-grade classes)]” (Finneran 2007:248). In such a way, they could have also absorbed and preserved the notions of the ancient culture.

Such cultural elements as “language, religious beliefs and sociopolitical organisation, enable [scholars] to explore the ideas expressed at Tiya cemetery since these ideas seem today to encompass all the elements essential to the living and to their relationship with each other of times of death and birth” (Mire 2020:11). Important aspects of current life in the region to some extent overlap with archaeological and ethnographic evidence regarding human fertility, animals, cultivation of land, inheritance, wealth and burial practice (Ibid.:3-17). This is why there is a need for “studies involving careful examination of the material and culture of the people residing over the wider part of southern Ethiopia” (Derara 2008:76). It can also be relevant to Tiya, where some evidence of still present customs is consolidated by the monuments, decorations and burial practice (Mire 2020:11).

Unrevealed secrets of Ethiopia

Since the site of Tiya became a part of the UNESCO World Heritage in 1981 (Mire 2020:11), it has been recognised as one of unique archaeological locations in Ethiopia, such as Axum, Lalibela, Abuna Yemata Guh, Debre Damo, Fasiledes Castle or Konso landscape (Reese 2019). Although all these sites represent the testimony of the ancient past of Ethiopia, there have not been enough studies to fully understand it yet (Ibid.). Also little research has been done lately on Tiya, likewise in case of other megaliths in the region, whose purpose and meaning behind their physical appearance still remains unclear (Ibid.).

Last photos of the Tiya megalithic site. It is definitely one of the many precious archaeological sites in Ethiopia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

To protect the site, however, authorities conducted some conservation work in 2017 (Ibid.). Keeping the stelae in good shape not only may attract more tourists but also help to continue further research to finally unlock some significance of the story the monuments still hold secret.

Featured image: Megaliths with engraved figures in Tiya. Photo by Julien Demade – Own work (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Tiya (archaeological site)” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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“Ringing rocks” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2YBG4ZS>. [Accessed on 26th June, 2020].

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Derara W. (2008). On the Megalithic Sites of the Gurage Highlands: A Study of Enigmatic Nature of Engravings and Megalith Builders. Addis Ababa University, Archaeology and Heritage Management, Faculty Member.

Ethnix (2012). “Headrest Wooden Pillow” In: Earthlink. Available at < https://bit.ly/31ix79u>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

Finneran N. (2007). The Archaeology of Ethiopia. New York and London: Routledge.

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McCann J. C. (1995). People of the Plow: An Agricultural History of Ethiopia, 1800–1990. London: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Mire S. (2020). Divine Fertility: The Continuity in Transformation of an Ideology of Sacred Kinship in Northeast Africa. UCL Institute of Archaeology Publications: Routledge.

Reese M. R. (2019). “The Intricately Carved Tiya Megaliths of Ethiopia”. In: Ancient Origins. Available at <https://bit.ly/2A2Irvd>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

Rey S. (2015). “Megalithic Stones of Tiya, Ethiopia, Africa”. In: Solarey. Available at <https://bit.ly/380TAcB>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

Stardust’s Shadow (2007). “Ethiopia Reprise: Tiya Stela Site”. In: Stardust’s Shadow. Available at <https://bit.ly/2BGQUEK>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

UNESCO (1992-2020). “Tiya”. In: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Available at <https://bit.ly/3b5NPLw>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

Denied Pyramid on Top of the Rock of Sigiriya

It is generally unknown that the symbol of a pyramid is inscribed into an ancient face of Sri Lanka. Firstly, it appears as a graphical logo of the Sri Lankan governmental organization CCF (Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka), depicted inside two protecting it hands (see: Kovalov 3rd June, 2013). As such it stands for a gesture of shielding cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, including its ancient sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy, situated at each of the three angles of the pyramid, with Sigiriya and Dambulla inside it (Ibid.; see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana). The very same sign but engraved in granite reappears at the ancient and megalithic site of Mihintale (Ibid.). This is why some researchers claim that it is not a modern symbol but a cultural remnant of an ancient civilisation, which once lived on the island (Ibid.). A clue supporting such a theory lies in an alignment of the Rock of Sigiriya and other natural monolithic rocks nearby, namely, Pidurangala, Mihintale and Yapahuwa (Ibid.). But if a symbol of a pyramid is so common in the context of Sri Lanka’s ancient past, why the island is not known of such built constructions?

On top of Sigirîya’s Lion Rock. Photo by V. Epiney (2016). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo and caption source: “Sigiriya” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

When I first arrived in Sri Lanka, I did not expect I would see any pyramids at all but, as it usually happens, one first is driven by some fixed ideas about a place they are heading off to. At least, in my case, I always need to reverify all the gathered information on site, before I can move to any conclusions. The same actually happened in Sri Lanka.

The site of ‘Palace’ without a palace

When I reached the flattened top of the one hundred and eighty metres high monolith of Sigiriya, I was supposed to see the remnants of a palace, which according to an official history was built on the rock on behalf of a fugitive King Kashyapa (Kassapa), at the very end of the fifth century AD. (473 – 495 AD.) (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; Mohan 2019). Instead, I saw there much more than I expected but the ruins of any palace; most striking of all were red-ramped ledges of bricks, towering from the upper corner of the top level over multiple terraces, marble and granite flights of stairs and a huge pool, filled with water intensively reflecting the sunlight (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013; Mohan 2019).

Despite my all efforts, however, I was unable to find there any single construction that I could interpret as a part of a palace (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013; Mohan 2019). Moreover, as much as I had observed examples of ancient south-eastern architecture elsewhere, contemporary secular constructions, even those belonging to kings and his entourage, all were usually made entirely or partially of wood and so they were likely to perish much earlier than any other structures made of stone or brick (see: Royal Terraces without a Palace of the Kings). The latter group was of a greater importance as such buildings were commonly dedicated to gods.

For example, a later royal palace of Sri Lanka, in Polonnaruwa, which was built in the twelfth century AD., features mostly the remains of bricked columns and vertical thick walls with holes, served for holding now perished wooden beams, having supported once higher level floors (Wulff Hauglann 2020; see: ). Similar characteristics are absent in the construction of Sigiriya, which successive ramps were entirely built of bricks, with some visible elements carved in stone.

The Royal Palace of Polonnaruwa, dating back to the period of King Parakramabahu the First (1153 – 1186). Originally, it was made of bricks and wood and is characterized with vertical walls and columns, unlike in the so=called Palace on top of Sigiriya. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Moreover, providing that the King Kashyapa’s life was at risk, he would not possibly have invested in a luxurious royal residence, engaging as much as cost as workload to erect a magnificent structure of bricks and stone on top of the rock, providing that it was supposed to be completed over hardly eighteen years.

Telling differences between a palace and a pyramid

The ramped construction on top of the rock have got four sides and is built of red bricks with the use of the lime mortar between the bricks to bind them together (Mohan 2019). Its steps and ramps slope down from the north-western part of the top level of the rock southwards. Standing at the side of the granite pool, I observed red walls of the construction, successively climbing higher up, one after the other, similarly to stepped pyramids I had once seen in Mexico. As if against all of my guesses, having reached the flat platform on top of the ramped structure of brick, I eventually found a plate there, clearly reading “Palace” (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013; Mohan 2019). As a matter of fact, such plates are installed on all four sides of the ‘palace’ area, confirming that these are four sides of the palace; for example, one says: “West Palace”, and another, “South Palace”, standing for the western and southern parts of the area, respectively (Mohan 2019). The one even reads: “Palace Reception Hall” (Ibid.). And in general, archaeologists and historians claim the ruins as remnants of a palace but many alternative researchers, like Praveen Moha (2019) and Volodymyr Kovalov (2013), openly regard such a statement as misleading information as it is not based on any reliable source, especially when the so-called ‘palace’ is thoroughly examined on site.

A breathtaking view from the rock of Sigiriya with the bricked ramps of the pyramidal construction on top of it. Photo by Bodensee/Schweiz (2017). In: “pasja1000”. Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

Firstly, its dimensions are ridiculously small; the size of the top pyramid platform is 17 metres in length and 11 meters in width, which means the ‘palace’ only had 187 square metres (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013; see Mohan 2019). Today, the whole structure would be barely sufficient for a medium-sized house, and it is simple to conclude that the space thought to be once a palace is simply not sufficient to be a residence of a king (Mohan 2019; see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). Comparing such measurements to the mentioned Royal Palace of Polonnaruwa, which are 31 metres by 13 metres (403 square metres), it is visible that the difference in size between these two edifices is striking (Wulff Hauglann 2020). Obviously, it may be explained by the fact the Palace in Polonnaruwa is a later building and it was not limited by space of the flattened surface on top of the Sigiriya Rock. However, a king and his entourage would have needed such a space for living, providing that there was enough room for arranging luxurious gardens, pools and pained walls with frescoes …

Taking into consideration that it was meant to be just a ‘miniature residence’ for a king, where is then a space for the king’s family and servants’ living quarters, for a harem, storage facilities or cooking areas? (Mohan 2019; Kovalov 14th March, 2013). Where was accommodation of the king’s entourage, such as his soldiers, guards, ministers or priests? (Mohan 2019). Adding to that, the summit of a huge rock completely does not fit any residential purposes; it is striking that despite the limited area for a palace itself, the area was also partially dedicated to other constructions, such as a huge granite pool and terraces and a garden stone bench, as if the King had rather been more interested in reclining than having a comfortable residence (Mohan 2019; Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). And even though some think that Kashyapa built a palace on the very summit of the rock to protect himself against his enemies, such a theory does not make any sense when one examines a historical fact of the King eventually having descended the rock to fight against his enemies on the ground (see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana).

When I reached the top of Sigiriya, instead of a palace, I saw red-ramped ledges of bricks, towering over multiple terraces, marble and granite flights of stairs and a huge pool. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Furthermore, providing that the builders of Sigiriya also created an elaborate line of defence systems, which was stretching for kilometres on the way leading to the very top, so preventing uninvited guests from reaching the structure, there was no need to build all such systems, using water and boulders, to only protect a cramped palace on top (Mohan 2019). Basing on the above, it can be assumed that the structure on the rock was built for a completely different purpose from the one usually suggested (Mohan 2019; Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013).

‘Palace’ turns into a pyramid

If one rejects the official version, however, then the bricked construction on top of the Sigiriya rock simply changes from a palace into a ramped pyramidal structure. It is also worth mentioning that the pyramid on top of Sigiriya would not be the only one existing on the island (see: Mohan 2019).

Looking at the four sides of the ‘palace’ with its corners and edges at angle, it must be agreed that it could not have been a rectangular construction, like in the case of a typical stronghold, but more likely a stepped-pyramidal structure; whereas the walls of most regular buildings would be erected at 90 degrees to the ground, in the case of the structure of Sigiriya, there is a broad base and consecutive levels or steps getting smaller at slope angle from all the four sides towards the top, which is flat as today the pyramid is possibly missing the upper part (Mohan 2019). Nevertheless, the entire structure still consists of several plain levels and there are numerous flights of stairs to climb it (Ibid.). Staircases are mostly situated on the pyramid’s sides but some also appear running up in the middle of the platforms.

Secret of Sigiriya Staircases

What is quite surprising is that the staircases differ in their colour from the rest of the construction. This is because they are not made of red bricks, like the walls of the pyramid, but of white marble, adding that the staircases further down and surrounding the pool are entirely carved out of huge blocks of granite (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). The two kind of stairs were originally installed there in ancient times and the stairs made of marble also appear among various constructions on the ground level (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). Those from the top and the bottom levels are of the same size, shape and condition (Kovalov 11th March, 2013). The latter element furthermore brings other questions.

Namely, the state of the marble stairs is actually not good at all as their surface seems highly corroded (Ibid.). After Volodymyr Kovalov (11th March, 2013), this feature is highly surprising as there could not have been any damages caused to the marble by frosts in Sri Lanka. Moreover, assuming the official dating of the site to the fifth century AD., the condition of the marble stairs in Sigiriya is much worse than those from the same time but carved and installed in ancient Greece (Ibid.). I would even say that the marble stairs of the Athenian Acropolis are less worn out than those in Sigiriya, even though they are supposedly five hundred years older! So to say, the slabs of white marble used in Sigiriya must be more ancient than one thousand and five hundred years old (Ibid.). Such an assumption consequently questions the real age of the constructions of Sigiriya rock (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013).

Crawling snake on the flat top of the pyramid

Observing the top of Sigiriya from the flat top of the pyramid, one can get an impression that the successive steps of the pyramid together with the flights of stairs create a cascade flowing from the upper-left corner down, towards the pool. Unfortunately, the major portion of the pyramid was destroyed for unknown reasons so it is not possible to find out how it once really looked like (Mohan 2019). Praveen Mohan (2019) assumes the structure is today deprived of its final peak and it ends with a remaining flat top level surrounded by a ground alignment of the bricks. The latter seem especially interesting. Namely, the bricks incorporated there are not arranged in a straight line, as is usually seen in constructions around, but they are laid with curves, resembling more a snake’s body than a fence wall (Ibid.).

Was it a recreational garden?

Although, it is difficult to surely determine a purpose of all the baffling constructions that once existed in Sigiriya, one thing is sure; it was a very unique structure and all its parts had been built on site for some specific reasons (Mohan 2019). Apart from the said palace ruins, which are dominant on top of the rock, the other mentioned above constructions are believed to have been once a part of a recreational garden as they seem similar to those visible at the foot of the rock (Mohan 2019; Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013).

The Granite Pool on the top of the rock. Quite intriguing are several flights of granite stairs, apparently leading to ‘nowhere’. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Apart from successive levels of terraces, similar to those on the ground level of the complex, the large granite pool filled with water and multiple granite staircases around it, there is also the so-called ‘throne’, equally carved out of granite block (Kovalov 14th March, 2013). Such ‘thrones’ can also be encountered on the way from the ground level up to the rock peak (Kovalov 11th March, 2013; 14th March, 2013). All of them show a similar shape and the same high-quality of processing the granite stone (Kovalov 14th March, 2013). Nevertheless, they were not likely to serve as ‘thrones’ as there has never been enough space in front of it to bow in front of any king (Ibid.). After Volodymyr Kovalov (14th March, 2013), such structures rather resemble garden benches to sit down on and relax among walled terraces. Not to mention the fact  they were perfectly carved out of one of the hardest stones present on earth.

Questioning the age of the site

The age of constructions encrusting Sigiriya is uniquely determined by the Culavamsa Chronicles, which covers the period from the fourth century AD. to 1815 (“Cūḷavaṃsa” 2021; see: Kovalov 11th March). The records cannot be, however, entirely reliable as they were written and compiled by various authors at different times (“Cūḷavaṃsa” 2021; see: Kovalov 11th March). Apart from that source, there is no other evidence of dating the buildings of Sigiriya (Kovalov 11th March). Furthermore, constructing such a highly advanced building wonder over a short period of several years by means of slaves who would have used contemporary tools seem quite unrealistic as much as applying hi-tech machines in ancient times may seem fabulous to others (Kovalov 14th March, 2013).

Some visitors to the site, including myself, may have had an impression that all the architectural elements on site do not match with each other as they seem to belong to different phases of building the constructions. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After alternative hypothesis, put forward by such a researcher as Volodymyr Kovalov (2013), the structures of Sigiriya could have been built in different phases, which followed one another in different times. Undeniably, the whole complex truly looks like a mosaics composed of various elements in terms of used materials and applied technology. Hence differences in textures and colours between various parts of multiple constructions around the monolith. According to such a hypothesis, Sigiriya’s buildings may be divided into different layers, corresponding to their age (Kovalov 14th March, 2013). Surprisingly enough, the elements that are unquestionably a result of a highly advanced technology apparently belong to the most ancient layer; they are all entirely carved out of granite blocks, like the pool surrounded by leading to nowhere granite staircases, polygonal megalithic stones and the so-called ‘throne’ (Ibid.). Such remnants are a part of a different story that may have happened thousands of years ago, possibly at the times when gods and demons, like Ravana, owned the island (Ibid.). This is why some visitors to the site, including myself, may have had an impression that such elements simply do not match or have been misplaced among the others. Other structures at Sigiriya are perceived as more recent (Ibid.). These are marble paths and flights of stairs, successively overbuilt in time with additional elements of bricks, which were erected either in order to create or just restore an already existing pyramidal structure from the past (Ibid.).

The so-called ‘throne’ in a recreational garden on top of the rock. Such ‘thrones’ are also present on the way up to Sigiriya. Such structures look like garden benches but are perfectly carved out of granite. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Finally, maybe some centuries later, the King Kashyapa committed a crime and was forced to move with his followers from the traditional Sinhalese capital of Anuradhapura to the more secured location (“Kashyapa I of Anuradhapura” 2021). Consequently, the king used the existing complex of Sigiriya as his refuge (see: Kovalov 14th March, 2013). Possibly he was even pushed to enter the forbidden and holy land of the lost gods and their heritage, in order to save his life. In such a way, all the constructions having been possibly built and overbuilt at Sigiriya for ages were eventually ascribed to the fugitive King, and so the previous Ravana’s court became his home for the following eighteen years.

Engineer’s thoughts over Sigiriya

For a while I discussed with an engineer from Poland I had met on top of the ‘pyramid’. He admitted to me he had got simply amazed with all the structures at Sigiriya, and especially he was curious about the way all the granite elements were processed on site without using any machinery. Crouching by the granite pool, he also showed me how the shaped blocks of granite and tool marks on them seem to harmoniously play with the natural structure and surface of the stone (see: Kovalov 11th March, 2013). ‘An application of such a technology is visible on site everywhere you go’, the engineer said.

‘But it is unknown to myself even though I’ve got much experience in processing stone for years … Actually, I have already seen it also on other sites around the island and elsewhere in the world’, he added. ‘ … These stone structures are just screaming with an advanced technology. The case is that nobody cares these days … Well, people are on holidays …’, he sighed.

Finally, he stood up and looked at the red ramps of the pyramidal structure growing above the flattened top level of the rock.

‘What about archaeologists …? What do they think about it all’, he asked, shifting his attention to myself.

I just smiled to him. There was nothing to add. Multiple questions stayed unanswered.

Featured image: The naturally made monolith of Sigiriya became home to mysterious ruins of stone and bricks, encrusting the rock and its surroundings. Photo by Anastasia (2016). In: “MadebyNastia”. Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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