Tag Archives: Megaliths

A Tale of the Deeds of Tuatha de Danann and the Formorians – the Race of Giants

Archaeological Tour organised by Tour Partner Group (TPG), previously Irish Welcome Tours. The tour runs from minimum 5 participants. Maximum: 10 participants.

DAY 1: Dublin

Visit at the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin. You will listen to an informal lecture on Prehistory of Ireland with the classification of megalithic tombs and a rich history of stunning archaeological finds. Then we are going to see Giant’s Graves in Co Dublin: Ballyedmonduff Giant’s Grave. It is one of the Ireland’s finest wedge tombs. The site is reached by way of a walking trail from a gate on Ballyedmonduff Road (see: Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb Within the Lore of Giants). Next, Brennanstown Giant’s Grave, which lies in the valley of Glen Druid about a mile southwest of Cabinteely. It is a hugely impressive portal tomb known as Brenanstown Dolmen.

The term Giant’s Grave is probably the most widely used as far afield as Ireland, Sardinia and Denmark. It can be readily understood how giants were invoked to explain these monstrous architectural achievements (Evans, 1938). Legends of giants, who undertake extraordinary feats are very common in Irish mythology. These legendry tales were usually used by the 18th century Victorian Antiquarians and earlier writers. Already in ancient times, these so-called romantic concepts had abounded with possible origins of the builders of great megalithic structures, not only in Ireland but worldwide (Powell, 2012).

The below evening activity is available only for the dates: 18 April and 20 June:

An evening of folklore and fairies (it does not include meal).

A Tale of the Deeds of the Tuatha de Danann and the supernatural race of giants – the Formorians. This unique, authentic and entertaining evening of Irish storytelling offers a memorable night out in Dublin. Guests are enchanted by stories of Irish life long ago and gain fascinating insights into the beliefs surrounding the fairy world and Irish rich culture of storytelling. Take your imagination back in time as you listen to the magical tales of Irish Folklore our ancestors shared when they gathered around the fire at night. You will leave this unique evening with a deeper understanding of Irish culture and the Irish landscape, bringing the stories of Ireland with you on your journey

One Night stay in Co. Dublin

DAY 2: Co. Louth & Co. Antrim

Welcome to the Land of legendary Giants. For some reason they had once chosen Ireland for their dwelling. Next stop is Proleek known as the Giant’s Load – imposing and masterful.  The dolmen is said to have been erected by the Scottish giant named Parrah Boug McShagean, whose body was buried nearby (Dempsey, 2008). Local legend claims that the dolmen dates back to a battle between a Scottish giant Para Buidhe Mór Mhac Seoidin and the Irish mythical hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Para challenged Fionn mac Cumhaill to combat, but Fionn poisoned the nearby river and Para drank from it. Another local tradition claims that if a visitor puts three stones atop the dolmen, they will be granted a wish, or will be married within the year.

Afterwards, we travel by the ancient lands of the High Kings of the Kingdom of Ulaid stopping to visit the Navan Fort. It is a place where myth and reality meet. It is one of Ireland’s most famous and important archaeological sites. Legends say that Macha, the ancient goddess of war and fertility, scored the earth with her brooch pin and traced the famous outline of this sacred stronghold of the hero Cu Chulainn, home of the famous Red Branch Knights and Ulster Cycle of tales. Cú Chulainn and Finn McCool are two of Ireland’s best-known mythological heroes and legend has it they were both giants often fighting each other on the Connemara Mountains.

Beaghmore – a whole set of seven stone circles is our next stop. An enigmatic site described as a transportation portal in the book The Giants of Glorborin: Ancient Conflict in a New World by Jim Murdoch. Then, we will be passing by the Lough Neagh. The giant Finn McCool, who had a hand in many a ruction in the north, had made the lough by scooping out a huge fistful of earth to throw at a retreating English giant; it fell into the Irish Sea and became the Isle of Man. We will have an opportunity to explore the Giant’s Ring: the hedge at Ballynahatty is just so impressive, measuring almost 200 metres in diameter with an embankment almost four metres high in places. This hedge is an enormous amphitheatre with the remains of a passage tomb as a focal point (Dempsey, 2019).

One night stay in Co. Antrim

DAY 3: Co. Antrim

The below acivity is offered only in an itinerary available for the dates: 19 March and 18 April, 2023:

Departure from Belfast to Doagh Holestone – 1.39 m (4.5 ft) tall standing stone, with its prominent perforation, is known locally both as the Holestone and the Lovestone. The reason for the first name is evident, while the second name for the stone requires a bit of explanation. While some holed stones in Ireland are known for oath-making and others for use in childbirth. The Doagh Holestone, 1.6 km outside of Doagh on Holestone Road, has acquired a reputation as the place to exchange marriage vows. Although the waist-high hole in the pillar is but 8 cm in diameter, it is sufficient for a woman’s hand to pass through, where she may grasp the hand of her intended on the opposite side of the stone. It may be that such ceremonies had their origin in an era when clergy were not conveniently available in rural communities, and a betrothal using the Holestone was good enough, according to local custom, to avoid the stigma of an illegitimate birth. A priest or the civil authorities could then later ratify the marriage when one was available.

The below activity is available only in an itinerary for the date: 20 June, 2023:

If you like cliffs and do not be afraid of the void, then we recommend you to visit the Gobbins! Famous throughout the country, this place is a hiking trail dug into the cliff, and will take you along the northern Irish coast. Breathtaking landscapes guaranteed! A walk along The Gobbins Cliff Path is more than just a fun day out in nature. Its a journey through time and into the elements. You’ll gain a new perspective on the sea, on Northern Ireland’s landscape and on yourself. 

Torr Road-Ballycastle, undoubtedly one of the most scenic drives in Ireland affording views of Scotland and the Scottish Isles. Stop to admire and take photos of Dunluce Castle. Then, walk in the footsteps of giants and discover the secrets of the stunning Causeway Coastal Route. Giant’s Causeway is a gigantic geological formation consisting of more than 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns, some of which reach up to 12 meters high!  According to the legend, the columns are the remains of a causeway built by a giant. The story goes that the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool), from the Fenian Cycle of Gaelic mythology, was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. At the same time, the story is related to the origins of the Lough Neagh.

One night stay in Co. Derry.

DAY 4: Co. Donegal

Departure from Derry

Next, we will head off to Malin Head and take a circular walk around it, which is the northernmost point of Ireland. Our walks starts at the car park close to Lloyd’s Tower, at the highest part of the headland. Shortly after setting out keep an eye open for a 30m deep chasm through which the sea roars; it is called locally Hell’s Hole. Soon the gravel path comes to an end, and after a sign warning about the cliffs, a more natural meandering path continues to the extremity of Malin, a place called Banba’s Crown. The ancient Book of Invasions says that Banba, with three men and 150 women followers, was the first woman to invade Ireland, and her name has become one of the ancient names of the island, the others being Fódla and Éire. It is wonderful to sit on the clifftop, in the midst of the sea pinks and watch the Atlantic. Legends say that Tír na Nóg, the land of permanent youth and health, lies to the west, in the path of the sun. You are at the most northerly point of Ireland. To the southeast, the rounded mountains of Inishowen roll westwards to Dunaff Head, while to the north, over the horizon, only the Outer Hebrides interrupt a straight line to the Arctic. Time of the walk: 1 hr 30.

Prehistoric rock art, Inishowen, County Donegal: the Isle of Doagh in Inishowen is one of the most important sites in Western Europe for rock art dating back to at least 3000 B.C. There are more than 40 known sites (the biggest collection in Ireland) with two new discoveries having been recently made close to the Isle. Most of the sites consist of cup-and-ring art, but very little is known about their significance. It is speculated that in ancient times the Isle of Donagh may have been considered a sacred island. Time of the: 1 hr 30 minutes.

Finally, welcome to the ancient kingdom of the mystical Tuatha de Danann and the site of their ancient seat at the Grianan of Aileach Fort. The origins of the fort are dated back to 1700 BC. It is linked to the mysterious invaders who came to Ireland before the Celts and built stone forts on top of strategic hills and fought against a fierce race of giants. This area of Inishowen is one of the richest in the country for historical monuments and nearby you can find ancient passage tombs, early Christian churches, rock art and some of the earliest Celtic crosses.

One night stay in Co. Donegal

DAY 5: Co. Donegal (Tory Islnads). An additional day offered only for 20 June, 2023.

Today, we will satnd face to face with Balor of the Evil Eye. We will first take a ferry from Magheroarty to cross the sea. County Donegal’s Tory Island is a beautiful spot to visit, home to distinctive scenery, monastic ruins and locals with fascinating stories to tell. There were, it seems, many giants hereabouts once. You would never know that one of mythology’s most fearsome men is said to have lived here once. Balor of the Evil Eye a mythical Cyclopean giant and demon, made Tory his island and Tor Mor, a tower on Tory, his fortress. Balor was a ruthless and brutal giant with a singular, poisonous eye on his forehead that unleashed a fiery devastation when opened. It was on Tory that he ruled and imprisoned his only daughter, Ethnea, until she betrayed him and brought about his downfall. The place was named Torach, the Island of Towers, for its high broken cliffs. There are shattered black buttresses, pillars, and towers of basalt. If you pass on the sea, you are often apt to mistake them for strongholds in ruins. Old legends assert that the castellation was the pastime of giants. 

Take up this invitation and you certainly won’t be disappointed: make your way to the top of Dún Bhaloir – the legendary fort of Fomorian chief, Balor – and you’ll be surrounded by 90-metre-high cliffs as you gaze out across the wild, roaring Atlantic. We will also visit An Chros Tau (The Tau Cross), an iconic cross dating back to Colmcille’s monastic period (6th century). The intriguing Cross suggests early seafaring links to the Coptic Christians of Egypt. Carved from a single slab of slate, the island’s fishermen pray here before heading out to sea. Whilst exploring Tory, you may also find a graveyard with a very mysterious backstory. In September of 1884, the HMS Wasp set sail for Tory, with the unenviable task of collecting rent from residents and overseeing evictions. Disaster struck in the wee hours; the ship hit rocks and sank. Though the reasons for the sinking have never been fully established, many islanders attribute the Wasp’s demise to An Cloch Mallacht (their Cursing Stone). Dating back to Druidic times, the stone could supposedly be used to release negative forces on enemies. Six Wasp crewmen survived the tragedy, while eight of the dead are buried in the island’s Reilig Ghallda (Foreigners’ Graveyard). 

Second night stay in Co. Donegal

DAY 5/6: Co. Donegal & Co. Sligo

Departure from Letterkenny. Stop at the Poisoned Glen, which lies at the foot of Mount Errigal, the tallest peak of the Derryveagh Mountains range. It is one of the most renowned areas for its sweeping valleys, imposing mountains and shimmering lakes. Glen received its name from Balor of the Evil Eye, the one-eyed Chieftain who lived on Tory Island. Balor had a gorgeous daughter who he kept closed away in a Tower out of men’s view. However, word of her beauty spread and she was kidnapped and brought to Magheroarty. It’s thought that Balor was killed by a rival chieftain in the Glen with a spear through his eye. The blood poured from Balor’s eye turning the Glen red and splitting the great stone Cloch Hatán in 3 parts.

In his brief discussion of the Kilclooney Dolmen and its environs, R. Æ. Baillie concludes that, with dolmens’ history lost, “…it must ever remain a mystery how those huge stones were lifted up and carried, often considerable distances.” Was it a feat of giants …? But perhaps the biggest mystery about this portal tomb is why there is a miniature dolmen doppelgänger, with its capstone on the ground, only 5 m (16.5 ft) away.

Next, we will follow the road to Cloghanmore Megalithic Tomb and Mallin More Megalithic cementary. “The Great Stone Heap” was discovered in the mid-nineteenth century. Strikingly unique of this court tomb is that its two secondary burial chambers each contain something not found in any other court tomb: an orthostat with the signature rock-art designs of the Irish passage tomb. While not nearly as numerous nor as complex as the decorations at the Newgrange or Loughcrew passage tombs, characteristic passage tomb art on the two stones was noted when the monument was first discovered. Then we shortly stop by Slieve League Cliffs – Ireland’s ultimate sea cliff experience. Afterwards, we make our way to Sligo and will see beautiful Ben Bulben and listen to the legend of Diarmuid and Gráinne. 

Night Stay in Co. Sligo

DAY 6/7: Co. Sligo

We start from Carrowmore Megalithic Site. It’s one of the most dense concentrations of megalithic tombs of different categories. Portal, court and wedge tombs usually are nicknamed giant’s graves. It’s the largest megalithic complex in Ireland and a not-to-be-missed experience for anyone interested in Irish history, pre-history, original peoples and settlements, or for those just curious about huge, ancient ruins…and how they might have gotten there. Walking along the paths beside the monuments gives many opportunities for taking photographs and asking questions of the brilliant local guides. 

“The road winds gently upwards on ever narrowing roads, until the last of the cottages is left below […] The cliffs, green and limestone grey, rise on each side of you now and are peaked in many places by sudden domes, like bald-headed giants rising above the hill tops” (Chris Thompson, Story Archaeology, 2012). The 15 passage tombs of the Carrowkeel Complex lie on this line created by the eastward spread of Neolithic burial practices some 6,000 years ago. It is also the site of a mythical Battle of Moytura which took place between the Tuatha de Danann and the ancient giants of Ireland.  Lured from his stronghold on Tory Island, Balor the Giant was blinded in battle and mistakenly burned his own army to the ground. A huge hole was seared into the earth and later, filled with water, becoming Sligo’s Loch na Sui: the Lake of the Eye.

Heading off to Co. Cavan and Cavan Burren Park. Folklore tells that two young giants, Lugh and Lag, challenged each other to jump a gorge in order to show off to the female giant whose love they both sought. Unfortunately, Lag fell to his death. But that’s how the Giant’s Leap Chasm got its name. And the nearby Giant’s Grave, where Lag is said to lie, is a wedge tomb built to its striking shape some 4,000 years ago. Whatever folklore says, facts can be even more fascinating. We will follow The Giant’s Leap Trail (2.7km). Duration – Approx. 50mins on bog-bridge and gravel path terrain with a 35 metre climb.

Second night in Co. Sligo

DAY 7/8: Co. Fermanagh

Departure from Sligo and climb up the slopes of the Cuilcagh Mountain often referred to as Ireland’ Stairway to Heaven. The view that you’re treated to from the top of the Cuilcagh Boardwalk is pretty special.

It’s along one of those surprising roads less travelled – and an experience to really make your day. Layers of history peel back to reveal a breathtaking wealth of natural and manmade features, all fused together into an exceptional prehistoric landscape. After your walk, take a tour of the spectacular Marble Arch Caves, which are a major tourist attraction, set in the picturesque foothills of Cuilcagh Mountain, just a short journey from the island town of Enniskillen in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. The landscape encompassing the Marble Arch Caves was formed over 340 million years ago. Today this natural environment of caves, rivers, mountains, ancient woodlands, waterfalls and gorges offer an opportunity for visitors to enjoy the incredible range of activities and experiences the Marble Arch Caves have to offer.

Finally, we head off to Co. Meath.

Night stay in Co. Meath.

DAY 9/10: Co. Meath

Heading off to the Boyne Valley. It will take you another step closer to the passage tombs of Newgrange and Four Knocks, one of Europe’s most dazzling megalithic sites. According to common knowledge, these were served as burials, however, studies in archaeoastronomy carried out by scientists such as Lomsdalen (2014) and Brennan (1994) show that megalithic architecture holds a strong relationship to the sky and thus some researchers argue these were originally astronomical devices.

Finally, we visit the Hill of Tara, known as Temair in gaeilge, the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland. It has been shrouded in myth and legend from the time of Tuatha Dé Danann right up to modern Irish history. In ancient Irish religion and mythology Temair was the sacred place of dwelling for the gods, and was the entrance to the otherworld. Saint Patrick is said to have come to Tara to confront the ancient religion of the pagans at its most powerful site. Sitting on top of the King’s Seat (Forradh) of Temair is the most famous of Tara’s monuments – Ireland’s ancient coronation stone – the Lia Fail or “Stone of Destiny”, which was brought here according to mythology by the godlike people, the Tuatha Dé Danann, as one of their sacred objects. It was said to roar when touched by the rightful king of Tara.

Second night in Co. Meath

DAY 10/11: Co. Meath

For volonteers, in the morning, a balloon flight over the Boyne Valley (only offered in itinerary for the date of 20 June, 2023). You should request it at the moment of booking the tour.

On this last day, we move to Loughcrew Cairns – Passage Tombs (see: Magic in the Hag’s Cairn of the Loughcrew Hills at the Equinox Rising Sun). It is a megalithic burial site dating from 3500BC-3300BC built on three hilltops. There are around 30 cairns and mounds dotting the site making it one of the largest megalithic burial grounds in Ireland. The site is known in Irish as ‘Sliabh na Cailleach’ which translates as ‘Mountain of the Witch’. (see: Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch). Legends link the site with a witch called Cailleach Bheara who is also associated with such megalithic sites as CARROWMORE in Co. Sligo. According to another account LOUGHCREW was inhabited by a hag named Garavogue’. The story goes that the hag was a giantess who is said to have dropped huge heaps of stones from her apron onto the land as she jumped from hilltop to hilltop. The very same story is heard at other megalithic sites in Ireland and … in Malta. CAIRN T is the principal monument of the entire Loughcrew complex, sitting on its summit, the highest point in Co. Meath. Known as “The Hag’s Cairn,” it features a megalithic writing on its orthostats, which is read by the equinox sunrise. Its mystery has not been revealed … 

In the afternoon, you will be transfered back to the city centre of Dublin, from where you can either go to the airport or to your hotel in Dublin.

END OF THE TOUR

Requirements:

  • You should be equipped with waterproof clothes and appropriate footwear such as hiking/walking boots with a thick tread and ankle support. Trainers are not acceptable.
  • The itinerary includes moderate walking (1-4,5hrs) tours so a level of physical fitness is needed.

DATES:

19 March, 2023 : 10 days/9 nights (available for booking till 5 February, 2023).

19 March, 2023 : RATE FROM €2 600 per person.

18 April, 2023: 10 days/9 nights (available for booking till 5 March, 2023).

20 June, 2023: 11 days/10 nights (available for booking till 30 April, 2023).

SERVICES INCLUDED IN QUOTE:

9/10 nights’ accommodation at the hotels 3*/4* suggested, double/twin rooms with private bath/shower. Single rooms on request.

9/10 full Irish Breakfasts at your hotels

An archaeologist and local guides specialized in folklore/archaeology (if a given tour is additionally guided).

Private driver-guide

Tory Island crossing (return) (only for 18 April and 20 June, 2023).

Admissions to:

  • Evening of folklore and fairies (only for 18 April and 20 June, 2023).
  • Navan Centre Guided Tour
  • The Giant’s Causeway
  • The Gobbins (only for 20 June, 2023).
  • Carrowmore Megalithic Site
  • Marble Arch Caves
  • Newgrange

Service charges and taxes at current rates.

All services are subject to availability at time of definite booking.

NOT INCLUDED IN PACKAGE PRICE:

International flights

Beverages, lunches, dinners

Any other services not stated in the above

TERMS&CONDITIONS:

1. A non–refundable deposit is required to confirm the booking.  This is 10% of the whole rate per person.

2. In event of cancellation the following charges will apply:

a) booking deposit is strictly non-refundable 

b) 6 – 4 weeks before date of departure 30% cancellation charge will apply 

c) 4 -2 weeks before date of arrival 50% cancellation charge will apply 

d) 2 weeks or less before date of arrival 100% cancellation charge will apply

2. TPG is not responsible for any injury, accident or stolen goods – please get travel insurance and relevant visas before booking this tour and have a passport with at least 3 months past the end date of the tour.

3. Single travellers are very welcome. If we are unable to find your roommate or you wish to have a single room, there will be the supplement added to the total rate. Early registration will facilitate this process.

4. Please hold off booking your international flights, until the tour is confirmed in writing via email. TPG is not responsible for any costs incurred. Please email for further details.

5. Itinerary may be subject to change if circumstances arise beyond reasonable control.

6. TPG accepts no responsibility for losses or incidental expenses due to delay or change in schedules, hotel booking irregularities, defaults, accidents, sickness, quarantine, emergency, weather, strikes, war, travel restrictions, or other causes. All such losses are the sole responsibility of the participants. Please make sure you have travel insurance to cover all the unexpectable incidents.

Why with us? What makes us stand out?

  1. Carefully selected date of the trip. March (after Saint Patrick’ Day), and April are not so touristy months, and the time specifically builds up a unique ambiance of the archaeological landscape. June, in turn, promises a good weather and allows to participate in a wider range of activities.
  2. A unique combination of 3 subjects: archaeology, folklore and a grandeur of nature.
  3. Friendly relations with local guides built over the years. Thanks to them, you will see authentic, unique and low-tourist places that other agencies often do not offer.
  4. Off the beaten track – the tour offers alternatives to Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions.  And if they are still popular, like Newgrange or the Giant’s Causeway, you will see them from a different perspective.
  5. A small group of 5 to 10 participants. Thanks to this, we move more efficiently, and thus – we are able to see more. In such conditions, you also have better contact with the guides and your comments, questions and expectations will always be noticed.
  6. Experienced guides with extensive knowledge of Ireland. You also have an opportunity to participate in an informal study expedition with an archaeologist.

If you are ready to embark on the tour at any of the above dates, please register your interest. We will be happy to answer your questions and send you further details.

Aksumite Megaliths of Commemoration in the Continuous Tradition of Ethiopia

My destination was one of the busiest and significant cities in Eastern Africa, which is today known as Aksum or Axum (Casely-Hayford 2010). Once, it was a huge and thriving city and it was ranked among Rome, Persia and China, as one of the four greatest powers (Ibid.). It had a considerable claim to fame (Ibid.). According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it was actually Axum, where the King’s Solomon and the Queen of Sheba’s son, Menelik literally brought the Arch of the Convent in the first millennium BC. (Ibid.). Accordingly, within the city walls of Aksum are the solid foundations of the Judaic-Christian traditions (Ibid.). The first Christian church was built by the king Ezana in the fourth century AD. (Ibid.). And so it was the first Ethiopian emperor to have converted to Christianity (Ibid.). The coins from that period bear both, the Christian and pagan signs, such as the cross and the crescent moon and the sun, the latter equally visible on incense burners, being stored in Ethiopian churches alongside with other liturgical objects; hence there was a continuity of the ruler, and the Judaic tradition alike, before and after the Christianity came (Ibid.).

After leaving the site of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, we headed off to the Central Stelae Park in Aksum. While we were approaching the hill of the royal commemoration, two slender grey granite towers started growing before us on the blue horizon.

Aksumite Empire

Located on the Horn of Africa, the ancient kingdom of Aksum (the Aksumite Empire is not just Aksum alone but the region known as Tigray), became an international empire in the first millennium AD. (Finneran 2007:146; Sullivan 2019), having “contacts with the eastern Mediterranean world, the Nile Valley, Arabia and even further across the Indian Ocean to India and China. Aksum also forged [in the early fourth century (c. 324)] its own distinctive Christian identity [that lasts till nowadays embodied by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church]” (Finneran 2007:146). The Aksum region had been populated and expanded by Agaw people since the fourth century BC (Sullivan 2019) but it had grown out from the Proto-Aksumite Culture (Finneran 2007). The latter reaches back to the first millennium BC and so the Ethio-Sabaean period with its long traditions related to the empire of the Queen of Sheba, whose capital was possibly located in Marib (today Yemen) but with its boundaries stretching over both South Arabia and Ethiopia (Finneran 2007; Sullivan 2019). Although the Queen of Sheba lived centuries before the kingdom of Aksum, its kings proving their right to the crown, claimed descent from Menelik, a legendary son of the famous Queen and King Solomon of Israel (Sullivan 2019).

The might of the first Christian Emperor Ezana is confirmed by his slab stone carved in a multilingual inscriptions; it includes the local Geʿez language, still used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, there are also inscriptions in an international language of ancient Greeks, alongside the language called Sabaean, which was spoken just in that part of Africa, apart from southern Arabia (modern day Yemen) (Casely-Hayford 2010). It is so an evidence that the Queen of Sheba’s language was present in the heart of Ethiopia; it also frequently appears on stone elements, revealing pagan symbols, scattered around Aksum (Ibid.). Historians think the language died out in the eighth century but it first occurred around one thousand BC., and so it had originated in the kingdom of Sheba and was brought later to Ethiopia (Ibid.). Simultaneously, it points deeper in the past, to the kingdom of Aksum’s origins (Ibid.).

Yet before the fourth century and the first Christian king of Ezana, “the Kingdom of Aksum had a complex social hierarchy [:] an upper elite of kings and nobles, a lower elite of lesser nobles as well as wealthy merchants and farmers, and finally a tier of ordinary people such as small farmers, craftsmen, and traders. [Aksumite elaborated tombs] suggest that the elite enjoyed extravagant burial practices, including funerary monuments known as stelae” (Sullivan 2019).

Central Stelae Park

Aksum is famous for grave markers or stelae made of solid granite; they are thought to be ones of the largest pieces of stone ever to come out of a quarry; usually, they are dated back to pre-Christina times of the first or second centuries (Casely-Hayford 2010). Yet, there is more to the matter of dating …

The tallest monuments of this type reaches at over 300 meters and weigh hundreds of tons (Casely-Hayford 2010). Equally, they are examples of most impressive monuments ever built in the ancient world (Ibid.). We must also remember that those large Aksumite stelae are single pieces of rock (Ibid.), as much as Egyptian obelisks. The features of the stelae, which are marking ancient burial places of Ethiopian emperors have been continuously echoing down the past of the region (Ibid.). That continuous tradition is taking the story of the Ethiopian kingdom back to the very beginnings of Christianity but the kingdom went back much further in time, even before the times of Solomon and Sheba.

The largest and well carved stelae are present at the Central Stelae Park with the multi-storied carved features: two of them are now standing: looking from the south, there is stela two (the Obelisk of Axum) in the centre, stela three (King Ezana’s Stela) on the right (eastern) side, and on the left – “stela one, [the Great Stela] lies recumbent at the western edge of the group. [Stela] two was toppled in antiquity and was removed to Rome during the Italian occupation in the 1930s from where it was returned [in 2007]” (Finneran 2007:165).  Stela three, in turn, is standing now supported by a system of lifts with blocks and ropes preventing it from falling down (Ibid.). “Three other, smaller multi-storied stelae, [fourth, fifth and sixth], stand to the east of the main group.” (Finneran 2007:165). The obelisks are believed to be “manifestations of secular and ideological power” (Finneran 2007:165) of the Aksumite rulers and had once a funerary function (Finneran 2007:165). While “stela one is associated with the complex of the Mausoleum and East Tomb, [stelae two and three are related to] a warren of catacombs beneath the stela park” (Finneran 2007:165).   

Afterlife Palace of the Kings

As Finneran (2007:165) notes “the stelas are more than mere tomb markers. [They] embody a great deal of symbolic and social meaning.” This architecture traces back to the ways of building of the Aksumite people, which has been also continued in sacral buildings of Christianity, as monasteries and churches (Casely-Hayford 2010). They equally inspired famous churches of Lalibela. At top of some complete stelae there is the pagan symbol of the Rising Sun, being also repeated in later Christian architecture (Ibid.). By these means, it is a continuous historical narrative of the history of Ethiopia (Ibid.). The stelae number one, two and three “were elaborately carved with inscriptions from top to bottom. They also had stone doors and fake windows” (Sullivan 2019). After some scholars “the tomb [is] a palace for the dead king [in the afterlife]” (Finneran 2007:167) and the door may suggest access to this sphere (Ibid.:168).  Carvings that cover the stelae accordingly depict building elements, such as the endings of the wooden beams and windows, composing multi-story houses that would be inhabited by Aksumite emperors in the afterlife (Casely-Hayford 2010); they are thus “like the skyscrapers to the immortality” (Ibid.). As it is widely accepted the monuments were carved, brought to the site and erected in the pre-Christian Aksumite period, that is to say around 200-300 AD by subjects of the Kingdom of Aksum (Finneran 2007:165-173).

“Chronologically it is obvious that the stelae should be associated with the pre-Christian burial rituals of the […] kingly elite, possibly commemorating not an individual, rather a dynasty. […] The development of a royal mausoleum […] during the third century is evidence of a rupture with the earlier capital zone on the summit of Beta Giyorgis and the creation of a new type of kingship, removed from the proto-Aksumite intermediate-level society towards a semidivine kingship and dynastic system” (Finneran 2007:169). The royal obelisks “face southwards […] at the foot of Beta Giyorgis, [and] the approaching traveller […] would have passed along a line of throne bases, […] which may have been the bases of large statues, possibly of [Aksumite] kings” (Finneran 2007:167). This means “the area was a dedicated royal necropolis”, (Finneran 2007:168) designed to project a royal power beyond life (Ibid). This is why more elaborated and massive stelae had been erected at the site. Still the one question stays unanswered – HOW? (Foerster 2016).

From the left: the Obelisk of Axum and the King Ezana’s Stela. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Great Stela or the fallen stela number one weighs 520 tons and is 33 metres high and as such stays the largest monolith to have been raised once by humans (not to mention lying megalithic blocks from the Baalbek site, weighing over 800 to 1000 tons) (Finneran 2007:168; Simon Fraser; SFU 2020) “[Yet] the indications are that [the stela] was never successfully erected.” (Finneran 2007:165). “The Great Stele was carved on all four sides and represents a thirteen-storey building” (SFU 2020).

“Stela two – the Obelisk of Axum – is a smaller version of stela one. […] In total the monolith was 24,6 metres long and weighed [approximately 200 (SFU 2020)] tons; it was intentionally destabilised during antiquity and broke into five pieces” (Finneran 2007:168). According to an archaeological survey in 1997, “the structure was undermined from the front [the south side] and was pushed forwards from the back [the north side] with the result that the baseplate was displaced southwards and the stela itself cracked as it impacted upon the ground” (Finneran 2007:168).

Stela three or King Ezana’s Stela – is around 21 m high and weighs approximately 160-170 tons. “it is the only large stela that was never relocated nor ever fell down, and is presumably the last obelisk erected in Aksum. […] Following the concerns of the stela’s tilting position, it was structurally consolidated in 2008” (SFU 2020).

With the coming of Christianity, pagan rituals and stelae constructions ceased (Finneran 2007:168). This is probably why the stela two was toppled, and the door handle of the stela one was deliberately defaced  (Ibid). Yet, it seems “strange that [King Ezana’s Stela] was spared” (Finneran 2007:168). On the whole, we may assume that “bar the toppling of [the Obelisk of Axum], the transition to Christianity was marked by a general acceptance of pre-existing sacred spaces and respect for monuments” (Finneran 2007:168).

How …?

The all monuments were made of local stone (Finneran 2007:168). “The number of quarry sites  have been surveyed on the slopes of Gobdera Hills” (Finneran 2007:168) – 4 kilometres west of Aksum (Finneran 2007:168; Connah 2016:129), from where “came the granite used for the dressed stones of local Aksumite buildings and some of the stelae” (Graham Conna 2016”129). After Finneran (2007:169) “the stone was then moved across the southern flanks of Beta Giyorgis into the town. […] It is hypothesized that the motive power could have been provided by elephants”. Some other scholars suggest it was achieved by means of wooden rollers …

Irrespective of any hypothesis, some facts must be considered : namely, the distance between the quarries and the necropolis, the mountainous topography of the Gobdera Hills, Beta Giyorgis and Aksum itself, and possibilities of an elephant or a group of these animals dragging one piece of multi tons megalith through often a narrow and steep area. And it must have been one piece only as the stelae were carved out of one single piece of rock. Assuming the fact they were carved on site, the block dragged must have been larger and heavier before it was reshaped and erected.

Stelae and stelae …

More primitive stelae in Aksum. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Erection of stelae in Axum has got a long ancient tradition. Although “the Aksumite stelae owe little to the Semitic idea of the Nephesh, or memorial stone, […] it must be assumed that the use of stelae came to prominence as part of the strong process of acculturation  between the northern Tigray highlands and the steppic Sudanic lowlands to the west, [yet in the pre-Aksumite period]. Stelae are also very diversely decorated, embracing a wide range of motifs, such as [the South-Arabian inspired crescent disc symbolism, a carved Egyptian ankh symbol, lances, house-like structure]” (Finneran 2007:172-173). Major part of such monoliths, however, is much more primitive and roughly carved in the comparison to the royal obelisks (e.g. Beta Giyorgis, Matara, Hinzat, Sidamo, Munro-Hay, the Gudit Stelae Field) (Foerster 2016; Finneran 2007:172-173). There are also groups of stelae unique to the south of Ethiopia, with a similar funeral function but strikingly different features and iconography. They mostly appear in the region of Soddo and are referred to as the stones of Gragn (see: Language of the Megalithic Tiya).

‘Is it possible that the royal and more elaborated obelisks from Aksum are far older than presumed?’, wonders Foerster (2016). He suggests that ‘some of these granite stelae could in fact be more ancient, and were inherited by the Kingdom of Axum and were re-erected by them. The major damage to the [stela one] may be evidence of a massive catastrophe that severely impacted the first builders, perhaps 12,000 years ago, [possibly by earthquakes]’. Similar devastation of the megalithic constructions is also visible while looking closer at the tombs on site with a strikingly similar megalithic masonry.

When did the tradition start?

On the other side, “the royal stela is carved as a skeuomorphic representation of a multi-storied building constructed from wood and stone. The door and window frames […] are also reflected in the church building at the monastery of Debre Damo (sixth century), inter alia, and are suggested by architectural  reconstructions of Aksumite palace building” (Finneran 2007:165,167). Very characteristic of the royal stelae is also “the distinctive curved [top] of the multi-stored construction, which resembles the symbol of the moon deity [from the time of the pre-Aksumite empire]. The presence of small holes here may imply that a metallic plaque had been fixed upon the tops of the megaliths” (Finneran 2007:1767-168). Is it then a continuation of the long-term Ethiopian tradition from the more ancient symbols of the crescent moon and wooden architecture to the repetition of the same patterns in the stone stelae dressing? Or maybe it happened the other way round, assuming the stelae had been already present there and adapted as much as some of the tombs structures? And finally, how did the Aksumite subjects shape blocks of granite rock and on that scale? (Foerster 2016).

Giant’s playground

I stood by the fallen stela number one and I could not help feeling the enormity of the structure at which I felt like shrinking. “The indentations on each side of the stela are elaborately undercut. This concept causes the strong Aksum sunlight to enhance the apparent relief of the carved surfaces” (SFU 2020). This is why the play of light on the stela carvings were giving a distinctive visual impression (Finneran 2007:167) that it is no longer a stone but a giant busk of a living being moving along in the sun. Then, I looked around the Park. Everywhere, there were some multi-ton megalithic pieces scattered around as if by a storm, and left among the trunks of still standing stelae: some were partially protruding from the ground, sometimes with precise patterns carved on them, others assuming more regular shapes being probably once a part of a bigger construction. All of those elements looked like abandoned toys in the playground of a giant who had forgotten to collect them.

In Ethiopia, any efforts of separating legends from facts is difficult: fragmented stones preserved within churches covered in Sabaean characters, striking connections to the world of the Old Testament, and outstanding faith in the legend of Menelik bringing the Arch of the Convent to Aksum, are all closely tied to the unique traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Casely-Hayford 2010). Yet, is there in this already complex riddle any convenient place for an alternative archaeology of the Aksumite megalithic culture?

Featured image: Stelae at Aksum, Ethiopia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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:

Simon Frazer University (SMU) (2020) “Aksumite Stelae: true treasures of human craftsmanship.” In: Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology. Available at <https://bit.ly/3aLucZt>. [Accessed on 26th January, 2020].

Casely-Hayford, G. (2010). Lost Kingdoms of Africa Series 1, Episode 2: “Ethiopia”. Howitt S., Lilley I., Bates M. IWC Media for BBC.

Connah, C. (2016) African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

Foerster, B. (2016) “The Amazing Megalithic Obelisks Of Axum In Ethiopia” In: Inca Hidden Tours. . Available at <https://bit.ly/36s5iKQ>. [Accessed on 26th January, 2020].

Sullivan, K. (2019) “The Kingdom of Axum: Facts and Legends of a First Millennium Powerhouse.” In: Ancient Origins. Available at <https://bit.ly/2O2Er1w>. [Accessed on 26th January, 2020].

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

Cyclopean Masonry of the Ancient World

A type of masonry, also known as megalithic architecture, characteristic of unusually huge constructions created of gigantic more-or-less rough-edged boulders adjusted to each other frequently without using mortar, and the resulting minimal clearances between them are sometimes filled with clay and small stones (Lucie-Smith, 2003:68,205; Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022; “Mur cyklopowy” 2018). The cyclopean term can be also described as ‘polygonal (ashlar) masonry’ technique, if there are regularly-dressed boulders with fine joints in polygonal shapes, and precisely fitted together without the use of mortar and without visibly defined courses of stones (Bruschi, 2020; Lucie-Smith, 2003:206). The degree of precision may differ in polygonal masonry. The finest examples astonish even modern-day architects and builders.

Initially, such a definition was used to describe constructions ascribed to the Aegean and Mycenaean cultures (circa 1425 – 1190 B.C.), who built their fortifications and citadels of huge blocks of stone arranged horizontally (Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022; “Mur cyklopowy” 2018; Kashdan, 2007). Their creation was attributed to the mythological Cyclops, and “[the] term [itself] was coined by Greeks in the Classical Age, reflecting the belief that only the Cyclops, gigantic, one-eyed creatures of myth, could have been strong enough to manipulate stones so immense” (Kashdan, 2007). Pliny the Elder (23/24 – 79 A.D.) in his Natural History gives an account of such a belief, which apparently traces back to Aristotle, who was supposed to claim that the Cyclopes were skillful architects and builders (“Cyclopean masonry” 2022).

One of the weathered and ruined, but significant cyclopean walls in Europe. The base, though corroded represents polygonal masonry of huge blocks, whereas on top there is typical cyclopean example of stonework of smaller boulders. The Ġgantija complex, Gozo Island, Malta. Photo by Elżbieta Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Apart from ancient the Mediterranean region, where the the Mycenaean citadel, then Nuraghe towers or megalithic temples of Malta are most typical examples, such stonework is found in all parts of the ancient world (Lucie-Smith, 2003:68; Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022; “Mur cyklopowy” 2018; Kashdan, 2007); in Egypt, the cyclopean masonry is present in the valley temple of Giza and in Abydos; in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, there are numerous megalithic constructions, ascribed to the culture of Incas (Bruschi, 2020). A good examples of such masonry are also visible in the South-East Asia and even on Easter Island (Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022). “But there are quite a few others” (Bruschi, 2020).

View of Hatun Rumiyuq Street. Many of the colonial constructions used the city’s Inca constructions as a base. A typical example of megalithic (cyclopean) polygonal masonry with a very high precision. Photo by David Stanley (2012). CC BY 2.0, in “Cusco” (2022). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

Featured image: Homolle, Théophile (1902). A polygonal wall, excavated at Delphi, showing very characteristic polygonal masonry with a high degree of precision in contrast to stonework on the other side, in “Ecole française d’Athènes”, in “Cyclopean masonry”. Public domain, in Wikipedia. the Free Encyclopedia (2022).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Mur cyklopowy”, in Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia (2018). Available at <https://bit.ly/3F5pDsA>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].

“Cyclopean masonry”, in Wikipedia. the Free Encyclopedia (2022). Available at <https://bit.ly/3LqCEz7>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].

Bruschi, R. (2020). “The Cyclopean Walls: Construction Skills and Mystery”, in The Mystery Box. Available at <https://bit.ly/3y2tFjE>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].

Kashdan, H. (2007). “Archaeologies of the Greek Past”, in JIAAW Workplace. Available at <https://bit.ly/3vwezBB>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003). Dictionary of Art Terms. London: The Thames & Hudson World of Art.

Stanley, D. (2012). “View of Hatun Rumiyuq Street, Cuzco”, in “Cusco” (2022). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3xYCP0K>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].

Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb Within the Lore of Giants

Like two months before Christmas, 2018, a group of three archaeology students started to conduct a thorough archaeological survey of Ballyedmonduff wedge tomb in Co. Dublin, in order to gain a better understanding of the site. I was one of them. Although we were not allowed to do proper archaeological digs, we documented instead the archaeological remains in detail, including research of the folklore surrounding the so-called ‘Giant’s Graves’ as the wedge tomb of Ballyedmonduff is usually called (McGuire et al. 2019:3). Before the date of submitting the project, in February, 2019, we visited the site a number of times. “The tomb itself is marked on the Park’s map, as the ‘Giant’s Grave’ [and] is situated on land owned by Glencullen Adventure Park (GAP), a privately-run facility mainly engaged in the provision of mountain biking trails. Some of these trails run close to the tomb” (Ibid.:4), which frequently made our work in the field more difficult, when groups of people, like children of a school trip started climbing up the tomb stones and jumping between our tools and measuring tapes. The weather was not on our side either. Although it was not often raining (or snowing), it was really freezing, especially in the shadow of the forest, and adding that we were spending long hours of working in the filed, mostly staying in the same position, while taking precise measurements, making a drawing or reading levels calculations. So a nearby coffee shop often saved our lives. On the other side, I remember this project as one of the most interesting assignments at the university and the reason why I have actually chosen archaeology as my profession. Comparing it to the work I do for living, sitting for hours in a noisy office and listening to complaining clients, wading through the mud and patiently observing stones definitely win. And when no one appeared on the trail at that time, there was such an eerie silence, soaring in the darkness of the surrounding trees, that it seemed it would disturb the sleep of the buried giant who would finally wake up to leave his lair of stones.

Wedge tombs are the most numerous and distinctive type of megalithic passage tombs. They are found all over Ireland but mainly in the west and the south-west (Ruggles, 2005:435; O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39). Mystery surrounds these great stone monuments which stand remarkably in lonely places and fit into wild Irish landscapes (Evans, 1938:7).  Wedge tomb constructions mainly took place between 2500 – 1800 BC. (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39), placing them chronologically towards the end of a rich tradition of Neolithic tomb construction in Ireland (Ruggles, 2005:435) and constructions petered out circa 1900-1600 BC. (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39).  Over five hundred examples of wedge tombs are currently known in the Republic of Ireland (Ruggles, 2005:435), but many more have been destroyed over the intervening centuries (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39).  A map of the distribution of wedge tombs in the Republic of Ireland is shown in Figure 10, based on GIS data with the latest information from the NMS (National Monuments Service Website).

The Ballyedmonduff tomb forms part of a small group of wedge tombs in the Dublin region (see Figure 11) which include Ilmashogue Wedge Tomb located half way up Three Rock Mountain near Kilmashogue Recreation Area car park – (SMR DU025- 00701); Killakee Wedge Tomb in Massey’s Estate Forest Park – (SMR DU025-022); Laughanstown Wedge Tomb in Cabinteely – (SMR DU026-024); and Shankill Wedge Tomb (SMR – DU026-059). 

Figure 11: The Ballyedmonduff as a part of a small group of tombs in the Dublin region, with Ilmashogue Wedge Tomb, Killakee Wedge Tomb, Laughanstown Wedge Tomb, and Shankill Wedge Tomb; based on GIS data for the use of the Survey of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb (‘Giant’s Grave’), made by Maurice McGuire, Joanna Pyrgies, and Susan Ryan, February 2019. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In terms of their chamber size, wedge tombs can be divided into two separate categories: single wedge-shaped, box like constructions, and long and low wedge-shaped galleries (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39).  The former is typical of north-west Clare, while the latter occur particularly in the north, although examples happen elsewhere (Ibid.:36-39). Ballyedmonduff appears to be large, complex and well-built in the context of the class as a whole and as a gallery grave belongs to the second category of wedge tombs. Whilst wedge tombs vary widely in size (Ruggles, 2005:435), they have defining characteristics – a trapezoidal central chamber, with its sides formed by two lines of large, upright stones (orthostates), getting wider and higher toward the entrance end, from east to west, and forming a wedge shape (Ó’Ríordáin and de Valéra, 1952:61-81), hence their name.  An antechamber is separated from the main chamber (the burial area) by a jamb or sill.  Such tombs were often covered with cairns, which could be round, oval or heel-shaped, often with kerb stones around to support the whole construction (Ibid.:61-81).  

The other characteristic that confirms the wedge tomb as a significant category of monument, is the strong consistency in their orientation, with their doorway generally facing west (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). Nearly all known examples face the western arc of the horizon, with a large group facing south-west (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). It is unusual to have such a clear preference for westerly orientation among a group of Neolithic tombs (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). Their pattern of alignment fits the sun descending or setting model (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). In other words, Ruggles (2005:435) notes that each wedge tomb was oriented upon a position where the sun was seen either to set, or to be descending in the sky on a significant day – perhaps the day on which construction was begun.

Levels exercise on the site of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb, located in Glencullen Adventure Park (GAP), Ballyedmonduff, Ireland. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Wedge tomb concentrations appear to be denser around mountains than in the lowlands (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226-227, 231-232). Throughout Ireland, wedge tombs can be found at elevations.  They are on the summits or slopes of drumlins, hills or foothills, with a smaller number on the sides of higher mountains (including Ballyedmonduff). Unlike in the case of portal or court tombs, it seems that builders preferred hilly locations, though not to the exclusion of other landscape settings – one exception is that no wedge tombs are found on mountain peaks (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). They do not often appear to have been in close proximity to the coastline, as in the case of Altar Wedge Tomb in Co. Cork.  Still they show a pattern of concentration closer to rivers or lakes (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81).  Salisbury and Keeler (2007:226-227, 231-232) note that it seems likely that water represented no more than an exploitable resource to the wedge tomb builders, with no ritual or cosmological significance. The suitability of an area for settlement and farming, together with the availability copper (e.g. in Cork-Kerry area), influenced the locations of wedge tombs (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39).

The lore of the giant’s tombs

Prehistory in Ireland begins around 8000 – 7000 BC (Powell, 2012:11-16).  The most prominent remains of this early prehistoric period are the megalithic tombs in general, the majority of which were constructed in 4000 – 2000 BC. (Ibid.:11-16).  Depending on their particular shape and category, some of them have been referred to as Giant’s Tombs or Graves, others were called Druid’s Altars, mainly to describe portal tombs (dolmens) (Ibid.:11-16).  During the first part of the 19th century, before the completion of archaeological research on Irish megaliths, such tombs were widely noted in literature (Ibid.:11-16). A great number of these legendary sites reappear on the OS maps in 1902, 1904-05, 1907 and 1913-14 under names such as Cromlechs, Druid’s Altars, Giant’s Beds, Giant’s Griddles, Giant’s Graves or Dermot and Grania’s Bed (Cody, 2002). According to Survey of Megalithic Tombs of Ireland, Vol. 1-6, some of the tombs had been destroyed, others were not accepted after inspection as proven megalithic tombs, and the reasons for their rejections are noted in each case (De Valéra and Ó Nuallain, 1961-1989; De Valera, Ó Nuallain 1982).

Many megalithic structures are so huge that numerous legends say they were built by a race of giants for different purposes (Powell 2012:11-16). Some of them were believed to have held dead giants, which would account for their enormous size, and hence the name Giant’s Tomb seemed appropriate (Ibid.:11-16), although not all megalithic tombs have been known under that name. According to OS maps from the first part of the 20th century, and our GIS survey, the greatest number of Giant’s Graves is present in County Sligo (73), which looks like a huge megalithic cemetery. In Ireland, the term Giant’s Grave usually refers to wedge tombs (46), court tombs (54), portal tombs (9) and unclassified tombs (21). The same records indicate there is no passage tombs known as Giant Graves (see Figure 12) (Powell 2012:11-16; De Valéra and Ó Nuallain, 1961-1989).

The term Giant’s Grave is probably the most widely used as far afield as Ireland, Sardinia and Denmark (Evans 1938:7). It can be readily understood how giants were invoked to explain these monstrous architectural achievements (Ibid.:7).  Legends of giants, who undertake extraordinary feats are very common in Irish mythology (Powell 2012:11-16). These legendary tales were usually used by the 18th century Victorian Antiquarians and earlier writers (Ibid.:11-16).  Already in ancient times, these so-called romantic concepts abounded about the origins and the builders of great megalithic structures, not only in Ireland but worldwide (Powell 2012:11-16). The term Giant’s tomb was already recorded at the beginning of 2nd century AD. by Plutarch, a Greek biographer and essayist (Plutarch, 2nd century AD.).  Plutarch describes that when the Roman general Sertorius (123-72 BC) took over the city of Tingis (Tangier, Morocco), he broke open the tomb of Antaeus, the giant venerated by Phoenicians (Ibid.). To his surprise, he found a body sixty cubits long (about 27 metres) (Quayle and Albertino, 2017), “and after performing a sacrifice filled up the tomb again, and joined in magnifying its traditions and honours” (Plutarch, op. cit.) (see On the Southern Side of the Strait of Gibraltar).   

Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb (‘Giant’s Grave’). Photo by Maurice McGuire. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Most of the megalithic monuments, from the Greek, megas, ‘great’, and lithos ‘stone’, are today assigned to major classes and each are named after an important distinguishing feature (Powell 2012:11-16). Among them, there are the so-called tombs, temples, fortifications, citadels, towers, alignments, and hedges (Quayle, Alberino). Megalithic architecture was also described by the ancient Greeks as cyclopean after the race of giants with only one eye, who were believed to have been great craftsmen and builders (Ibid.). For the ancient, Cyclops were the offspring of gods, and they attributed them with megalithic structures throughout the Mediterranean, such as the walls of Mycenae (Ibid.). The term cyclopean masonry is nowadays used by archaeologists to describe an engineering technique that incorporates large stones without the use of mortar (Ibid.). The style ranges roughhewn stone structures as displayed, for example, in nuraghe towers all over Sardinia, or in structures of north-western and south Europe, Africa, Near East, and southern Asia, to incomprehensibly precise edifices devised with immense polygons of blocks (Italy, Greece, Malta, Egypt, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Peru etc.) (Ibid.). The knowledge of cyclopean masonry vanished but all over the world, anywhere megaliths are present, legends of giants abound (Ibid.).

In relation to megalithic sepulchre architecture there are four major categories, such as passage tombs, court tombs, portal tombs and wedge tombs, with other minor categories (Powell 2012:11-16). The so-called giant’s tombs or graves are scattered all over Ireland: the Giant Leap (wedge tomb) in Co. Cavan’s Burren Forest Park, Giant’s Grave on the Laois and Offaly border in Killinaparson, Moytirra East Court Tomb in Co. Sligo, and Giant’s Load (dolmen) at Proleek, Co. Louth, to name just a few.  Some of them tell a story of giants buried there, others, such as the megalithic tomb in Killinaparson are believed to be the resting place of ancient warriors or heroes (Slieve Bloom Association, 2019).  In Proleek, the dolmen is said to have been erected by the Scottish giant named Parrah Boug McShagean, whose body was buried nearby (Dempsey, 2008).  Co. Cavan’s Burren Forest Park, also has a giant story associated with its name (Goldbaum 2010-2019).  According to Harold Johnson (1998), from the nearby town of Blacklion, the giant, attempting to impress a lady, failed in his final attempt to jump the nearby chasm, which is, of course, called the Giant’s Leap (Goldbaum 2010-2019).  After the giant’s fell down and broke his back, he was buried in what’s called now the Giant’s Grave (Ibid.) There are two giant’s tombs near Dublin, one of which is a portal tomb located in Brennanstown, the other is the subject matter of the project and is known as Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb.  Although the latter is also referred to as a Giant’s Grave, there is no known local folklore of a giant or giants linked to this site.

The Giant’s Grave of Ballyedmonduff is located on the lower south-eastern slopes of the Two Rock Mountain, close to the stream (Ó’Ríordáin and De Valéra, 1952:61-68). Nowadays there is a dense pine forest, but in the past, there may have been splendid views of Dublin Bay and Wicklow mountains from the site (Ibid.: 61-68). The grave’s structure consists of a gallery aligned approximately west-east (Ibid.:61-68).  Today partially destroyed and disarranged, the gallery is divided by two septal stones into three parts of different size: ante-chamber, separated burial chamber, and a smaller niche or chamber closed with the back stone (Ibid.:61-68).  The eastern side of the tomb (which was once covered by a cairn) is delimited by horse-shoe shaped kerbs with a row of orthostats forming a straight façade at the western end, onto which the entrance to the tomb opened (Ibid.:61-68). During excavations in 1940s there were some finds recorded at the site: about 150 pieces of pottery, twenty-seven pieces of flint, a perforated polished hammer, and a few fragments of cremated bone of human origin (Ibid.61-68).  

Wedge tombs are said to have primarily served as collective burials for social groups (Evans, 1938:7) and territorial markers (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226, 231-232).  Yet, some giant’s graves yield no osseous remains (Frazer, 1895:64). Some scholars even suggest such constructions as wedge tombs did not originally serve as sepulchre at all but they were re-used as tombs by later generations or cultures (Brennan, 1994).  According to Walsh (1995) wedge tombs were not simply burial structures or territorial markers.  They seem to have served a variety of functions ranging from the practical to the symbolic (Walsh 1995).  Studies in archaeoastronomy carried out by scientists such as Lomsdalen (2014) and Brennan (1994) show that megalithic architecture holds a strong relationship to the sky. Accordingly, some theorists, for example Kaulins (2003), claim Ballyedmonduff used to be a geodetic astronomical planisphere (i.e. a star chart formed by the position of the stones), and the largest megalith on the site marks the constellation of Andromeda, while other stones are related to other major stellar constellations of the sky.  He believes that all of the stones were intentionally placed there to serve a particular purpose and were not placed there by chance (Ibid.).  Each was selected for their particular position out of the many stones available (Ibid.).  Kaulins (1995) also notes that megaliths made of quartz, granite or particular colour deserve special attention. 

As there is no straight answer on the purpose of giant’s graves in Ireland, it is valuable to look closer at other megaliths bearing the same name outside Ireland and compare them, especially the tombs built in Sardinia – an island famous for its legendary gigantic inhabitants.  All over this island, there are massive stone sepulchres commonly called the tombs of giants.  Similarly, in Ireland, most of the megalithic stones once incorporated into ancient monuments were partially dismantled long ago by residents of local villages, however, they are still impressive (Quayle and Alberino, 2017).  Sardinian licenced archaeological guide Maria Paola Loi, confirms there are legends in Sardinia saying that the tombs themselves were not designed to house the bodies of giants (Loi, 2017). The giant’s body was inhumated first underneath and the monument was built on top once the body was buried (Ibid.).

Loi (2017) explains that an aperture inside the tombs was used by young men during the so-called rite of passage ceremony to stay in contact with the soul of ancestors, known as heroes or giants. Boys would crawl into the narrow opening of the entrance stele and sit down in the tomb gallery on particular celestial events, when it was believed that the giants’ powers were released (Ibid.). She notes that each boy would individually spend a few days and nights there, meditating alone and absorbing the energy of the mighty one buried beneath (Ibid.).  Likewise, O’Sullivan and Downey (2010:36-39) explain that in Ireland “megalithic tombs were symbolic expressions of ideological beliefs, ritual authority and access to the supernatural”.  They also note that the wedge tomb was at the centre of a community of individuals who shared the same beliefs and values (Ibid.:36-39). The ancestors may have been regarded as spirits whose function was to communicate with higher spirits to further the prosperity of the whole community (Loi, 2017).

Francesco Cubeddu (2011). Aerial view of the Giant’s grave of Sa Domu ‘e S’Orcu in Sardinia. CC BY-SA 4.0. In “Giants’ grave”. In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

There are two kinds of giant’s tombs in Sardinia (Loi, 2017).  The major group consists of the so-called horned cairns, namely long wedged-shaped galleries of upright stones, divided or segmented by stone pillars, sometimes with low transverse slabs between them, dividing them into oblong compartments (Evans, 1938:10-12). Unlike Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb, they do not feature a distinct chamber at the end, as the gallery is thought to have been an actual burial place (Ibid.10-12).  If preserved, the gallery is roofed by corbels and covered with cap stones (Ibid.:10-12), some weighing up to 20 tons (Quayle and Alberino, 2017).  Although cap stones were once present at Ballyedmonduff, as shown in the Ordnance Survey sketches, they are missing now at the site.  A very significant feature of the tombs in Sardinia is the entrance (Evans, 1938:10-12; Quayle and Alberino, 2017).  Namely, it is emphasized and set off by a curving line of orthostates, forming an imposing semi-circular façade embracing a forecourt (Evans, 1938:10-12; Quayle and Alberino, 2017). 

The term horned cairns come from the resemblance which the layout of the forecourt bears to the horns of a bull (Evans, 1938:10-12).  This type of forecourt does not occur in the typical form of Irish wedge tombs. Although monuments with this type of forecourt are found especially in the south-west of Scotland and the south of France, and seem to derive from Sardinia, Northern Ireland is the region of their richest development, and they are mostly clustered around Carlingford Lough in Ulster, such as Browndod tomb in Co. Antrim (Ibid.:10-12).

Remains of a statue representing an opulent woman or a goddess found in the area of the temple Ggantija. Is it a representation of the Giantess Sansuna? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Although passage tombs in Ireland are not remembered as giants’ tombs, an Irish legend has it that the passage tombs of Loughcrew were created when a giant witch, walking across the land, dropped her cargo of huge stones from her apron (Ireland’s Ancient East 2018; see Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch). Actually, very similar story is known on Gozo Island in Malta, where the giantess Sansuna is said to have built the temple Ggantija – the Place of Giants, carrying huge stones upon one of her shoulders or in an apron four kilometres to their current resting place (Newman 2016). On her way, likewise the Loughcrew witch, she dropped some of the stones (Ibid.). One of them is called Sansuna’s Dolmen and it is located exactly one kilometre south-east of the Ggantija temple (Ibid.) (see Sleeping Beauty of the Underworld).

Situated in the Golden Heights, south of Damascus, there is another giant’s tomb, however, of an outstanding shape (Hamilton-Brown 1990s; “Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). It is called Rujm el-Hiri or Gilgal Refaim (from Hebrew, Giant’s Circle of Stones) and it is an ancient megalithic construction consisting of an estimated four thousand tons of loose rocks of huge and various sizes, which makes it another cyclopean construction (Hamilton-Brown 1990s; “Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). The stones form concentric circles, with a tumulus at its centre (Hamilton-Brown 1990s; “Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). It is dated to around 3000–2700 BCE BC. (“Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). Like the other giant’s tombs, Rujm el-Hiri is also strongly associated with the race of giants, yet in this case it is not only a folk story but the biblical narrative that supports that (Hamilton-Brown 1990s). An Israeli archaeologist, Daniel Herman, claims that the tomb must have been dedicated to someone really powerful as its construction should have taken an enormous amount of time and effort (Ibid.). When Israelites came to this area, the tomb had already been there and they documented the identification of the site by saying that this region had been ruled by Og, the king of the Basham (Ibid.). The Bible mentions that king in Deuteronomy 3:11: “For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants […]” (Ibid.)

Hebrew Wikipedia (2007). Gilgal Refā’īm is an ancient megalithic monument in the Golan Heights (Early Bronze Age II, 3000–2700 BC.). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. In “Rujm el-Hiri” (2022). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

I do not know if the giant buried in Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb was one of those mentioned in the Bible. Maybe … However, the world’s ancient tradition of giants is extremely rich, especially in the British Isles and in Ireland. Similar folk stories, some extremely attractive, and especially the connection of the race of giants with megalithic constructions, are now taken with a pinch of salt, especially among archaeologists. Today, mostly tourists are likely to listen to such tales, who, usually indulged amid the sounds of Irish music, are sipping beer in pubs. Yet, the stories of giants and their beds resound with a deep note of melancholy, especially for those who are longing for the unknown past. Actually, despite further archaeological research to reveal the truth about prehistoric megalithic structures, such as the Ballyedmunduff Wedge Tomb, their secrets continue to persist and stimulate the human imagination.

Article based on research conducted on site of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb by Maurice McGuire, Joanna Pyrgies, Susan Ryan (2017). Survey of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb (‘Giant’s Grave’). University College Dublin.

If you wish to follow Irish giants’ trail farther, feel welcome to join our archaeological tour: A Tale of the Deeds of Tuatha de Danann and the Formorians – the Race of Giants.

Featured image: There are at least two giant’s tombs near Dublin, one of which is known as Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb. Although it is referred to as a Giant’s Grave, there is no known local folklore of a giant or giants linked to this site. Photo by Maurice McGuire. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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:

“Rujm el-Hiri” (2022). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3Ek0p9a>. [Accessed on 17th April, 2022].

Brennan, M. (1994) The Stones of Time. Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland. Inner Traditions International: Rochester, Vermont.

Cody, E. (2002) ‘Survey of Megalithic Tombs of Ireland’.  Vol. 6.  Dublin: Stationery Service.

Cubeddu, F. (2011). “Aerial view of the Giant’s grave of Sa Domu ‘e S’Orcu in Sardinia”. CC BY-SA 4.0., in “Giants’ grave”, in Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. [Accessed 17th April, 2022]. Available from: https://bit.ly/3vlqLDT.

Dempsey, J. (2008) ‘Proleek portal tomb’, Megalithic Ireland.  [Online].  [Accessed 22nd January 2019]. Available from: https://bit.ly/2HsmKI2.

De Valéra, R. and Ó Nuallain, S. (1961-1989) ‘Survey of Megalithic Tombs of Ireland’, Vol. 1-5. Dublin: Stationery Service.

De Valera, R., Ó Nuallain, S. (1982). Survey of the megalithic tombs of Ireland, vol. IV: Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary. Stationery Office, Dublin.

De Valéra, R. and Ó Nuallain, S. (1961-1989) ‘Survey of Megalithic Tombs of Ireland’, Vol. 1-5. Dublin: Stationery Service.

Evans, E. E. (1938) ‘Giant’s Graves’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Third Series, Vol. 1.

Frazer, W. (1895) ‘On cup-markings on megalithic monuments due to echinus lividus’, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 64-71, published by Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

Goldbaum, H. (2010-2019) Burren Forest Giant’s Grave. Burren Forest Park, Co. Cavan. [Online]. [Accessed 22 January 2019].  Available from: https://bit.ly/2HssBNl.

Hamilton-Brown, A. (1990s). Giants. TLC: The Learning Channel, MM Discovery Communications Inc.

Ireland’s Ancient East (2018). “Loughcrew Cairns”. In: Ireland’s Ancient East. Available at <https://bit.ly/2PeJ9en>. [Accessed on 2nd Dec., 2018].

Johnson, H. (1998) ‘The Giant’s Grave’, Personal interview.  [Online].  [Accessed 29 January 2019].  Available from: https://voicesfromthedawn.com/burren-giants-grave/

Kaulins, A. (2003)Stars, stones and scholars: the decipherment of the megaliths.  Stanford University: Trafford Publishing.

Loi, M.P. (2017) ‘True Legends: Holocaust of giants’.  USA: GenSix Productions.  [Online]. [Accessed 13 January 2019].  Available from https://bit.ly/2tfeQI4

Lomsdalen, T. (2014) Sky and Purpose in Prehistoric Malta: Sun, Moon, and Stars at the Temples of Mnajdra. Sophia Centre Master Monographs, University of Wales Trinity Saint David: Wales.

McGuire, M. Pyrgies, J. Ryan, S. (2017). Survey of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb (‘Giant’s Grave’). University College Dublin.

National Monuments Service (NMS) Website. [Online] [Accessed 22 January 2019].  Available from: http://www.archaeology.ie

Newman, H. (2016) “Sansuna Dolmen: Alignment of the Giants in Ancient Gozo & Malta”. In: Megalithomania. Available at <https://bit.ly/2QbVhhT>. [Accessed on 2nd Dec., 2018].

Ó Ríordáin, S. and de Valéra, R. (1952). ‘Excavation of a megalithic tomb at Ballyedmonduff, Co. Dublin’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature. Royal Irish Academy, 55, pp. 61–81.

O’Sullivan, M. and Downey, L. (2010) ‘Know your monuments – wedge tombs’, Archaeology Ireland, Volume 24, No. 4, Winter 2010, pp. 36-39.

Plutarch, ‘The life of Sertorius’. “Parallel Lives, 9:3”. The Loeb Classical Library Edition, Vol. VIII (1919). [Online].  [Accessed 13 January 2019]. Available from:https://bit.ly/2QMoHz5

Powell, P. I. (2012) ‘Of druid’s altars and giant’s graves- the megalithic tombs of Ireland.  Ireland: CreateSpace Independent Publishing.

Quayle, S. and Alberino, T. (2017) ‘True legends: Holocaust of giants’. USA: GenSix Productions.  [Online]. [Accessed 13 January 2019].  Available from https://bit.ly/2tfeQI4

Ruggles, C. L. N. (2005) ‘Ancient astronomy: an encyclopaedia of cosmologies and myth’. Santa Barbara: ABC Clio.

Salisbury, R. B. and Keeler, D., (eds.) (2007) “Space – Archaeology’s Final Frontier? An Intercontinental Approach”.  Newcastle Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Slieve Bloom Association (2019). “The giant’s grave”.  [Online]. [Accessed 22 January 2019].  Available from: https://bit.ly/2Mqq6do.

Walsh, P. (1995) ‘Structure and deposition in Irish wedge tombs: an open and shut case’. In: Waddell, J. and Shee Twohig, J. (eds), Ireland in the Bronze Age. Proceedings of the Dublin Conference, April 1995, pp. 113-27. Stationery Office: Dublin.

   

Different Roads of the Ancient World Guided by Different Writers

Like Antipater of Sidon, Philo of Byzantium lists other Wonders of the Ancient World than those given in today’s lexicons (Zamarovsky 1990:8; see: Travel Guidebooks of the Ancients in the Hands of Modern Visitors). He clearly does not consider the Lighthouse from Pharos as a wonder of the world and, like Antipater, grants this dignity to the walls of Babylon (Ibid.:8). There is also no description of the Mausoleum in Halicarnassus in his work, as this chapter has been lost along with a part of the description of the temple of Artemis (Ibid.:8). What is more, after J.C. Orelli, Philo of Byzantium describes the wonders in a more subjective way, ascribing them more glory and splendour than they really deserve (Ibid.:8). Therefore, in order to obtain a faithful description of these timeless works, one should turn for help to Herodotus, Strabo, Diodorus, Pliny the Elder, Pausanias and many other ancient authors and, equally, to modern archaeology (Ibid.:8).

Fragment from Herodotus’ Histories, Book VIII on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2099, dated to early 2nd century AD. (2010). Public domain. Caption source: Mingren W. (DHWTY) (2017). “Picking Apart the Words of Herodotus: Was He a Father of Histories or Lies?”. In: Ancient Origins. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (2021). Public domain.

Father of History

Herodotus (the fifth century BC.), called by Ciceron the “Father of History”, was a native but Hellenized Carian, born in Halicarnassus (modern Turkey) (Zamarovsky 1990:8). He has travelled a huge part of the world, even for our measure, and everywhere he did what the Greeks called ‘theory’, that is to say in modern language, conducting research (Ibid.:8). Accordingly, he got to know countries, cities and people, and wrote down everything he learned about their past (Ibid.:8). The work Histories of Herodotus to this day is a valuable historical resource about peoples such as the Lydians, Medes, Persians, the ancestors of the Greeks, the Scythians, and even the Slavs, and about lost countries, such as Babylon, Little Asiatic Greece, regions of India and Arabia, and, of course, ancient Egypt (Ibid.:8).

Bust of Herodotus, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009). Public domain. Photo and caption source: ”Herodot” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Herodotus adds to the list of wonders and describes in detail also the Tower of Babel (the ziggurat of Etemenanki in ancient Babylon and not necessarily the Biblical Tower of Babel), the bridge over the Euphrates River again in Babylon and the legendary Egyptian labyrinth (Zamarovsky 1990:8). All these wonders either are in ruins, vanished or, like the latter, has never been found (though academic Egyptologists claim that the labyrinth has already been uncovered and it has turned out to be much less miraculous than it is described by the ancient historian).

Simultaneously, Herodotus also delightedly described three other buildings, all of the located on the island of Samos, treating them as ancient marvels of architecture (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). These were the water-pipe tunnel, port breakwater and a temple in honour of Hera (Ibid.:3).

The book, Travels with Herodotus (2004) by Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), a Polish journalist, photographer, poet and author shows how Herodotus’ records have also stimulated an imagination and creativity of modern authors (“Ryszard Kausciński” 2021). Kapuściński was the Communist-era Polish Press Agency’s correspondent and in the aforementioned book the author compares his travels through Asia and Africa with the adventures of the ancient historian, Herodotus, where he conducts deliberations and often recounts amusing or interesting anecdotes from his escapades, enriched by those from the Histories of Herodotus (“Ryszard Kausciński” 2021; lubimyczytać.pl 2021).

Personally, I often refer to the quotes from this book, especially those about the nature of man in relation to travel and the passion for discovering the world, or the the phenomenon of travelling itself:

After all, the journey does not start when we hit the road and it does not end when we reach the finish line. In fact, it starts much earlier and practically never ends, because the tape of memory keeps spinning inside us, even though we haven’t physically moved for a long time. Actually, there is such a thing as an infection by travel, and it is a kind of disease that is essentially incurable.

Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus, 2004.

And there is another interesting quote that seems particularly true in relation to travelles being continuously pushed into the unknown by their own personal passion and curiosity of the wold, in comparison to people to whom such feelings are completely alien:

The average person is not particularly curious about the world. Well, they are alive, they have to face this fact somehow and the less effort it costs them, the better. But learning about the world involves effort, and that is a great deal of effort that consumes men.

Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus, 2004.

I believe that explorers of the world must have made such an effort, from ancient times to the present day.

Father of Geography

Strabo. By André Thevet (1584) Original uploads comes from Potraits from the Dibner Library of the History and Science of Technology. Updated upload from the original scan from the book André Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres, chap. 35, page 76. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Strabon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Strabo (the first century BC.), called in turn the “Father of Geography”, was a slightly later travel guide around the contemporary world (Zamarovsky 1990:8). He was born in the Greek settlement of Amaseia in Pontus (in present-day Turkey), by the Black Sea (Ibid.:8). Like Herodotus, Strabo undertook numerous journeys and travelled all over the known world (Ibid.:8). The results of his observations the author included in the seventeen books of Geographica hypomnemata (Ibid.:8).  As an ancient guide along the track of the Seven Wonders, Strabo helped find paths in ancient Egypt, on the Island of Rhodes and in Mesopotamia and described some of the Eastern legends related to the subject, such as those about Ninos and Semiramis (Ibid.:8).

Diodorus, Pliny and Pausanias, and their wonders

There were also other ancient travellers and authors, who were experts on the ancient wonders (Zamarovsky 1990:8). One of them was Diodorus Siculus or Diodorus of Sicily (the first century BC.) (Ibid.:8). He includes particularly important information on the wonders in his descriptions about Egypt, Babylon and Greece (Ibid.:8). Some of them he drew from the now lost work of Ctesias of Cnidus (the fifth century BC.), the physician of the Persian king, Artaxerxes the Second (Ibid.:8).

Diodorus Siculus as depicted in a nineteenth-century fresco). Uploaded by fonte. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Diodorus Siculus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The next author, Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder (the first century AD.), was a Roman author, who created the famous Historia Naturalis (Zamarovsky 1990:8). In terms of the subject of wonders, it is extremely important that he was interested in the history of art and so he interpreted the wonders in their artistic context (Ibid.:8). Moreover, as a real Roman citizen, he also included on the list the whole city of Rome (Klein 1998:137). The constant drive to knowledge, however, ultimately led to Pliny’s downfall; on August 24, in 79 AD., the author wanted to take a closer look at the erupting volcano Vesuvius, which resulted in his death from poisoning by sulfur fumes (Zamarovsky 1990:8-9).

Nineteenth century image of Pliny the Elder. Uploaded by the User: Angela (2019). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Pliniusz Starszy” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

In the second century AD., there was another guide to the Seven Wonders, a Greek geographer Pausanias, who elevates to the rank of wonders the walls of a citadel from the times of the Mycenaean, located in Argolis, in the Peloponnese (today’s Tiryns) (Zamarovsky 1990:9). According to legend, it was the seat of the hero, Hercules, built of blocks so huge that the structure is attributed to one-eyed giants, Cyclopes (Ibid.:9). Hence, similar megalithic walls composed of crude stones are called cyclopean. Pausanias’ work, known as Hellados Periegesis (Description of Greece), was especially appreciated by Heinrich Schliemann (1822 – 1890), the famous discoverer of Troy, who, using information from Pausanias, thought that he had excavated the so-called tomb of king Agamemnon in Mycenae (Peloponnese), in 1876 (Ibid.:9). The archaeological site is located around twenty kilometres north of Tiryns and is also characterised by similar cyclopean masonry. Moreover, it has turned out that it is not the tomb of the legendary Greek chieftain from Troy, but actually of a Mycenaean king who reigned in Mycenae several centuries earlier (Ibid.:9).

More travel guides wanted

Manuscript of Pausanias’ Description of Greece at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, created circa 1485. Uploaded by Institution: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Pausanias (geographer)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Among other authors writing with the wonders of the world, a Roman poet, Marcus Valerius Martialis (the first century AD.), considers the Roman Colosseum to be the first of the wonders of the world (Zamarovsky 1990:9; Klein 1998:137). A Latin Author, Gaius Julius Hyginus (at the turn of our era) adds to the list of wonders the palace of the Persian king Cyrus in Ekbatan (today Hamadan in Iran), built of coloured stones and gold by an artist, named Memnon (Zamarovsky 1990:9; Klein 1998:137). The palace is also included among the wonders of the world by a  Roman writer Vibius Sequester (the fifth century) (Zamarovsky 1990:9). Another Roman geographer and historian, Lucius Ampelius (the fourth century) even multiplies the number seven by seven wonders and records forty-nine wonders of the world, including the oil sources in present-day Iraq or Iran (Ibid.:9).

More pretenders for the title

Among other wonders mentioned by various ancient authors, there is also a notice of the horned altar on the Greek island of Delos and Egyptian Thebes of the hundred gates (Klein 1998:137). And then one can list the wonders endlessly: Minos’ Labyrinth in Crete, Hadrian’s Tomb in Rome (today’s Castel Sant’Angelo), the Roman Capitol, the Athenian Acropolis, or finally the altar of Zeus in Little Asian Pergamon (modern Turkey) (Zamarovsky 1990:9).

From the Middle Ages to modern times

In the first millennium AD, two monks also wrote about the wonders of the ancient world in Christian Europe (Zamarovsky 1990:9). The one was an ex-dignitary at the court of the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric the Great, and was called Cassiodorus (490-583), whereas the second was an Anglo-Saxon historian, known as Beda (673-735) (Ibid.:9). J.C. Orelli assumes, however, that the work on the ancient wonders is wrongly ascribed to Bede, as the book seems too primitive to have been written by a man as educated as he was (Ibid.:9).

Historia Nturalis by Pliny the Elder. Uploaded in 2005. Public domain. Photo source: “Pliniusz Starszy” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

The author of the first modern work on the ancient wonders was also a monk, but apart from that also a French philologist and archaeologist, and a great traveller (Zamarovsky 1990:9). He is known as Bernard de Montfaucon (1665-1741) (Ibid.:9). In his work Diarium Italicum (Italian Journal) there is a new list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which was based on ancient sources (Ibid.:9). It contains: Egyptian Thebes, the walls of Babylon, the Mausoleum in Halicarnassus, the pyramids by the Nile, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Roman Capitol and the Tomb of Hadrian (Ibid.:9).

After Bernard de Montfaucon, it was the turn for an encyclopaedist who eventually  represented such a list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as it is well known today (Zamarovsky 1990:9).

The magic number of seven

All the lists of the ancient wonders may have  contained various monuments but they have always had one common feature (Klein 1998:139). Namely, the number of the ancient wonders has always been limited to seven (or seven was additionally multiplied by seven) (Ibid.:139). This was because the number of seven played an important role in the Greek tradition (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Moreover, it was already widely referred to in cultures much older than that of ancient Greece (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). As a matter of fact, the ‘seven’ encompassed the entire mystery of existence and was seen as a magic number (Klein 1998:139). As such it reappears numerously in culture (Ibid.:139).

Masonry tunnel in ancient Tiryns,in Peloponnese, Greece. According to legend, it was the seat of the hero, Hercules, built of blocks so huge that the structure is attributed to one-eyed giants, Cyclopes. Photo by Alun Salt – originally posted to Flickr as Tiryns, a passageway (2005). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Tiryns” (2021). ” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In ancient Greece, there were seven artes liberales, in Greek mythology, seven gates defended the Greek city of Thebes (Boeotia, central Greece), against which Theseus set off at the head of seven heroes (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Then, the Christian tradition enumerates the Seven Cardinal Virtues, the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Sacraments, and the week was divided into seven days, too; as the Bible says, on the seventh day God rested after creating the world (Genesis 2:2-3) (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). It was also believed that there had been seven hills of Rome, on which the city was established, and that the heaven and hell were divided into seven spheres, hence the phrase ‘the seventh heaven’ (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). In addition, the Bible says about seven fat cows and seven thin cows, and then the seven ripe heads of grain and the seven worthless heads of grain (Genesis 41:26-27) (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Noah waited seven days before he released a dove from the Ark to see if the flood waters had subsided (Genesis 8:6-12) (Klein 1998:139). Seven is also the key to Saint John’s Revelation; there are mentioned the seven churches, the seven spirits (Revelation 1:4), the Seven Signs in the Book of Signs (Revelation 1:19-12:50), seven golden lampstands (Revelation 1:12), seven stars (Revelation 1:16), a scroll with seven seals (Revelation 5:1), the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits (Revelation 5:6), as many angels, the trumpets of the Last Judgment (Revelation 8:2) thunders (Revelation 10:3) and seven thousand people killed in the earthquake (Revelation 11:13) (Ibid.::139). There is also a dragon with seven heads and seven crowns on its heads (Revelation 12:3), the seven last plagues (Revelation 15:1), seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God (Revelation 15:7) and also seven kings (Revelation 17:10). Such list is much longer.

Coin from Elis district in southern Greece illustrating the Olympian Zeus statue (Nordisk familjebok). Unknown author – second (1904–1926) edition of Nordisk familjebok Transferred from sv.wikipedia. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Statue of Zeus at Olympia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

A special position of the number seven can also be obtained scientifically (Klein 1998:139). In mathematical terms, seven is a prime number, so it is only divided by itself and by one (Klein 1998:139; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:2). Accordingly 7 cannot be a product or a quotient of integers other than 7 in the range from 1 to 6 and from 6 to 10, so it cannot be obtained either by multiplication or by dividing the integers from the given range (Klein 1998:139-140).

Rankings of modern wonders

From a psychological point of view, the number seven seemed to be perfect for the ancients in terms of quantity; it would have been too difficult or even impossible to select up to three ancient wonders, and a list of more than ten would, in turn, have lost its relevance (Klein 1998:140). One could imagine loads of magnificent buildings, but not loads of wonders of the world (Ibid.:140).

Nowadays, numerous travel guidebooks and magazines are created describing increasingly distant and exotic destinations (Lachowicz 2015). Such “wonders of the world” are usually illustrated in rankings, by referring to them as ‘places to visit before you die’. And although ‘the must-see places’ are usually grouped into sub-categories, like monuments and places within particular countries, cities, or lists including just architectural monuments or wonders of nature, their number keeps changing. Accordingly, one can find in travel books or online such travelling clues as “21 Most Beautiful Places in Poland to See Before You Die!”, “25 Truly Amazing Places To Visit Before You Die”, “30 World’s Best Places to Visit”, “50 Must Visit Places in the World” or “50 awe-inspiring natural wonders for your bucket list”, and so on …

Well, once the world has become larger, it has also got smaller due to greater possibilities of modern travellers to reach its remotest corners. Accordingly, the number of places to visit has essentially grown.

“Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids”, as an Arab proverb says; the Great Pyramid, as the Pyramid of Khufu is usually called, has captivated human imagination throughout centuries. Various studies evidently show that there are as many presumptions as false facts about the history and construction of the pyramid. As a result, it has remained an everlasting mystery. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Despite all these changes of the world, we still come back in memories to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which even now create a unique world of human achievements, on which Pliny the Elder writes about in the first century AD., referring to the Egyptian pyramids in his words: “Owing to such works, people ascend to gods, or gods descend among people” (Klein 1998:140-141).

Featured image: Detail of a relief of Herodotus by Jean-Guillaume Moitte, 1806. Cour Carrée in the Louvre Palace, Paris, France. Photo by Jastrow (2008). CC BY 3.0. In: 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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