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 NaturalHistory 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).
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).
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).
“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].
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).
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.
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 Gravesor 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).
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).
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 hornedcairns 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).
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.)
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.
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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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).
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).
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 Historiesof 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 (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).
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).
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
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).
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).
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.
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.
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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Klein G. (1998). ”Siedem Cudów Świata”. In: Sfinks. Tajemnice Historii, vol. 3., [Sphinx. Geheimnisse der Geschichte. Von Ramsez II bis zum Ersten Kaiser von China], pp. 134-178. Zimmerer K. trans., Huf H-C. ed. Warszawa: Świat Książki.
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lubimyczytać.pl (2021). “Podróże z Herodotem” by Ryszard Kapuściński. In: lubimyczytać.pl. Available at <https://bit.ly/3uebC5t>. [Accessed on 1st May, 2021].
Mingren W. (DHWTY) (2017). “Picking Apart the Words of Herodotus: Was He a Father of Histories or Lies?”. In: Ancient Origins. Available at <https://bit.ly/3noss0Y>. [Accessed on 11th September, 2021].
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Zamarovsky V. (1990). Tropami Siedmiu Cudów Świata, [Za siedmi divmi svĕta]. Godlewski P. trans. Katowice: Wydawnictwo „Śląsk”.
The definition of trilithon or trilith is derived from the Greek words, which stand for “‘having three stones’ (τρι-/tri- ‘three’ + λίθος/lithos ‘stone’)” (“Trilithon” 2021). The word trilithon was primarily applied by an English antiquarian, physician and Anglican clergyman, William Stukeley (1687-1765), who had “a significant influence on the later development of archaeology. [He] pioneered the scholarly investigation of the prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire [and] published over twenty books on archaeology and other subjects during his lifetime” (“William Stukeley” 2021).
Precisely, trilithon is a megalithic structure consisting of three boulders: two vertical and the third arranged horizontally. In such constructions, the two large vertical stones, called posts, constitute the only support for the third stone, which is set horizontally across the top, referred to as a lintel.
The definition of trilithon “is commonly used in the context of megalithic monuments”. Trilithons were built in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, possibly as religious objects or astronomical observatories. “The most famous trilithons are those of Stonehenge in England, those found in the Megalithic temples ofMalta […] and the Osireion in Egypt. […] The term also describes the groups of three stones in the Hunebed tombs of the Netherlands and the three massive stones forming part of the wall of the [so-called] Roman Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek, Lebanon. Far from Europe and the Middle East, another famous trilithon is the Haʻamongaʻa Maui in Tonga, Polynesia” (“Trilithon” 2021).
Featured image: Although the three successive megalithic blocks are positioned here horizontally, they are also known as a trilithon. They are the main feature of the Temple of Jupiter Baal (“Heliopolitan Zeus”) in Baalbek, Lebanon. Photo by Brattarb – Own work (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Trilithon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
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Daveahern (2005). “Stonehenge Closeup”. In Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3yVuUiX>. [Accessed 29th May, 2021].
The site of Tiya is among the most important and representative of all (Rey 2015; UNESCO 1992-2020). It contains thirty-six monuments (UNESCO 1992-2020), including “[roughly] aligned over an axis of [forty-five metres] a group of thirty-three stelae, with another [cluster] of three stelae a short distance from [the larger group]” (Rey 2015). Among them all, there are thirty-two carved stones, covered in symbols in low-relief; although some of them can easily be identified, most still remain difficult to decipher (UNESCO 1992-2020).
The standing stones on the site are generally taller than the monoliths found elsewhere in the region (Reese 2019). Most measure between two and three metres high with the tallest reaching over five meters (Finneran 2007:244; Reese 2019). Tiya’s sanding stones can be divided into three types: anthropomorphic, phallic (snake-like), and non-anthropomorphic (Reese 2019; Mire 2020:20). While anthropomorphic stelae resemble a human shape, though highly schematized, the phallic or snake type looks like a tall and thin shaft (Finneran 2007:244; Reese 2019). The final groups contains flat monuments with irregular edges but usually resembling rectangular blocks (Derara 2008; Reese 2019). Yet, most of them narrow up to the pointed end, looking like a knife sticking out of the ground (Mire 2020:20). Furthermore, all the monoliths “may [originally] have been coloured in organic pigment” (Finneran 2007:244).
Either type bears a series of particular symbols carved on them. Their combination predominantly includes engravings representing a sword, the so-called forked branch sign, and what Joussaume (1995) describes as la triade symbolique (the three signs), consisting of the design similar to zigzag (Σ), Х, and finally discs or circles (Mire 2020:11) Most stelae in Tiya also have mysterious perforations on their bottom part (Ibid.:11). Just one stela was still standing at the site of its initial studies, and this in situ stone revealed that the perforations had once been below the ground (Ibid.:11).
Weapons on the megaliths
Among the symbols carved on the Tiya standing stones, the most frequently utilised is the ubiquitous engraving of a dagger, lance or epée (on around twenty-eight stelae), which also widely appears at other megalithic sites in the region, such as Odotibo, Firshi, Seden and Lalou (Finneran 2007:244; Mire 2020:11).
Its symbolism is ambiguous; it may refer either to general weapons used in the community, or to the occupation of men buried beneath the stones (Finneran 2007:244; Derara 2008:70). In the latter option, the symbol of lance could signify a burial of a hunter or a warrior, while the number of daggers carved on a particular stela would signify the rank of the warrior or the number of killed enemies (Derara 2008:70). Hence, it is also possible that some male remains belonged to individuals who were killed in battle (Reese 2019). The signs of daggers may also refer to the ritual hunt or slaughter (Mire 2020:21). In further hypothesis, such weapons as represented on the stones were possibly made of iron, which would be another significant insight into the economy of the megalithic community (Finneran 2007:244).
However, to make the whole picture complete, it should be also mentioned that the position and layout of the so-called weapons on stones vary; sometimes, the dagger’s blade points up, the other time, it is directed down. Certainly, it must once have had a meaning; nonetheless, it is unknown today. Maybe it was a symbolic representation of warriors fighting against each other, providing that each dagger would represent a warrior on each side of a combat. There is even a theory saying that the so-called daggers pointing at each other look more like starting or landing space rockets than weapons.
Unlike the symbol of the lance, which form is observable in a material world, some of the designs at Tiya, or elsewhere in the region, are more abstract than others. Likewise, a few of the megaliths “at Tiya carry a very distinctive Y-shape, described by Anfray (1982:126) as signes ramifiés (vegetable signs or a branch of a tree) (Finneran 2007:244; Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:11). Like other engravings, it is also accompanied by other different signs, including the daggers (Mire 2020:11). This is probably why Anfary (1982) also compares it to a projective weapon like a spear (Derara 2008:71). Still, there are many other alternative theories on its possible meaning.
This enigmatic image features the rectangular base and branched pillar attached to this base (Derara 2008:71). “In connection with this depiction, there are different plausible but still controversial views” (Ibid.:71). Assuming it is an actual representation of a tree, the sign could suggest its religious and ritual meaning in a society and so “be interpreted in the light of the tradition of sacrificial flora, sacred grass and trees associated with the fertility rituals currently practiced in the Horn of Africa” (Mire 2020:11). In the burial context, the symbol may stand for continuation as much as continuous is the circle of nature (Ibid.:17). After a Swedish-Somali archaeologist, Sada Mire (2020:17), “[this] would make sense in Tiya in terms of the archaeology as the place is clearly linked to ritual and, perhaps, the blessings of the ancestors and the protection of a family […]. The sprouting or a ‘vegetable’ sign of Tiya may therefore be associated with the regeneration of the lineage. [To this day], plants are also part of ritual meals and are used in many local [religious rites].”
There is also another evidence indicating a ‘vegetable’ nature of the symbol; it is linked to present-day beliefs of the Arsi-Oromo people who represent a Cushitic ethnic group of Ethiopia (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17). They believe in the powers of the so-called dhanqee or dhanquu, which is a short and bifurcated (rather forked) stick, carved from a sacred tree and carried as such by the pilgrims of Dire Sheik Hussein (a holy site for Muslims) (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17). Although it is today mostly associated with Islam, the symbol of dhanqee is as well a part of the long lasting tradition of the Sky-god religion as practised by the Oromo today and in the past (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17).
Nonetheless, an archaeologist Worku Derara (2008:71) claims that although the Tiya symbol’s “branches at the top resemble the stick, [its] rectangular base cannot be correlated with the pointed metal called Ankase, which is attached at the base of the stick held by pilgrims.”
Another theory, which is widely accepted, is based on the oral information from the area suggesting the enigmatic design represents the traditional wooden headrest (Derara 2008:72). Such wooden ‘pillows’, locally called Gime, are used by many groups in southern Ethiopia to support the head during sleep and in some instances to preserve a complicated coiffure (Derara 2008:72-73; Ethnix 2012). However, as Derara (2008:73) points out, morphological differences between the Y-shaped symbol and the wooden headrest does not allow to openly connect them.
On the other side, the engraving of the forked branch is “not unlike the bucranial symbol from the prehistoric rock art of the north” (Finneran 2007:244), which is usually interpreted as manhood or male virility.
In this context, the sign “may be related to fertility symbolism” (Ibid.:244). Accordingly, if a standing stone is read in an analogous way to a human body, the Y-shaped symbol is found approximately at the level of human genitalia (Ibid.:244). Simultaneously, two other megaliths of Tiya “are [distinctly] feminine in nature [by their form and decoration]” (Ibid.:244). The anthropomorphic slabs, of which one is standing and the other fallen on the ground, both reveal the visible outlines of woman’s breasts below a sort of necklace (Finneran 2007:244,248). The standing one is already deprived of the arms and head, but there is still the lower half of the tombstone, exposing the feminine features (Adventures … 2012). it is obvious that such stone slabs were obviously reserved for buried women (Finneran 2007:244,248; Adventures … 2012).
Similar representations among the stones of Soddo indicate the notion of strong gendered associations (Finneran 2007:244,248) that go “beyond the narrative of [male] heroism [and] so may [turn out to be the key to] the meaning of [the Tiya] symbols [in general]” (Mire 2020:21). It also happens that two genders are even combined and exposed by the shape of a single stone, as it is in the case of Tiya fallen anthropomorphic stela and almost identical representation on Gora-Shino stela (Finneran 2007:244,248; Mire 2020:21). In both cases, the phallic-fashioned monolith additionally bears a schematic female figure, standing akimbo (with hands on the hips and elbows turned outwards) with noticeable breasts and a more intricate necklace than in the first case of the Tiya standing stela (which probably indicates a woman of significance) (Finneran 2007:244,248; Mire 2020:21; Adventures … 2012; Reese 2019).
Such a combination of genders, however, is not exclusive to Ethiopia. As a matter of fact, it has got a much longer tradition than the megaliths in the region of Soddo, providing that the latter are dated accurately. Similar iconography had already been applied in abstract forms of art as early as in the Bronze Age, or even earlier, the most striking exemplum of which are the so-called Anatolian Discs from Cappadocia.
Phallic or snake shaped stelae?
Among the stelae of Soddo, also present at Tiya, there are monoliths described as phallic as they resemble penis in erection. Nevertheless, some scholars interpret them as snakeheads (Mire 2020:20).
As a matter of fact, there is a visible connection between both images, not only in the context of their physical appearance but equally “between snake worship and phallic symbolism” (Ibid.:20), which is also strongly interwound in ritual use of fertility stones (Ibid.:20). These may be additionally covered in patterns resembling reptile skin, as it appears in the form of sinuous zigzag shape on the phallic, mixed gender stela of Tiya (Ibid.:20). This is not merely the matter of iconographical interpretation; such analogy is visible in current practices associated with the Cushitic religion, where phallic ritual objects are also covered in snakeskin (Ibid.:20). Moreover, in the tradition of Africa snakes are generally seen as symbols of renewal and fertility, as much as it is expressed by phallic imagery (Ibid.:20). “The occurrence of phallic symbolism, therefore, may be seen not just as a symbol of a victorious battle and masculinity but also as a symbol of reconciliation […], purification [and by extension, the continuation of the family and resurrection” (Ibid.:20).
Snake rituals may have been also related to the perforations on the stones of Tiya (Mire 2020:20). Such holes feature the stela part initially buried in the ground; snakes as chthonic animals are believed to live and move underground and the perforations at the base of stones stuck in the ground may have been intended to make this movement possible (Ibid.:20). This may also “relate to the notion of ancestor spirits moving in the form of snakes underground”(Ibid.:20).
Another engraving appearing profusely is another abstract sign, which resembles the letter W or M in a reversed position (Derara 2008:70; Mire 2020:11). Others compare it to the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, epsilon (Σ) (Stardust’s Shadow 2007). “As noted by Anfray (1982) this representation has remained mysterious because no possible explanation can be given” (Derara 2008:70).
Nevertheless, the symbol may be read as a metaphor for a ploughing trace, as it is represented in a scene at the Eritrean rock art site of Amba (Baahti), dated back to the first millennium BC (McCann 1995:39; Finneran 2007:84-85).
Although the pastoral scene shows a continuous zig-zag design left by the activity of ploughing in the field by a long beam plow driven by oxen (McCann 1995:39), creators of medieval stelae may have used just its section to represent the very same idea. Moreover, it was easier to represent it in such an artistic abbreviation due to limited surface of the stela they worked on. Additionally, carving in relief took longer than painting the scene on the rock. If it is the case, the abstract design possibly symbolized the land owned by the buried man or the significance of land cultivation itself.
Eyes of a god
Another mysterious symbol on the stones of Tiya looks like a circle or a disk. Two such engravings appear on nearly all the Tiya monoliths and on others in the region (Mire 2020:11,21). They are carved on the same level of the stone and usually in the proximity of one or two of the three mentioned above symbols: the forked branch (ϒ), zigzag (Σ) and (Х/H), which are usually depicted between or below them (Ibid.:21). The disks may signify the eyes of an omnipresent, all-seeing deity and so are possibly related to the cult of the Sky-god, who is usually associated by contemporary believers with the eye and seeing (Ibid.:21). As Mire (2020:21) claims “belief systems […] tend to linger”, and so the same deity may have been also worshiped by the megalithic builders.
Alternative theory says, however, that all the signs highlight again the significance of gender symbolism and so they expose intimate detail of a human body (Mire 2020:21). In this context, the two discs would stand for male breasts (Ibid.:21), especially if they are placed above Y-shaped symbol, earlier identified as male genitalia. More problematic are attempts to interpret two other symbols, which appear in the proximity of the previous ones.
The X or H-shaped sign, is usually positioned between the discs and the forked branch and may refer to the stomach or naval. Sometimes, however, it is replaced by the zig-zag design. Otherwise, either of them is carved on the right or left side of the first two. Are these scarification signs on the belly area? Among Somali, such decorating of a human body is still applied as a healing ritual; this could have been also practised by the megalithic culture (Ibid.:21). Irrespective of a possibility of such a link, the engravings’ placement, form and configuration must convey a meaning, yet not revealed so far.
“Another interesting [finds] at Tiya are drum stelae” (Mire 2020:22). They may “have been related to ritual and have been symbols of status or used to call upon or ward off spiritual beings. [Such] stone drums are still used in Lalibela to call people to prayer” (Ibid.:22) as they give a particular metallic sound, like gongs, tin drums and bells usually do, especially while being tapped with a metal object.
The stelae’s ringing ability is attributed to the iron content of the diabase (“Ringing rocks” 2020). Little is known, however, about the ‘drum stelae’ discovered through archaeology” (Ibid.:22).
Finding the key
The carved designs on stelae in the region of Soddo may have been “used for regulating and organizing people as well as the material world. The may [have] simply [conveyed] information [in time, from generation to generation, or signified] power, social organization or cult system, or [else] the economy of a given society” (Derara 2008:69). Equally they must have played a transcendental function by witnessing to “the relevance of the community in association between the dead (ancestors) and the living”(Mire 2020:3). These and similar hypotheses have been proposed by scholars for centuries. Generally, many scholars suggest that “a megalithic tradition in the Horn [of Africa] seems to go back millennia” (Ibid.:3). Nevertheless, “it is problematic and [highly ambiguous] to infer the meaning of symbols [without] the presence of a living culture similar to or comparable with what the stelae exhibit”(Derara 2008:79). It is the missing piece that would probably shed light on mysterious character of the megalithic culture of the Soddo region and its ancient creators (Ibid.:80).
The “anonymity behind [the symbolism of the Tiya stelae] can be, [however], resolved through ethno-archaeological studies conducted on the material culture of the diverse communities living [over the wider part of southern] Ethiopia. It is also valuable to look into the evolution and relation of megalithic art in the Horn of Africa because of the long-standing contacts and cultural ties over the centuries” (Derara 2008:79). Apparently, the monoliths of the southern Ethiopia “represent the archaeological evidence for Cushitic or Nilotic-speaking pastoralist groups of the southern highlands, whose lives, […] were disrupted by the migration of the pastoralist Oromo (‘Galla’) who emerged from their ancestral lands on what is now the northern Kenyan [and] southern Ethiopian border and in a series of massive population movements thrust northwards into the highlands during the sixteenth century” (Finneran 2007:248)Although Oromo people adopted in time either Christianity or Islam, they have maintained their special identity which may be a bridge between their contemporary rituals and those once conducted by the megalithic builders (Ibid.:248).
The living reveal the secrets of the dead
Today, “despite some Semitic speaking clusters, the majority of people living in southern Ethiopia are Eastern Cushitic speaking people” (Mire 2020:10) and “[it] is noteworthy that there are systematic cultural similarities within [their groups, such as Oromo or Konso], and that these commonalities are crucial to an understanding of Tiya cemetery in particular and of stelae traditions in southern Ethiopia in general” (Ibid.:11).
For instance, “a close study of Oromo funerary material culture, which is hugely distinctive and symbolically expressive, in the case of Oromo in the Arssi region may have drawn upon certain elements derived from the earlier megalithic carving traditions” (Finneran 2007:248). Among the Eastern Cushitic speaking groups, both the Oromo and the Konso (Ibid.:5), the “stones erected for the dead served not only as grave stones but also as symbols of ancestors and fertility and the preservation of the family. […] Their traditions and […] archaeology of indigenous practices furthermore offer important insights into the site of Tiya and the practices that may have once taken place there”(Ibid.:11).
The people who live today around the site of Tiya, in the Gurage Zone, are called the Guraghe themselves (hence the area’s name) (Mire 2020:10). They are Ethiopian Semitic group who originally come from the Harar region, not the Tiya area itself (Ibid.:10). Nevertheless, like the Eastern Cushitic people of southern Ethiopia, they also “share a belief in a traditional deity they call the Sky-god, Waaq” (Ibid.:11), which shows, they have probably absorbed it from an earlier Cushitic culture, like Oromo (Ibid.:10-11), “given that the Sky-god religion is a region-wide belief and [its rituals] are recognised by all the people” (Ibid.:17).
On the other side, it is likely “that the Oromo [people] themselves would feel affinities with the religious culture of the people who had created the stelae of Tiya” (Ibid.:17). It is also why they trace their ancestry also to the part of Soddo, where the site in question is located (Ibid.:17). The Oromo “imprint upon highland society is evidenced by a distribution of their language, yet they transformed socially in response to their new surrounds in the case of the adaptation of their Gada social system (a system of an age-grade classes)]” (Finneran 2007:248). In such a way, they could have also absorbed and preserved the notions of the ancient culture.
Such cultural elements as “language, religious beliefs and sociopolitical organisation, enable [scholars] to explore the ideas expressed at Tiya cemetery since these ideas seem today to encompass all the elements essential to the living and to their relationship with each other of times of death and birth” (Mire 2020:11). Important aspects of current life in the region to some extent overlap with archaeological and ethnographic evidence regarding human fertility, animals, cultivation of land, inheritance, wealth and burial practice (Ibid.:3-17). This is why there is a need for “studies involving careful examination of the material and culture of the people residing over the wider part of southern Ethiopia” (Derara 2008:76). It can also be relevant to Tiya, where some evidence of still present customs is consolidated by the monuments, decorations and burial practice (Mire 2020:11).
Unrevealed secrets of Ethiopia
Since the site of Tiya became a part of the UNESCO World Heritage in 1981 (Mire 2020:11), it has been recognised as one of unique archaeological locations in Ethiopia, such as Axum, Lalibela, Abuna Yemata Guh, Debre Damo, Fasiledes Castle or Konso landscape (Reese 2019). Although all these sites represent the testimony of the ancient past of Ethiopia, there have not been enough studies to fully understand it yet (Ibid.). Also little research has been done lately on Tiya, likewise in case of other megaliths in the region, whose purpose and meaning behind their physical appearance still remains unclear (Ibid.).
To protect the site, however, authorities conducted some conservation work in 2017 (Ibid.). Keeping the stelae in good shape not only may attract more tourists but also help to continue further research to finally unlock some significance of the story the monuments still hold secret.
Featured image: Megaliths with engraved figures in Tiya. Photo by Julien Demade – Own work (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Tiya (archaeological site)” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
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