Once again I found myself among the finest artefacts gathered by the British Museum; I felt as if I had been in the middle of piled or scattered volumes, surrounding me and calling for being opened and read. Walking up and down between all the museal objects, without paying them enough attention, would be like skipping pages of those books and missing their stories. It is worth thus choosing one and read it from cover to cover.
Room 40 in the British Museum
At that time, the Room 40 of the Medieval Europe galleries was my destination for homework; I was studying one of the core modules of Medieval Cultures at Birkbeck College and was analysing medieval artefacts preserved by the Museum for the following class. There were just few people around so I decided to squat on the floor and making my notes in front of ‘my homework’. Those were eight red clay tiles resembling large domino blocks of 33 centimetres long and 16 centimetres wide, but without black dots (The British Museum I 2021).
Instead, there were intriguing medieval representations of apocrypha scenes related to the unknown events of Jesus Christ’s lifetime, which is not recorded in the canonical Bible (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:1). Such artistic documents do not only seem uncommon in traditional representations of the Christ but may be also provocative in their interpretations (Casey 2007:1). First of all, the official image of Jesus known from the writings and art stand here in sharp contrast to the illustration of Christ provided by the tiles, especially because they depict and regard Him as a Child at the age between five and twelve (Ibid.:1). Such images, however, do not belong to a canonical tradition of the Gospels but are taken possibly from the anonymous second century’s Apocryphal Infancy of Christ Gospels, translated into art in the form of the earthenware rectangular tiles in the fourteenth century AD., precisely circa 1330 (Casey 2007:1; The British Museum I 2021).
Biblical story of the Child Jesus
The four Gospels written by tradition by the Evangelists, Saint Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only recognized source of Christ’s life and ministry (Robinson et al. 2008:118).
According to the Evangelists, Saint Luke and Saint Matthew, the Holy Family, after their stay in Egypt, returned to Nazareth in Galilee (Rops 1944:109). Little Christ’s homeland was just that little town, white and green, situated on the slope of the rolling hills that enclose the Jezreel Valley to the north (Ibid.:111). The streets and houses of Nazareth are like all the streets and houses of the East (Ibid.:111). The city is only distinguished by the number of its churches, monasteries and bell towers; it is surrounded by a semi-circle of gently rolling hills dotted with villages with houses made of white clay (Rops 1944:111). Among the olives, the vineyards and grain fields, bullets of black cypress trees shoot up into the sky (Ibid.:111). The gardens of Nazareth are full of lilies and verbenas, and on many walls of its houses, juicy flowers of bougainvillea spread their covers in the colour of episcopal purple (Ibid.:111). It was in this environment that Jesus the Child grew up (Ibid.:111). However, one should not imagine him under the very graceful figure represented by a late antique statue from the fourth century, known as Jesus the Teacher, preserved in the National Museum of Baths of Diocletian in Rome: he is represented there too calm, too well-mannered, and hieratic in his long pleated tunic (Ibid.:111). Rather, it should be assumed that little Jesus looked like one of those lively, nervous kids that one still meets on the roads of Palestine, lightly dressed, barefoot, with an expression of great intelligence on passionate and serious faces (Ibid.:111).
The House of the Holy Family
The life of the Holy Family, whose secrets so many painters wanted to represent, was passing in one of the modest houses of Nazareth, one of those that can still be seen today (Rops 1944:111). There is usually only one room inside them; there is a sweet smell of oil in the air; smoke from the fire often comes out only through the door; in the evening, a clay lamp placed on an iron candle, or on a stone protruding from the wall, casts a dim light (Ibid.:111).
In the modern town of Nazareth, there are plenty of monuments ascribed to the times of Christ Child: the Basilica of Annunciation with said remains of the house of the Virgin Mary, the Mary’s Well or Joseph’s workshop. Based on various archaeological excavations, it is assumed the Holy Family’s house looked like the one in which the Archangel Gabriel announced Mary she would conceive and bear the Son of God (today overbuilt with the walls of the Basilica of the Annunciation); it was probably largely underground, embedded in the soft local limestone; God’s Child was to walk up its rather primitive stairs, in the contemporary Basilica, they are today decorated with mosaics (Rops 1944:111-112).
Jesus received the education that all young Israelites received; it seems that at that time there were whole cycles of studies described by the Talmud (Rops 1944:112). They were dependent on the synagogue, and they were led by a hassan, someone like a sacristan, perhaps the administrator of a venerable place, where the faithful gathered (Ibid.:112). In the bejt-haseter, an elementary school, boys, sitting around the great scroll of the Law, repeated the verses of the Torah in chorus until they had memorized them perfectly (Ibid.:112).
Probably, the adolescent Jesus did not pursue further studies in one of the rabbinical schools that existed near Nazareth (Ibid.:112). This assumption is supported by an openly expressed amazement of Jesus’ family members and acquaintances who heard his wise preaching in God’s matters (Ibid.:112).
Finding in the Temple
Jesus, therefore, grew up in Nazareth living in a modest house with his mother and adoptive father, Joseph, and after his death, He lived in the company of numerous cousins (Rops 1944:113). The canonical messages regarding this period are limited (Ibid.:113): “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him” (Luke 2:40). And only one episode of this time is known from the Bible; namely, the one that happened in the twelfth year of Jesus’ life, when a young Jew was becoming a man and a “son” of the Law (Ibid.:113).
The event in question is the famous scene from the Temple; Mary and Joseph, as devout Jews, went to Jerusalem every year for the Passover (Rops 1944:113). Perhaps for the first time they took the Son with them (Ibid.:113). In the evening of the first day of their journey back, Joseph and Mary were looking for Jesus among their friends and relatives (Ibid.:114). They did not him all day, but assumed that he had joined some group of relatives or friends (Ibid.:114). Extremely worried, they returned to Jerusalem and it took them three days to finally find Him in the Temple (Ibid.:114). In its cloisters, surrounded by a circle of students, the wise men taught; the children squeezed into the crowd of listeners and were sometimes allowed to ask questions (Ibid.:114).
The twelve-year-old Jesus, however, was not among the listeners but sat among the wise men of Israel (Rops 1944:114), and “[everyone] who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). “When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you ‘.’ Why were you searching for me? ‘ [Jesus] asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ “(Luke 2: 48-49). Jesus’ words show that He is fully aware of his mission. There is also the teaching of the Gospel that whoever wants to follow Christ must sever all human ties and bonds (Ibid.:114).
‘Unofficial’ God’s life
This one and only event in Jesus’ childhood, described in detail in the Bible, though so eloquent, has not satisfied yet the curiosity of the crowds since the first centuries of Christianity through the Middle Ages to the present day (Rops 1944:114).
There are yet other ancient records of Christ’s life but apocryphal, that is to say officially rejected from the standard Bible, though not sanctioned by the Church (Robinson et al. 2008:118). “In everyday conversation ‘apocryphal’ refers to a story of doubtful authenticity, but one that is nevertheless told frequently, perhaps even believed widely. The New Testament apocrypha are books accepted by neither Catholic nor Protestant faiths, although artists and theologians have used them as sources of information and ideas” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown). Especially in the Middle Ages, the apocrypha was used to elaborate on gaps in the Gospel stories, which were thought fairly sparse in details about the life of Christ (Robinson et al. 2008:118; see Casey 2007; Austin Date unknown). “Apocryphal stories, [such as the one] based on the dream of Pilate’s wife, […] or of the forging of the nails for Christ’s crucifixion were [therefore] incorporated into medieval mystery plays and were an integral part of the imaginative religious experience” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). The light and colour used in the art of churches and cathedrals additionally embellished the words heard from priests during their homilies; by various artistic expressions, people who everyday experienced poor and hard conditions, could admire the splendour and dignity of the image of the mighty and omnipresent God who yet became Man and suffered for the sins of mankind. At the time, when Biblical stories were accessed in paintings and sculpture for the illiterate populace, their main characters were treated similarly to modern celebrities, and like today, common people wished to know more details about their lives than the official version of the Church was able to offer.
Jesus between His years five and twelve
“One of the most frustrating absences in the Gospels is the early years of Christ’s life, [that id to say when He is between five and twelve. In the Bible, “Christ is encountered as an infant and then later as an adolescent disputing with the doctors of the law in the Temple but no mention is made of His upbringing or his relationship with his parents” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).
In the eyes of contemporary people, this gap had successfully been complemented by the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, believed to have been written anonymously by early Christians from the second century AD., who imaginatively tried to create their own fictional version of what Jesus’ childhood might have been like (Casey 2007:3). Yet these imaginary pictures were quite successfully interwoven with the canonical portrayal of Jesus’ life (Ibid.:3-4). Simultaneously, the apocrypha author built up the stories around their own experiences in the process of the development of Christianity (Ibid.:3; see Elliott ed. 2005).
Anecdotes about the Christ’s Childhood
Surely, the Infancy Gospels had circulated in oral tradition before a series of their written compilations appeared (Casey 2007:4). From the very beginning, however, all of them shared several cohesive narrative elements (Ibid.:4). Central to this genre is the Gospel of Thomas dating back to the second century (Ibid.:4). It “describes the doings of Jesus during his boyhood, no record of which exists in the canonical gospels. According to Thomas, Jesus proved to be an infant prodigy at school, instructing his teachers in the unsuspected mysteries of the alphabet and astonishing his family and friends by the miracles that he performed” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown). The Infancy Gospels tell a lot of different anecdotes about this unknown period of Christ’ childhood (Rops 1944:114-115). Some of them are famous and charming; Jesus, playing with His companions, makes birds out of clay, and then gives them life, and when He claps his hands, the wonderful creatures start flying in the air (Ibid.:115). Jesus is also playing with the other children at the entrance to the grotto, and then suddenly two huge snakes come out of it; the joyful flock runs away screaming, only Jesus remains and calmly orders the dangerous beasts to place their heads under the feet of His Mother, Mary (Ibid.:115).
The Apocrypha also attributes many miracles to Christ Child (Rops 1944:115). Many of them are modelled on the miracles of the canonical Gospels; they tell that one seed Child Jesus planted is enough to feed an entire city in times of famine (Ibid.:115). Another time, the Apocrypha depict the young worker who is resurrected by Christ (Ibid.:115). Other miracles are rather magical; Jesus, riding the mule, turns the spell on him and the animal becomes a beautiful youth again (Ibid.:115). Another miracle tells that as the little Christ calls out, the salted fish begins to roll and flutter (Ibid.:115). Another time at school, when a teacher starts teaching Jesus the alphabet, the Child proves that he can do it, even though he has not learned it before (Ibid.:115).
Other apocryphal miracles can seem utterly repulsive while being attributed to the Son of God; when the same teacher wants to punish his rebellious Student, he sees at once that his hand is withered (Rops 1944:115). In turn, to show off His power to His playmates, Jesus turns one of them into a ram, another, who poked Him, becomes stroke dead (Ibid.:115).
Apocrypha in art
In the eighth or ninth centuries, the Gospel of Thomas was furthermore compiled with the Protevangelium of James, including the Apocrypha of the Virgin Mary (Casey 2007:4). As such, it formed the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (Ibid.:4; see Elliott ed. 2005). And when the cult of the Virgin Mary had grown since the twelfth century, an interest in her Parents’ lives and the Holy Family with the Christ Child in the center also raised, and so did the interest in the Apocrypha, which was mainly reflected through art in the whole Christian world (Robinson et al. 2008:118). As such all these, more or less known apocryphal fairy tales served especially as a source of inspiration for the painters and sculptors of the Middle Ages; paintings and mosaics of small churches and images of Gothic cathedrals are full of memories of these Christian legends (Rops 1944:115).
It is enough to mention a set of wall paintings created inside the Nubian church of Faras, with the representations known ultimately from the Apocrypha. Among them, there is the eight century’s famous representation of the Virgin Mary’s Mother, Saint Anne with her mysterious gesture of pointing her index finger to the lips (see: Saint Anne of Nubia – “it will make you speechless”.). “Scenes such as these are [also] depicted in the [fourteenth century’s] Tring Tiles” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown).
Medieval apocryphal writings
With the late twelfth century, an increased fascinations with the humanity of the Christ, especially with His childhood, had further inspired the creation of a large number of manuscripts, which mainly originated from the writings of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, many of which were written in vernacular languages (Casey 2007:4). Such extensive compilation of the Infancy stories, along with the French manuscript Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8 (circa 1325), combined of the Anglo-Norman manuscript, Les Enfaunces de Jesu Crist and an Apocalypse manuscript, were apparently the foundations of the now lost model for the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:4-5). Although the Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8 is the most complete medieval illuminated manuscript with the Infancy Gospel stories, its illustrated simple and miniature figures significantly vary with the style of highly expressive and highly caricatured images on the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:5).
Red clay tiles
The Tring Tiles, ceramic pieces of 3,5 centimetres in thickness, were made in the technique known as sgraffito, an expensive hand-worked process popular especially in France (The British Museum I 2021; Austin Date unknown), which involves “decorating ceramics [where] a substrate, usually ‘slip’, is incised to reveal the contrasting ground underneath” (The British Museum I 2021). Obtained in this way slip-decorated designs on the tiles were additionally lead-glazed (Ibid.). The group of tiles was uncovered during the late Victorian (the mid-nineteenth century) restoration of Tring Parish Church in Hertfordshire, which has given the tiles its name (Casey 2007:7; Austin Date unknown).
“Although the tiles were, for the most part, found in a curiosity shop in Tring” (Munday 2018), it is not sure if they had originally been laid down in the church or only preserved or applied there after being moved from elsewhere, even from abroad (Austin Date unknown; Munday 2018). “More research into the origins of the tiles needs to be done, for the mystery is still far from solved” (Ibid.). Nevertheless, “the peculiar character of their sgraffito design, may suggest that they were produced in the east of England, where this technique was popular on pottery” (British Museum II 2021).
Having been found, the tiles were continuously passed through many hands before achieving their final place: nowadays, ten complete tiles and a few fragments are known, of which the eight are preserved in the British Museum and the two, saved by a local resident, are displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum (The British Museum I 2021; Casey 2007:7-8; Austin Date unknown).
Still their number is not complete; the tiles must have been part of a much larger scheme, unfortunately now lost (Robinson et al. 2008:118). Their condition is surprisingly good, and for this reason, it is believed that the tiles had never been walked on in a pavement of the church floor but were possibly used as a frieze set on the walls of the chancel (Austin Date unknown; the British Museum I 2021). What message were they to convey?
Featured image: The Wedding Feast at Cana (Fig.4), represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021). The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.
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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Austin W. (Date unknown). The Mystery of the Tring Tiles. Available at <https://bit.ly/3iEdbol>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].
Casey M. F. (2007). “The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions”. In: Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 1-53. Available at <https://digital.kenyon.edu/perejournal/vol2/iss2/1>. [Accessed 22nd January, 2021].
Elliott J. K. ed. (2005). The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation Based on M. R. James, pp. 88-99. Oxford University Press.
Munday A. (2018). “The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Tring Tiles”. In: A Writer’s Perspective. Available at <https://bit.ly/39VmJY9>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].
Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles. Available at <https://bit.ly/2NvIeaf>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].
Robinson et al. (2008). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Masterpieces. Medieval Art. pp. 118-119. London: The British Museum Press.
Rops D. (1944). Dzieje Chrystusa [Histoire Sainte – Jesus et Son Temps]. Starowiejska-Morstinowa Z. trans. Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy Pax.
The British Museum by means of Google Arts&Culture (2021). “Take a Virtual Tour in the Room 40; Medieval Europe AD 1050–1500; The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery”. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Mci0Jw>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].
The British Museum I (2021). “The Tring Tiles; museum number 1922,0412.1.CR.” In: The British Museum. Available at <https://bit.ly/399gSiO>. [Accessed 22nd January, 2021].
Weitzmann K., ed. (1979). “Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century: Catalogue of the Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 19, 1977 through February 12, 1978.”, p. 524; statue: 469. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.). In: MET Publications. Available at <https://bit.ly/2KTpjFB>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].
Here in the capital of Crete, the Phaistos Disc is preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Today, it is one of the icons of Minoan civilization and so one of the main attractions of the Museum attracting visitors from all the corners of the modern world (Gregor 2016).
Just like Zbigniew Herbert once, during his visit to the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, I devoted some time to this Disc, standing long in front of its private glass case. I was wondering that if it stood just among other Minoan artifacts, it would attract so much attention of many visitors who would not know its history, or what mystery it is associated with. Or perhaps their trained eye would notice that it differs from typical Cretan finds, especially the Minoan writing from clay tablets or from images of miniature seals made of gold and carved stone.
 Zbigniew Herbert (1924 – 1998), a Polish poet, essayist, drama writer and moralist. His trilogy (three volumes of essays: Barbarian in the Garden, Still Life with a Bridle and Labyrinth on the Sea-Shore) is the result of his trips around Europe, during which he describes, with a passion typical of art connoisseurs, particular places and artifacts he has seen.
The pearl of Italian Archaeology
A famous discovery in Phaistos was made by members of the Italian Archaeological Society, who were working at the same time as Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1941) in Knossos (Gregor 1997:24). ‘Glory to the Italian archaeologists to whom Phaistos has been entrusted,’ writes Zbigniew Herbert (2000:54). It includes sheer ruins, without pretentious reconstructions, a complete contradiction to Knossos (Herbert 2000:54).
Dr Alessandro Greco says that Italian archaeology on Crete began in very special historical circumstances, when Greece had achieved an independence from the Ottoman Empire, in the middle of the previous century (Gregor 2016). Consequently, Crete was divided into several protectorates: Italian, French and British (Ibid.). It was due to this situation that archaeologists from Italy were able to work without any obstacles (Ibid.). Nevertheless, when an Italian archaeologist and the protagonist of the story, Luigi Pernier (1874–1937), landed on Crete, the island was still officially ruled by Ottoman Turks (Ibid.). At that time, archaeologists working in the south of the Island of Crete had far greater difficulties to deal with than Evans’ group working parallelly in Knossos (Ibid.). The coast in the south is bleak and uninviting; archaeologists there had to be good climbers because many of the sites have been set in the remote valleys or in high mountains, where access is still extremely difficult (Ibid.). In such mountainous landscape, it was possible to explore the island only on donkeys and the researchers themselves were continuously exposed to malaria (Ibid.). Although challenging, the mountains also provided once Minoans with the protection against foreign invaders (Ibid.). Beyond the mountains lies the Libyan Sea, which once connected the Minoans with the developed cultures of the Near East and Egypt (Ibid.).
From the hills of Phaistos the valley leads to the sea, and behind it, Mount Ida rises with a white cap on the top; there was the grotto of Zeus (Herbert 2000:54-55). The so-called Phaistos Palace, where Luigi Pernier was excavating, was also the site where one of the greatest puzzles of the Minoan Empire was discovered – the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016).
Mystery of baked clay
“In July 1908, […] Luigi Pernier [had] discovered a small disc of baked clay in a basement cell […] at the site of the Palace of Phaistos, on the south coast of Crete.” (Ward 2020).
At first sight, the discovery must rather have seemed unexceptional; it was just a simple terracotta disc in the shape of a not quite regular circle, with a diameter of sixteen centimetres and about two centimetres thick (Gregor 1997:24; Herbert 2000:53). Nevertheless, soon it has turned out to be one of the most unique archaeological artifacts, which has ever been excavated on Earth (Georgievska 2016). Today it still “remains an enigma; its purpose and meaning and even its original geographical place of manufacture remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of [human history]” (Ibid.).
Invention of ancient Gutenberg
The Phaistos Disc’s mystery is inscribed on both of its sides, labelled as A and B, where its surface is covered with undecipherable pictographs (see: Ward 2020). Those are stamps pressed in wet clay yet before the Disc was fired (Ibid.). They are composed of various symbols, which involved making a movable type or rather sealstone for each pictograph (possibly for the very first time in the history of writing) (Gregor 1997:24-25; Ward 2020). As Zbigniew Herbert notices, creators of the Phaistos Disc must have been then Gutenberg’s precursors, because each character on the Disc was imprinted with a separate stamp, which could be satisfactorily called a prototype of a modern type used for printing (Herbert 2000:53).
As such, the so-called Phaistos Disc is the oldest embossed inscription, yet significantly different from the hieroglyphic writing of the Minoans (Linear A) (Gregor 1997:24-25; Herbert 2000:53).
Signet seal with a spiral
By this occasion, it is worth mentioning that Minoans astoundingly mastered the craftsmanship of miniature, though highly precise, gold or hardstone seal-stones with intricate carvings in their own peculiar style, showing various mythological, ritual and everyday scenes, typical of the Minoan culture (“Minoan Sealstones” 2018).
Even if the visual language of the scenes is still puzzling, the function sealstones is not such a mystery; they were possibly used by rulers, dignitaries and priests to place their official seals on documents and letters (Gregor 2016). But whereas on each of the Minoan sealstones, there is a ‘negative’ (embossed) image leaving a ‘positive’, three-dimensional impression on the soft surface, the pictographs from Phaistos were made in the other way round; the types with ‘positive’ images therefore have given ‘negative’ impressions in clay. The way the Minoan sealstones were used also suggests that such archaic types as those from Phaistos must have been used more than once, even if they had been intended uniquely for composing sacred texts (Ward 2020). Yet they had not been applied to any other known clay surface (Ibid.). At least, no other Minoan artefact bearing pictographs identical to those of the Phaistos Disc, has ever been found in Crete (Ibid.). There are, however, a few examples showing iconographical analogies present on the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). One of the Minoan gold seals, which is a signet with a ‘negative’ image, has got the spiral form and includes an undeciphered pictorial inscription; the both characteristics resemble the features of the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).
What is the Disc’s message?
The mysterious characters all flow around the Disc as spiral strings that may represent pictorial or hieroglyphic writing that archaeologists are still trying to decipher (Gregor 199724-25). However, so far they have not produced any decisive results (Ibid:25). What do the Disc’s symbols mean and what is their message? (Gregor 1997:25). The Disc has already been ascribed many different functions; a calendar, “poem, hymn [or] a prayer [ to the goddess of fertility], sacred text, magic inscription, curse, […] funerary record, almanac, court list, political treaty, proof of a geometric theorem, list of soldiers, a board game and even musical notation for a stringed instrument” (Ward 2020). For some it can be even a message from aliens or the Atlanteans (Gregor 1997:25); “[some] believe that it was a Token used in healing rituals or other ceremonies in ancient times” (Georgievska 2016), whereas others have recognised in it a report of the journey of one of the Minoan missionaries who visited Numidia, located in the northern coast of Africa (the ancient kingdom of the Numidians, 202–40 BC., situated in what is now Algeria and a smaller part of Tunisia and small part of Libya in the Maghreb) (Gregor 1997:25; “Numidia” 2021). On the other side, for a British researcher Alan Butler (TheHallOfRecords 2015), the Disc was a piece of a Bronze Age sophisticated calendar, and so it should rather be interpreted in terms of astronomy.
Zbigniew Herbert (2000:53) mentions a French researcher, Marcel F. Homet, who basing on a certain similarity of the hieroglyphs from Phaistos and Indian rock carvings of South America, concluded that this Minoan artifact is no less than a letter of the last inhabitants of Atlantis, containing a description of the catastrophe and the fate of those few who managed to escape it safe. Academic scholars, however, ignore Homet’s theory placing it between fairy tales (Ibid.:53).
In the 1980s, an ancient history and languages specialist, Christian O’Brien (1985), puts forward another hypothesis related to the Phaistos Disc, comparing its pictographs to Sumerian cuneiform (Ward 2020), “wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by use of a blunt reed as a stylus” (Ibid.). After the researcher, the inscription from Crete would have originated from the earliest systems of writing, which were invented in the fourth millennium BC., in Mesopotamia (Ibid.). Such an ancient writing is present in the world’s oldest religious text, known as the Kharsag Epics, which tells a story of the foundation of a settlement near Mount Hermon, in modern-day Lebanon (Ibid.). Accordingly, the Phaistos Disc would be a Cretan version of the story which had originated in the Middle-Eastern Kharsag, and had been written in the pictographs predating but linked to the proto-Sumerian language (Ibid.).
It is also worth mentioning another way of reading the inscription (Gregor 1997:25). It was proposed by a Norwegian linguist Kjell Aatrun in 1991 (Ibid.:25). He interpreted the signs as a Semitic writing (Ibid.:25). Semites represent the nations of the ancient Middle East, using the following languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, Syrian, Arabic, and Akkadian (Ibid.:25). During the Bronze Age, Semitic influences reached Ethiopia and Upper Egypt, and from there over 4,500 years ago came to Crete (Ibid.:25). Aatrun believes that he can decipher the secrets of the disk by comparing its writing to other old Semitic written records (Ibid.:25). Aatrun interpreted the signs in the Phaistos disc as an invitation to intercourse addressed by a woman to a man (Gregor 1997:25). In his opinion, these forty-five characters are a written rite celebrating the deprivation of virginity (Ibid.:25). Every spring in Phaistos, girls who were mature enough to begin their sexual life may have gathered in large numbers to sacrifice their virginity to some deity by participating in the initiation ritual and becoming women (Ibid.:26). According to Aatrun’s interpretation, the disc would be a songbook and instructions for priests (Ibid.:26). Massive deflorations made by Minoan priests as a part of the fertility rite would also occurred in Babylonia, so Kjell Aatrun’s proposition to interpret the disc is not without sense (Ibid.:26).
In a pile of valuable deposition
Most researchers agree that the Phaistos Disc is Minoan in its origins and it possibly dates back to the Middle Minoan (2100-1600 BC.) or Late Minoan (1600-1100 BC.) Bronze Age. Although the information board in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion says that the Disc comes from the New Palace Period (1600-1450 BC.) (information from July, 2011, generally accepted period for the Disc is the end of the so-called First Palaces on Crete (1900-1700 BC.) (Georgievska 2016; Gregor 2016). Such a range of dating also shows how little is known about the artifact. Accepting the latter period, it was a very wealthy time in Minoan history but it was ended around 1700 BC by massive earthquakes (Gregor 2016).
The Phaistos Disc, which was found in the basement along with the remains of other clay tablets and Kamares pottery (Gregor 2016). For this reason it can be assumed that the Disc had been deposited in the part of the Palace, where other valuable objects were stored (Ibid.). After Luigi Pernier the Disc probably fell down together with other artifacts from the upper story during the earthquakes (Ibid.). But how did such a fragile object survive its fall from several meters down and the crash against the hardstone floor without any apparent damage? (Ibid.) An answer to this question is offered by another theory, according to which the Disc did not fall down but it had been originally deposited in the basement cell, where it was finally excavated.
Precursor of Minoan Linear A?
The date ascribed to the Disc is also the time of Linear A script development. “Comparisons of existing Linear A examples have led some scholars to believe the [Disc] actually is a version of Linear A” (Ward 2020); for example, Kjell Aatrun believes that the clay tablets with Linear A script found in the archives of the palace in Phaistos are a simplified working version of ritual-religious hieroglyphs from the Disc, collecting data from the field of administration or legal rulings (Gregor 1997:26). Perhaps the priests, using ‘holy’ archaic writing, recorded some spells or a mystery on the disc? (Ibid.:25). Some language experts studying the script argue that it may be a cult hymn because it is possible to find the rhythmic arrangement of symbols and the repetition of certain combinations of signs (Ibid.:25). Also Dr Alessandro Greco claims the Phaistos Disc originated in Crete; it is because its script features open syllables as much as all later Minoan scripts in Linear A and B, which are also an open syllable writing type (Gregor 2016).
How to read it?
Generally, it is believed that even a layman, after examining the artifact more closely, will realize that he Phaistos Disc’s narrative should be read from the outside to the inside (Gregor 1997:25; Ward 2020), that is to say “clockwise from the outside of the spiral into the centre” (Ward 2020).
After a researcher, Dr. Minas Tsikritsis (Menzies 2011:306), however, the idea of spiral is actually the key to the way of reading the Disc. He claims that the Minoans continued to use spiral patterns, as in the Disc of Phaistos, and unlike other researchers, Dr. Tsikritsis believes that the spiraling symbols printed in the clay can be read back and forth, that is to say, from the outside to the center and backwards, from the inside out (Ibid.:306). Supporting the thesis is the fact that characters printed on the outer edge also repeat inwards (Gregor 1997:25). Also Geoff Ward (2020) indicates the spiral format of the Disc’s writing can be significant itself in understanding its meaning. After the author “[the] spiral [is] the age-old symbol, found in cultures [in the whole world], of creation, life-giving and aspiration, of birth and rebirth, and of spiritual development and our identity with the universe” (Ward 2020). The spiral is also a universal symbol of the Mother Goddess to whom the Phaistos inscription has been equally ascribed as a prayer or a hymn (Ibid.).
The spiralling string of symbols actually begin with a visible straight line marked with five or six dots at the edge of each side of the Disc, which is probably the point from where the reading of the text should also be started (Ward 2020). On side A, adjacent to the starting point there are two symbols; the first one looks like a plumed head, the second is a circle with seven dots inside it, possibly a warrior’s shield, a loaf or a sun symbol (Ibid.). This pair of signs keeps being repeated throughout the whole writing; they can be equally noticed on side B, also next to the straight line with points, matching exactly the position of the both pictographs on the opposite side (A) (Ibid.). Those symbols and others are grouped from three to five individual symbols, sectioned off by a dividing line (Ibid.). Yet on the outer edge, the number of pictographs included between the dividing lines is always limited to four. In turn, the vertical lines separating the signs are sometimes identified with punctuation marks (Herbert 2000:53).
“There are [two hundred and forty-two pictographs] on the disk, comprising [forty-five] distinct signs. […] The [forty-five] symbols were numbered by Arthur Evans from 01 to 45, and this numbering has become the conventional reference used by most researchers” (Georgievska 2016). Dr Gareth Alun Owens explains that there are “[too] many signs for an alphabet, too few signs for a system, like Chinese or Egyptian, so [it was decided] to progress with systematic, epigraphic work [in the case of the Disc; consequently, the linguistic studies have followed the rule according to which] if a sign is the same in different scripts, it has the same sound value. And all the forty-five signs, the sound values, can be found among the ninety sound values of Linear B, which is a script of roughly the same time, from the same place, which has [already] been deciphered” (Gregor 2016).
Unfortunately, in order to read some unknown language with absolute statistical certainty, it takes at least fifty-six symbols, yet, there are only forty-five different signs represented in the Disc of Phaistos (Menzies 2011:306). In his book, Gavin Menzies (2011:304-310) refers to the research done by Dr. Minas Tsikritsis on the Linear A. To proceed with his studies, the researcher first had searched for tablets and other artifacts, such as rings with spiral engravings, that could help him to translate the insufficient number of symbols on the Disc (Ibid.:306). In the course of his work, he has found that the artifact actually shows fifteen symbols identical to the characters of a script in Linear B (Ibid.:306). What is more, he claims that the meaning of individual symbols is likely to change depending on what word follows a given symbol (Ibid.:306). On the whole, the researcher’s systemic solution to the ancient puzzle of Linear Type A seems to be consistent and well-thought-out (Ibid.:307). So what is the thesis proposed by Dr. Tsikritsis? The results of his research reveals that the examples of ancient texts in Linear A mostly concern ways and the process of obtaining bronze, an alloy of special importance for the Minoans (Ibid.:307). Is it also the actual message of the the Disc of Phaistos?
Generally, researchers assume that each of the forty-five different characters on the Disc also stands for a syllable (Gregor 1997:25). The pictographs represent either easily identifiable things or abstract signs (Gregor 1997:25; Georgievska 2016). Among the stamps, which are all surprisingly clear, there are human heads, whole human figures, tools, vessels, birds, flowers, fish, weapons, and a series of difficult to define ideographs: dotted fields, rectangles, geometric figures, or wavy lines (Herbert 2000:53).
Philistines depicted in Minoan Disc?
More identifiable pictures show objects bringing to mind or even pinpointing various cultures developing in different periods in the area of the Mediterranean; for example, one “sign depicts a structure similar to a sarcophagus used by the Lycians of Asia Minor” (Georgievska 2016), whereas the mentioned above picture looking like a plumed head or ‘fluted crowns’ possibly portrays a helmet with crest (Ibid.). Strikingly similar headgears have been depicted in a famous scene from the north wall of the Temple of Medinet Habu in Egypt, illustrating the Egyptian campaign led by Ramses the Third (1198 – 1166 BC.) against the so-called Sea Peoples (“Sea Peoples” 2021). Such a helmet was also used later by Philistines, who settled down in Juda, in the twelfth century BC. (Georgievska 2016). They may once have been a part of the Sea Peoples who plundered the Eastern Mediterranean region in the late thirteenth century BC. (Aleff 1982-2015).
It is still difficult to precisely identify the Philistines’ origins, although it is certain they did not create homogeneous society in respect of their culture, apparently composed of elements typical of Asia Minor, Mycenae, the Aegean islands, and Cyprus (Aleff 1982-2015). According to the Bible, the Philistines had come from Caphtor, which is usually believed to stand for Crete (Ibid.). Taking into account the fact that the Phaistos Disk is impressed all over with the symbol of a plumed head, it can be assumed that the sea raiders sailed eastwards centuries after the Disk was buried in the south of Crete (Aleff 1982-2015; Ward 2020). The problem is, however, that the Disc dates back to at least the late sixteenth century BC. (most often 1700 BC), whereas the Philistines appeared as the invaders only in the late thirteenth century BC. and set up a historically recorded civilization in the twelve century BC (see Ward 2020). There is thus over three hundred years gap and lack of the continuous tradition; neither Minoan frescoes nor other artifacts show Minoans wearing such a headgear, especially if it is widely accepted the Minoan civilization was not based on warfare but mostly on trade.
H. Peter Aleff (1982-2015), however, suggests that “the Disk is more firmly connected with the Philistines as religious descendants of its maker than it is with Crete”. Although the artifact was found in Crete, it might not have been made there (Aleff 1982-2015). Even if the Disc’s clay was compared by Luigi Pernier to the fine clay of Kamares, it has never been analysed in this aspect and so could have come from elsewhere in the Mediterranean region (Ibid.). Moreover, the Phaistos Disc in completely unique in its appearance among other excavated Minoan objects; some scholars have consequently claimed the Disk can have been either a hoax or an import from beyond Crete, or even the Aegean region, taking into consideration the fact Cretans sailed far and wide (Aleff 1982-2015; Ward 2020). Therefore, as H. Peter Aleff (1982-2015) underlines “[the] place where the Disk turned up says […] nothing about where it was made”. Nevertheless, even if the Phaistos Disc is related to the Philistines, it predates the historical records of those ancient people for a few centuries, irrespective of the fact if they actually came from Crete or passed by the island on their way to the East.
Forged or genuine?
Due to the mentioned above anachronisms, discrepancies and questions, the Phaistos Disc is declared by some scholars as a modern forgery or a hoax made in the middle of the last century (Georgievska 2016; Ward 2020). “[Although the Phaistos Disc] is generally accepted as authentic by archaeologists” (Georgievska 2016), it has been long the subject of international debate regarding its authenticity and archaeological value (Ward 2020). As Geoff Ward speculates, “the suggestion it might be a forgery was probably generated by a hundred years of failure to decode it” (Ibid.). Moreover, an official request to conduct scientific tests of the Disc’s clay to resolve the question of its date and origins were definitely turned down by the Ministry of Culture in “Greece on grounds that the Disc [is] a national treasure and ‘untouchable’” (Ward 2020).
Similar accusations of forgery have also been made against such famous artifacts as the iconic bust of Nefertiti, preserved by the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, Nebra sky disk at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany or the Lady of Elche at the Archaeological Museum in Madrid (Gregor 2016; see: Mystery of the Lady). While, some of those artifacts were examined in this aspect and eventually turned out to be genuine, the Ministry of Culture of Greece still refuses such an analysis of the Phaistos Disc. The fact that “the Greek government [does not want it to be] tested [does not have to] mean its authenticity is problematic. Such a stance is not uncommon when such [examining of the fragile artefact] can cause damage to, or loss or theft” (Ward 2020).
Further doubts of experts
Although there are many voices of different specialists that the Disc is genuine, an art collector from New York, “Dr Jerome Eisenberg, an expert on ancient forgeries, [is] still convinced that Luigi Pernier […] forged [it]” (Ward 2020).After his opinion, the Italian archaeologist did ‘invent’ his famous discovery as “he was jealous of the successes of fellow archaeologists, Sir Arthur Evans and the Italian Federico Halbherr (1857–1930), at other excavations in Crete” (Ibid.). Moreover, there exists an artifact that may have served as a prototype of his potential forgery. In addition to archaeological excavations, Luigi Pernier was also employed in Florence as an Antiques Inspector (Gregor 2016). His jurisdiction included the city’s Archaeological Museum, where one of the most valuable artifacts in the Etruscan collection is the so-called Magliano Disc (Ibid.). The object is made of lead and “was found in Magliano in the Toscana near Grosseto (Italy) in 1883 and bears an Etruscan script dating to the [fifth or fourth century BC.]” (Luwian Studies 2019). It is half the size of the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). The words and sentences sections on it are separated by dots, whereas on Phaistos Disc vertical lines are used instead (Ibid.). Despite such striking similarities, the Etruscan Disc originated thousand years after the Palace collapsed in Phaistos; for this reason, cultural exchange between Etruscans and Minoans would appear extremely unlikely (Ibid.). For Dr Jerome Eisenberg such a phenomenon is inexplicable (Ibid.). After the art collector, Luigi Pernier could have studied the Magliano Disc while staying in Florence (Ibid.). At that time, the Etruscan script on the Disc had not been deciphered yet, and so Pernier could have used it as a model for his forgery, when he later excavated at the site in Phaistos (Ibid.).
Furthermore, Dr Jerome Eisenberg points to some examples of suspicious discrepancies regarding the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). First, the inscription goes from right to left as Egyptians hieroglyphs do, whereas Minoan scripts, both Linear A and B, are read from left to right (Ibid.). Secondly, the pictographs are too highly realistic to compose an ancient script; for instance, there is a symbol of a gloved hand or cestus or caestus (Latin), an ancient battle glove, which only occurs in Roman period, which is fifteenth hundred years later (Gregor 2016; “Cestus” 2020). Thirdly, Dr Jerome Eisenberg points to the fact that ancient tablets accompanying the artifact are unevenly fired, which happened during the fire of the First Palace in Phaistos (Gregor 2016). Such a damage to clay objects was typical if they were long exposed to the heath (Ibid.). On the other hand, the Phaistos Disc was fired too evenly and thoroughly (Ibid.). Dr Gareth Alun Owens, however, claims the Disc was baked deliberately in the process of being created and not accidentally like the destruction level that saved other clay tablets with Linear scripts during the First Palace’s fire (Ibid.). It would then suggest the Disc must have fallen down from the upper floor as Luigi Pernier assumed (Ibid.). But then, how did it avoid being crashed into pieces? (Ibid.) In addition to that, Dr Jerome Eisenberg claims that the edges of the Phaistos Disc are still quite sharp and hardly defaced, whereas in other ancient tablets and anything made of clay have especially had their edges damaged (Ibid.). Next, the circumstances of the famous discovery are suspicious; the excavations in Phaistos were directed by Luigi Pernier and so has been naturally ascribed to the find of the famous artifact. Nevertheless, no archaeologist was a direct witness of the discovery, (Ibid.). According to the records, at the very moment of uncovering the Phaistos Disc, Luigi Pernier was taking a nap (Ibid.). Finally, the Ministry of Culture in Greece does not allow to take any tests on the artifact or even to handle it, which according to the expert is already questionable (Ibid.). He thinks that the government, unsure of results of the tests, is afraid of losing one of the most iconic ancient objects attracting tourists to Crete (Ibid.).
Who then made the Phaistos Disc if it is a forgery? (Gregor 2016). After specialists, It must have been an expert very familiar with archaeological material, like Emile Gilliéron (1850-1924), who worked for Arthur Evans at restoration and reinterpretation of Minoan frescoes, and other artifacts, and made very successful replicas (Ibid.). Only such a person was well positioned to be able to make forgeries like the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).
Archaeology in favour of the authenticity
Despite all the claims against the Phaistos Disc, recent archaeological discoveries can indicate that it is actually genuine (Gregor 2016). Such evidence is provided, for example, by another artifact, also preserved in the Museum in Heraklion; it is a bronze double-axe, possibly a religious and ritual Minoan object (Ibid.). On the head of the axe, there are three lines with overlapping signs engraved upon them (Ibid.). Linguistic experts, like Dr Gareth Alun Owens, see in those signs parallels with stamped pictographs on the Phaistos Disc, and believe the script is a prayer to the Minoan Goddess from the top of the Mountains, where Minoans massively pilgrimaged with their offerings (Ibid.). A lately discovered sacrificial bowl from such a holy mountains’ peak also bear similar pictographs; they are almost identical to those on the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).
Similar clues are highly valuable in the quest for true origins of the Phaistos Disc and evidence needed to confirm its authenticity, and to defend the good name of its founder (Gregor 2016 ).Professor of archaeology and the director of the Heraklion Museum, Dr. Athanasia Kanta says that she has no doubt the artifact is authentic (Ward 2020). In her opinion, accusing an eminent scholar of fraud after a century of his discovery, without providing any strong evidence is highly unfair (Ibid.).
For many scholars, the Phaistos Disc in another Minoan mystery, for others, a tantalizing message from the ancient world and a link to a lost and legendary civilization. Although archaeologists mostly agree it is genuine, its content and origins are still under debate. Generally, it is thought to have been either an import from Asia Minor or a local product of Minoans (Herbert 2000:53). Granting the last option, the Phaistos Disc would be the oldest script in Europe, whose message yet will possibly remain lost forever.
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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Before I came to Malbork with my sister and friends from Austria, I had already seen the castle several times from the windows of a train passing by the city of Malbork, either towards the Baltic Sea, or when I was returning from the coast to my hometown hidden in the mountains, in the south of Poland (see: Travelling from ‘Hel’ to the City of Saint Mary). And I always waited when, after a short stop at the Malbork railway station, the train started and after a few seconds the red walls and towers of a Gothic castle appeared, reflecting in the waters of Nougat River. Its shadows stretched with its deep and walled moats and a wooden bridge guarded by thick towers of the entrance gate. Now, at last, I was standing right in front of it, only to disappear into its medieval maw just a moment later.
From Zantir to Marienburg
The settlement in Malbork dates back to the Neolithic (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It was only in the tenth century AD. that the region was more intensively settled (Ibid.). In the mid-twelfth century, some regions on the Nougat River were regained by Pomeranian dukes (Ibid.). Thanks to them, the wooden and earth stronghold of Zantir was created on the right bank of the Nougat (18 kilometres to the south of Malbork), which Sambor, one of the brothers of the Duke of Pomerania, offered to the Teutonic Order in 1250 (Ibid.).
However, in 1281, a Teutonic commander abandoned it in favour of a nearby castle being just constructed of brick, which possibly happened on behalf of the later GrandTeutonic Master, Konrad von Feuchtwangen (1291-1296) (Bieszk 2010:105; Żylińska 1986:178). The castle, together with the surrounding town, was consequently named Marienburg, meaning the City of Saint Mary, the Patron Saint of the Order (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Today the city is called Malbork and its original name, Zantir, was long ago forgotten (Żylińska 1986:178). The village was granted city rights in 1286, and surrounded in the second half of the fourteenth century by walls with towers and gates around the castle, forming one large fortified complex (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Bieszk 2010:104).
The initial complex of Malbork was a rectangular building with a chapel and an internal courtyard, surrounded by walls, with corner towers, secured with moats and artificial canals, with a drawbridge leading to the defensive gate (Żylińska 1986:178). The castle was built on the model of fortresses in the Holy Land, but Saint Jean D’Acre fell in 1291, where a century ago, in 1198, the Fratres Domus Hospitalis Sanctae Mariae Teutonicorum in Jerusalem was founded as a branch of the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (Ibid.:178). Therefore over time, Malbork became the central, though not the only, seat of the Grand Teutonic Master (Ibid.:178).
Fortifications above the Nougat River
In order to build the castle, woods and other building materials had been collected. The first stage of construction began in 1280 (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The Teutonic Knights began to build on the top of a moraine hill above the Nougat River, preparing the site, building facilities, digging a moat and bringing water from Dąbrówka Lake, six kilometres south, through a specially dug canal (Bieszk 2010:105; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The canal’s waters were directed to the town and castle moats, connected to the River of Nougat, which alone could not provide a constant water level due to its location (Bieszk 2010:105; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). At the same time, the waters of the canal, flowing through the moat, moved the mills and carried away waste into the river (Bieszk 2010:105). Finally, along the moats, the whole contemporary complex was surrounded by the perimeter wall (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Today, the moats are dry, so one can take a closer look at how powerful and high walls protected the lives of the inhabitants (Ibid.).
Over the next twenty years, the perimeter wall, the northern wing and, partially, the west wing had been finally completed (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). A defensive tower called Gdanisko was also erected (Ibid.). It was the observation tower, which also acted as the final defence point (Ibid.).
Enemy’s growing walls and towers over the lands of Poland
Initially, Malbork was a commander’s castle, that is to say, it was of lesser importance. However, its status was going to rise due to a political situation in Europe, or rather, the imperial threat the Teutonic Order imposed in western Europe (PWN 1997-2020; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017).
When Malbork became the headquarters of the Teutonic Order, a huge number of Knights followed there their Grand Master, and that also required a reconstruction or rather a further enlargement of the complex (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Bieszk 2010:104, Żylińska 1986:178). The original castle, which constituted the High Castle, turned out to be insufficient for the growing needs of the Knights and the Grand Master himself; because it was not representative enough, the castle began to grow with more and more magnificent buildings (Żylińska 1986:178). First, the Middle Castle with a large refectory was built, then the Grand Master’s Palace and finally the Low Castle (Ibid.:178). Within the fortress, there were stables and granaries, mills and wells, kitchens and pantries, an infirmary and a pharmacy, an arsenal and a smithy, all that could withstand even a heavy siege for up to two years (Ibid.:178).
Eventually, the castle of Malbork became the main house of the Teutonic Order, the seat of the Grand Master, of the General Chapter, and the administrative and management centre of the monastic state, with rising influence in Europe (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Bieszk 2010:104; Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174). Seventeen grand masters were in office in Malbork for the period of 148 years (Bieszk 2010:104). The last of them, Ludwik von Erlichshausen, was forced to leave the castle in 1457, in favour of the Polish king, Casimir IV Jagiellonian (1427 – 1492) (Ibid.:104).
Wrong decision of the Duke of Masovia
The Teutonic Knights started their military and religious career quite modestly (Żylińska 1986:178). They were brought to Poland in 1226, by the Polish Duke, Konrad Mazowiecki, to help him in a fight against pagan Prussians and Lithuanians, ravaging his lands, Masovia (Ibid.:178). Until now, contemporary Polish historians have reapproach this disgraceful decision of the Duke of Masovia, who was surely unaware of its long-term consequences.
In the answer of the Duke’s invitation, the Teutonic brothers in the number of seven, including their Grand Master, Herman von Salza, came to Poland from Transylvania, from where they were driven away by the Hungarian king, Andrew the Second (Żylińska 1986:178). Konrad Mazowiecki, seemingly unaffected by this fact, settled his guests in the castle of Dobrzyń, and then offered it to them together with the city of Nieszawa, the villages of Murzynowo and Orłów, and the adjacent areas (Ibid.:178-179).
Wherever the Teutonic Knights settled in Poland, they established there their commanders and built huge red castles (Żylińska 1986:179). They were supposed to be a fortified defence wall against the invasions of barbarian neighbours, but in fact they became the outposts of a foreign nation inside the feudally fragmented Regnum Poloniae (Ibid.:179). Similarly, the chain of castles of Cardiff-Montgomery-Caerphilly-Chester were built in Wales, in the twelfth century, by Norman kings on the throne of England, which was intended to conquer that country and incorporate it into the English Crown, which actually happened (Ibid.:179).
Hot potato in medieval Europe
As a matter of fact, towards the end of the thirteenth century, the atmosphere of European rulers’ hostility towards the Order had been significantly growing (PWN 1997-2020). It was mostly caused by their conquest of Christian lands instead of those occupied by pagans (Ibid.). As there were concerns about open military actions against the Teutonic Knights, in 1309 it was decided to move the seat of the Grand Master of the Order from Venice to Malbork, closer to the lands still ruled by pagans (Ibid.). By these means, the problem in Europe was dropped like a hot potato, and made decision was actually to a significant disadvantage of Poland.
A Polish author, Jadwiga Żylińska (1989:179) writes that the Duke’s wrong decision to bring the Teutonic Knights to Poland resulted from his ignorance of important political events in the contemporary world; Kondrad Mazowiecki was just a feudal ruler who permanently resided on the Prussian borderland and was still involved in local wars with other dukes belonging, like himself, to the Polish dynasty of the Piast. Consequently, he did not know who the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Herman von Salza, really was (Ibid.:179). And he was, above all, one of the most trusted people in the entourage of the controversial Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick the Second, and the best of his diplomats (Ibid.:179). Finally, it was Herman von Salza who crowned the previously excommunicated by the Pope Emperor as the King of Jerusalem at the Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem (Ibid.:179).
Most famous of all medieval Orders, the Templar Knights openly showed their hostility towards the Frederick the Second and distanced themselves from the Teutonic Knights and their politics (Żylińska 1986:179). For their paths diverged in opposite directions; whereas the Templars aimed to build a new worldwide Christian community and ensure its safe growth, the Teutonic Knights exclusively thought of establishing their own state at the expense of another country’s territory and the Holy Roman Emperor seemed to fully support them in their ambitions (Ibid.:179). Accordingly, in 1226, Frederick the Second issued a Golden Bull in Rimini (modern day Italy), in which he granted the Teutonic Knights the property of the land conquered in Prussia, the land that did not belong to anybody but to pagan Prussians … (Ibid.:179).
Prussia territory should be defined as the Baltic areas between the rivers of Vistula and Neman (Gruszka 2018). It is estimated that around 170,000 people lived in Prussia in the thirteenth century (Ibid.). At that time, a vast majority of the area was covered with forests (Ibid.).
The main activities of the tribes were farming, breeding and, of course, plundering (Ibid.). Although various peoples who lived there were usually referred to as ‘Prussians’, they were composed of diverse tribal groups, such as Pomezanians, Pogesanians, Warmians, Scales, Yotvingians, Samogitians and finally Lithuanians (Ibid.). At some point, however, they began to consolidate and cooperate with each other, especially in the face of growing threats of Christian nations (Ibid.). As a result, they also became more and more dangerous to their neighbours (Ibid.). It is worth adding that pagan tribes posed a real threat to Poland, as they did not avoid trying to invade the lands of Christian rulers but any attempts of conquest of their lands turned out to be a real challenge (Ibid.). War against Prussia was not easy and lasted for half a century (Żylińska 1986:180). For example, in 1261, the Christian army, composed of Polish knights and crusaders from various parts of Europe, was defeated by the Lithuanians and Prussians in Natangia (Ibid.:180).
The Prussians, like the Vikings in the past, dealt not only with attacks and plunder, but also with trade (Żylińska 1986:180). There were also regular trade relations between Poland and Prussia; salt, iron and handicrafts were exported from Poland, for which the Prussians paid with amber and leather (Ibid.:180). However, while the Vikings had already been rightful members of Christian Europe for several centuries, Lithuanians and Prussians were still pagan, which was an impassable barrier between them and their Christian neighbours (Ibid.:181). After Jadwiga Żylińska (1986:181) adopting Christianity meant not only abandoning the faith of their ancestors, but also an access to the Christian civilization of Europe, which was as much a threat to them as a fascinating foreign culture. The first who felt attracted to it were Prussian nobles who, by being baptized and allied with the Teutonic Knights, changed into the Prussian aristocracy and at the same time, they strongly Germanised (Ibid.:181).
With all the distrust aroused by the Teutonic Knights, their red castles, wealth, organization, knightly gear of shiny armours, cloaks and caparisons embroidered with emblems, covering a rider and his horse (see: barding), and their waving banners with almost magical power affected the imagination of contemporaries, and not only of the barbarian tribes (Żylińska 1986:182). According to Żylińska (1986:182) a strong desire to destroy this foreign splendour had to harmonize in the souls of Prussians with their enchantment with such a cultural grandeur or even their aspiration to follow the knights’ example, which could only happen at the cost of losing the Prussians’ own identity. And so it happened; as the Prussia’s tribal substance did not turn into a nation in due time, its inhabitants could not withstand pressures of higher than their own organization and national consciousness (Ibid.:183). Consequently, the Prussians as a nation disappeared from the map and memory of Europe (Ibid.:184). Their language was also forgotten (Ibid.:184). The only its trace has been preserved in the prayer Pater Noster in the original language of Prussia (Ibid.:184).
Christianisation and Polonization of the Baltic tribes
The population of Mazovia in Poland also infiltrated Prussia and the other way round; the Prussians settled in Poland, some as prisoners, an example of which was a Prussian girl, who was brought up by Duchess Hedwig of Silesia, known in Polish as Saint Jadwiga Śląska (1174 – 1243), and eventually married to her steward (Żylińska 1986:181). Others fled from oppressions of the Teutonic Knights and became Polonized (Ibid.:181). By these means, the Polish nobility of the Prussian coat of arms undoubtedly descended from Prussian nobles (Ibid.:181).
In turn, the Lithuanians were baptized from the hands of the Kingdom of Poland, literally at the very last minute to protect themselves from a total destruction by the Teutonic Knights (Żylińska 1986:182). “In 1385, the Grand Duke Jogaila accepted Poland’s offer to become its king [through a marriage with the young Polish king, Hedwig d’Anjou (Jadwiga Andegaweńska). Consequently,] Jogaila embarked on gradual Christianization of Lithuania and established a personal union between Poland and Lithuania” (“Lithuania” 2021). It is worth adding that it was the Grand Duke Jogaila, who as a Christian king of Poland, Władysław II Jagiełło, finally defeated the Teutonic Order. The coat of arms of Lithuania [Lietuvos herbas Vytis] has been established as Pogonia or Pahoni, which expresses a fascination or rather a situation of transition from one formation to another; namely, it depicts a nomad horseback but already in the armour of a Western Christian knight (“Lithuania” 2021; Żylińska 1986:182). Not to mention the fact that all the great Lithuanian families were eventually Polonized (Żylińska 1986:182).
Unlike Prussians, Poles had already developed a well-established national awareness by the thirteenth century and knew that they had to destroy the Teutonic state, which was spreading on their lands, or they would perish themselves (Żylińska 1986:183). Such a destruction of the Teutonic Order eventually started with the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, won by the allied armies of Poland and Lithuania (Ibid.:183-184).
Under the Teutonic sword
Yet in the thirteenth century, when Konrad of Mazovia, together with the Teutonic Knights, had won the victory over Prussia, he additionally offered the Teutonic Knights the lands of Chełmno and Lubawa, located between Osa, Drwęca and Vistula Rivers (Żylińska 1986:180). Consequently, relations between the Duke of Mazovia and the Teutonic Knights were extremely good, and in 1231 they started building together a stronghold in Toruń (Ibid.:180). Soon, the Teutonic Knights got rid of the Poles from it and two years later issued location privileges according to Magdeburg Law for two cities, Toruń and Chełmno (Ibid.:180). The former turned out to be one of the most beautiful Teutonic cities, now in Poland (Ibid.:183). The wealth of the city attracted artists, craftsmen and architects (Ibid.:183). More and more magnificent sacred and secular buildings were built there, among which there were the town hall, the house of the Brotherhood of Saint George, the merchant’s house, bourgeois houses and Gothic churches (Ibid.:183).
On the whole, the Teutonic Knights acted so quickly and efficiently, that Konrad did not have enough time to realize when their commanders were being established in such cities as Nieszawa, Toruń, Chełmno, Radzyń, Elbląg, Dzierzgoń and Bałda (Żylińska 1986:180). Simultaneously, the Teutonic Knights called on Christian knights from all over Europe to fight the pagans and also attracted settlers from Germany (Ibid.:180). As a result, the settlement of the Teutonic Knights on the border between Poland and Prussia introduced not only a new ethnic element, but also a military organization aimed at conquering Prussia, which eventually took place in 1283 (Ibid.:182).
In the fifteenth century, Jan Długosz (1415 – 1480), a Polish chronicler, judges the act of bringing the Teutonic Knights to Poland by the Prince of Mazovia in the following words (Żylińska 1986:179-180):
“[Konrad of Mazovia] gave [the Teutonic Order the lands] in fact, but not legally, because the Duke Konrad could not make this donation to the disadvantage of the Polish kingdom. And although this grant seemed beneficial at the time, later there was a huge shedding of Christian blood because the Teutonic Knights had sought to seize the remaining lands of the Kingdom of Poland, and the Poles defended their seats. And among Polish kings and princes, there is no other who has brought on the Kingdom of Poland a greater defeat and a greater misfortune than the mentioned Konrad by calling the Teutonic Knights.”
Jan Długosz in: Żylińska 1986:179-180.
From the times of glory to the fall
Since 1226, the Teutonic Knights had strengthened themselves on every piece of land given or conquered to them (Żylińska 1986:182). Each provincial commander erected a defensive red brick castle and a Gothic church dedicated to the Saint Mary (Ibid.:182). Additionally, European knights with godly intent to fight the pagans kept coming to Teutonic castles (Ibid.:182). The Teutonic Knights themselves, however, did not rush to convert pagans to Christianity, leaving it to the Franciscans and Dominicans (Ibid.:182). Instead, they preferred to fight, build burgs and develop their trade (Ibid.:182). Therefore, they founded their commanders on the trade route, and in the shadow of the castle a town was established, which soon gained an European status (Ibid.:182). Through the Teutonic ports at the Baltic Sea, goods were transported to Flanders, England, Poland, Lithuania and Ruthenia (Ibid.:182). The Order also had its commercial agents in Poland (Ibid.:183). Representatives of the Order took care of the rents due to them from the lands settled by the Polish dukes and additionally provided detailed information on their actions (Ibid.:183).
The Teutonic Knights ruled perfectly in their country, but it was done through a visible expropriation and an oppression of other peoples and nations (Żylińska 1986:183). Out of the Teutonic Order, a German state of Prussia originated in 1525, with the Prussian Homage to the Polish Crown made in Cracow, when Albert Hohenzollern “resigned his position as Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights and received the title ‘Duke of Prussia’ from King Zygmunt […] the Old of Poland” (“Prussian Homage” 2020). The new “duchy cantered on the region of Prussia on the southeast coast of the Baltic Sea” (“Prussia” 2021) and became the beginning of the Kingdom of Prussia, which eventually participated in the successive Partitions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the eighteenth century (Ibid.).
The Teutonic Order, unlike the Templar Knights, was never officially dissolved by the popes (“Zakon krzyżacki” 2021). After the Prussian Homage and the secularization of Livonia (Latvia and Estonia), religious houses of the Teutonic Order mostly remained in the German Reich and the seat of the Grand Masters was moved to Mergentheim Castle in Württemberg (Ibid.).
The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary had gone a long way from the moment when seven brother-knights with Herman von Salza arrived in Mazovia, in 1226, until 1410, with the Battle of Grunwald, where the Grand Teutonic Master, Urlich von Jungingen and his knights were finally defeated, losing all their banners (Ibid.:183-184).
Silent but haunted witnesses of old times
Gothic cathedrals and castles built of red brick were left behind the glorious times of the Teutonic Knights (Żylińska 1986:184). Some of them, such as the castle in Toruń, were destroyed by citizens of the town during the uprising of the inhabitants of Prussia against the Teutonic Order (Ibid.:184).
But Malbork survived as a testimony of violence and of unsurpassed perfection, whose enormous Gothic silhouette still reminds of the times of terror (Żylińska 1986:184).
Since the time of Casimir IV Jagiellon and the Thirteen Years’ War, the castle had remained in the hands of the Polish Crown (Bąk 2017:55). In 1626, the stronghold was conquered by the Swedish army, which was returned to the Crown in 1635 (Ibid.:55). But the following years were not glorious for the castle at all: fires, the Swedish Deluge, destruction and continuous looting caused the Malbork Castle to start to decline (Ibid.:55). Any undertaken reconstruction attempts did not restore the stronghold to its former grandeur (Ibid.:55). After the First Partition of Poland (1772), the medieval castle fell into the hands of the German state of Prussia, when, after suffering a lot of destruction, it experienced the first renovation works in the nineteenth century (Ibid.:55). Yet, the most serious damage to the castle took place especially during the Second World War (Ibid.:55). Afterwards, many years of conservation work passed away before the building was restored to its former glory, and the castle itself became a Gothic gem on the UNESCO World Heritage List (Ibid.:55).
Malbork is undoubtedly a masterpiece of medieval architecture and the greatest fortification of northern Europe (Żylińska 1986:184). For many, it is also a place haunted by wandering ghosts of its previous inhabitants and infamous past events (Ibid.:184). Apparently, it is not just a matter of human imagination (Ibid.:184). Once, a British television presented a theory according to which events are stored in inanimate matter, just as images are recorded on a tape (Ibid.:184). The more bloody, violent, and significant the event was, the more likely it was to linger where it happened (Ibid.:184). And many of such events took place in the castle of Malbork.
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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On the threshold of the Neolithic, the hunter slowly turns into a farmer and breeder (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32). This is a special period in the development of the matriarchal system (Ibid.). The forces of nature continue to play a major role in human life, yet the new lifestyle changes its spiritual approach (Ibid.). Moon worship is replaced by solar cult but it is still closely related to female aspects and so responsible for factors influencing land fertility and annual harvests, which are highly significant to Neolithic society (Ibid.). The cycle process and persistence of nature flows from its divine matrix (Ibid.). Mother Earth supports life, is responsible for death, but also guarantees rebirth (Ibid.).
Neolithic face of Magna Mater
In the Paleolithic, the dark, hidden uterus corresponded to cave sanctuaries (see Figurines of the Stone Age: Miniature Great Mother of the Paleolithic), and in the Neolithic it was identified with the earth itself – the eternal parent (Jabłońska 2010). Magna Mater managed vegetation, nature, and her fertility originated in the ground which, as the humans observed, gave birth to all forms of life without interruption (Ibid.). The Neolithic likewise saw a similarity between the growth of humans and plants, with the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth (Ibid.).
While naturalistic cave art fades away with the end of the Paleolithic world of the hunter-gatherer, the image of the Mother-Goddess stubbornly repeats the well-established pattern: exaggeratedly lush shapes with lack of care for facial features, arms and legs, as if the essence of femininity was limited to the heaviness of a figure distorted by motherhood (Nougier 1898:39). Such domestic female figurines still had a right to exist, as does life that awoke in Mother Earth’s womb (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48).
Goddess in the first cities
In the Neolithic Age, when the first cities were sprouting, goddess worship was not only common, but it clearly flourished and gained importance (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48). This is evidenced by the finds of numerous figurines of the goddess – mother in the houses of the first urban settlements, such as the Anatolian Çatalhöyük or Hacilar (Ibid.:25-48). The place where religious rituals were performed was apparently a part of the house adapted for these purposes, most often decorated with geometric patterns and heads of bulls, animals dedicated to the goddess (Ibid.:25-48). In the museum reconstruction of the home sanctuary in Çatalhöyük, a plaster relief of the Mother Goddess is displayed, surrounded by bull heads (Ibid.:25-48). The local statuettes were most often carved in stone, made of burnt clay, and later also of terracotta, and although they resembled the Great Mother of the Paleolithic, the Neolithic female figurines were distinguished by the multitude of representations (Ibid.:25-48).
They were depicted in a standing or sitting position; once they resembled a young girl, another time a giving birth mother, and finally an old woman (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48, 183; Żak-Bucholc 2005). These three views allude to the three aspects of the goddess and at the same time to the three stages of a woman’s life; the Virgin is the first image of the triple goddess, the second is the Mother, and the third is the Old Woman (Ibid.). In this way, the goddess figure makers probably wanted to emphasize the sacred cycle of life and death (Ibid.). Since the Neolithic times, various forms of the image of the Mother-Goddess had slowly emerged, and iconographic figurative groups were formed (Ibid.). In this way, the original idea had been subject to further modifications over time, which took place within the great ancient cultures (Ibid.).
One of the famous iconographic groups is the enthroned Goddess and Lady of the Animals (Żak-Bucholc 2005). The oldest example of such a divine position is represented by a figure found in Çatalhöyük (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). Now preserved at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, the Mother Goddess dates from the sixth millennium BC (Ibid.). As the one of the most important artifacts, she is enthroned among the rich collections of other Neolithic female figurines in the museum (Ibid.). Like the Palaeolithic Venus, the image of the Çatalhöyük mother goddess is characterized by generous body shapes and slightly delineated facial features, with a high forehead, headgear or single roller hairstyle (Ibid.). The heads of the two leopards are flanking her throne (Ibid.). Between the legs of the figure, at the level of the throne, a small, oval form is visible (Ibid.). Possibly, it is the baby’s head that emerges from the mother’s womb (Ibid.). Accordingly, the clay figurine of the goddess represents a woman giving birth (Ibid.). The second of the three stages of a woman’s life – motherhood – refers directly to the cult of life, fertility, and the very idea of Magna Mater (Ibid.).
Another figurine illustrating motherhood is a terracotta statue of a mother with a child in her arms, which also dates back to the sixth millennium and comes from the Hacilar area (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). Unfortunately, the baby’s head has not survived to our times (Ibid.). The mother was caught in a sitting position; her posture seems very natural and relaxed, as if it came from the joy of having a baby and holding it in her arms (Ibid.).
Lady of the Animals
The image of the goddess sitting on a throne, or standing upright – the position similar to a pole or column – and surrounded on both sides by sacred animals, is probably a prototype of the representations of the later Animal Goddess – Artemis of Ephesus (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). In the Neolithic and Bronze Age, votive objects of a zoomorphic character were usually offered to the goddess; these were most often terracotta vessels, statuettes or frescoes depicting leopards, bulls, wild boars, deer, bears and birds (Ibid.).
Goddess on the Mountain
Yet another reference to the Throne of the Lady of Animals theme can be a plastic depiction of a female figure standing on a small pedestal or a hill, with animals, often lions facing her (Żak-Bucholc 2005).
This iconographic group is known as the Mountain Goddess, and the mountain the goddess stands on can be interpreted as a form of a throne (Żak-Bucholc 2005). Often the embodiment of the goddess was the Throne itself, flanked by animals, which is best depicted in the Throne Room of the Minoan Knossos – assuming, however, that the throne belonged not to the king Minos but to a priestess (Ibid.; see Lady of the Labyrinth).
Female column flanked by beasts
Another form of representing a goddess is a column or pillar, most often with a pair of lions (lioness) on either side of it. Such depictions of a deity are typical of the Hittites (Żak-Bucholc 2005). One of the best examples of the representation of the Goddess as a column, however, is the Lion Gate in Mycenae (Ibid.).
In Minoan art, the most typical is in turn the image of the Goddess as a woman holding writhing serpents in both hands (Żak-Bucholc 2005). Regardless of the accompanying animals of Magna Mater, the iconographic group described above shows the Lady ruling over the forces of Nature, who is therefore responsible for maintaining harmony in the Universe (Ibid.)
Woman supporting her breasts
Another form of depicting a goddess is a woman supporting her breasts, precisely a female figure with her hands under her breasts or crossed on the breasts, or with her hands supporting them (Żak-Bucholc 2003; 2005).
Such representations date back to the Neolithic age and appear in Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Egypt (Żak-Bucholc 2003; 2005). This iconographic type shows the goddess who feeds the world, who provides nourishment to creation as its mother and protector (Ibid.). In ancient Egyptian mythology, the milk of the goddess Hathor, often pictured as a divine cow, is provided with the pharaoh himself (Ibid.). This group also includes Minoan images of a goddess with bare breasts, or some of the Anatolian figurines exhibited in the Museum of Ankara, such as the Neolithic figurine of the so-called Twin Goddess with two heads and bodies, but with only one pair of arms, the left of which supports two pairs of breasts (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:30).
Lady of the Moon, Sun and the Earth
In the Neolithic, the goddess’ pietism was still associated with the sky; next to the moon, the sun’s disk becomes the main attribute of a woman (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30). Such devotion was intertwined with the telluric cults associated with the earthly sphere (Ibid.). Both cults seemed to penetrate and complement each other; the Sun is the growth force of all seed that draws life-giving juices from the Earth, that blooms, bears fruit, shrinks and dies to be reborn (Ibid.). This is how the cycle of life and death takes place, for which the cult of the Great Mother is responsible (Ibid.).
No wonder that among the peoples of Bronze Age Anatolia, the chthonic deity of the mother-woman was represented in writing with an ideographic sign denoting a solar deity (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32). In the mythology of the ancient civilizations of the fertile Crescent and Egypt, the divine shield of the Sun traverses the heavens to finally extinguish and be reborn from the womb of Mother Earth; hence the object of worship was also mentioned in Anatolian texts as “the underground sun” or “the sun in the water” (Popko 1980: 26-29, 63-73; Nougier 1989:39-40; Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30-33).
The bow of Nut
The most beautiful illustration of beliefs about the rebirth of the Sun is the ancient Egyptian image of the Heavens’ Goddess, Nut (Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:170; Karaszewski 2011; Żak-Bucholc 2003;2005). The wife of the telluric deity and the mother of the superior gods of Egypt was usually depicted in art as a woman whose body, bent into a bow, formed the vault of heavens, but at the same time marked the underground path of the sun (Ibid.). The personification of Nut thus combines the earthly element with the sky; according to Heliopolitan beliefs, during the day the goddess touches the earth only with the tips of her hands and fingers, creating a sphere of air, but when the sun approached the west, her body could completely fuse with the earth (Ibid.). Nut swallowed them, which brought night, and every morning at dawn the goddess again gave birth to the Sun, which emerged from between her thighs, giving rise to a new day (Ibid.). The repeating cycle of death and rebirth of the solar disk echoes Stone Age beliefs of mankind (Ibid.). The body of Nut, dotted with stars and arched, resembles a crescent, which brings to mind the Palaeolithic lunar cult (Ibid.). Another image of Nut emphasizes even more the connection of ancient Egyptian beliefs with the beliefs of the original hunter-gatherers; keeping in mind the sacred dimension of the horned animals (Ibid.). It is not surprising that Nut or Hathor were also imagined as the Heavenly Cow, on whose back the sun traversed the sky. In this view, the spouse of the goddess Nut was represented as Taurus (Ibid.).
In the Hittite mythology of Anatolia, which is heavily influenced by Mesopotamian myths, it is typical to divide the deities into “lower” – telluric or underground, and “upper” – uranic, related to the sky sphere (Popko 1980:37; Kapełuś 2008:46-47). As patriarchy progressed, most solar deities become masculine, yet female sun deities often had a superior function (Ibid.). They usually combined the element of heaven and earth, hence the association of the goddess with the Earth’s sun. According to Anatolian texts, the Earth’s Sun was based in the land of the dead as it descended into the abyss of the earth at the end of the day (Ibid.). The concept of the relationship of the Sun with the underworld reveals a dual image of the Mother Goddess, perhaps frozen in the image of the Twin Goddess of Çatalhöyük (Ibid.).
Lady of Hatti
Apart from the Egyptian Nut, the solar goddess, also known the Lady of Hatti, had a similar character (Popko 1980:37; Kapełuś 2008:46-47). During the Hittite period, the goddess became one of the main deities of the pantheon (Ibid.). She was called “Queen of Heaven and Earth, mistress of the kings and queens of the country of Hatti” (Kapełuś 2008:46). In the Mesopotamian pantheon, the same title was borne by the Sumerian goddess Inanna, with whom the Semitic goddess Ishtar was identified (Drenowska-Rymarz; Wygnańska 2008:46-47; Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32-33).
The main attributes of such goddesses were the animals flanking them; most often they were lions, other times horned animals, or owls and lions (Drenowska-Rymarz; Wygnańska 2008:46-47; Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32-33). The goddess herself is usually depicted naked, standing, with a tiara on her head (Ibid.). Her arms covered with wings are most often raised upwards, and her feet end in claws (Ibid.). The silhouette of a woman is based on zoomorphic pedestals which brings to mind the iconographic type of the enthroned goddess discussed above, whose majesty is nature (Ibid.). A similar image of the goddess is a visualization of the original idea of belief related to the power of Magna Mater over the Element (Ibid.). The symbol of the goddess was a star, which gives her the character of uranium deities (Ibid.). Yet it was also the Lady of the Earth; in one of the myths in the Akkadian version, Ishtar, as a solar deity, descends into the underworld to also take over the land of the dead. In turn, Inanna went underground in the fall to return in the spring. Her return heralded the rebirth of nature (Ibid.).
Warrior and the dragon
Around the fifth millennium BC, with the emergence of breeding and pastoralism and the rise of the first cities, patriarchy prevailed in Asia, Europe and the Middle East (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Jabłońska 2010; Drenowska-Rymarz, Wygnańska 2008:46-47; ”Artemida” 2020). The goddess then takes on the characteristics typical of men; Ishtar is the goddess of love, but on the other hand, she is an armed warrior and a cruel lover (Ibid.). The masculine principle dominates the pantheon of ancient deities; the goddess ceases to be the lady of the universe (Ibid.). From then on, power is unevenly distributed between female and male deities (Ibid.).
The latter play a superior role (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Jabłońska 2010; Drenowska-Rymarz, Wygnańska 2008:46-47; ”Artemida” 2020). The aforementioned victorious fight between god – warrior and dragon is the best illustration of the collapse of matriarchy (Ibid.). Nevertheless, the cult of the Great Mother has survived to historical times (Ibid.). Successive incarnations of Magna Mater proliferate in ancient cultures. In Mesopotamia the Great Mother is known as Inanna and Ishtar, in Egypt – Isis and Hathor. The Hittite Kubaba, known as the Phrygian Iron Age Cybele, became one of the many divine designs of the Mother-Goddess of the Neolithic (Ibid.). The features of the latter were inherited by Artemis of Ephesus (Ibid.). We also find the Great Mother in the Greeks in the form of Demeter or Gaia. There are many examples (Ibid.). The Catholic Church raised Mary to a pedestal; she was granted the status of the Eternal Virgin, Immaculate, Assumed, Second after God, Mother of God and all creatures (Ibid.).
From patriarchy to matriarchy
The subject of the work is relatively difficult to analyse in detail due to its breadth and territorial scope (Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:31). It combines such diverse scientific disciplines as archaeology, anthropology, religious studies, cultural studies and art history (Ibid.:31). So far, there have been many scientific works on the subject of the Mother Goddess, her iconographic representations in art or on the matriarchy itself (Ibid.:31). Nevertheless, learning about the religious practices of the lunar or solar cult, which are connected with the image of the goddess in art, requires further, thorough research (Ibid.:31). Most of the readings on the topic are based on more or less credible theories and are still looking for evidence to support them. The theme of Mother Goddess worship goes back to the Upper Paleolithic, an era studied solely through archaeological excavations and artifact interpretations. Therefore, an important key to the matriarchal culture of the Stone Age are the depictions of deities supplemented by a written source, created only by people living already in the patriarchy.
Featured image: “Nut as she is traditionally depicted”. Photo by Golden Meadows. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.
By Joanna Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland UniversityCollege Dublin, Ireland
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During my several months’ stay in London, one of the sites I visited most frequently was undoubtedly the British Museum. Apart from contemporary exhibitions, the entrance to the Museum is free of charge so it would be a pity to miss it, especially for someone who loves wandering around ancient artifacts. As a museums expert, Amaya (2017) advises, an average amount of time spent in a museum should be no more than around 90 minutes, as a human brain can focus only during this period and then it simply needs a break. If it is not possible to come back to the museum later, it is essential to have intervals between particular display units and drink water for a better concentration (Ibid.).
I usually stay longer in a museum when we have just one day for a huge exhibition during a study trip, as it was in Mexico. In London or Paris, it was easier as I could come back to the museums during my longer stay in the cities.
Ones of the oldest objects preserved by the British Museum come from the display units dedicated to Mesopotamia (6000–1500 BC.), which is the so-called cradle of human civilization (The British Museum 2020). To get there, I needed to climb up to the upper floor, where the Rooms 55 and 56 are located, within the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery (Rooms 53-59) (Ibid.). Of my particular interest was especially the Room 56, as it displays very important artifacts unearthed in the early twentieth century at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, in southern Iraq (Ibid.). The collection includes jewellery, pottery and musical instruments that were excavated by one of the greatest British archaeologist, Sir Charles Leonard Woolley (Ibid.).
For a while I was found on my own in the Room, accompanied by all these remarkable objects, yet under the surveillance of the divine Sumerian lion-headed eagle, looking down at me from the panel hanging above the entrance door. Finally, I could take a closer look of the burial goods, without any need of waiting in a queue to stand directly in front of the display window. They are placed among other artifacts from the region, “[illustrating] economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians who lived in Mesopotamia at this time” (The British Museum 2020). Yet many of their aspects are still shrouded in mystery as much as the culture who created them.
My attention was suddenly caught by vibrant colours of the triangular object, which was calling me behind the glass. Today, it is just an archaeological reconstruction of its once crushed remains, unearthed in such a state that it is only a best guess how the object was originally shaped (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). Nevertheless, it has been labelled as a standard, the Standard of Ur (Ibid.; see: War and Peace in the Standard of Ur).
Mound of Pitch
The land of ancient Mesopotamia lay across the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is today Iraq and Syria (Wakely 1999). It has always been a flat desolate land made green by rivers’ canals and marshes (Ibid.). Yet from this unpromising landscape arouse the foundation of the ancient civilisation, including the world’s first cities and the earliest known writing system (Ibid.). Southern Mesopotamia was settled already by the seventh millennium BC. (Ibid.). By the second half of the third millennium, it was divided into twenty or thirty city-states that controlled the smallest towns and villages dispersed across the countryside (Ibid.). Shifting alliances among competing city-states brought conflicts often over water and even war to the city’s walls (Ibid.).
Some objects on display in the Room 56 of the British Museum tell a story about Ur, one of the ancient southern Mesopotamian city-states (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). The site is also known as the cradle of civilization (Ibid.) as “[archaeologists] have discovered there the evidence of an early [settlement] during the [so-called] Ubaid Period (ca. 6500 to 3800 BC.)” (“Ur” 2020). Its name also appears in the Book of Genesis as the home of the biblical patriarch, Abraham (Genesis 11:29-32), and the region itself is referred to as the location of the Garden of Eden (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). “The further occupation of Ur only becomes clear during its emergence in the third millennium BC., although it must already have been a growing urban center during the fourth millennium” (“Ur” 2020), around 3 800 BC. (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). It was equally among the most powerful and prosperous (Wakely 1999). Although the city-state of Uruk was one of the earliest and most prominent cities by this time, in the early third millennium BC., the temple dominated city-state of Ur emerged as one of the most important cities in the new stage of the development of human society and states (McDonald 2013). The modern name of the ancient Ur is Tell el-Muqayyar, which in Arabic means a mound of pitch (Wakely 1999). The name comes from the monumental temple tower, which was made of baked mud bricks set in the bitumen or pitch, a naturally occurring form of tar (Ibid.).
Ziggurat of Ur
In 1922, under the leadership of a little known young archaeologist, Charles Leonard Woolley, excavations jointly sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the British Museum were initiated at the site of ancient Ur (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). The decision to excavate proved to be a prominent one (Wakely 1999).
One of the most important part of the ancient city of Ur turned out to be the temple complex of the Moon god Nanna, at the centre of which was a ziggurat: a series of stepped terraces with a temple on top (Wakely 1999). “The remains of the ziggurat were first discovered by William Loftus in 1850” (“Ziggurat of Ur” 2020), during the first excavations at the site, conducted by a British consul at Basra, John George Taylor (Wakely 1999; “Ziggurat of Ur” 2020). The excavations at the mound in 1854 uncovered inscribed cylinders, which recorded rebuilding of the temple tower by the Babylonian king, Nabonidus (around sixth century BC.), who was the successor of the famous Nebuchadnezzar (Ibid.).
The ziggurat was excavated further by Woolley who managed to uncover its older layers. The core of the huge pyramidal tower was made of packed mud bricks, whereas the outside of the monument was constructed of baked mud bricks, jointed together with bitumen or pitch (Wakely 1999) Many of the bricks have had a stamped inscription with the name of the founder of the third dynasty of Ur, Ur-Nammu, who ruled there over four thousand years ago (Ibid.). Woolley’s recovery of Ur’s ancient ziggurat and the complex of buildings around it was a remarkable find but it paled in a comparison with his discoveries of the so-called Royal Tombs (Ibid.).
The ‘gold trench’
In 1923, Woolley discovered a whole cache of opulent graves in a trench near the ruins of the ziggurat of Ur (McDonald 2013; Ḏḥwty 2017). The archaeologist, “however, decided to halt the excavation [there], as he was aware that neither he nor his men were experienced enough to excavate burials. Hence, Woolley concentrated on excavating buildings, before returning to the [trench] in 1926, [where his] workmen discovered evidence of burials and jewellery of gold and precious stones, leading to it being called the ‘gold trench’” (Dhwty 2017; see Wakely 1999). Excavated burials were so rich that they competed only with Howard Carter’s discovery of the intact tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun, unearthed earlier in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, in 1922 (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013).
Ur’s discoveries are noteworthy not just for their contents but for the location of the dig (McDonald 2013). The tombs discovered in Ur seemed to date from about 2 550 BC. (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). It means the cemetery appeared around fifty years after the reign of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk (2800 – 2600 BC.; see: Gibbor in the Museum of Louvre). Some tombs of Ur were full of gold and silver jewellery and objects as well as colourful and spectacular grave goods (McDonald 2013). The archaeologists discovered things that had never been seen before: wonderous musical instruments, gold headdresses, a golden ostrich egg, weapons and even inlaid gameboards (Ibid.). What was even more fascinating about them was the fact some contained possibly deliberate human sacrifices as a part of burial rituals (McDonald 2013; Amaya March, 2017).
At the early stage of excavations, in 1928, Woolley wanted to keep his breath-taking discovery secret (McDonald 2013). Therefore, he sent his telegram announcing the news in Latin to make it understandable only to his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (Ibid.). When the news finally reached the public and press in London and New York, it created a high sensation (Ibid.). The New York Times and an Illustrated London News wrote articles recounting the marvels discovered (Ibid.). The Illustrated London News even published an artist’s drawing recreating the moments before the people in the great death pit had met their deaths (Ibid.).
The 1920s and early 30s of the same century are a golden age of archaeological discoveries and the public is fascinated by all the details (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). Perhaps no excavation in more than one hundred and fifty years of archaeological working in Mesopotamia had excited as much worldwide interest as Woolley’s work in ancient Ur (Wakely 1999). As a result of extensive publicity, tours from all parts of the globe, including European royalty and the famous crime novelist, Agatha Christie, flocked to the remote site in the Iraqi desert (Ibid.). Christie came to Iraq after her devastating divorce and met there her future husband, who was Woolley’s colleague and assistant from the dig, Max Mallowan (McDonald 2013; National Geographic 2019). Her stay at the site during excavations was also the perfect remedy; she lost her heart for the ancient site of Ur and so she even set her another story of mystery murder in Mesopotamia, at an archaeological dig that resembled that one (McDonald 2013; National Geographic 2019; JOM 2020). Later she recalled it by writing (National Geographic 2019):
I fell in love with Ur, with its beauty in the evenings, the ziggurat standing up, faintly shadowed, and that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colors of apricot, blue and mauve, changing every minute. I enjoyed the workmen, the foremen, the little basket boys, the pick men—the whole technique and life. The lure of the past came to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.
Agatha Christie on Ur. In: National Geographic (2019).
Royal tombs and resourceful researcher
Between 1927 and 1934, Woolley uncovered 1 850 tombs in Ur (Wakely 1999). “The cemetery was used between about 2600-2000 BC. and hundreds of burials were made in pits” (The British Museum 2015). Sixteen (or seventeen) tombs dated to the mid-third millennium stood apart from the others; each contained an extraordinary wealth of artifacts and evidence of human sacrifices (Wakely 1999; Amaya March, 2017).
Woolley called them Royal Tombs because he assumed they contained Ur’s deceased kings (Wakely 1999). Yet, he recognised considerable variations between them (Ibid.). The archaeologist’s skills also proved equal to his task; he turned out to be an imaginative and resourceful researcher under very difficult circumstances (McDonald 2013). First of all, he knew how to rescue objects of art that seemed lost to time like the wooden sound boxes of the lyres that long ago rotted wet (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). In order to save them, he poured wet plaster into the holes created by the decayed wood and carefully brushed the dirt aside to reveal the plaster form of a lost article (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999).
Object from the Tomb PG 779
A particular mosaic covered object was discovered in the Tomb PG 779, one of the largest graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). Already in ancient times, “[robbers] had thoroughly plundered the tomb in which [the artifact] was found. As one corner of the last chamber […] was being cleared, a workman accidentally spotted a piece of shell inlay, and from this starting point, the remains of the [mosaic object] were slowly revealed and reconstructed” (JOM 2020). When the artifact was found, its original wood had already rotted away but the remains of an elaborate design created by a multicoloured mosaic were preserved (McDonald 2013; Sailus 2003-2020). As the object was decayed, “the two main panels had been crushed together by the weight of the soil [of the collapsed tomb. Moreover], the bitumen acting as glue had disintegrated and the end panels were [also] broken” (The British Museum 2015). So these were only “the mosaic pieces that had kept [in place the whole] form [of the previously wooden skeleton]” (JOM 2020). This is why the object required Woolley’s special attention (McDonald 2013).
Like in the case of other excavated artifacts, “[the archaeologist] looked for hollows in the ground created by [the] decayed object and then filled them with plaster or wax to record the shape of the [material] that had once filled [it. Woolley] carefully uncovered small sections measuring about 3 square centimetres and covered them with wax, enabling the mosaics to be lifted while maintaining their original designs” (JOM 2020). Due to reconstructing efforts, the remains found in the Tomb PG 779 have eventually become a 21.59×49.53-centimetre hollow wooden box in the shape of a trapezoid, covered in original colourful mosaics (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015; JOM 2020).
But what was it?
As the artifact was found “lying in the corner of a chamber above the right shoulder of a [ritually sacrificed] man” (The British Museum 2015), Woolley imagined that it had once been supported on a pole and borne by the deceased (Ibid.). The archaeologist reasoned such a possibility because of the object’s position along the dead (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, it may have been carried as a standard in war, aloft on a pole in order to identify a military unit (Ibid.). “Another theory suggests, [however], that it once formed the soundbox of a musical instrument” (The British Museum 2015) or was a part of furniture or else served as a box used to hold civic funds (Sailus 2003-2020). The fact is, however, that nothing like it has been known then or since (McDonald 2013).
Today this mysterious object is known as the Royal Standard of Ur and it proves to be the most informative, beautiful and enigmatic of all (McDonald 2013). In such a way, Woolley also describes the artifact in his letter (Ibid.). However, no one knows whether the so-called Royal Standard of Ur is a standard or even royal and our knowledge of the royal cemetery is not much greater than it was known from Woolley’s excavations (Ibid.). Scholars assume, however, that modern understanding of the symbolism of early Sumerian society has been improved since the beginning of the twentieth century, and so interpretation of the figures and actions shown on the objects discovered in the cemetery of Ur is much more nuanced and clear (Ibid.). Yet, any interpretation is still speculating and there are more theories than evidence.
Rendering of the depicted figures on the Standard, both human and animal, is very characteristic of Sumerian stylistic conventions (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012). Almost all the characters are illustrated in a perfect profile (Ibid.). Accordingly, only one eye is visible (Ibid.). However, it is not directed forward but rather looking outside (Ibid.). By these means, it seems to be depicted in the form of a frontally seen eye but just on the side of the face, like it is present in the Egyptian art (Ibid.). The human shoulders are squared, as if presented frontally, whereas the feet are again depicted in profile, as if one after the other, which evokes movement (Ibid.).
The animals’ figures are superimposed; the four are walking one beside the other, and the outlines of the three animals are visible behind the one at the front, so their number overlapping (McDonald 2013). This artistic technique of overlapping gives a sense of depth, which today results from the use of perspective (Ibid.).
The Standard of Ur, whose function is still shrouded in mystery, is said to tell more about powerful rulers of Ur and a great deal about life in early Sumerian society than almost any other artifact that was discovered from ancient Sumer (McDonald 2013).
The box-like sculpture inlaid with colourful mosaics shows scenes of both, warfare and festivals, with a ruler in their center (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, the prevailing subjects depicted on the Standard are a successful military campaign led by the ruler and the abundance of the land which assures fertility for its people (Ibid.). In some aspects, the Standard of Ur repeats themes from the Uruk vase, known also as the Warka vase (McDonald 2013; “Warka vase” 2020). Even though the vase comes from centuries earlier than the Standard itself, it shows a parallel artistic composition and probably gives a similar message (McDonald 2013).
Treasures of the museums
As Sir. Charles Leonard Woolley’ archaeological expedition was a joint effort between the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum in London, the objects uncovered by the excavators were in great part shipped off to new homes in those two museums (McDonald 2013). In fact, a great deal of archaeology of that time and earlier sought to recover fabulous treasures and then remove them from their native lands to the museums of their excavators (Ibid.).
This is definitely something that does not happen nowadays (McDonald 2013). New moral standards, nationalism, pride and the better resources of art make such wholesale removal of what has been called the national patrimony no longer allowed (Ibid.). Moreover, archaeology as a discipline has changed throughout centuries (Ibid.). Most archaeologists do not seek to wrest the treasures from the ground to exhibit them in a museum far away as their trophies (Ibid.). Instead, they are intent on finding out more about the culture and the society that produced the excavated artifacts and with this objective it is possible to learn more (Ibid.). Objects that are excavated now usually stay in their countries in local museums or universities (Ibid.).
Lost national patrimony
As a matter of fact, the artifacts, which Woolley uncovered in his excavations in Ur were not only divided among the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum, but also were granted to the National Iraq Museum in Bagdad (Wakely 1999). Although some authors claim that only a small number of artifacts was left in Iraq (Ḏḥwty 2017), Neil McGregor, in The History of the World in 100 Objects (BBC Radio 4), says that “the Iraq Museum in Baghdad [actually] received the lion’s share of the Ur excavations” (Gerry 2010). Nevertheless, in 2003 some part of this unique treasure was looted and lost forever (Barker 2018). Exceptional artifacts from Woolley’s excavations in Ur, such as the bowl made of gold and lapis lazuli, have been stolen and never found (Ibid.). And although plundering museums and archaeological sites has been “regarded as one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times” (Ibid.), this crime has never stopped.
Unfortunately, since 2003, “much more of Iraq’s rich cultural history has been destroyed, damaged or stolen […]. Indeed the illegal trade in looted antiquities is growing” (Barker 2018). McGregor says that “the looting of antiquities from the Baghdad Museum during the recent war in Iraq was felt very profoundly by the Iraqis […]; from the moment of discovery, there was a strong connection between Iraqi national identity and the antiquities of Ur. [It was because] the discoveries at Ur [had] coincided with the early years of the modern state of Iraq, created after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. One of the focal points of that new state was the Iraq Museum in Baghdad […]. Mesopotamia’s past [has become] a key part of Iraq’s future. Archaeology and politics are set to remain closely connected as, tragically, are cities and warfare” (Gerry 2010).
Safe by all means
“The museum looting should have been a clarion call for the need for better protection of antiquities in conflict zones, both from combatants and local populations. Sadly, this has not been the case. There has been subsequent destruction of archaeological sites and museums in [Egypt], Syria and Libya, ISIS selling antiquities to finance weapons, and increases in thefts from both private and public collections and from archaeological sites […] The loss of these sites and artifacts is disastrous for humanity” (Barker 2018).
This is also why there are fierce debates weather artifacts taken to overseas museums during colonialism should be returned to their countries of origin, especially when they keep facing unceasing social unrest and wars (Jenkins, Rodet, Stefanidis, Thomas 2019). Actually, there are as many different opinions as scholars (Ibid.). The problem is even more complex; although some authorities definitely agree that archaeological artifacts should be left in the country, where they were unearthed, the overriding matter that counts for them is to keep them safe by all means (Ibid.).
Featured image: Standard of Ur (Peace side); British Museum; Room 56. Photo source: Neil MacGregor (2020). “Standard of Ur. A History of the World in 100 Objects. The First Cities and States (4000 – 2000 BC.) Episode 2 of 5”. In: BBC Radio 4.
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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