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Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb Within the Lore of Giants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lore of the giant’s tombs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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White Idols from the Cycladic Islands of the Aegean

It was supposed to be a high-speed ferry ride from Crete (Heraklion Port) to Santorini (Thera), which usually takes around two hours. In our case, the estimated time was disrupted by a sudden storm that broke out at sea. Raging waves ruthlessly played with our boat throughout the whole sea crossing. People were swinging on their feet or wading across the deck of the ferry, which was dangerously shaken in its foundations, together with tearing the screens off the walls. Passengers felt as if they had been on a roller coaster, with their stomach approaching the throat. The lucky ones managed to get to the toilet on time, primarily still available, and others grabbed the last resort, usually one of the paper bags distributed dispassionately by the crew.

My friend sitting next to me got frozen in fear of another stomach contraction, squeezing the edges of the bag in the fingers. The colours of her face kept changing from pale white to green. In the midst of this collective hysteria, apparently I was the only person who felt well. Maybe yet except for the crew, who looked at me in disbelief.

‘Could I go outside?’, I asked hesitantly. ‘I just can’t handle staying inside’.

It was indeed stuffy inside the ferry; all windows and doors were closed tightly. and the atmosphere became more and more unpleasant due to the sick passengers.

In response to my question, two crew members looked at each other and one of them in turn looked at me asking: ‘Don’t suffer from seasickness?’,
‘It looks like no’, I smiled.

An amazing view on the Aegean Sea and the Santorini archipelago from the overbuilt cliffs of the island, in one of its most charming towns, Oia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Finally the captain agreed, and after a while I was standing outside, in the crisp sea air, with the rope strongly tied around my waist and firmly attached to the side of the jumping on the waves ferry. The gusts of wind were hitting me with all its force and blowing up the folds of my long and light skirt. The rough sea kept splashing over my face again and again, leaving flecks of salt on my skin and in the long locks of hair, dancing in the breeze.

When we finally got to the port of Santorini, the storm ceased. The sun shone and the earth emanated with an usual peace, as if black clouds never appeared in this area. However, it is known that this volcanic island in particular has experienced the wrath of nature. There was always something happening in Santorini, known in Greek as Thera, and the face of the island has been shaped in equal measure by people and nature (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45).

Oia town (or a village, as some call it) is on the northwest coast of Santorini and it is built on the caldera slope. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“As its own archipelago, Santorini encompasses the islands of Thíra, Thirassiá, Asproníssi, Palea Kaméni and Nea Kaméni, which all lie in the southern part of the Cyclades, and are the result of [ancient] volcanic activity” (“Cyclades” 2021). Five thousand years ago, there was a thriving center of Minoan civilization on the archipelago (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). In mid-two thousand BC., a volcano erupted on Thera, or in fact the entire island blew out, as it had grown out of a volcano (Ibid.:45; see: When Gods Turned against the Minoans). The volcanic eruption destroyed everything, not only the island itself and its closest area, but also had a negative impact on the entire world of that time, including the Minoan culture, for which the volcanic eruption was the beginning of the end (Ibid.:45). The volcano itself collapsed into the abyss of the sea but it did not disappear (Ibid.:45).

After the volcanic eruption, the circular shape of the island of Thera had been shaped into a semi-circular crescent, which is clearly visible in the aerial photo taken from the plane. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After volcanologists monitoring the island, the volcano is going to be reborn and will erupt again in the future (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). The trace of those dramatic events not only changed the shape of the island, looking now like a crescent, but also made one of the largest calderas in the world, that is to say. the collapsed crater flooded by the waters of the sea (Ibid.:45). It is naturally still active, which may be felt by microseismic activity. At that time, it is possible to observe rings forming on the water. While staying on Satorini, I noticed it once in the morning, while I was reaching for a glass of water on my table. Such a phenomenon is not usually dangerous and does not last long.

On the white roofs of Oia; ts beauty is unprecedented. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the port, my friend was still recovering from the seasickness. Surely, I did not look too good either; I was covered from head to toe with flecks of sea salt, and my hair for the same reason formed a kind of stiff and disheveled basket on my head. Additionally, it turned out that the car sent by the hotel did not show up to pick us up from the port. Fortunately, several taxis and buses were waiting for the visitors, and one of the drivers offered to take two emaciated travelers, because our hotel was on his way. He did not take a cent from us. It was probably because we looked like two poor relatives who had managed to finally save enough to go on holidays.

Towns and villages on Santorini are all like taken from postcards. The town of Pyrgos, built at the foot of Mount Profitis Ilias and in the center of hinterland, is one of the hidden gems of Santorini. Life there seems slower and more relaxing. It is also a fantastic place for taking beautiful pictures. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The towns and villages of the main island are trully picturesque: the former capital of Santorini, Pyrgos, inland (the city’s name sounds almost like my surname, and so my origins may be possibly traced to Greece), seaside Oia in the north or Fira, the charming capital of the island (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). Although Pyrgos is situated almost in the central island, like most towns on Santorini, it is built up the hill so it is still possible to observe the sea from its highest parts.

Among other things, Oia and Fira are famous for the fact that their buildings descend along the steep shore built by the volcanic eruption almost to the surface of the sea (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). The buildings of the insular towns look like cubist paintings hung on the deep blue canvas of the sea and the sky (Ibid.:45). The landscape is composed of bright, regular blocks of houses and countless outbuildings, blue domed roofs, miniature terraces, stairs, steps, squares and streets (Ibid.:45). And all this is clustered on small areas, around the hills or cliffs, as if glued together (Ibid.:45). In this picturesque maze, holidaymakers can wander for hours, stepping into tiny galleries, museums, jewelry stores, boutiques and romantic cafes or wine bars (Ibid.:45). The white dry wine produced in Santorini tastes especially good, which is usually chosen by food connoisseurs to go with seafood dishes (Ibid.:45). On the other side, lunch or dinner in a tavern on the cliff, overlooking the endless blue of the sea with the spots of scattered islands, is a pure pleasure (Ibid.:45).

Early forms of the Cycladic idols in the form of a violin. The Museum of Prehistoric Thera, Fira. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
One of a typical female idols of the Cycladic culture in the Archaeological Museum of Thera, Fira. It represents a possibly pregnant woman with her arms under the breast. The features of the face are invisible. The most intriguing is an oval and elongated head. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

From the south of the island, where we were staying, we drove to Fira by a hired car, where we got after a quarter of an hour. Actually, it is a very tiny island. First, we went to the port hugged to the rock face, and from there we climbed to the top of the two hundred meter volcanic cliff on which the city was built (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:45). You can get there on the back of a donkey or on foot along the paved path, as we did (Ibid.:45). The two must-see sights in Fira were definitely the Archaeological Museum of Thera and the Museum of Prehistoric Thira. While most of the Minoan frescoes excavated in Akrotiri (the Minoan town destroyed by the volcano) are preserved by the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, they two also boast impressive collections of artifacts found on the island throughout its cultural development, starting from Prehistory. Apart from being one of the center (or an important colony) of the Minoan civilization, the island also housed the so-called Cycladic culture, having developed around the third millennium BC. (the period of Late Neolithic and Bronze Age). Its main objects of art are Cycladic marble figurines, also known as Cycladic idols.

Group of three figurines, early Spedos type, Keros-Syros culture (EC II). Photo by Smial (2006). CC BY-SA 2.5. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Idols are objects of art typical of various prehistoric and ancient cultures, particularly from the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, such as figurines of Venus, various representations of Neolithic goddesses, like the Cypriot Idol of Pomos, or more abstract depictions, including bronze discs from Cappadocia (PWN 2007:156). Most outstanding idols, however, come from the Cycladic culture in the Aegean Sea (Ibid.:156). The turn of the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age is a period of rapid development of settlement, trade and many other areas of life (Rutkowski 2009:7). During this period, the most interesting art depicting idols, apart from Crete, comes from the Cycladic islands, whose influences also reached the Minoan civilization (Ibid.:7). The Cyclades belonged in the Bronze Age (from 3000 BC.) to the circle of Aegean cultures (Barucki et al. 2009:170). They constitute the Aegean archipelago of thirty-one islands around the sacred island of Delos, where Apollo and Artemis were born. Hence their name ‘cyclic’ (“Cyclades” 2020).

The largest Cycladic island of all is Naxos, Apart from them, there are also Syros, Santorini, Mykonos, Amorgos, Paros and Antiparos (“Cyclades” 2020). The residential buildings on the Cyclades, except for Thera, are poorly known (Barucki et al. 2009:170). Moreover, the art having developed there was, in comparison to Crete and mainland Greece, of a peripheral character, and many of their products refer to the Minoan art and its famous frescoes (Ibid.:170). In addition to the Minoan Thera, valuable frescoes have been also found on Melos (Filakopi) (Ibid.:170). On the other side, the Cyclades equally produced original and unique of the archipelago works of art, with which this region of the world is now clearly associated (Barucki et al. 2009:170; Rutkowski 2009:7-9).

Together with my friend, who is a historian of art, we came to the island of Santorini to continue our research on the Minoan culture, which we had alrady started on Crete. Our aim was thus to describe the archaeological site of Akrotiri and Minoan artifacts exhibited by the museums in Fira. Nevertheless, the Cycladic culture seemed to me equally attracting. It developed into successive phases, from the Late Neolithic, throughout the Bronze Age, till circa 1050 BC., and although it is slightly older, the Cycladic culture stays in part chronologically parallel to the Minoan civilisation (3000-1100BC), The Cycladic art flourished north of Crete and for me the archipelago of Santorini constituted a symbolical gateway to the islands’ cycle.

On numerous and usually tiny Cycladic islands, small human figures were massively carved; they usually do not exceed a dozen or so centimetres in height (Rutkowski 2009:7). They were made of clay or stone, but most often of snow-white marble, as in the Cyclades (Paros, Naxos) there are deposits of precious marble, from which vases and figurines were made (Barucki et al. 2009:170). While the Cycladic ceramics usually imitated the forms of stone vessels and statuettes (Ibid.:170).

Head of a female figure, Spedos type, Keros-Syros culture (EC II, 2700–2300 BCE; Louvre). Photo by Unknown artist – Jastrow (2006). Public domain. Image cropped and sharpened. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In Cycladic art, the earliest methods of shaping the human figure were limited to the simplest forms, and it was only from those models that the larger plastic compositions developed (Majewski 1935:23). A characteristic early type is composed by the so-called violin idols (Ibid.:25). They have a long neck, a circular part of the arms, and the lower part modelled in the form of a semicircle by a curved waistline (Ibid.:25). By these means, such figurines resemble the shape of a violin, or, as it is also noticed, the outlines of the island of Cyprus. Such examples are also preserved by the museums of Fira,

Other Cycladic idols mostly illustrate highly simplified but still naturalistic figurative representations; they usually show naked women, also pregnant, with arms folded at the waist level, above the belly, or under their breast, like in the case of a marble female figurine from the island of Paros, preserved by the Museum of Louvre in Paris, France (PWN 2007:56; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). It represents a standing woman with arms folded under her breasts, whose body is characterized by a compact form and a synthesizing interpretation of anatomical details, such as the geometric outline of the breast, resembling two pyramids, and the pubic triangle (Rutkowski 2009:9).

A spectacular panoramic view with the blue domes of the churches, the shore of the main island, the deep caldera and small isles of the archipelago in the distance. The photo was taken from the top of the hill encrusted with the village of Pyrgos in the central part of the island of Santorini. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Generally, figurines are built on the principle of geometrical parts of the body, usually with an elongated almond-shaped head or one in the form of an upside down triangle, a small, almost rectangular body and usually joined (early examples) or separate legs (PWN 2007:56; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). This is a style that is generally defined as the tendency to synthesize human forms (Barucki et al. 2009:170; Rutkowski 2009:7-9). The Polish researcher, the author of the first monograph on Cycladic art, Kazimierz Majewski (1935), supposes that the mutual relationship of individual parts of the body, i.e. the head, torso and legs, testifies to the application of almost mathematical rules by artists creating these works of fine art (Rutkowski 2009:7,9).

Although only a few figures have traces of polychrome, it is assumed that the natural white surface of the stone, especially the face, was usually enlivened with elements painted with a thick contour line in red; thus the outlines of the eyes and mouth were made (Rutkowski 2009:8-9; Barucki et al. 2009:170). Such a technique may have been also applied to a marble figurine from the Late Bronze Age, found on the island of Amorgos, now in the Museum of Louvre, in Paris (Rutkowski 2009:8). It possibly represents a female head; its schematic almond shape is only identified by an elongated nose (Ibid.:8). The lack of facial features without being underlined by paint gives the sculpture a rather raw expression (Ibid.:8).

It is believed that Cycladic idols may have been related to the sepulchral practices prevailing on the islands, as most of the statuettes come from graves, characteristic of the archipelago, namely of box, tolos and chamber types (Rutkowski 2009:9; Barucki et al. 2009:170).

Pyrgos is the largest and the well-preserved medieval settlement on Santorini, though almost completely omitted by tourists. Thanks to that, the atmosphere in Pyrgos is truly idyllique. This is also why the town offers almost empty mazes of blue-white narrow streets and lanes, sometimes leading under low and long passages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The figurines placed in the graves of the dead were usually small (Rutkowski 2009:9). However, the Cycladic artist did not abstain from making large human (female) heads and statues reaching a height of about one and a half meters (Ibid.:8-9). Some researchers believe that such large figures were placed in holy places dedicated to the cults of nature deities (Ibid.:9).

The best-known examples of Cycladic art also include male figurines depicting warriors or characters playing musical instruments (Rutkowski 2009:9). The latter group, including the figure of the Harpist of Keos, are distinguished by a much greater degree of detail in their form and equipment (Rutkowski 2009:9;Barucki et al. 2009:170). There are also some examples with visible facial features, like eyes and a mouth, and even few elements of clothes, such as necklaces.

Cycladic idols, of the FAF type below, in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo by I, Sailko (2008). CC BY 2.5. Image cropped. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Cycladic art” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

During the period of the greatest development of this type of art, that is, in the third millennium BC. there were many workshops, and the stylistic differences between the statuettes make it possible to distinguish artistic individualists, which are referred to by convention, for example, by the name of private collections (Rutkowski 2009:9). The contemporary interest in Cycladic art is evidenced by the fact that a museum has been established in Athens (opened in October 2019), the core of which is the collection of N.P. Goulandris, collecting mainly figurines of Cycladic masters (Ibid.:9). But the admiration for this field of fine arts dates back to the time when in the early twentieth century, artists such as Pablo Picasso or Hans Arp looked for inspiration to express the ‘new’ in form, yet modeled on the works of primitive and ancient art, in which there was a tendency of synthesizing natural forms (Ibid.:9). Thus, in the art of the early Bronze Age, there were achievements that are still valid and admired to this day (Ibid.:9).

We still travelled around Santorini, enjoying its natural though dangerous beauty, which for ages has ideally mingled with the manmade constructions, scattered around the island. Leaving the coast behind, we headed off towards the centre of the island with its charming town, Pyrgos. At each step, apart from numerous traces left by the Minoans, there were tell-tales of the white marble idols. Sometimes, a copy of some sculpture was crouching in front of the door of somebody’s house, another time the idols were sold in souvenir shops for tourists. They all keep welcoming and inviting deeper inside their sacred cyclic kingdom of the tiny islands, dancing on the turquoise waves of the Aegean Sea. … And I have accepted their invitation.

The village of Oia is carved out of Santorini post-volcanic cliffs. From up the roof, I could see the panorama of the deep blue Aegean Sea with the visible shores of the caldera, dotted with tiny islands. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: In the wide expanse of the Blue Aegean Sea, a group of islands of Santorini stands out in a Greek archipelago. Copyright©Archaeotravel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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


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Barucki T. et al. (2009). “Cykladzka sztuka”. In: Sztuka świata. Leksykon A-K, tom 12. [Historia del Arte, vol. 12]. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Arkady.

Chabińska-Ilchanka, E., Dylewska K., Horecka K., Jaskulski M., Kastelik M. M., Łatka M., Ressel E., Willman A., Żywczak K. (2015) Niezwykłe miejsca świata. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo SBM Sp. zo.o.

Majewski K. (1935). “Figuralna plastyka cykladzka. Geneza i rozwój form”. In: Archiwum Towarzystwa Naukowego we Lwowie, Section I, Volume VI, Book 3. Drukarnia Naukowa we Lwowie.

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 156. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Rutkowski B. (2009). “Sztuka mykeńska i minojska”. In: Sztuka świata, tom. 2 [Historia del Arte, vol. 2]. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Arkady.

On the Road from Lycia to Ancient Caunus in Caria.

Saklikent Gorge in Lycian Turkey turned out to be just the beginning of water attractions on our holidays (see:). Many more were waiting for us just at the threshold to another ancient region of Anatolia, which is known as Caria.

Through the gateway to Caria. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Mud baths, Turtle Beach and ancient ruins

One day we travelled from Fethiye for a river cruise to Turtle Beach (Iztuzu Beach), which is situated on the Dalyan coast, already outside the historic Lycia. The natural beauty of the Dalyan delta belongs to another region, which is known as Caria. Nevertheless, various meanders of history leave monuments outside their home country, as it happened in the case of Lycian tombs, scattered also in neighbouring Caria. One of the greatest ancient cities of that region, Caunus (modern area of Dalyan), which was populated by the nation that did not have either the Lycian or Carian origins, witnessed a changeable history of the both countries, and once even found itself within the Lycian borders (see Bean, v.3 1989:142-145). As such the region equally absorbed the way of designing contemporary sepulchral architecture, typical of Lycia but having been strongly influenced by Greece. And although today the Caunus tombs are a well-known tourist attraction, the region of Caria is mostly famous for another tomb belonging to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient Word (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:14-15). It was the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum), which while was built by Carians, it mostly adopted a Hellenized architectural style (Ibid.:14-15). Unfortunately, it was eventually destroyed during the Middle Ages in earthquakes (Ibid.:14-15).

Most common way to admire the Lycian tombs in Caunus today is to take a boat cruise along the Dalyan River. Like most Lycian tombs (temple and house-tombs), those in Caunus are also carved high in the rock and there is, of course, a possibility to climb up the cliff and examine the tombs closer. Yet, as I was accompanied by less ambitious researchers, I had to limit my curiosity of the monuments to their observation from the River. On the other side, the most important must see (or rather do) for my companions was to plunge in the mud and thermal springs, sunbath on one of the most beautiful beaches in Turkey, the Turtle Beach, and – as its name suggests, look there for sea turtles.

Among celebrities taking a bath in the mud

First the boat took us to the mud and sulfur pools, which are known to give a beautifying effect on the skin (Kaynak 2021). They are situated on the far side of Köyceğiz Lake and attract loads of tourists posing in front of a camera after getting into the mud (Ibid.). As a matter of fact, Dalyan’s mud baths have always been very popular, also among modern Hollywood celebrities (Ibid.). It is even believed that Cleopatra herself would have travelled there to take pleasure by mud bathing (Ibid.), supposedly when she was bored with swimming in milk. Actually, it may not have necessarily been that Cleopatra (there were other ladies bearing the same name in history of the region). Still, it is a prefect advertisement for the site as the Spa for famous queens, especially those known in history for their beauty and sexual appeal. Following Cleopatra’s example, we also covered ourselves in soft and sticky liquid earth, and while waiting for it to dry in the sun, we kept taking photos. It was equally fun to plunge in one of the sulphur pools of a temperature of around forty degrees to clean from the mud (Ibid.). Such a bath, although very pleasant for skin, is not definitely perfect for your nose. It smells just like rotten eggs!

Finally, we were ready to re-take our trip by the River Dalyan; it flew us further along its winding route from Lake Köyceğiz to Dalyan Village, offering on the way a scenic views of pine-clad valleys, its various wildlife and white, rocky cliffs suspended above with the ancient ruins of the Lycian tombs.

Through the gateway to Caria

Before pouring into the Mediterranean Sea, the River brought us to the place from where a rocky cliff rises. It is clustered with the most eye-catching feature of the site: the rock-cut tombs of the ancient city of Caunus (Bean, v.3 1989:146). The city itself is located nearby the necropolis, with its acropolis on the notable crag, south of the rows of the tombs (Ibid.:146-148).

Long walls of Caunus are still visible and impressive; they stretched once from its ancient harbour, which is now a small lake, high up above the river to the precipice of the cliff (Bean, v.3 1989:140-141, 147-148). The site is now over three kilometres from the sea and so accumulated ground is not firm but composed of some soil held by reeds (Ibid.:139-140, 145). It in turn makes a vivid impression as if the solid cliff was floating on a green carpet, unrolled by the river. The ruins are most easily reached by land, passing by a modern Village of Dalyan (Ibid.:146). It is also possible to get there by boat from Köyceğiz Lake (Ibid.:146) but, unfortunately, it was not included in our itinerary.

The tombs seen from Dalyan River

When we were approaching in our boat to the site, I instinctively I pulled out my camera and took some photos of a series of temple-tombs emerging from above the river’s reeds. Then I zoomed the view out, which turned out to be extremely helpful from our position on the River, and then I looked closely at the monuments’ details.

Before pouring into the Mediterranean Sea, the River brought us to the place from where a rocky cliff rises. It is clustered with the most eye-catching feature of the site: the rock-cut tombs of the ancient city of Caunus. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The tombs are carved in two uneven rows, of which the upper one is composed of typical Lycian temple-tombs and the lower features much simpler and randomly distributed chambers with squared openings (Bean, v.3 1989:146-147). Like in the case of the tombs in Telmessus (Fethiye) or Tlos, some of the monuments, especially the upper ones with a stone passage cut around them, can be reached easier; whereas those in the row below are less accessible (Ibid.:147). I could notice six temple-tombs on the whole but such a number is only included within the first of the five tomb clusters of Caunus that we had just approached on the boat (Ibid.:147-148).

The tombs are carved in two uneven rows, of which the upper one is composed of typical Lycian temple-tombs and the lower features much simpler and randomly distributed chambers with squared openings. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The four of them, located on the western side of the cliff, barely compose a separate group (Bean, v.3 1989:147). They all  have in their façade two Ionic columns in antis, which are now in most cases partly broken away, and a dentil frieze with a usually undecorated pediment above, featuring acroteria at each of its three corners (Ibid.:147). Only one of the four pediments is carved with reliefs, representing two lions facing each other from the two opposite sides of the fronton (Ibid.:147), nearly with the same refinement as the pair of animals from the Lion Gate in Mycenae (southern Greece). Of course, I could not discern those from below but I rely here on a description by an archaeologist I often refer to in this article, George E. Bean (v.3 1989:146-148).

Such tombs have been dated back to the fourth century B.C., as much as the temple-tombs in Lycia (Bean, v.3 1989:147). Bean (1989:147) also writes that behind the façade of each tomb, there is only a single small funerary chamber, typically with three stone benches for the deposition of the corpses. The three of the tombs also bear inscriptions; although some include Carian words suggesting they are original, other writing is of a later date and so it indicates a re-use of the tombs by the Romans (Ibid.:147). What is more, two of the inscriptions on adjacent tombs claim them for the same three dead (Ibid.:147).

Unfinished tomb

Looking eastwards of the group of the described tombs, there is another one composed of two more monuments carved in the rock, one of which is slightly protruding forwards, against the previous four tombs (Bean, v.3 1989:147). Actually, that group, which is situated closest to Dalyan Village, had grabbed my attention first, especially the tomb on the left side (Ibid.:147). It was not only because it is the most impressive in size of all but also due to the fact it has remained visibly unfinished (Ibid.:147).

By these means, it also helps to understand how such tombs were once constructed, or rather cut out from the rockface (Bean, v.3 1989:147). While the upper parts of it, including the roof with the pediment and the frieze are almost completely carved out, the outlines of the upper shafts of the four columns in antis, together with their capitals, are still imprisoned in squared block of the rock and so look more like pilasters than columns (Ibid.:147). Then, the lower, the less notable is the progress of works; below the upper parts of the columns, the construction is just limited to smoothing and polishing the rockface (Ibid.:147). Accordingly, as it is mentioned above, carving such tombs out of the rock proceeded from up down (Bean, v.3 1989:147; Ching et al. 2010:173). Simultaneously, a much smaller tomb, hidden below in the rock on the right-side of the unfinished monument, is more similar to those from the previous group but far more disfigured, being almost completely deprived of both, its portico or the left part of the roof.

Carian type

Finally, as our boat was slowly moving forward, I noticed another group located a few metres away west from the previous one. It is also composed of less or more preserved smaller temple-tombs above some squared or round openings, looking like pigeon holes (Bean, v.3 1989:147).

At that moment, our boat unfortunately turned away from the soaring cliff with the tombs, heading off to the sea. Although I could not see more the rock-cut monuments from the distance, I know that there are two more clusters of similar type along the cliff-face, and at the most western point of the series, there is a group of tombs, whose style unexpectedly change (Bean, v.3 1989:147). They are called Carian type of tombs and they look like grave-pits cut deep into the solid rock and covered with separate and heavy lids (Ibid.:147). Additionally, they are provided with a group of tiny niches, where votive offerings for the dead were once deposed (Ibid.:147).

Who were the Caunians?

History of the city of Caunus and its inhabitants is as complicated as the described above story of Lycia. Herodotus writes that it was thought the Caunians, like the Lycians, had originated from Crete (Bean, v.3 1989:142). Yet, the ancient historian denies such a belief, claiming they must have been indigenous to their land (Ibid.:142). Judging from their unusual customs and language, which was assimilated to Carian or the other way round, Herodotus strongly differentiates Caunians from both, the Carians and Lycians (Ibid.:142). Simultaneously, Herodotus records that ‘the Caunians imitated the Lycians for the most part’, especially in the way they faced their city’s invaders and fought for freedom (Ibid.:142).

A deep river Calbis (modern-day Dalyan River) probably held the acropolis at its mouth. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

From preserved, though fragmentary records, it is also known that in the Lycian city of Xanthus, there was apparently a cult of a legendary king Caunus, the son of Miletus, who was believed to have founded the city of his name, and although he is said today to be just a fictious character, a memory of such a king had lasted in Caunus till the Roman times Crete (Bean, v.3 1989:142). Simultaneously, the triangular stele from Xanthus says that the Lycians from the city and its surroundings built an altar dedicated to the hero, approximately, in the fourth century BC. (Ibid.:142). Another trace of the hero-king, memory of whom is now covered by the ancient ruins, is the proverbial expression of a ‘Caunian love’, apparently coined in memory of a sad love story (Ibid.:142). Legend has it that Caunus’ sister, named Byblis, loved his brother so passionately that she hanged herself when he left her (Ibid.:142). In Caria, such incestuous relationships were normal and really happened among the royal families in Caria, as much as in other countries of the ancient world. Unfortunately, today it is little known about the hero, whose name is not either mentioned too often by scholars, studying the region (Ibid.:142). Is it Caunus’ punishment for having rejected the woman in love?

How mosquitos made Caunus unpopular

Even though, the sea stretched to the land in antiquity, there still were large areas of marshes, which made the region known as highly unhealthy due to recurring malaria (Bean, v.3 1989:139-140). At the same time, the land of Caunus was very fruitful and bore various fruits, such as figs, which were broadly famous in those days (Ibid.:140). Surely, the Caunians had their fishery as it existed not so long ago opposite the modern Village of Dalyan (Ibid.:141).

Strabo writes the city had got its harbour closed with a chain and dockyards (Bean, v.3 1989::140). Gracefully flowing by, a deep river Calbis (modern-day Dalyan River) probably held the acropolis at its mouth (Ibid.:140-141). According to the records, the River was also provided with a navigable channel from (Köyceğiz) Lake towards the sea (Ibid.:140-141). High above, on the crag, the fort Imbrus was constructed (Ibid.:140-141). Such a description can be easily identified with the modern region of Dalyan, though its landscape has definitely changed throughout ages (Ibid.:140-141). 

Making long history short

In ancient times, Caunus was described as a Carian city, despite its ethnic and cultural distinctions (Bean, v.3 1989:141-142). In the sixth century BC.. the Persian army invaded Lycia and Caria, including Caunus (Ibid.:142). In the following century, after the failure of the Persian invasion of Greece, Caunus was included in the Delian Confederacy (Ibid.:142-143). Following the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC.), in 387 BC., the coast with Caunus fell again under the domination of the Achaemenid Empire (Ibid.:143). At that time, Caria was ruled by a Persian satrap but a native descendant of Caria rulers, Mausolus (377–353 BC), whose policy made the region strongly Hellenized (Ibid.:143). It was also him, who initiated the project of one of famous constructions, known later as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:14-15). Namely, it was the Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus, also called after Mausolus, the Mausoleum. It was built between 353 and 350 BC. and was unfortunately destroyed in the course of earthquakes, between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries (Ibid.:14-15). Nevertheless, its name has survived as a present-day term describing an impressive building housing a tomb, a mausoleum (Ibid.:14-15).

Beautiful views offered by a trip by boat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Coming back to Caunus, during Alexander the Great’s campaign in 334 BC. together with the whole region it was possibly handed over to Ada of Caria, a sister and a successor of Mausolus (Bean, v.3 1989:143; see: Weapons and Warfare 2018).  After Alexander’s death (323 BC.), the city continuously changed its rulers among the king’s heirs (Ibid.:143-144). Eventually, around 190 BC., Caunus was bought by the Rhodians from the generals of Ptolemy (Ibid.:144). It just happened one year before Caria and Lycia were also joined to Rhodes by the Romans, as a result of the Battle of Magnesia in 189 BC. (Ibid.:144). Those lands had been the Rhodians’ possession between 189 and 167 BC., until the Province of Asia was established by the Roman Empire in 129 BC. (Ibid.:144). Soon after, Caunus became a part of Lycia but in 85 BC., the Romans gave it back to Rhodes due to the fact Caunus had harshly acted in favour of the opponents of Rome (Ibid.:144).

On the whole, Hellenistic times seemed quite unpredictable; cities and countries were juggled in the hands of the contemporary powers (Bean, v.3 1989:145). The situation had not changed much in the Roman times; accordingly, Caunus was once recorded as a free city, another time as undergoing double servitude to Rome and Rhodes (70 AD.) (Ibid.:144-145). By that time, Caunus had already been a fully Hellenized city, which was likely to have forgotten its Carian origins, although it had never been truly colonised by Greece (Ibid.:143-144). Additionally, the trade of Caunus and of other cities in the region located along the coast, had greatly suffered from the silting process separating the cities from the sea by over three kilometres (Ibid.:145-146). Adding the fact that the city was infamous for its unhealthful location, it did not generally attract visitors’ attention or enjoy popularity among philosophers, who usually accused the Caunians of being foolish and so deserving their misfortunes (Ibid.:139-140,145).

Along the River Dalyan. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Not without a surprise, the situation has entirely changed now; every day, tourists from all over the world come to see the archaeological site, either drawn by a natural beauty of the region, where the sea and river meet or the ruins, nearby which they can take a mud bath. Above all, they all come for the ever-present sun.

Goodbye to Caunus

İztuzu Beach (Turtle Beach) stretches for almost five metres and it is the place where navy blue waves of the Mediterranean meet more turquoise waters of the Aegean. It is situated near Dalyan and for its beauty, it attracts every day great numbers of tourists, who usually enjoy sunbathing and swimming in the warm sea for hours. It is also one of the main areas in the Mediterranean, where loggerhead sea turtles, called Caretta Caretta breed and so there is a chance to encounter them while dragging their shelled bodies on the sand. Personally, I doubted it that turtles would have come out of hiding when there were hordes of people screaming and looking for some to see. Moreover, the species is under a strict protection.

Nevertheless, it was fun to see my little cousins carefully following the turtles’ traces in the sand; knowing they must be very cautious, they patiently kept observing sand holes where the turtles may have laid their eggs. Those, however, had already been abandoned.

After taking a swim in the sea, I was laying in the shadow and looking through the archaeological guide-book I had brought with me for my journey along Lycia and Caria. Its author, the archaeologist George E. Bean helped me to learn about the history of the regions beforehand and understand more about their architecture by comparing his description to what I had found on place. And although I was unable to reach every single corner of each tomb I met on my way, I complemented my own observations with the author’s notes.

The Turtle Beach, where navy blue waves of the Mediterranean meet more turquoise waters of the Aegean. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

When the sun started getting reddish and the sea waters darkened on the horizon, I knew our stay in Caria was almost over. It was high time to come back to Fethiye. Yet, I was happy I could again see the tombs of Caunus on our way back along the River. And what about you? Do you also enjoy this kind of sepulchral architecture?

Featured image: The remains of ancient Caunus in Dalyan (Caria), with its most distinctive landmarks: Lycian rock-cut tombs encrusting high and steep cliffs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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


Bean G. E. (1989). Lycian Turkey. An Archaeological Guide, Vol. 4. London: John Murray Publishers.

Bean G. E. (1989). Turkey Beyond the Meander. An Archaeological Guide, Vol. 3. London: John Murray Publishers.

Ching F. D.K., Jarzombek M. M., Prakash V. (2010). A Global History of Architecture. USA: Wiley Publishing. The Second Edition.

Kaynak (2021) “Dalyan Mud Baths”. Available at <https://bit.ly/3sTDcmZ>. [Accessed on 27th April, 2021].

Starozytne Cywilizacje (2007). “Siedem cudów śwata. Starożytne wspaniałości.” In: Starozytne Cywilizacje. MMX International Masters Publishers AB.

Weapons and Warfare (2018). “Ada of Caria”. In: Weapons and Warfare. History and Hardware of Warfare.

Teutonic Order in the Castle of Malbork and its Ghosts

The brick walls of the castle in Malbork always make a great impression on its visitors as they walk among the countless castle red towers, bastions and courtyards, delving deeper into its long corridors and their secrets. We felt just the same gloomy atmosphere when, following the guide, we listened to the history of the castle and of its inhabitants, whose ghosts are said to still live within its chambers and underground. And even though it was a very hot summer day, we got goosebumps when we listened to scary stories of the haunted castle.

From the commander’s castle to the seat of grand masters

As a result of successive re-constructions of the Teutonic seat in Malbork, the complex was modified from the two-part commander’s castle (the Upper and Low Castles) to the three-part headquarters of the Grand Master (Bieszk 2010:106). Accordingly, it was composed of the Upper Castle, Middle Castle and Low Castle, also known as the Outer Bailey (Ibid.:106). Its huge spaces were not only heated by fireplaces and furnaces, but also by the central heating system (hypocaustum); the heated air from the fired stones of the furnace entered the hall, such as the chapter house, through special channels and holes in the floor with covers (Ibid.:107).

The Palace of Grand Masters (Middle Castle). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Upper Castle and its treasury

In the west wing of the Upper Castle, living quarters for Teutonic dignitaries were expanded (Bieszk 2010:107). There was also a central treasury (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The treasury was closely guarded and locked with two doors, and the last one, made of metal, required three keys to be open (Ibid.). They were held each by the Grand Master, Grand Commander and Grand Treasurer (Ibid.). Therefore, the treasure door was only opened in the presence of these three dignitaries (Ibid.). Interestingly, in addition to gold and valuables, the treasury also contained … sweets (Ibid.). Those were gold-coated candies uniquely tasted by the Grand Master (Ibid.). This is the reason why they were guarded so carefully and the treasurer himself personally escorted them, when they were going to be served to the Grand Master (Ibid.).

Marienburg 1900. View of the Upper Castle from the east in 1901 in the neo-Gothic form. The outside wall of presbytery (the eastern part of the church) is adorned with the statue of the Virgin with the Child, slightly visible in the image. Unknown author. This image is sourced from the United States Library of Congress, Public domain. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Despite all these elaborate safeguards the vault had once been robbed (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It was done by bakers who worked in a bakery right under the treasury (Ibid.). Somehow they found out that there was great treasure above them, which supposedly was piled on the floor (Ibid.). So they made a hole in the ceiling in the kitchen, and the gold fell right on their heads (Ibid.). They quickly left Malbork, but the Teutonic Knights unfortunately caught them (Ibid.). They were judged and sentenced to death by hanging (Ibid.). Despite the recovery of the valuables, the treasury soon began to glow empty, because fifty years later the expedition to Grunwald forced the payment of the army of many thousands and the Order never returned to its financial splendour (Ibid.).

Eight-meter high Protector Saint

In the northern wing of the Upper Castle, in turn, the former convent chapel was rebuilt into the largest conventual castle church in the Teutonic state (Bieszk 2010:107). Its tall and long body from the side of the chancel reached twenty meters beyond the perimeter of the castle walls, which consequently distorted the regular, four-sided outline of the Upper Castle (Ibid.:107). Additionally, in 1340, on the eastern facade of the church, a huge, eight-meter-high Gothic figure of the Virgin Mary with the Child was made of artificial colourful stone (Bieszk 2010:107-108; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017).

Unfortunately, the figure was destroyed in 1945 along with the eastern part of the church (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). In September 2014, its reconstruction began, and its ceremonial unveiling took place in 2016 (Ibid.). 350,000 coloured cubes made of Venetian glass were used to create the mosaic (Ibid.). Among them, there was also glass in which gold flakes were embedded (Ibid.).

Apart from the Gothic statue, the whole church, along with the Chapel, greatly suffered in the last War, and mostly during the successive plunders of the Red Army (Jaśmin 2017).

Chapel of Saint Anne

The church was two-story construction, and under the presbytery there was the Chapel of St. Anne, where eleven grand masters were buried (Bieszk 2010:107). In order to enter the church, one actually needs to go through the chapel of Saint Anna (Jaśmin 2017). At its door, just above one’s head there is a beautifully carved Gothic portal (Ibid.). There are also various dark stories and legends associated with this place that visitors eagerly listen to (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017).

In 1330, the Grand Master, Werner Von Olsern, was deceitfully murdered inside the castle (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It is commonly believed that this happened while he was leaving St. Anne’s Chapel, as it was the only place he visited without guards (Ibid.). He was killed by his monastic brother, Jan von Endorf, who the Teutonic Knights claimed insane (Ibid.). However, it is likely that it was a planned assassination (Ibid.). Werner had peaceful intentions towards the Kingdom of Poland and wanted to thoroughly reform the Order, which must have upset the corrupted knights, striving for power and further plunderers (Ibid.).

… and its ghosts

Another story says the Chapel is haunted by ghosts of Teutonic grand masters who were buried there (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017).

The interior of the castle church in Malbork (reconstructed). Photo by Tomasz Walecki (2019). Free images at Pixabay.

In 1650 the Jesuits erected their monastery between the castle church and the south-eastern wing of the Middle Castle (JS 2011). As a result, the western part of the chapel was separated by a wall reaching from its floor to the ceiling (Ibid.). This division covered almost a quarter or a fifth of the entire chapel and joined two opposite windows (Ibid.). In order to obtain a convenient road to the city, a wooden bridge was made on cross-beams (Ibid.). The ends of the beams rest on the sills of both windows (Ibid.). Window openings, which in the Jesuit times were additionally secured with closed shutters, devoid of window frames, now served as doors (Ibid.).

The bridge covered the entire space between the western side wall of the chapel and the wall erected on the eastern side (JS 2011). People’s steps on the wooden bridge made a dull reverberation in the dark and formidable room of the necropolis (Ibid.). The reverberation resembled the thunder of horse horseshoes. For this reason, the bridge was named the Thunder Bridge (Ibid.). In the upper part of the wall separating the chapel of St. Anna, both on the west and east sides, the masons left two small gaps (Ibid.).. Through one of them you could look into the castle cellar, through the other – to the chapel of St. Anna (Ibid.). The openings were opposite each other and were the size of an ordinary brick (Ibid.).

Chapel of Saint Anne in the castle of Malbork. Photo by Diego Delso (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

One day, while carrying out other bricklaying works, one of the workers was ordered to brick up two mysterious holes (JS 2011). He fulfilled the task but on the morning of the next day, both bricks were found to be gone (Ibid.). Another mason completed the same work in less than five minutes (Ibid.). And this time the next morning, the same mysterious openings still existed in the wall (Ibid.). Also, further efforts to brick the holes in the wall did not bring any results (Ibid.). These fruitless works were finally abandoned (Ibid.). Sometime later, one of the Jesuits returned to his cell late. It was already dark, but he noticed some movement right next to the unfortunate holes (Radio Malbork 90,4 2020). Curious as he was, he walked closer (Ibid.). Then he saw the ghostly figures of the grand masters emerge from the crypt and like misty clouds heading towards the castle hall (Ibid.). Therefore, it was believed that the souls of the deceased grand masters of the Teutonic order buried in the tombs of the Chapel of St. Anna passed by these openings at night inside castle for ghostly gatherings (Ibid.).

Today, it is believed that to this day, the ghosts leave the basement of the chapel at midnight and go to one of the castle rooms, where they conduct scholarly discussions until dawn (Ibid.).

Trapdoor of Gdanisko

The already mentioned tower Gdanisko was also rebuilt after 1309; it was connected to the Upper Castle with a covered porch built on the arcades and was additionally provided with a drawbridge (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Muzeum Zamkowe w Malborku 2020). In addition to being a tower of the final defence, it was also a toilet with a sanitary function (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Instead of today’s toilet paper, in the toilet cabbage leaves were used, which could also be replaced with hay (Ibid.). It was then possible to hide there not only from the invasion but also use it for a personal and intimate retreat (Ibid.).

Marienburg (1890-1900). General view of the castle from the end of the nineteenth century. In the middle, the bastion of Gdanisko is visible. Unknown author. This image is sourced from the United States Library of Congress, Public domain. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It happened, however, it was the very last place seen by some misfortune knights before their death (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The moat near Gdanisko claimed many victims; the inconvenient knights were usually made drunk, and when they went to the toilet to Gdanisko, the trapdoor suddenly opened and they disappeared into the moat (Ibid.).

Middle Castle

The Middle Castle served as the capital of the new monastic state (Bieszk 2010:108). Here were the court residences of the Grand Master and his commander, representative and banquet rooms decorated in a sophisticated way, state offices, a chancellery, archives and central treasury, as well as hotel facilities for guests and the main hospital (Ibid.:108).

Entering the knights’ bedrooms, it can be observed that their beds appear to be quite short (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The Teutonic Knights, although not tall, slept in a reclining position (Ibid.). They believed that if they were to lie completely on the bed, they would bring death upon themselves, because it was believed that the death only took those who were lying completely in their beds (Ibid.).

Eating and drinking at will

The western wing of the Middle Castle housed the Grand Refectory, the largest knightly banquet hall in the country that could seat up to four hundred knights at the tables (Bieszk 2010:109). It still amazes with its size and brightness (Ibid.:109). The Refectory had a refined palm ceiling supported in the middle on only three main, slender, granite pillars (Ibid.:109). In addition, it had tall stained glass windows and the aforementioned heating system (hypocaustum) (Ibid.:109). Next to it was a kitchen with a huge stove, from which food was delivered (Ibid.:109). Further there was a pantry and food stores (Ibid.:109).

Malbork Castle, High Castle (A) and Middle Castle (B), ground floor plan. Brockhaus, 1892. Uploaded by the User: Topory (2004). Public domain. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Sebald Tharsen summons up the devil

The Teutonic knight, Sebald Tharsen, had no moderation in eating and drinking, and he cursed on every occasion (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). One night, returning to his room after a lavishly drunk supper, he called for a man to take off his shoes (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). The servant was asleep, so Sebald began to curse and summoned the devil himself, who appeared immediately, grabbed his boots and pulled them off his legs together with the skin (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). The resulting wounds began to suppurate (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). The unfortunate man lived in terrible torment for almost half a year (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). His death became a warning to the other knights (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). But Sebald’s story apparently did not teach them enough …

Summer Refectory

On the first floor of the Middle Castle there were two most representative halls of the grand masters, where court life took place and official receptions and ceremonial meetings with guests of the Knights took place (Bieszk 2010:110).

The largest of them was the Summer Refectory, considered a wonder of building craftsmanship in the state (Bieszk 2010:110). It had a beautiful, high and extensive palm tree ceiling supported by only one granite column, and two walls filled with large windows with colourful stained glass, giving refined lighting to the room (Ibid.:110). It is worth noting a fragment of a cannonball is stuck in the wall above the fireplace in the Refectory (Ibid.:110). It once belonged to an eighty-kilogram ball from the cannon fired by Polish artillerymen during the siege of Malbork in 1410 (Ibid.:110). There is an interesting story connected with it.

Cannonball above the fireplace

The first information about the unexpected defeat of the Order at Grunwald reached Malbork the day after the battle, on July 16th, 1410 (Bieszk 2010:113). The news of the loss sparked an atmosphere of fear and panic in the castle, where only a small operational crew was stationed (Ibid.:113). The entire elders of the Order had died at Grunwald or fled (Ibid.:113). However, those who survived took control of the situation and the crew of the castle was finally strengthened (Ibid.:113-114). At the end of July, Malbork was besieged by King Władysław Jagiełło along with the Polish-Lithuanian army (Ibid.:113-114).

Chroniclers describe that during the eight-week siege, a traitor was supposed to hang a red flag outside the Summer Refectory’s window, when the survived important representatives of the Order gathered there (Bieszk 2010:114; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). At that moment, the traitor gave a signal to those besieging the castle to shoot (Ibid.). The cannonball was supposed to fly into the room and hit the only pillar supporting the entire structure to crash onto the heads of the gathered (Ibid.). The cannonball, however, missed the pillar by six centimetres and hit the wall behind it (Ibid.).

Buried tunnel

Another story came also from the time the castle was besieged. It tells about a pilgriming knight from Jerusalem who was staying in Malbork (Radio Malbork 90,4 (2020). Terrified by the sound of cannon shots, he decided to take a desperate act and ran into the underground corridor against which he had been warned by the knights (Ibid.). The legendary tunnel was supposed to be several meters underground and lead to the town of Nowy Staw, situated eleven kilometres away (Ibid.). For the pilgrim, the tunnel was the only way of escape (Ibid.). However, as soon as he entered the tunnel, it was suddenly blocked by a procession of headless dread knights and other ghosts (Ibid.). Facing the ghosts, the terrified knight finally chose a fight with a living enemy and screamed out of the tunnel (Ibid.). When news of his terrible adventure spread among the Teutonic knights, the tunnel was filled up immediately and now nobody knows where its entrance was (Ibid.).

The castle is a tangible symbol of the power of the Teutonic Order in medieval Europe. Photo by Erwin Bauer (2015). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

Palace of the Grand Masters

The multi-storey Palace of the Grand Masters was built in the second half of the fourteenth century by adding it to the south-west part of the Upper Castle wing, from the river side (Bieszk 2010:110). At that time, the monastic state was at the height of its economic and military power, and the Grand Master was equal to the European rulers (Ibid.:110). Thus the architecture, silhouette and interior design of the palace corresponded to the contemporary requirements of royal residences (Ibid.:110).

Low Castle and barbican

Built in the first half of the fourteenth century, the Low Castle lies behind the moat of the Middle Castle (Bieszk 2010:111). It was the largest part of the rectangular castle and played the role of economic, production and commercial centre of the state (Ibid.:111).

Asinus. Source: Stary Malbork.pl (2007) “Plan of the Malbork castle” with the barbican on the other side of the River Nougat. In: Skyscraper.

Also in the first half of the fourteenth century, on the other side of the Nougat, at the bridge, a barbican was built (Bieszk 2010:113). It was an octagonal fortified complex made of brick but on stone foundations, and adapted to firearms (Ibid.:113). The walls were surrounded by a moat fed with river water (Ibid.:113). The entrance to the bridge led through the middle of the barbican (Ibid.:113).

Malbork in the hands of the Polish Crown

After the victory of the Battle of Grunwald, but the unsuccessful siege of Malbork by the Polish army in 1410, the castle finally was sold by mercenary troops to the Polish Crown in 1457, during the reign of Casimir IV Jagiellonian (1427 – 1492), and belonged to the Polish Crown until the First Partition of Poland in 1772 (Bieszk 2010:115). In this way, the castle became a Polish royal residence by the Baltic Sea, a great arsenal of the commonwealth in this region and a storage of food. Its strategic importance was difficult to overestimate (Ibid.:115).

Stanisław Jasiukiewicz as the Teutonic Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen being defeated and killed in the Battle of Grunwald (1410). Shot from the movie “Knights of the Teutonic Order” (”Krzyżacy”), directed by Aleksander Ford (1960). Source: East News/POLFILM (2018). “’Krzyżacy’: pierwsza historyczna superprodukcja”. In: Film Interia.pl.

Ghost Castle Night Tour

We had just walked kilometres to visit the castle. Before saying ‘goodbye’, our English speaking guide invited us for a Ghost Castle Night Tour that usually happens regularly in summer. I had heard it was worth taking part in. Firstly, night time with pale lights illuminating the castle builds up an eerie atmosphere around it. Then, we could get familiar with most haunted spots in the complex, and finally, there are additional attractions in the form of disguised actors who play wandering ghosts of Teutonic knights. Their sudden appearance on the visitors’ way must be a really creepy experience …

Taking a break by the Malbork Castle. Its edifice is huge! Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Haunted castle

One of the largest fortresses of medieval Europe, Malbork, holds a great haunting potential (Paulina 2017). There is enough space in the castle for the ghosts of several Teutonic masters to wail at the same time without getting in each other’s way (Ibid.). It is common, for example, to see two knights with their heads under their armpits guarding the entrance to the secret room (WP Turystyka 2018). They apparently had lost the heads in the battle (Ibid.). As ghosts, they must guard the hidden Teutonic treasures (Ibid.). Apparently they were once accompanied by a headless horse (Ibid.). It is said that once a year, on New Year’s Eve, it runs out of the underground tunnel and gallops around the castle three times, finally returning to the depths of a secret chamber for the next twelve months (Ibid.). Mostly haunted are underground dungeons (Ibid.). There is also a secret corridor that dogs are afraid to walk through (Ibid.).

Wooden staircase to the morgue

Nevertheless, the most hunted is a modest, wooden spiral staircase in this entire bricked jungle (Paulina 2017). Unfortunately, it cannot be accessed by “ordinary” tourists (Ibid.). Noisy sounds like of a falling man’s body was clearly heard several times on the stairs (Ibid.). Even when the alley with the steps was illuminated, the ghosts did not stop making noise and materializing in this place (Ibid.). After examination of the place, it turned out that in the times of the Teutonic Knights, fatal stairs led to the morgue (Ibid.). The corpses of knights carried along the steps could have been accidentally dropped, not to mention some parts of their metal and heavy armour (Ibid.). Hence the loud, ghostly noises (Ibid.).

There are many legends about the Malbork castle. It is to explore it as well at night … with ghosts. Photo by Krzysztof Karwan (2016). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

Ghost by the Golden Gate

In the Malbork castle there is one more haunted place but silent for a change (Paulina 2017). An aggressive ghost lurks near the Golden Gate, through which one enters the castle church (Ibid.). The mysterious figure jumps out of the shadows, catches a passing man from behind and clenches his bony hands around his neck (Ibid.). It disappears before the defending victim has time to break free and examine what actually has happened; there is nobody around but red fingerprints on the victim’s body (Ibid.).

Castle by the Nougat

In spite of the fact, the night tour was highly tempting to us, we were just exhausted. After one week of chilling out on the Hel Peninsula, the sightseeing day in Malkbork seemed particularly intensive. Moreover, the summer heat was much more felt here than by the Baltic Sea, where we were exposed to a pleasant cooling breeze rippling through the body. As much as we were tired, we were also starving. This is why, we left the walls of the castle and passed over the bridge to the opposite side of the Nougat, where the barbican stood in the past. To our joy and relief, we found there a very special restaurant with a stunning view of the castle and river. It was actually a boat transformed into a quite original, though expensive restaurant. ‘Once a time, we can afford it’, I thought. Anyway, we were too hungry to look for something different further from the complex. Moreover, the view from the boat fully rewarded us a high bill.

The Courtyard of the Malbork Castle astonishes with its size and majesty. Photo by Erwin Bauer (2015). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

Before our dinner was served, we were enjoying the sight of the red massive towers and walls gracefully reflected in the river; their wrinkled images intertwined with the colours of sunset. After the last World War, many years of reconstruction works were undertaken, preserving the historical shape of the castle (Bieszk 2010:116). The renovation of the entire medieval complex was carefully carried out with the participation of outstanding specialists in many fields, and the works are only now coming slowly to an end (Ibid.:116). In 1997, the complex of Malbork was entered on the UNESCO list (Ibid.:117).

Exemplifying the Middle Ages of Poland

The imposing silhouette of the castle became a symbol of the power of the Teutonic Order (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174). In its heyday, hardly a few contemporary strongholds could match its artistry and majesty. This was also appreciated by filmmakers, who made many productions at the castle (Ibid.:174). In the complex, it is also worth visiting the halls displaying collections of amber from the Baltic Sea, armour, weapons and rich archaeological finds (Ibid.:174).

The castle of Malbork brings the spirit of the Middle Ages back in time to its international visitors and gives them an invaluable insight into a rather complex history of Poland in the time of its continuous military struggles, the change of ruling dynasty, and also the country’s mighty and victorious achievements, including architecture and art.

Sienkiewicz’s character, Fulko de Lorche, a Lorraine knight who comes to Poland with the intention of fighting pagans beside the Teutonic knights, after discovering the real “face” of the Order, accurately concludes the contemporary situation: ‘Your life in Poland is more difficult and entangled than I thought in Lorraine’.[1]

Malbork Castle welcomes visitors from the whole world. Photo by Krzysztof Karwan (2016). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

[1] The phrase comes from the script of the Polish film, Knights of the Teutonic Order (the original title in Polish: Krzyżacy), 1960, directed by Aleksander Ford. based on the novel of the same name by Henryk Sienkiewicz.

Featured image: The Gothic silhouette of the castle in Malbork by the River Nougat. Photo by Krzysztof Karwan (2016). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

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


“Battle of Grunwald (Matejko)” (2019). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3qwACn5>. [Accessed on 6th December, 2020].

”Figura Madonny z Dzieciątkiem kościoła NMP na zamku w Malborku” (2019). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2JZEJqK>. [Accessed on 7th December, 2020].

”Zamek w Malborku” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3qIMxOT>. [Accessed on 7th December, 2020].

Asinus. Source: Stary Malbork.pl (2007). “Plan of the Malbork castle”. In: Skyscraper. Available at <https://bit.ly/3lHpQqx>. [Accessed on 4th December, 2020].

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Chabińska-Ilchanka E., Dylewska K., Horecka K., Jaskulski M., Kastelik M. M., Łatka M., Ressel E., Willman A., Żywczak K. (2015). Niezwykłe miejsca świata. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo SBM Sp. zo.o.

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Rock-Cut Tomb of a Hero in the City of Tlos

The following week, together with my two little cousins, I joined a daily jeep tour to the second longest gorge in Europe, known as Saklikent, situated approximately fifty kilometres south-east from Fethiye, in Lycian Turkey. After forty minutes of enjoying the bumping off-road, we eventually reached the ruins of an ancient city of Tlos, believed to have been one of the most important religious city of Lycia (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:65).

To see the ancient city of Tlos and its tombs, together with my two little cousins, I joined a daily jeep tour to the second longest gorge in Europe, known as Saklikent, situated approximately fifty kilometres south-east from Fethiye. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In 1838, it was discovered by Sir Charles Fellows (1799-1860), a British archaeologist, famous for his expeditions in Turkey (Bean 1989:65). The settlement of the acropolis is on the hill, which though does not seem very high from the side of a modern town, it rises to almost perpendicular cliffs on the north-east (Ibid.:66). On top of the hill, there is now an unoccupied Turkish castle from the nineteenth century (Ibid.:65-66). Below it, on the hill’s east slope, there are traces of successive constructions, including Lycian remains of the walls and Roman masonry with re-used building material (Ibid.:66). There are also two groups of Lycian tombs; the first one is just below the summit, whereas the second group stretches towards the north (Ibid.:66). In a large open and now cultivated flat space, just at the foot of the hill, there are scattered numerous and various stone elements (Ibid.:66). Some scholars claim these are the remains of the agora (Ibid.:66).

In Tlos, there are two groups of Lycian rock-cut tombs; the first one is just below the summit, whereas the second group stretches towards the north. Among sepulchral architecture, there are also sarcophagi. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Simultaneously, along the west hillside and below the ancient city-wall, there are still visible rows of seats of a stadium, whose originally regular line now is disrupted by a modern installation of walls and a running stream (Bean 1989:66). Nevertheless, such an arrangement of the agora, which apparently used to be situated alongside the stadium, is quite outstanding for ancient Lycian or Greek urban architecture (Ibid.:66). On the east side of the open space, there are remains of a market-building and a large complex of chambers with arched windows (Ibid.:66). To the south-east, there is in turn a baths, called by locals Yedi Kapi (‘Seven Doors’), which apparently refers to the remaining building’s apsidal projection with seven windows (Ibid.:66). To the east of the baths, there is a huge open square, which according to another thesis, should be acknowledged as an actual agora of the city (Ibid.:66-67). To the west of the square there is an Early Byzantine church, and to the east, a large and well-preserved Roman theater, which comes from around the first century A.D. or even earlier (Ibid.:67).

The city of Tlos

The city of Tlos is very ancient, as it had already been mentioned in the Hittite records of the fourteenth century BC., under the name of Dalawa, situated in the occupied by the Hittites territory of Lukka (Bean 1989:65).

Legend says that one of the greatest tombs in the necropolis of Tlos was built just a Lycian hero, Bellerophon, and that it was dedicated by citizens of Lycia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Simultaneously, it was called Tlawa by the Lycians themselves, for whom it was one of the six principial cities in their lands (Bean 1989:65). When it was incorporated into the Province of the Roman Empire, it was known as ‘a very brilliant metropolis of the Lycian nation’, and in the Christian times, under the Byzantine Empire, Tlos was granted with its own episcopate as a part of the metropolitan of Myra (Ibid.:65). Nonetheless, the city was hardly mentioned by ancient writers, except for few notes given by contemporary geographers or two historic incidents occurring there, recorded in inscriptions (Ibid.:65). The latter also tell that ancient citizens of Tlos were divided into at least three demes (a political division of Attica in ancient Greece), which were named after famous Lycian heroes, such as Iobates, Sarpedon or Bellerophon (Ibid.:65).

Bellerophon and his Pegasus

According to myths, the site is strongly associated  especially with one of Lycian heroes, Bellerophon, from whom the early rulers of the Tlos claimed to descend (Miszczak 2009). This famous mythological figure is best known as a great rider who managed to tame and ride Pegasus (Ibid.). Pegasus was a winged steed miraculously brought to life; namely, it had jumped out of the neck of Medusa after Perseus cut off her head (Ibid.). Bellerophon mounted Pegasus with the help of the goddess Athena and her magical bridle (Ibid.). Unfortunately, towards the end of his life, he lost gods’ favour, when he tried to reach the summit of Olympus on his Pegasus (Ibid.).

The so-called Tomb of Bellerophon (on the left) is anonymous as there is no inscription revealing its owner’s name. Like in the case of the Tomb of Amyntas in ancient Telmessus (Fethiye), the Tomb of Bellerophon also falls into the temple-tomb category. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Bellerophon was worshiped as a hero in Lycia, especially in Tlos, where he was also believed to have lived in the fourth century BC., and where he was said to have eventually been buried (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:68). Legend says that one of the greatest tombs in the necropolis of Tlos was built just  for him and that it was dedicated by citizens of Lycia (Miszczak 2009). Archaeologists, in turn, have never supposed that the tomb belonged to Bellerophon himself (Bean 1989:68). As a matter of fact, the grave is anonymous as there is no inscription revealing its owner’s name (Ibid.:68). The only thing referring there directly to the hero is a relief depicting Bellerophon flying on Pegasus (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:67-68).

Typical temple – tomb of Lycia

Among all the tombs cut in the acropolis hillside, the so-called Tomb of Bellerophon is also the greatest and most significant, which can suggest it was prepared for someone important, almost as much as the mythological hero (Bean 1989:67). Dating from the first half of the fourth century BC., the tomb is located low down, on the north side of the cliff (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:67).

Lycian tombs of different categories in Tlos, Turkey. In the foreground, there are sarcophagi, whereas in the background house-tombs are carved high up in the rock. Apart from those, the most outstanding of all tombs in Tlos is the one cut in the rock as a temple-tomb. Photo by Nikodem Nijaki (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Image modified. Photo source: “Lycian tombs in Tlos” (2021). In: Wikimedia Commons.

Like in the case of the Tomb of Amyntas in ancient Telmessus (Fethiye), the Tomb of Bellerophon also falls into the temple-tomb category (Ibid.:67). It has got two squared pilasters in antis, with Ionic capitals and a pediment above them (Ibid.:67). Inside the porch, the front wall is articulated into three parts; on either side of the imitated stone doorway with studs and decorations, there are two real side-doors raised almost one metre above the threshold blocks; they lead directly to grave-chambers (Ibid.:67-68). The left-hand door opens to a chamber with four benches for the corpses; the one on the right additionally features a stone pillow for the dead’s head, alongside the niche for offerings (Ibid.:68). Most likely it was the bench reserved for the principal member of the family (Ibid.:68). The door on the right leads, in turn, to a smaller funeral room, equipped only with three benches (Ibid.:68).

Reliefs and a mystery of their mutual connections

The most important of all features of the tomb is, however, the mentioned above relief representing Bellerophon. It is situated on the left-side of the upper part of the front wall of the porch (Bean 1989:67). The hero is riding a flying Pegasus while rising his left arm (Ibid.:67). The rider and his steed are facing right, towards another relief, positioned above the left-hand side door (Ibid.:67). The latter shows a feline-like animal, a lion or leopard, facing left, towards the coming hero (Ibid.:67). At first sight, the position of the both reliefs suggests that they are related, and some scholars interpret them as two components of the same mythological scene; according to a Greek myth, Bellerophon fights against and slays a monster, Chimera, after she devastates Caria and Lycia (Bean 1989:67-68; The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica 2021).

Bellerophon on Pegasus spears the Chimera, on an Attic red-figure epinetron, 425–420 BC. Photo by Marsyas (2005). Uploaded in 2020. CC BY-SA 2.5. Photo and caption source: “Bellerophon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The myth of Chimarea is also strongly associated with another site in ancient Lycia, namely the Mount Chimaera, which is often localized in Yanartaş , in geothermically active region with naturally burning flames (“Yanartaş” 2021; “Mount Chimaera” 2021). “It has been suggested that the fires are the inspiration for the fire-breathing Chimarea in Homer’s Iliad” (“Yanartaş” 2021). Nevertheless, George E. Bean assumes “that the original location of the ancient Mount Chimarea was further west, as cited by Strabo, at a location where similar fires burned” (Ibid.).

Chimarea is usually described as a fire-breathing female hybrid, composed of parts of such animals as a lion, a goat and a dragon (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica 2021). Nonetheless, the relief representing the feline does not resemble the mythological hybrid at all (Bean 1989:68). What is more, the both representations are shown in a different scale, which may be against the thesis that they belong to the same narrative (Ibid.:68). The relief showing the lion-like animal may be rather related to two other reliefs of the tomb, each appearing on the threshold blocks below the two side-doors, which also represent animals, interpreted either as horses or dogs (Ibid.:67).

Just passing by history

Tlos was just a short stop on our way to the gorge of Saklikent and, unfortunately, I did not have enough time to explore it properly. My little cousins curiously listened to the story of Bellerophon, his winged horse, Pegasus and flying mermaids, crouching at the tombs in order to transport souls of the dead into the afterlife. But I was able to capture their attention just for a while; as children usually do, they got bored quickly with the crumbles of stone and wanted to move on. Fortunately, I came back to the site years later on a proper study trip to Tlos.

My little cousins curiously listened to the story of Bellerophon, his winged horse, Pegasus and flying mermaids, crouching at the tombs in order to transport souls of the dead into the afterlife. Yet, it was just a short stop at the Lycian history. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At the time of my first visit to this ancient site, it was more like a relaxing tour with a brief meeting with the Lycian past, just before jumping into the icy cold blue water of Saklikent and exploring the beauty of the canyon.

Featured image: The ancient city of Tlos towering over the area, believed to have been one of the most important religious city of Lycia. Over its ancient remains, there is a Turkish castle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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


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“Lycian tombs in Tlos” (2021). In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3jqJMk3>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2021].

“Mount Chimaera” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wKpFBr>. [Accessed on 10th April, 2021].

“Tlos” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d64v8X>. [Accessed on 10th April, 2021].

“Yanartaş” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3t70B5f>. [Accessed on 10th April, 2021].

Bean G. E. (1989). Lycian Turkey. An Archaeological Guide, Vol. 4. London: John Murray Publishers.

Miszczak I. (2009). ”Dzieje Licyjczyków”. In: Miszczak I., Miszczak J. Turcja w sandałach. Available at <https://bit.ly/3kVybIh>. [Accessed on 8th March, 2021].

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica (2021). “Chimera. Greek mythology”. In: Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at <https://bit.ly/391nAqy>. [Accessed on 20th March, 2021].

Inside the Pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions

Well-documented beliefs of ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica say that the Earth is a mass of land surrounded by waters (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). But the Mayan world was not simply limited to that land but also included a deep dark underworld beneath it and the blue vault of heavens above it (Ibid.:200). For this reason, the earthly world, where they lived, could itself be perceived as the Middle-World or Middle-Earth (Ibid.:200). Similarly, it was called by the peoples of the Dark Ages, in contemporary North-West Europe in the first millennium AD. (Bates 2002:13). A famous author, J.R.R. Tolkien likewise writes about this mythical world in his epic novel, The Lord of the Rings (Ibid.:13). Similar cosmological concepts found in the Maya culture also appear in other ancient cultures, like the Egyptian; the Heliopolitan creation myth goes that the landmass enclosed by waters was actually a mound that arose from the primordial waters of the god Nu, and was called the Benben stone, which was also related to the  Egyptian pyramidion and obelisk (“Benben” 2021).

‘You read too much and too quick’, I thought, smiling to myself. Such mythological concept-frequency comparisons I was making between different ancient cultures may seem far-reaching speculations. Nevertheless, I could not help finding ensuing similarities between civilisations that are said to have developed independently, in different time and in distant regions. I felt as if I had just crossed a forbidden line. Yet, I could not stop my thoughts from wandering.

Architecture of mystical dimensions

Mayan architecture of the city-states metaphorically repeats a representation of the Mayan mythical concept of the world with its overwhelming unity of time and space, reflected in expressly arranged man-made structures (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). The Mayan urban architecture is usually characterized by a group of buildings, concentrated around a courtyard, which recreate the palace complex on a monumental scale (Ibid.:200). Such an arrangement is also visible in Palenque (Ibid.:200).

The two inner pillars covered in stucco reliefs, from the Temple of the Inscriptions. Photo by Alejandro Linares Garcia. CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to scholars, the structures placed in this way resemble a natural environment of Mesoamerica, with mountains towering over green plains (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Such an interpretation is also confirmed by the hieroglyphic description of a tall building, defined as witz – a mountain, whose peaks may refer to stepped pyramids (Ibid.:200). In architecture, Mayan plazas and courtyards border each other in a different way, but the buildings, despite their frequent reconstructions, always remain in an architectural and astronomical relation to each other (Ibid.:200). Moreover, many of them are placed in a mythical landscape and so seem to be planned according to the points where the celestial bodies rise and set on specific days of the astronomical year (Ibid.:200; see: Discovered but Uncovered Palenque of the Ancient Maya). Accordingly, topography and solar orientations were essential for natural cycles and rituals in the net of Mayan city temples (Blankenbehler 2015).

The Temple of the Inscriptions

The so-called Temple of the Inscriptions is not an exception from the rule of specific architectural alignments in Palenque (see: Mystery of the Casas de Piedra in Palenque). It is located in the southwestern corner of the aforementioned Palace, right next to lonely buildings on tall terraced bases, which were later explored and consequently labelled as the Temples XIII and XII (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:178). The Temple’s wide body rises against a hill that archaeologists consider a natural tectonic formation (Von Däniken 1991:178). Erch von Däniken (1991:178) is yet of a different opinion; after him, the hill was artificially elevated and clearly divided into four terraces. Moreover, a temple and small clusters of ruins were discovered on its top (Ibid.:178). Their location indicates they may have been related to the Temple of the Inscriptions itself (Ibid.:178). It can be equally assumed that this inconspicuous mound contains even more archaeological puzzles than have been discovered so far (Ibid.:178).

Templo de las Inscripciones is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all. Although its comb roof is partially destroyed, the Temple seems very high as it rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top. Photo by petrs (2014). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The Temple of the Inscriptions, or Templo de las Inscripciones, is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all (Von Däniken 1991:178). Although its comb roof is partially destroyed, the Temple seems very high as it rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top (Von Däniken 1991:178; Greene Robertson 2021). Curiously, the same number of years Pakal ruled as a king of Palenque before he died (Greene Robertson 2021). Is there any connection between these historical and architectural facts? The entire structure of the Temple is twenty-five meters high (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). There are five entrances leading inside it, each flanked by two pillars with rich stucco ornamentation (Von Däniken 1991:178-179; Greene Robertson 2021). Inside the whole Temple, there are relief plates with six hundred and seventeen inscriptions (Ibid.:179). Hence the name of the Temple (Ibid.:178).

Shaft leading down

The Temple of the Inscriptions became famous for yet another reason, which also became the greatest archaeological mystery of Mesoamerica in the twentieth century (Von Däniken 1991:179). Namely, it contains a richly decorated burial chamber and the sarcophagus of King Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). A similar discovery shows that the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica also used the pyramids for burial purposes, as it was during the Old and Middle Kingdom in ancient Egypt, and in ancient China. The discoverer and explorer of the tomb chamber was Dr. Albert Ruz Lhuillier (1906 – 1979), director of the Palenque excavation, appointed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). In 1949, the archaeologist found a shaft at the temple level with stairs leading down into the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179).

The Temple of the Inscriptions, towering from the stepped pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The shaft had been hidden below huge stone slabs provided with holes used for their lifting (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). The vaulted staircase turned out to be completely covered with dirt and rubbles so it took the archaeological team three years to clean it and descend deeper into the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). Eventually, in 1952, the archaeologist reached the tomb crypt containing a megalithic sarcophagus (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:180-181; Burns 2012). It is still the largest crypt found so far in the land of the Maya; it has dimensions of 4×10 metres, and its vault is 7 metres high (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). Before the archaeologist entered it, he had to descend flights of stairs, pass through one wall bonded with mortar, then a four-meter stone wall, and finally a triangular stone slab, which already gave a direct access to the proper burial chamber (Von Däniken 1991:180-181). On the way to the tomb, valuable jewellery, clay tablets and the remains of six dead, including one woman, were found (Ibid.:180-181).

Emergency exit for the soul

The burial chamber itself lies on the north-south axis (Von Däniken 1991:181). It is located at the end of the vaulted staircase, inside the terraced substructure and below the level of the Main Plaza in front of the temple, with its foundations reaching two meters below the base of the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204; Von Däniken 1991:181).

Today, it is still accessed by the same spiral stairs from the back room of the temple, which were unburied by the archaeologists in the 50s of the twenty century (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Eberl 2013:311). A cross-section plan of the temple clearly shows huge dimensions of the burial chamber, especially when it is compared with the temple building itself, erected at the top of the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The floor of the crypt is covered with one-stone slab weighing approximately nine tons (Von Däniken 1991:182). Stucco reliefs on its walls, show a procession of solemnly decorated priests passing along (Ibid.:182). Graham Hancock (2016:158) calls them the Lords of the Night, referring in this way to the ‘Ennead’, a group of nine ancient Egyptian deities, particularly worshiped at Heliopolis (see: “Ennead” 2021).

There are sixty-nine narrow and steep steps leading to the top of the pyramid with the Temple of the Inscriptions. Curiously, the same number of years Pakal ruled as a king of Palenque before he died. Does it confirm the identity of the buried man? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The sarcophagus was found under the mentioned stone slab and weighs twenty tons (Von Däniken 1991:182). It was carved from a single stone and was sealed with a five-ton stone lid (Von Däniken 1991:182; Hancock 2016:158; My Gen 2021). The sarcophagus contained a skeleton of a very tall male, wearing a jade death mask, composed of two hundred fragments (Von Däniken 1991:182; Monsieur Mictlan 2018; Hancock 2016:158). A similar green funeral mask but made of malachite pieces was also found attached to the front of the Red Queen’s skull in the Temple XIII, situated just on the right of the Temple of the Inscriptions (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Yet, the Queen’s mask was additionally provided with a diadem made of flat circular jade beads (Ibid.). Like in the case of the Red Queen, next to the dead from the Temple of the Inscriptions, there were found, among others, pieces of jewellery, such as jade bracelets, rings and earrings with hieroglyphs engraved on them, a pearl and jade bead necklace and a jade statuette (Von Däniken 1991:182; Monsieur Mictlan 2018; Hancock 2016:159). For Graham Hancock (2016:159), the found figurine looked like a more ancient object than other tomb offerings and was similar to artifacts associated with a “multicultural” environment of the Olmecs from La Venta; namely, it represented an old Asian man with a goatee and a long flowing robe.

Additionally, from the sarcophagus a clay pipe was carried outside the crypt; it is known as the psychoduct, which is unique to Pakal’s tomb (Von Däniken 1991:182; “Palenque” 2021; Eberl 2013:311). As archaeologists say, it allowed the soul of the deceased to separate from the body and fly out of the tomb (Von Däniken 1991:182; Eberl 2013:311). Moreover, it was believed that on the way to the afterlife, the dead had to overcome many different obstacles (Eberl 2013:315). Even modern-day Mayas are still afraid of the ok-pixan, or soul thieves who, like Christian demons, can capture the human soul during its ascent to the afterlife (Ibid.:315). Therefore, in the past, living family members of the dead tried to make the journey of the soul easier (Ibid.:315). For this reason, special openings in the houses’ roofs were designed to serve as a hiding place or a soul’s escaping route. In the Tempel of the Inscriptions, it was probably the role of the mentioned psychoduct (Ibid.:315), “which leads from the tomb itself, up the stairway and through a hole in the stone, covering the entrance to the burial” (“Palenque” 2021).

Buried mystery in the heart of the pyramid

Most researchers believe that the sarcophagus contains the remains of Pakal, one of the most famous Mayan kings known today, who died in 683 AD. (Von Däniken 1991:182; Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204; Eberl 2013:315). After Palenque had been attacked and looted by the ruler of Calakmul, at the end of the Preclassical period, Pakal took over the power at a young age and rebuilt the city, restoring it to its glory in the so-called Classic Period (Burns 2012). During the almost seventy years of Pakal’s reign, the most significant inscriptions and monuments of the Mayan civilization were also created (Ibid.). Surely, such an outstanding ruler deserved a famous sarcophagus. According to archaeologists, the king designed his own tomb, which was completed together with the Temple of the Inscriptions around 690 AD., already during the reign of his son, Kan Balam the Second (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204).

One thing is certain: the tomb and the crypt were built first, and only then the successive steps of the pyramid were erected over it (Von Däniken 1991:190-191). Only as the final result of the construction was the temple overbuilt on top of the pyramid, which is actually a distinctive architectural design in all Mesoamerica. (Von Däniken 1991:190-191; Greene Robertson 2021). The stairs leading to the interior of the temple were being additionally raised and lengthened several times during the second phase of the building process (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). This part of the whole structure also remained inextricably linked to the tomb by means of the flies of stairs going deep down, which were finally covered up (Von Däniken 1991:179-181; Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). It is not known, however, when and why they were buried; was it a result of an unknown ritual, already at the time of the construction of the pyramid, or it was done much later, for generally unknown reasons?

The Temple of the Inscriptions, or Templo de las Inscripciones, is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all. It rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top. Photo by k_tzito (2016). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The assumed chronology of the construction of the Temple of the Inscriptions proves another fact (Von Däniken 1991:190). Since the pyramid with its temple were astronomically oriented, the very first step to such an arrangement must have been started by a proper placement of the twenty-ton sarcophagus and the five-ton stone lid of the tomb, long before the pyramid itself was erected (Ibid.:190). For this reason, the sarcophagus had always been to remain in the place chosen for it underworld; nobody was able to move it outside, climbing again up the steep and narrow stairs (Ibid.:190). As such, it was simultaneously the beginning and the centre of the astronomical mystery of the Temple of the Inscriptions, towering at the top of its stepped pyramid (Ibid.:190).

Or perhaps, the crypt itself had existed hundreds of years before the pyramid was built over it and so the tomb did not belong to the king Pakal … (Ibid.:182;190). Who was then buried in the crypt?

Inconvenient dates

With nearly two hundred hieroglyphic inscriptions, Palenque is one of the most important inscription sites throughout the Mayan territory (Prager, Grube 2013:447). Calendar inscriptions read at Palenque refer, among other things, to the rulers of the Classic period (Von Däniken 1991:182). Pakal was born in 603 AD. and reportedly he was twelve when he ascended the throne and had ruled until his death for nearly seventy years, that is, until 683 AD. (Ibid.:182). So he was about eighty at the time of his death, which after Erich von Däniken (1991:182) seems quite odd considering the average Mayan lifetime in ancient times was only thirty-five.

Beside the Palace with the Temple of the Inscription in the foreground. Mayan architecture of the city-states metaphorically repeats a representation of the Mayan mythical concept of the world with its overwhelming unity of time and space, reflected in expressly arranged man-made structures. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the basis of the Mayan hieroglyphic cycles in Palenque, not only the dates of Pakal’s reign (603-683 AD.) were read, but also the date of the fall of the city (Von Däniken 1991:177,182). The last hieroglyph points to the year of 780 AD. (Ibid.:177). It has also been assumed that the oldest known date for the beginning of the Mayan chronology is 3114 BC. (Ibid.:177). However, the world-renowned archaeologist and historian of art, Herbert J. Spinden (1879–1967) found among the Mayan inscriptions a date going even further back in the past, namely to 3373 BC., whereas in the described before Temple of the Cross at Palenque, he discovered a date going as far back as to 3379 BC. (Ibid.:177; see😊 The problem is that at the time defined by such dates the ancient Maya had not existed yet . (Ibid.:177). Besides, there are so many various dates scattered around the city of Palenque that specialists sometimes get confused while deciphering the hieroglyphs to ascribe them to a proper time in the Mayan history (Ibid.:177). Among them the oldest dates, over which archaeologists usually spread their hands helplessly, are particularly intriguing (Ibid.:177-178,182).

Despite all this inconsistency, the puzzling set of dates in Mayan cities covering the millennia cannot give any foundations for the hypothesis of fictitious dating by the Maya, of which experts often accuse them (Von Däniken 1991:178). In addition, relatively little progress has been made in deciphering other hieroglyphs since the Mayan dates were decoded (Hancock 2016:156). Moreover, although astronomical cycles of dates have been deciphered at Palenque, these are often cycles so long that they probably have little to do with human history (Von Däniken 1991:178). As Erich von Däniken (1996:) writes, dates of thousands and millions of years should be ultimately reserved for gods.

At the back wall of the Temple of the Inscriptions there are carved in rows tangled anthropomorphic and zoomorphic features (Hancock 2016:156). They are a mixture of puzzling hieroglyphs and phonetic symbols that have not been read so far (Ibid.:157). Graham Hancock (2016:157) writes that it is only known that their number, which is six hundred and twenty, refers to the thousands of years of past epochs and their content may stand for a history of gods and people who played a role in those events.

Epitaph fifty years before death

Calendar inscriptions are also depicted on the Palenque sarcophagus (Von Däniken 1991:182,186). They run along its stone-lid and on its side edges (Ibid.:186). So far, only some hieroglyphs standing for dates and astronomical signs, such as of the Venus, Sun, North Star and the Moon have been successfully deciphered (Ibid.:182,186). After Dr. Ruz, among the inscriptions on the tomb, there is ultimately information about the cycles of dates, and the last date on the sarcophagus is 633 AD., that is to say, fifty years before the conventional date of Pakal’s death, which is 683 AD. (Ibid.:182). Probably due to this unmatching date on the sarcophagus, some scholars have suggested that the image on the lid is not really an image of the famous king, but symbolically represents mankind or the Mayan god of corn, Yum Kox (Ibid.:182).

Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico. Photo by Kwamikagami – English Wikipedia (2004). Public domain. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Maya script” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

And where can one turn to for advice? Apparently, any interpretation of the main character of the show depends on an interpreter and their independent but subjective approach to the subject.

Asking geologists

Another question, which is related to the identity of the skeletal remains and to the inconsistency of the most recent date on the sarcophagus, is when the crypt under the Temple of the Inscriptions was actually sealed. The only witnesses who could have revealed the secret were stalactites and stalagmites growing in the crypt (Von Däniken 1991:181). Unfortunately, whereas some may have been accidentally knocked down by the researchers while they were opening the stone slab leading to the tomb, others were probably destroyed during their further archaeological works in situ (Ibid.:181).

Dr. Ruz mentions the geological formations while describing the crypt as:

“[…] an enormous room that appeared to be graven in ice, a kind of grotto whose walls and roof seemed to have been planned in perfect surfaces, or an abandoned chapel whose cupola was draped with curtains of stalactites, and from whose floor arose thick stalagmites like the dripping of a candle.”

(Hancock 2001:163).

As the archaeologist refers to them as “thick” and looking “like the dripping of a candle”, they must have already been quite long and large at the moment of uncovering the crypt, in 1952.

Cavern full of stalactites and stalagmites in Metro Cave / Te Ananui Cave. Photo by Pseudopanax. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Stalaktyt” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Stalactites are icicle-shaped mineral formation that hangs from the ceiling and their equivalent formations growing up from the floor are known as stalagmites (PWN 2021). They are formed by the precipitation of calcium carbonate crystals from water dripping from rock fractures and their maximum increment per year is from approximately 0.25 mm to 3 mm (Ibid.). Still, such formations can grow faster in an area rich in limestone, which is actually characteristic of the building substance of Mayan pyramids, including the stepped pyramid with the Temple of the Inscriptions (Von Däniken 1991:181).

According to the provided dates for Pakal’s death, the tomb stayed sealed for 1 300 years till it was discovered (My Gen 2021), whereas according to the latest date found in Palenque, it had been neglected for around 1 172 years (Von Däniken 1991:177,181). Since the Maya abandoned Palenque at the turn of the ninth century AD., the water of heavy rains must have penetrated deep into the building of the Temple and greatly influenced the growing process of the geological formations inside it (Ibid.:181). The dry months that followed the rains brought in turn severe heat, which, like humidity, also had an impact on the growth rate of the stalactites inside the crypt (Ibid.:181).

How much could they grow in such conditions? If at least one of them had been preserved, it would be possible for geologists to calculate how many years had passed since the crypt was sealed (Von Däniken 1991:181). After Erich von Däniken (1991:181) it could be a starting point for understanding all the puzzling dates in the Mayan chronology.

Another intact sarcophagus

Just before our descent into the deep belly of the Temple of the Inscriptions, we first directed our steps to another tomb, which was found much later in the adjacent Temple XIII, in the spring of 1994 (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). The discovery was accidently made by a young Mexican archaeologist, Fanny López Jiménez (Ibid.).

Like a team of archaeologists twenty years ago, we climbed into a narrow passageway, leading inside the pyramid with three chambers vaulted by stone ceilings, one of which contained a tomb of the so-called Red Queen, once accompanied by human remains belonging to a young man and an older woman (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Such a nickname of the female skeleton found inside the sarcophagus was chosen due to the fact that her skeletal remains with the funeral collection of various objects were covered in a red powder, made of grounded cinnabar (the ore of mercury), which was once used as a pigment (Ibid.). The sarcophagus was dated back to the times of Pakal, between 600 and 700 AD. and the age of the buried woman was estimated at around sixty years old (Ibid.). The archaeologists first thought it was Pakal’s mother but then they eventually decided it was rather Ix Tz’akbu Ajaw, the king Pakal’s wife (Ibid.). Nevertheless, her identity has never been surely confirmed (Ibid.).

Further questions about Pakal’s identity

Scientifics have greatly progressed in studies over the remains of the Red Queen and her possible identity by means of precise results of a series of the skeleton’s analyses, which primarily included radiocarbon and DNA tests, supported by facial reconstructions studies (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Such a state of facts, however, poses many questions about Pakal’s skeletal analyses. Even though the Red Queen had presumably lived in the times of Pakal’s rule and her remains were also buried in Palnque, thus in the exactly same conditions as in the case of Pakal’s skeletal remains, and both tombs were sealed and intact till they were discovered, the comparative analyses of both cases have significantly differed.

The Pyramid of the Inscriptions is on the left of the smaller Temple XIII, situated just next to it to the right. There is a characteristic entrance to the inside of the pyramid leading to the burial chamber of the Red Queen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Whereas in the case of the Red Queen, there was a successfully extracted sample of DNA (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021), such an examination was claimed to be impossible in the case of Pakal’s skeletal remains (Wordtrade.com 2021). Moreover, in the analyses of the latter, there are no known results of any radiocarbon tests … (Ibid.; see:).

Why such scientific methods, as radiocarbon dating or DNA examinations, were not conducted to determine the identity of the said Pakal’s skeletal remains?

Featured image: The Temple of the Inscriptions became a place of the most fascinating discovery of the 50s of the twentieth century in Mesoamerica. Namely, inside the stepped pyramid of the Temple, the first tomb of Palenque was found in 1952, where a famous sarcophagus was revealed by a group of archaeologists. It is commonly said to contain the king Pakal’s skeletal remains. Besides that, the Temple is one of the crucial architectural elements in a mystical alignment of the city of Palenque. It is located in the southwestern corner of the Palace, from where the picture is taken. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.