Tag Archives: Painting

Debate on the Paintings of Damsels Flying on the Clouds

Yet before I started my studies of art history I had got problems to accurately recognize a technique applied by artists in processes of mural painting. Although people generally describe wall paintings simply with the term of frescoes, it may not be technically correct for all of them (Jaspal 2007). Then I actually realized that even scholars may happen to misuse the term, especially in case of controversial examples, whose technique has been always strongly debated.

But let’s start from the beginning

When we talk about wall paintings or murals (Latin murus) we mean paintings done on the walls (Somathilake 2007:109). In the context of techniques of murals, we can specify:

AL FRESCO (It. ‘fresh’) True fresco (buon affresco, as distinct from fresco secco), is painting done with mineral or earth pigments upon wet lime or gypsum PLASTER. (Vegetable pigments cannot be used as they are attacked by the lime). The pigments are suspended in water, and unite with the plaster as they dry. The basis is a roughcast wall, covered with a layer of plaster (the arricciato), on which the composition (the synopia) is sketched out in charcoal and sinopia. Only enough wet plaster (the intonaco) is then applied for a day’s work. Any additional retouching must be done in fresco secco.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:96)

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). ‘Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12 and ‘Last Judgement’ 1536-41 (fresco). True Fresco is a skill that dates back to Classical Antiquity but reached its peak as an art form during the Italian Renaissance. Photo source: Get Your Guide (2008-2020). “Private Early Morning Sistine Chapel Tour.” In: Get Your Guide.

And …

AL SECCO (It. ‘dry’), fresco secco (It. ‘dry fresco’) Painting which, unlike true FRESCO, is carried out on plaster which has already dried. It can be done in TEMPERA, or with PIGMENTS in a MEDIUM of lime-water. In the latter case, the surface is dampened before applying the paint. The results are less durable than true fresco.

Lucie-Smith (2003:195).
Cupola decoration Inv. No. 7118 Tempera; Bawit, Monastery of St. Apollo, 6th / 7th century (Coptic Museum, Cairo, tempera). Photo source: Emil Krén and Daniel Marx © Web Gallery of Art.from Web Gallery of Art (1996-2020).

Al Fresco – from the Antiquity to Renaissance

AL FRESCO (fresh in Italian) indicates fresh or wet ground, and FRESCO BUONO (true fresco) is made using a genuine wet ground (Somathilake 2007:109). Although al fresco had been already practiced by ancient civilisations, the technique called fresco buono (or buon fresco) was first perfected in Italy, around 1300, on the verge of Renaissance (Ibid.:110).

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). ‘The Creation of Adam’ from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508 -1512 (fresco) The most iconic image from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, also referred to as ‘The Creation of Adam’. Public domain. Photo source: “Fresco” (2020) In: Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia.

“The technique [actually] involves the most durable form of art known to Europe where a piece of painting must be completed on a wet and freshly laid stucco ground before another piece of plaster is prepared” (Somathilake 2007:113). In this method pigments are mixed with water only (Lucie-Smith 2003:96). In a fresco technique, “no binder is required to be added to the mineral pigments that are applied because the chemical reaction of the wet plaster with the carbon dioxide in the air creates a hard layer of calcium carbonate and the pigments are securely fixed in the calcium carbonate layer while drying” (Jaspal 2007).

Young Girl Gathering Saffron Crocus Flowers, detail of wall painting, Room 3 of House Xeste, Akrotiri, Thera. Second Palace period, c. 1700-1450 BC., Thera. Public domain. Source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, the method “consists of painting with lime-resistant pigments (only pigments which do not suffer from lime can be used) on damp lime plaster, which has not yet set. In this process as the plaster can only be painted on once it is wet, the painter divides his work in the so-called ‘day-pieces’, each piece day being the area, which he can finish [daily]” (Somathilake 2007:113). “In this rapid process, the parts of the plastered portion that have not been painted yet need to be cut away at the end of [work]” (Dhanapala:65). When the artists comes back to painting, the surface is plastered to keep it damp (Ibid.). “Thus in true fresco nothing can be added or altered after the plaster has set. This time factor gives fresco painting an extraordinary vitality as it means that the brushwork must be quick, the forms monumental and the range of colours limited”(Somathilake 2007:113).

“In addition, when the plaster sets, the particles of colours crystallise into the wall and remain permanently fused in it. They cannot flake off. […] The fresco can only be damaged if the wall decays. (…) The relevant plaster layers must therefore be very carefully built up” (Ibid.).

The Minoans decorated their temple (known as palaces) complexes and homes with the so-called true fresco painting (buon fresco). Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed), c. 1400 BC, fresco. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Jebulon, CC0. Public domain. Photo and caption source: Dr. Santa German, (2020). “Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos”. In: Khan Academy (2020).

The technique of Al Secco and Tempera

Fresco secco actually indicates any dry technique of murals, including tempera. Here, “the whole wall or rock surface may be completely plastered and allowed to dry” (Dhanapala:65). The main aspect of this method, involves then painting on lime plaster which already has set (Somathilake 2007:113). The technique al secco was commonly applied in antiquity (Somathilake 2007:113). In its process, “the pigments were ground in an aqueous binding medium. The completely dry lime plaster wall is usually thoroughly saturated with lime water (or baryta water) and left overnight. The painting then takes place on a moist surface as in fresco, except that the colours are mixed with a solution of casein glue or egg yolk [- tempera], instead of being ground in water only” (Ibid.). Painting in fresco secco “are also quite stable, but susceptible to damage by moisture and dampness. Yet, as they are done on dry plaster, there is no stress of the time deadline” (Jaspal 2007). This technique has always complemented the fresco method, when alterations were needed. These are usually referred to as superficial, upper layers (ibid.).

Decorated prayer niche. Inv. No. 7987. Tempera Saqqara, Monastery of St. Jeremiah, cell 1725, 6th / 7th century (Coptic Museum, Coptic Cairo). Photo source: Coptic Cairo. The Coptic Museum (2020).

TEMPERA (It. fr. Lat. temperare, ‘to mix in due proportion’). An EMULSION used as a MEDIUM for PIGMENT. Traditionally, tempera is made with whole eggs or egg-yolk, but milk, various kinds of glue or gum or even dandelion juice or the sap of the fig-tree can be used.

Lucie-Smith (2003:213).

In other words, the pigment used is mixed with some liquid vehicle, such as egg-yolk, diluted glue or gum, chalk, clay, gelatine, etc. (Somathilake 2007:109-110,112,120). Next it is laid on a dry surface. After Somathilake (2007:120), however, true tempera is when the colours are ground with egg yolk only. Another characteristics typical of tempera are rather opaque colours in paintings, whereas in the true fresco technique, colours are subdued and their choice is limited (Dhanapala:67).

It is important to note that tempera in al secco technique is exclusively used in wall paintings, when a painting is applied directly on plaster (the latter is applied first on the wall or rock’s surface). Tempera, however, can also be executed on the wood (e.g. fayum portraits), vellum (e.g. The Beautiful Hours of Jean de France, Duc de Berry), paper (Funerary Equipment, Tomb Of Userhat), canvas (paintings in the Church of Debre Berhan Selassie in Gondar), etc.

Wall painting flourished in Faras in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The finest monumental composition is the Nativity, once in the northern aisle … Photo source: the shot from the documentary by Jurkow W., Manowski R. (2014). FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube.
…. and the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace in the narthex. The paintings were executed in the tempera technique on dry mud plaster, using natural pigments found on the desert fringes of the Nile Valley. Photo source: the shot from the documentary by Jurkow W., Manowski R. (2014). FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube.

Major difference between the techniques

Accordingly, the main difference in these two methods is that in the fresco the pigments are strongly bound within the plaster and so are united with the surface, while in al secco the pigments are applied as layers on top of the plaster surface (Dhanapala:65; Somathilake 2007:114).

Controversy in the matter of the Technique of Murals in South Asia

Controversy regarding a recognition of a correct technique of murals mainly appears in an analysis of paintings from South Asia, precisely Ajanta (India) and Sigiriya (Sri Lanka). Let’s call them simply paintings. The paintings of Ajanta Caves and of Sigiriya rock are said to have been created between the fifth and seventh centuries (Dalrymple 2014; De Silva 2019). Most of experts have already reached a consensus that the so-called Ajanta ‘frescoes’ are actually paintings made by means of some kind of tempera, which actually amounted to the title of al secco as their pigments had been applied to dried plaster (Somathilake 2007:120). Nevertheless, the case of Sigiriya still keeps the scholars awake.

Dancer with her attendants and musicians around her, mural painting in Ajanta caves. Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020). “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

Differences between murals of Ajanta and Sigiriya

One of Sri Lankan authors, D.B Dhanapala heatedly states that even “most authorities incline to the opinion that [Sigiriya paintings] are tempera in technique, [their] reasoning seems to be this wise: ‘[the] Sigiriya pictures bear a close affinity to those at Ajanta. [As the latter] have been proved to be tempera paintings, therefore the Sigiriya figures are tempera [too]!” (Ibid.:64).

There are several aspects of murals that can be actually examined in order to decide on a technique applied: characteristics of the ground (plaster), the presence of medium and its nature (Somathilake 2007:119).

Women in the Clouds in Sigiriya: true freso or tempera? Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


As it is discussed above, a medium binder has been ultimately used in al secco technique, usually by means of tempera. The universally accepted classification of paintings, such as oil, watercolour, tempera, fresco etc. is generally formulated based on the medium (binder) used (Ibid.). Unfortunately, the binding medium in India and Sri Lanka is said to have largely perished due to autoxidation and the depredations by insect-pests (Ibid.:119-120). Hence there is an issue of identifying the presence of the binder even through chemical analysis, which factually stands in the way of coming to a definite conclusion (Ibid.:120).

One of the most iconic Sigiriya’s murals ; the so-called Apsara or a court lady. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Dr. Somathilake (2007:120,123), however, underlines that “in many murals [vegetable glue or gum] was the only organic binding medium that held the pigments firmly to the ground unlike in the fresco method. Thus, all these facts would definitely point to a tempera technique at Ajanta and elsewhere.” The binding components of the Sigiriya pigments are said to be a vegetable gum and a drying oil, which is insoluble in water (Ibid.:124). Probably, this is why the murals, which were exposed to the elements for centuries, have eventually survived to our times (Ibid.). From literary documents, we also know that ancient artists of Sri Lanka were familiar with a technique of using an oil medium for wall paintings (Ibid.)“and there was an apparent reason for using [it] since almost all of the murals were located outdoor, unlike the painting sites of India” (Ibid.).

Ground for the murals

Ajanta painting. Photo source: Josh Hortman (2020). “Ajanta Paintings”. In: Pinterest.

In further examination, Dhanapala also analyses the ground for the murals in both cases, Ajanta and Sigiriya. The proper thickness and composition of the plaster at Sigiriya, unlike Ajanta’s thin surface, was actually more prepared for the technique of true fresco (Dhanapala:65-66). Moreover, artists working in Ajanta Caves must have worked in dimly-lit halls (Ibid.:66)(the way they actually let the light in is another mystery) and so they probably were not able to complete such intricate compositions, as Ajanta boasts, before the plaster got dry (Ibid.). Sigiriya’s painting have got more simple compositions and they are located in the open rock pocket, where strong sunlight has been available (Ibid.). A separate question is how the artists actually managed to paint on the rock surface, while being suspended at the height of over fifty meters above the ground (Kovalsky, V. 2013). It is also worth mentioning that no trace of rock-cut stairs have ever been found in the proximity of the painted granite wall, hence ancient viewers could only observe the paintings from the ground (Ibid.). This, however, would not have been possible to do without using some type of binoculars (Ibid.). Today, on the third level of the Rock of Sigiriya, which is fenced by the Mirror Wall, there is a spiral metal staircase for modern-day visitors, so they are able to climb deeper twenty metres up to see the paintings in detail (Ibid.). But how were they reached to be admired fifteen hundred years ago?

Additionally, although there are today just few left examples of such paintings in Sigiriya, originally, it is said to have been about five hundred of similar scenes, apparently surrounding the rock like a colourful belt (Kovalsky, V. 2013).

The proper thickness and composition of the plaster at Sigiriya was more prepared for the technique of true fresco. Photo by Artur Maltsau (2015). Free images at Pixabay.

Pigments used

Dhanapala observes that in case of Ajanta, the scenes are overpainted in many scenes, whereas at Sigiriya, there are only few examples of overcoating (Dhanapala:67). In comparison to Ajanta, where colours are deeper and their palette wider, at Sigiriya the pigments are much thinner and so subdued, and they are restricted to mainly red, yellow, green and black (Dhanapala:67; Somathilake 2007:121,123). Although there are small areas of more intense green and blue, the author suggests, they may have been later additions completed in tempera (Dhanapala:67). Dr. Somathilake (2007:121), however, argues that although the blue pigment was not actually used as much as the other colours, it is evident that the green was originally applied in Sigiriya murals and so it was not a later addition. He also underlines that all the pigments used were of natural origins. In a fact, organic pigments were typical of both, fresco and tempera techniques.

Ajanta caves Mural paintings- Flying Apsara (Left), Queen Sivali begin tended to by her maids (Right) . Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020) . “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

Besides, Dhanapala points out to the fact that the pigments in tempera have got a tendency to peel off on the plaster, which happens at Ajanta but does not occur at Sigiriya (Dhanapala:67). Even though the plaster comes off in Sigiriya murals, the pigments stay strongly incorporated in its structure (Ibid.:68). And if paint peels off, it appears only on surfaces, which were later altered in tempera (Ibid.).

Sigiriya woman with two hands

Dhanapala then puts forward another argument to support his thesis. In the figure no. 8 of the pocket B, behind the woman’s right hand, which was altered, there is an outline of the original hand visible in the plaster (Dhanapala:67).

Mural showing the woman with the outline of the original hand and the altered one below. The artist must have changed his mind … (Image modified from the original – the size reduced). Photo source: Jenny Rainbow (2020). In: Fineartamerica.

Dhanapala came to the conclusion that the artist changed his mind about how the woman’s hand should be actually depicted “but before he had time to erase the original hand the plaster dried” (Ibid.). Dr. Somathilake responds to Dhanapala’s argument claiming that an examination of the painting does not show any attempts to erase the contour of the original hand (Somathilake 2007:120-121). Moreover, if the plaster had dried before the artist had time to erase the hand, he would not have enough time to finish the hand in the altered position (Ibid.). Simultaneously, the scholar assumes that both: the original version and its alteration would have been done in fresco. There is another option though. The original woman’s hand may have been made in a true fresco technique, and later her hand was altered with a tempera technique. That would actually explain how the artist had enough time to finish the altered version and also why his original idea was still visible in the plaster.

Compromise ?

In his conclusion, Dhanapala sustains his arguments and claims Sigiriya murals were originally made as real frescoes (Ibid.:68). On the other side, such authorities, as Dr. Somathilake, strongly disagree with that opinion and argue that using the term ‘frescoes’ in terms of Ajanta or Sigiriya murals “is a misnomer in every sense” (Somathilake 2007:124). Further, they emphasize that there is no evidence that the Asian wall paintings are real frescoes (Ibid.), and “the general technique of the murals of India and Sri Lanka has always been some kind of tempera” (Ibid.). On the other side, there are scholars who have reached the compromise in that hotly debate and they believe that a technique applied in Ajanta and Sigiriya may be actually a combination of real fresco with tempera (see Somathilake 2007).

Notable Mural painting in Ajanta caves called Black Princess . Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020). “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

“No known process …”

Finally, it is also worth to quote another scholar, Havel (1905) whose words have become prominent for many researchers investigating the matter of Sigiriya’s murals (Dhanapala:66).

“There is no known process of tempera or oil painting which would stand to exposure of tropical weather for nearly fifteen hundred years as the Sigiriya paintings have done.”

Havel (1905). In: Dhanapala:66.
“Gallery of Art” at Sigiriya. Photo source: Dustbowl_Debutante (aka Jeanne), Joseph Cator (2020) “Frescoes at Sigiriya” In: Findery.

We can also conclude that, like many aspects of Sigiriya site (see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana), also the question of its paintings (aka frescoes) still remains unsolved, not only in terms of their technique of painting but also regarding the way they were executed, iconographically represented, and the purpose they were made for at all.

Featured image: Dancer with her attendants and musicians around her, mural painting in Ajanta caves. Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020). “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

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.


Image: “Cupola decoration” (6th century; mural painting in Coptic Museum, Cairo) (1996-2020). In: Emil Krén and Daniel Marx © Web Gallery of Art. Available at <https://bit.ly/2T9xCOB>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Image: “Decorated prayer niche” (Saqqara, Monastery of St. Jeremiah) (2020) In: Coptic Cairo. The Coptic Museum. Available at <https://bit.ly/2uJZQq0>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

“Fresco” (2020) In: Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/396c1fR>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Image: Get Your Guide (2008-2020). “Private Early Morning Sistine Chapel Tour.” In: Get Your Guide. Available at <https://bit.ly/37bujh9>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Dalrymple, W. (2014) “The Ajanta cave murals: ‘nothing less than the birth of Indian art’.” In: The Guardian. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Pu9pAB>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

De Silva, R. (2019) “The Sigiriya Ladies: Who were they, why were they painted?” Available at <https://bit.ly/388vTxC>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

Debutante D. (aka Jeanne), Cator J. (2020) “Frescoes at Sigiriya” In: Findery. Available at <https://bit.ly/2T90uXi>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Dhanapala, D.B. (Date is not provided) A Short Note on the Technique of the Sigiriya Pictures. University of Ceylon Review, pp. 64-68.

Free photo of “Sigiriya fresco” by Maltsau, A. (2015). Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3oFsizq>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

German S. (Dr) (2020) “Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos”. In: Khan Academy. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Pwgr81>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Hortman, J. “Ajanta Paintings”. In: Pinterest. Available at <https://bit.ly/39d6PGK >. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Jaspal, N. (2007) “Frescoes vs Tempera”. In: Heritage Preservation Atelier. Virtus and Labor. Available at <https://bit.ly/37XeEPy>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

Jurkow, W., Manowski, R. (2014) FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube. Available at <https://bit.ly/2J4yNtj>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Kovalsky, V. (2013) “Chapter 2 of a Detailed Photo Essay on Sigiriya, or Lion’s Rock, in Sri Lanka: Thoughts and Impressions of My Visit”. In: Vladimir KovalSky. Available at <https://bit.ly/32AEaZR>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

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

MacTaggart, J. (2020) “Italian Renaissance Art – Fresco Painting”. In: Artfactory. Available at <https://bit.ly/2wRxril>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Rainbow. J. (2020) “Apsara With Flowers. Sigiriya Cave Painting Art Print”. In: Fineartamerica. Available at <https://bit.ly/2I10NgK>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

“Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2KfYLO0>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Sekhon, B. (2020) “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Vtr27t>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Somathilake, M. (2007) Further Analysis on Fresco and Tempera: An Analysis of the Technique of Murals in South Asia. In: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka New Series, Vol. 53, pp. 109-132.

Acrobatic Somersault of the Egyptian Dancer from Turin

One of the world’s greatest museums is situated in Turin, in the north of Italy. It is the only museum other than Cairo’s wholly dedicated to Egyptian art and archaeology.

Drawing from a Scratchpad

Among multiplied and various artifacts exposed there, I would like to pay your attention to one small and a very fragile object of the size of 20 x 15 cm. It’s a painting, or more precisely a drawing on a limestone ostracon representing an Egyptian young girl caught in an acrobatic position. An ostracon itself is a potsherd, usually used as a writing or painting surface. At that time it may have served as a scratchpad.

Turin Museum
Ostracon showing a dancer in an acrobatic position. Limestone, New Kingdom, 19th-20th Dynasty (1292-1076 BC). Deir el-Medina. Drovetti collection (1824). Cat. 7052. Creative Commons (CC). Deir el-Medina. Drovetti collection (1824). Museum location: Sala 06 Vetrina 06. Cat. 7052 (2018). In: Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy.

An Acrobatic Somersault

The object comes from the ancient Egyptian village, Deir el-Medina, dating back to the period of the New Kingdom  (between 16th and the 11th century BC.). For over four centuries, Deir el-Medina had been home to highly skilled architects, temples and tombs builders, artists and various craftsmen staying in the service of the pharaoh. Thy lived there with their families but usually spent the entire week at work in the Valley of the Kings and Queens. A village artists must have been an author of the drawing probably representing one of girls living in the same community. Village women also served to the pharaoh but as dancers and singers in local temples. Egyptian Dancers played an important role in ancient Egypt. Not only was dancing a form of entertainment but it was mainly associated with religious ceremonies.

The depicted girl is a dancer. She is naked, except for a short black kilt with a decorative patterns on it and circular earrings of gold. The girl is probably performing an acrobatic somersault of a ritual dance. The artist is believed to have drawn first the body and then the head by rotation of the ostracon to a position where the profile could be done in the usual way. After a historian of art, William H. Peck, this way of making the drawing is suggested by the placement of the earring in defiance of the laws of gravity, and a rather unnatural way in which the neck was joined with the shoulders, with strongly elongated arms and legs. Also the shape of the dancer’s breast seemed to be sketched as if the artist imagined a woman’s torso in a standing position.

Egyptian style of art

Creating all the elements of the entire scene separately was very characteristic of Egyptian style of art.

The photo is showing dimensions of the object by means of a ruler, which is 11.5 x 17 x 4 cm. Deir el-Medina. Drovetti collection (1824). Cat. 7052. Creative Commons (CC). Deir el-Medina. Drovetti collection (1824). Museum location: Sala 06 Vetrina 06. Cat. 7052 (2018). In: Turin Museum, Italy.

It is like in a case of a child drawing an object without a three-dimensional perspective, but in a way the object is perceived from their position of watching, with its major characteristics. Looking down on a puddle, they can see its shape and what is inside, but when they observe a tree, they see it in its vertical form, and not from the above (which is not possible without flying over the trees!). Now they put all these observed elements together, on one piece of paper and they receive a similar stylistically incoherent whole, created once by ancient Egyptians.

Crescent of the Goddess Nut

Representation of the Woman Dancer seems slightly naive, yet it is very subtle and graceful in its form, depicted with a great skill and imagination. The artistic quality of the design is exceptional and erotically charged. The bare-breasted female is bending nearly over reaching the floor with her stretched arms and despite the drawing’ simplicity, the young woman seems extremely flexible. You may have an impression she has been caught in a nimble and swift dance at the sound of vibrant music.

Nut Goddess
The air god Shu, assisted by other gods, holds up Nut, the sky, as Geb, the earth, lies beneath. Detail from the Greenfield Papyrus (the Book of the Dead of Nesitanebtashru). Photograph published 1997; artwork created c. 950 BC. Photo source: What Life Was Like on the Banks of the Nile, edited by Denise Dersin. Photographed by the British Museum; original artist unknown. Public domain. {{PD-US}}. In: Wikimedia Commons.  

Her curly long hair touches the ground as her body is bending in a deep bow. As the author, Patrick Hunt has noticed, the Dancer’s pose looks like a reversal of the sky goddess Nut in her downward earth-nourishing bend. Nut connects the earth with the sky, and according to the Heliopolis beliefs, the goddess touches the ground only with the tips of her hands and fingers. Simultaneously, her body covered in stars takes the shape of a semi-circle, which immediately evokes a crescent and its associations with femininity.

Voices of Common Egyptians

Ancient Egyptian Music
Ancient Egyptian Music & Dance. Scene from Tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty, Western Thebes. Photo source: Carolinarh (2013). “Ancient Egyptian Tomb Art. Necropolis of Thebes” (unknown artist). In:Ars Artistic Adventure of Mankind. The History of Art through the millennia. 

Female dancers are usually depicted on tomb walls and temple walls. They are represented nearly naked with golden belts around their waits and collars around their necks. They are wearing jangling bracelets on arms, big earrings, and wigs, unlike our Dancer from Deir el Medina who is represented with her natural hair. All of them are caught in various poses – in profile, in three-quarter profile and even en face, free from being frozen in a hieratic posture of the upper class. They seem simply comfortable and full of life.

I came across the drawing of a female dancer while I was studying for an exam in the first year of studies of History of Art. It caught my eye from the very first moment, maybe because it was not created for formal purposes but probably for pleasure or training as a sketch. I don’t know why an artist chose to draw a dancing woman but his work now can tell us a story about simple people who once lived in Egypt.

‘On the outskirts of Deir el-Medina, the villagers once had attempted to find a water source’, explains Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist. ‘They dug down and eventually they reached more than fifty meters. They wanted to become self-sufficient in water but sadly for them they never did, and what the pit did become was a community dump, and as such became a mine of information. And when this pit and its surroundings were excavated by archaeologists, they made some remarkable discoveries, and the ostracon with the drawing was one of the findings among thousands of these pieces of pottery and stone: some with painted pictures, many with words giving us the real history of the village. These are their notes, reminders, love songs, laundry list, the very voices of common Egyptians.’

Featured image: Dancer, Deir el Medina. Ancient Egyptian depiction of topless dancer with elaborate hairstyle and hoop earrings in gymnastic backbend, on ostrakon (potsherd). Created: 1292-1186 BC. Public Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Dance in “Ancient Egypt” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Continue reading Acrobatic Somersault of the Egyptian Dancer from Turin

Creeping into the Lugar de los Muertos with an Archaeologist

After a week of travelling around Mexico, from Yucatan and Chiapas State, and through Tabasco to Oaxaca, I experienced a special magic and a variety of cultures of the country, felt by Mexicans and foreigners alike.

Archaeological site of Mitla and the ruins of the palace, Oaxaca. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Around 4000 recorded archaeological sites …

The state of Oaxaca is a mountainous area broken by wide fertile valleys and it represents one of the bastions of indigenous cultures having been developed for thousand of years in Mesoamerica. Apart from the country’s most energetic and colourful festivals, various arts, well-developed crafts, delicious cuisine and vibrant colonial architecture of the capital, the region also boasts a number of pre-Columbian sites and artefacts left behind by mysterious peoples.

The word Mitla itself means ‘underworld’ or the ‘place of rest’ in Zapotec, the language which is still relatively widely spoken, especially in villages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

There are around 4000 recorded archaeological sites in Oaxaca, mostly known as settlements of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, occupied up until the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. The all  sites differ in time and characteristics, however, all include a mystery: Lambityeco and Zaachila have got interesting tombs, Dainzú and Yagul – important ball game courts, and San José el Mogote is said to be one of the most ancient settlements in Oaxaca. Among all, though, Monte Álban and Mitla were two of the most important.

‘Place of the Rest’

Mitla is located about an hour drive from Oaxaca City and it was presumably the main religious center of the region. The name Mitla itself comes from the word Mictlan, the name for the ‘underworld’ or the ‘place of rest’ in Zapotec, the language which is still relatively widely spoken, especially in villages. The walls at Mitla are covered with spectacular geometric mosaics which are unique in Mexico, as much as its bright red painted walls. We stopped there on our way to Oaxaca City, driving along the range of Sierra Madre mountains. It was around 3 PM and a blast of hot air struck me full when I was getting off the air conditioned car.

The site looked amazing with geometrically designed upper parts of the buildings, covered in intricate mortar-less mosaics. My attention was also caught by walls painted bright red. Once Mitla was inhabited by the people, called by the neighbouring Aztecs in Nahuatl – the Zapotecs. Yet they called themselves differently, either simply The People in their own language or more mysteriously – the Cloud People.

The walls at Mitla are covered with spectacular geometric mosaics which are unique in Mexico. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Just in in the heart of Oaxaca state, along the western coast of the Pacific Ocean, which is at once a mountainous and hard-to-reach area, the Zapotec culture probably began to take shape around the third century AD. Some scholars assume that the Zapotecs had already appeared when the Olmec civilization was on the verge of decline, that is presumably around 400 BC. and existed in the region till 1500 AD. Anyway, any exact dating is uncertain here; the Zapotecs probably came to modern Oaxaca areas in the period before Christ, yet it took several centuries for them to develop their characteristic cultural features, which were initially composed of mixed elements of various origins, from Teotihuacan and the Olmec to the Maya cultures. At the Zapotecs’ height, the population in the Valley of Oaxaca peaked at around one hundred thousand.

The ruins of Mitla are the quintessence of the Zapotec architecture. Yet, the city also witnessed the Zapotec-Mixtec symbiosis, which had been visible in the culture of this region since the fourteenth century AD. Its traces can be seen especially in Mitla, whose geometric motifs of mosaic fretwork cut in stone slabs are usually ascribed to the Mixtecs. Yet, another theory says the ornaments were made my the Zapotecs and then adopted and embellished by the Mixtecs. Such patterns are called grecas in Spanish; meanders, diamonds, zigzags and various braids cover not only the outer walls of significant buildings, but also their interiors, usually with three horizontal stripes of frieze, each with a different type of ornament.

It has been calculated that over eighty thousand polished stone slabs were used to adorn the walls in such geometric friezes. The [stones] are [all] fitted together without mortar; [all the] pieces were set against a stucco background painted red [and] are held in place by the weight of the stones [surrounding] them. […] None of the fretwork designs is repeated exactly anywhere in the complex [or elsewhere] in Mesoamerica” (Mitla” 2021). In the wall painting, frescoes and sgraffito made on red stucco, depicting deities and mythological animals, there are also many Mixtec motifs, which are younger than sculpted decorations.

Examining geometric mosaics of Mitla. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As in the case of the Zapotecs, little is known about the Mixtecs; they are primarily famous as great craftsmen and artists. The Mixtec contributed to the culture of the region, especially in the field of goldsmithing; they were excellent at processing gold, copper and silver, they mastered lost-wax technique, they could solder and pull delicate wires. They knew the inlay and covered the wood or bone with small tiles of jade or turquoise, mother of pearl and rock crystal. The Mixtecs were also the authors of famous painted codices, mainly of historical content. Those were pictorial stories written or actually painted on long strips of wood-fiber or leather paper, created before the Spanish invasion, and also after it. Most of them, however, were unfortunately destroyed by the invaders.

The labyrinth of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs

The Zapotecs were called the ‘nation of builders’, however, if alternative researchers’ opinion is taken into consideration, most of the buildings of another famous city, Monte Alban (the original name of the city is unknown), and some structures of the nearby Mitla would rather be the product of older civilizations with great skills of shaping architectural space. Such structures, adopted or overbuilt by the Zapotecs would have originally provided a proper background for religious ceremonies or for other purposes, most likely related to astronomy.

In Mitla, there are three groups of buildings situated at low platforms and concentrated around a ceremonial courtyard, to which extensive stairs still lead. One of the most impressive constructions of Mitla is a ‘palace’ dating from the twelfth to the thirteenth century; it has three square, interconnecting courtyards, rebuilt with buildings standing on low platforms. In the ‘residential’ part of the city, there is a very small courtyard surrounded by four shallow buildings. The inner galleries must have been exceptionally dark, covered with low wooden roofs.

My attention was immediately caught by other walls painted bright red. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The rooms around the second courtyard may have served official functions. They gained their size thanks to the alignment of monolithic columns supporting the ceiling beams. Under the rooms of the third complex, which was probably used for religious ceremonies, there are cross-shaped crypts. These crypts are a continuation of the development of the Zapotec tombs, initiated in Monte Alban, where the niches had already been shaped like a cross. The walls and floors of the crypts were covered with a thick layer of white plaster, on the smooth surface of which cult scenes were painted. Such decorations are later than architecture and were probably made by artists of the Mixtecs who lived in Mitla after the Zapotecs left. Endless halls, corridors and underground crypts criss-cross beneath the central plaza, giving the impression of a labyrinth whose architectural character resembles the so-called palace of Knossos in Crete. Possibly, hence, the city’s name standing for the underworld.

The residence of the high priest in Mitla was the largest covered structure not only in Mitla but also in Pre-Columbian Mexico. The unpreserved ceilings, probably wooden, were supported by massive monolithic pillars weighing up to twenty-three tons. The decoration of walls with strongly marked horizontal divisions is primarily made of the mentioned above geometric ornament.

Missing stone anomaly

We were standing in the middle of a great courtyard when an old man with a walking stick approached us. He looked a little tired with the heat but his face expression was revealing his passion for the site and his happiness to share it with us. He was an experienced archaeologist working in Mitla for years and he seemed to know every excavated corner of it.

“Here, they made a mistake!” – he noticed, eager to show us his discovery. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

He spoke only in Spanish to us gesticulating energetically with hands, surely to express his ideas more clearly. Soon, we started following him up and down the stairs leading to Mitla’s constructions one after the other, to take a closer look on elaborate patterns of the mosaics. Despite our guide’s difficulties with walking, he and his staff were much quicker than us in climbing the steep and narrow steps.

‘Oh, you see … each course of stones is composed of a certain number of stone elements’, he said once on top, while counting every element protruding from the wall and composing a particular pattern of the mosaic.

‘Here, they made a mistake!’, he noticed, eager to show us his discovery.

At once, all started counting other stones in hope, they would find another anomaly as well.

Who was there first … ?

I left my friends at this stage of competition and went exploring the site on my own. I noticed a few tall basalt columns between two to three metres high as well as the size of giant cut blocks on top of the walls, forming the so-called lintels, weighing from six to eighteen tons, whereas elsewhere within the same construction there was relatively crude work composed of much smaller irregular stones of different shapes with big amount of mortar used. When we compare both, the latter looked like common rubble.

I got an impression that different parts of constructions had been here reassembled. Accordingly, there are differences in construction style: here and there very large, regular tight-fitting stone slabs at the base, and massive header blocks made of basalt, now and then perfectly positioned down at the foundation with quite crude and rough work in between. The same feature is typical of many megalithic sites not only in Mexico but also in different parts of the world I have visited. After some alternative researchers, such as Brien Foerster (2018), Mitla had been constructed first with megaliths, and then it was uncovered by the Zapotecs, who adopted the older structures and overbuilt the site using their own but much simpler techniques within their building possibilities. The same author suggests that it might have been the result of some sort of a cataclysm that destroyed the original buildings of high technology a long time ago before the Zapotecs occupied it, followed then by the Mixtecs. To go further, the basalt of Mitla had been quarried from the place which is over three kilometres away (with no trees to be used as log rollers).

In the depths of the complex of Mitla, red domes of the Baroque Catholic church of San Pedro are visible; its walls seem triumphant over the Pre-Columbian ruins, but perfectly integrated into the whole ancient landscape. The church was built in the colonial era by Spanish invaders surely to show their victory over the pagan cultures of Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, the building was partially composed of the already cut stones that were found by the Spanish locally, and reused for its construction.

Eventually, I did not share my thoughts about previous lost builders with others. Such assumptions may have been too controversial for academics’ ears and I was sure what their response would be like. Anyway, all these building anomalies can be seen very easily, still only if one does not turn a blind eye to the architectural facts.

Christian Baroque church of San Pedro in Mitla. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: Pre-Columbian city of Mitla is one of the most important archaeological sites in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico (apart from Monte Alban), and the most important of the Zapotec culture. In the picture, the Hall of the Columns within the palace or the residence of the Zapotecs’ high priest. Late Post-Classic Period, 1300-1500 CE. 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.

Continue reading Creeping into the Lugar de los Muertos with an Archaeologist

Saint Anne of Nubia – “It Will Make You Specheless.”[1]

[1] An advertising slogan accompanying the painting of Saint Anne and promoting Faras Gallery at the National Museum in Warsaw.

Go, ye swift messengers, to a nation scattered and peeled, to a people terrible from their beginning hitherto; a nation meted out and trodden down, whose land the rivers have spoiled!

Book of Isaiah 18:2

Kazimierz Michałowski during the excavations at Faras (1960s). Photo by Tadeusz Biniewski – National Museum in Warsaw. CC BY-SA 3.0 pl. (modified). Source: “Kazimierz Michałowski” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Saint Anne is a Nubian wall painting estimated to have been painted between the 8th and 9th centuries, by using the technique al secco with tempera on plaster. This early Christian painting was discovered by a Polish archaeological team led by the Professor Kazimierz Michałowski during a campaign undertaken in the 1960s under the patronage of UNESCO (the Nubian Campaign) in Faras. The image itself belongs to a unique collection of wall paintings and architectural elements from the Faras Cathedral, discovered by an archeological mission. Faras Gallery is the only permanent exhibition in Europe featuring Medieval Nubian paintings from the Nile River Valley south of the First Cataract. The collection of over 60 paintings from the 8th to 14th centuries came from the cathedral in the city of Faras, a large urban centre in the Medieval kingdom of Nobadia, in present-day Sudan.

National Museum of Warsaw (2015). “The Faras Gallery 3D. Treasures from the Flooded Desert. The Collection of Nubian Art in the National Museum of Warsaw”. In: Google Arts&Culture.

Nobadian rulers controlling the Nile Valley from the first to the third cataracts converted to Christianity around 548 AD influenced by missionaries sent from Constantinople by the Empress Theodora.

Excavations at Faras – wall painting on site 1960s. Photo by Tadeusz Biniewski – National Museum in Warsaw. CC BY-SA 3.0 pl. (modified). Source: “Faras Gallery at the National Museum in Warsaw” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The first cathedral was erected in the 7th century, when the city was still known as Pachoras, and likely stood at the exact site where Polish archaeologists taking part in the Nubia Campaign discovered the subsequent 8th century cathedral. The Nubia Campaign was an extensive international mission to preserve ancient legacies threatened by flooding from the imminent construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt and the resulting formation of the artificial reservoir, Lake Nasser. Since 1964 the painting is in the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw, of which the image has been used as a logo.

National Museum of Warsaw (2015). “The Faras Gallery. Treasures from the Flooded Desert. The Collection of Nubian Art in the National Museum of Warsaw”. In: Google Arts&Culture. Accessed on 12th of July, 2018.

Saint Anne, of David’s house and line, was the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus according to apocryphal Christian tradition. Mary’s mother is not named in the canonical gospels. In writing, Anne’s name and that of her husband Joachim come only from New Testament apocrypha, of which the Gospel of James (written perhaps around 150 AD) seems to be the earliest that mentions them. In the painting, St Anne places her finger against her mouth, asking for silence, which may allude to the ‘divine silence’. The finger on the mouth could also indicate that the saint is praying.

Restoration work on the paintings from Faras at the National Museum in Warsaw. Dewaxing the surface of the painting depicting Bishop Petros with Saint Peter the Apostle, and applying compresses in 1960s. Published by National Museum of Warsaw (2016). Public domain (image modified). Source: Wikipedia (2020).

This gesture is rarely visible in Christian art and probably it refers to the tradition of Egyptian Christians (the Copts) who did so while praying undertone. It was believed to ward off evil powers trying to break into a human heart. Personally, I also understand this gesture as a synonym of a mystery and unuttered truth, which remains in silence. Also it is likely that Nubian women, similar to all women in the Christian world, directed their prayers towards St Anne requesting a child and a successful labour.

Featured image: Saint Anne (fragment) (9th c. AD). Nubian wall painting. By Unknown Author. The National Museum in Warsaw. Public domain (image cropped and modified). Source: “Saint Anne (wall painting)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia

Continue reading Saint Anne of Nubia – “It Will Make You Specheless.”[1]

In the Realm of Demon Ravana

High density of palm trees and a heavy breath of tropical climate were the first impressions that had touched my foggy senses since my arrival in Sri Lanka. Confused and exhausted, I crawled out of the airport dragging my suitcase behind me and carrying an unnecessary winter jacket over my shoulder. The flight was long and a nightmare, but a thought about staying on a warm island during the European winter slowly gave me a new strength to live.

Pyramid in the hands

Before travelling to Sri Lanka, I was planning, reading and watching a lot about that corner of the world, including the preparation of a bucket list things to do during my journey. I knew from experience that similar plans are subject to verification in the field. There were most famous monuments usually mentioned in tourist guides, especially Sri Lanka’s old state and religious capitals – the milestones of the island’s history. The official website of the Sri Lankan governmental organization CCF (Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka) connected all of them by means of a line creating an equilateral triangle, placed almost in the very centre of the island.

An official logo of Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka. Source: “Pyramid in the hands” (2013). In: Kovalov V. ( 3rd June, 2013). “New mysterious riddles of Sri Lanka. What unites the ancient civilization of the Indian subcontinent with Africa, Atlantis and South America?“. In: Vladimir KovalSky.

The figure of the triangle was additionally covered by a pair of hands, as if in a gesture of protecting cultural heritage. This pyramid-shaped graphic sign contains three ancient capitals of Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy. Inside the triangle field, the majestic Sigiriya and Dambulla with temples carved in the rocks were enclosed. Although they are indeed the most visited places, which are must-sees according to tourist folders, and at the same time extremely important places for the Buddhist community, it does not mean that the number of important places in Sri Lanka should be limited to the mentioned heritage triangle. On the contrary.

Heritage sites in Sri Lanka. Photo source: “About the World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka”. In Ministry of Buddhasasana, Cultural and Religious Affairs (2018).

A similar sign of the pyramid enclosed in the hands, this time carved in the granite rock, can also be found elsewhere – in a place that is already outside the line of the geometric figure mentioned above, at the ancient site, called Mihintale. It is believed to have also been made by the same government organization to mark the place of Sri Lankan cultural heritage in the same way as it is represented in its famous logo. But why did the CCF choose a place for this sign beyond the delineated triangle? Why did they choose a less known site of Mihintale? The author of a series of articles devoted to the puzzling history of Sri Lanka, Volodymyr  Kovalov (Cf. 3rd June, 2013), draws attention to yet another pyramidal-like triangle … It is formed by ancient cultural-religious complexes suspended on rocks, and simultaneously, unknown Sigiriya’s sisters.

Seat of gods suspended in the sky

The main symbol of the island constantly appears on postcards, folders and on more or less successful paintings hung on the walls of hotel rooms. The massive monolith from magma rock shoots from the ground in the very center of the island to the height of 180 meters.

The Way to the Top: Water Terraces. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

If you remember the tales about turtles, so big that their shells  seem to be islands covered with thick woods, you can easily compare them to the bulk of Sigiriya. The rock seems to bend under the weight of secrets that it wears on its steep back covered with tourists: “Lion Gate”, “Mirror Wall”, frescoes of women whose bodies are drowning in flowers and jewellery, and disappearing in clouds (see: Debate on the Paintings of Damsels Flying on the Clouds), megalithic constructions worked out in hard granite of unknown purpose … And there is only one written note about this giant in the archives preserved on the island:

He betook himself through fear to Sīhāgiri
which is difficult to ascend for human beings.
He cleared a roundabout, surrounded it with a wall
and built a staircase in the form of a lion…
Then he built there a fine palace, worthy to behold,
like another Alakamanda, and dwelt there like the god Kuvera.

 Culavamsa CH 39 v2-4 (circa 1200AD)

The main character of this fragment tells about a builder of Sigiriya who, according to the record, was called the King Kashyapa (also Kassapa). He is believed to have ruled on the rock in the fifth century A.D. (473-495).

The fragment above comes from the chronicles called Culavamsa (Lesser Chronicles), which are a sequel to the much older chronicles of Mahavamsa (Great Chronicles). Mahavamsa covers the period from 543 to 300 BC., while Culavamsa deals with the period from the 4th century BC. up to 1815 AD. Over the centuries, the chronicles have been repeatedly transcribed and compiled, which greatly obscures the original history of the country. The text on Sigiriya itself appeared 700 years after the reign of the King Kashyapa. There is no other evidence of the age of the Sigiriya complex. And this is indeed a multipart construction, as it is not limited to the rock itself, but it also covers a significant area around the monolith. First, the road to the top of Sigiriya leads through the so-called “Water Terraces” and before it starts to steeply roll around its protruding belly, it climbs up the stairs that wind through the corridors created by the formations of huge granite boulders. These, in turn, faithfully guard the passage to the famous “Lion’s Gate”, flanked by two paws armed with claws … but are these really the remains of a lion, as it is described in the fragment above?

If the chronicle does not lie, Kashyapa had only 18 years to create the entire complex. Taking into account the material used, the impetus of the construction and quality of the tools available at the time, it seems rather unlikely. What’s more, after completing the feat, the king did not use its significant potential of defence, as if he had ignored the primal function of the fortress and the workload involved in its construction. In order to fight the final battle, he abandoned his insurmountable rock and faced heavy defeat at its feet. Besides, the circumstances of Kashyapa’s death are also shrouded in mystery and have different versions. Finally, the victorious brother of the beaten king moved the capital back to Anaradhapura, and Sigiriya fell into the hands of Buddhist monks and with time it became a pilgrimage and tourist centre. Probably the Buddhist followers had inhabited the rock much earlier, precisely around the 3rd century BC, as soon as the Buddhism appeared on the island.

Sigiriya is not a lonely island

In the same period, Buddhist monks undoubtedly formed monasteries in the caves of the Pidurangala rock, which is located a few kilometres north of Sigiriya.

Sigiriya’s Fresco. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Both rocks are the monoliths created as a result of volcanic activity, and their stories are related to each other. Pidurangala’s peak resembles the form of a slanted, flat triangle, as if someone had cut the top of the rock across with the same ease with which the butter is sliced.

From the top of Sigirya, you cannot see this characteristic triangle, or a heart to be more poetic, because it lies on the other side of Pidurangala (see: Kovalov 3rd Hune, 2013; 22nd March, 2013). The entrance to its summit is even more strenuous than in the case of the nearby Sigirya, but the view from there is magnificent, particularly on the famous neighbour, who is stormed by the crowds of tourists (see: Kovalov 3rd Hune, 2013; 22nd March, 2013) .

Are these really just fairy tales …?

Before I came to Sri Lanka, in my imagination Sigiriya dominated the plain as a lone monolith. Now it turned out that it is just one member of the team of rocks monoliths that form an enigmatic whole.

Together with already mentioned Pidurangala, Sigiriya points out a peculiar top of the pyramid with two other peaks at its base: Mihintale – in the northwest of Sigiriya and Yapahuwa – in the southwest.

Like Sigiriya, Yapahuwa has a flat bevelled top and steep walls. In the 13th century, there was a capital of the state and a religious centre with a famous Buddhist relic, which is now kept in Kandy. Mihintale, in turn, is a rocky table that carries huge blocks of granite. However, nature did not pull them up there. According to legends, the Mihintale summit once served as a place for anchoring aircraft, vimanas, described by Vedic texts such as Mahabharata.

Climbing up the Rock. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The aforementioned Sri Lankan oldest chronicle, Mahavamsa, describes the arrival of Mahinda to Sri Lanka from India. Mahinda was a Buddhist missionary and a famous monk who was also the son of the ruler of India, Ashoka. With his coming he brought the new faith to Sri Lanka. Every tourist arriving on the island hears this story as a testimony to the beginnings of Buddhism there. I have heard it myself as well, but never in a full version of the story described by the chronicle. Namely, according to the full text Mahinda came to the island by landing in his vimana at the top of Mihintale, and his flight from India would have taken him less than a day …

As if I heard a modern report on an airplane journey from India to Colombo … The summit of Mihintale is also linked to the monk by his name – Mihintale means in Sinhalese as much as the “Mahinda Plateau”. According to ancient epic stories, both Sinhalese and Tamil, before the arrival of the monk, the same rock was called Sagiri, while the name Sigiriya is pronounced in the Sinhalese language as Sigiri (Cf. Volodymyr Kovalov, 3rd June, 2013). Such similarities certainly testify to the relation between the rocks.

Of course, similar content about ancient flying machines is treated as a fairy tale. Still it is quite illogical that the record compiled in the 11th century on the history of Sigiriya is widely accepted as an irrefutable fact, and some of the content that comes from much older sources is cut off  in order to pass on only what the human mind is able to fully accept.

Ah, those ever-present pyramids…

On the stone in Mihintale, there is a carving of the already mentioned glyph of a pyramid or triangle covered by the hands. The top angle of the figure contains a smaller pyramid, as if an Egyptian pyramidion crowning the top of the main pyramid. The above-mentioned author, Volodymyr Kovalov (Cf. 3rd June, 2013), draws attention to this sign when he mentions a triangle made of rock monoliths: Sigiriya (Pidurangala) – Yapahuwa – Mihintale. The axis of symmetry of the triangle, from the top of Sigiriyia to its base, i.e. the horizontal line joining Mihintale and Yapahuva, meets with the axis of symmetry of the triangular peak of Pidurangala. As we all remember Pidurangala’s summit itself had once been shaped as a triangle. Couldn’t it be symbolically represented as a pyramidion of the pyramid carved in the Mihintale granite rock?

And who was Kuvera?

Kuvera or Kubera, mentioned above in the fragment of the Younger Chronicle (Culavamsa), was a god and legendary ruler of Lanka, today Sri Lanka. His half-brother Ravana (or Raavan) took power over him and became an undisputed ruler with his royal seat on Sigiriya (Alakamanda). There are other written sources telling of those events, namely Ramayana and Mahabharata.

They belong to the epic Sanskrit of ancient India which was written on the basis of oral tradition, first formed during the Vedic period, namely in the first millennium BC. Ramayana focuses mainly on the armed conflict between Ravana and Rama, ruler of India, which was to take place millennia ago. Ramayana, meaning ‘the Way of Rama’, is one of the greatest Indian poems that has been adapted to many films and theatrical plays. Its authorship is attributed to also a legendary poet, Valmiki (see: ‘The Way of Rama’ Between India and Sri Lanka). Indian eposes describe the time of flying vehicles – vimanas, an advanced technology and a nuclear war … Even today, inhabitants of Asia take those stories as actual records of their lands and ancient rulers … Although it is still impossible for western scholars to explain certain phenomena or purpose of major constructions scattered around Sri Lanka (likewise everywhere in the world), similar records are only treated as a bunch of legends created by people with a vivid imagination, just as an ancient genre of sci-fi.

Featured image: The Rock of Sigiriya/One of Sigiriya’s Frescoes. Photo by Joanna Pyrgies&Agnieszka Szkarłat. 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.

Continue reading In the Realm of Demon Ravana