Tag Archives: Religion

The Idea Behind the Jomon Pottery and its Representations

The matter of pottery and its invention was one of numerous subjects dedicated to Southeast and East Asian Archaeology, which I studied during one of my chosen modules at the university. Although for many scholars the subject of pottery does not seem to tell a compelling story, it turned out to give me a highly interesting insight into general research and the question about the time of pottery’s invention, as according to universal knowledge, its appearance is conventionally associated with the Neolithic, which is, in turn, joined with the high-speed revolution in the development of human kind. Nevertheless, such an idea mostly concerns the area of the Middle East. In Far East Asia countries, such as Japan or China, the subject of pottery should be regarded differently.

Development of pottery has been generally linked to the Neolithic period and primarily associated with the Old Europe and Middle East, with its earliest introduction believed to have occurred in west Asia (Ganj Darreh in western Iran) (circa 7300 BC.) (Rudgley 2000:28; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2). In such a context, pottery, together with a craft of weaving, polished stone tools, a sedentary lifestyle (permanent settlements), religion, monuments, and domesticated plants or animals, is still used to describe Neolithic cultures around the world, conventionally appearing around 10000-8000 BC. (Solovyeva 2017:157; The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2021). Nevertheless, as it is supported by archaeological finds, an invention of pottery had already taken place much earlier, surely in the Palaeolithic, and further eastwards, more precisely in north-east Asia, including the Amur River basin in Eastern Russia (eastern Siberia), China (Jiangxi, a southeast Chinese province) and Japan (Rudgley 2000:28-29; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2; Norman 2004-2021).

Yet before 1960, it was believed that the earliest Japanese pottery came back from around 2500 BC. (Omoto, Takeishi, Nishida, Fukui 2016:534). But when the so-called Jōmon pottery from the site of Natsushima (Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture) was radiocarbon dated back to around 7000 BC., it turned out to be a real watershed in the archaeology of prehistory (Rudgley 2000:28). Other contemporary excavations at Fukui Cave in Nagasaki Prefecture not only revealed shreds of pottery, which were around 3000 years older than those from Natsushima (Serizawa 1976:2; Kobayashi 2004:9), but also proved “a direct continuity from [the microlithic culture of] the late Japanese Palaeolithic, [showing] a strong communality with the mainland […], to the [times of the] pottery-using [Jōmon]” (Kobayashi 2004:9,12,14). Further archaeological finds of undecorated pottery fragments in a charcoal residue at the Odai-Yamamoto Site (Sotogahama Town, Aomori Prefecture), pushed the beginnings of Japanese pottery even earlier in time to around 13000 BC. (Jomon Japan 2017). Still the oldest examples of undecorated, simple pottery vessels of the Jōmon culture are said to have been first produced around the same time, at the site of Shinonouchi in Nagano (Cartwright 2017) and at the sites in southern Kyūshū (Kakoinohara in Kagoshima Prefecture) (Kobayashi 2004:15-17,19). At the time of the mentioned excavations, the fact of the earliest pottery finds in Japan simultaneously questioned a common idea about a cultural predominance of ancient China over Japan in terms of innovations (Rudgley 2000:28-29). And although continuous excavations proved that pottery fragments also appeared in eastern Siberia around the same time as the Japanese evidence of earthenware vessels, and even earlier (c. 18 000 BC.) in southern China, pottery of the Jōmon culture in Japan is treated as an archaeological phenomenon and often referred to as the earliest pottery in the world (Norman 2004-2021; Rudgley 2000:29; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2,19; cf. Kenrick 1995), though it should be rather called the earliest pottery tradition due to its continuous development over thousands of years (Lewis 23rd September, 2021).

The Jōmon period, which covers a vast expanse of time of approximately thirteenth thousands years (Palmer 2007:49), can roughly fall within the Neolithic time range in Europe or in the Middle East, and so it is usually described as “Japan’s Neolithic period” (MET 2022; see: Solovyeva 2017:157; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2; Bleed 1976:107). Still, it is important to mention that at its earliest stages, it overlaps with European and Middle Eastern Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods (Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2). Bleed (1976:107) simultaneously claims that describing the entire Jōmon period as Neolithic is actually “unfortunate” and incorrect. Accordingly, if the agricultural revolution constitutes one of the significant aspects recognising the period of Neolithic, the Japanese Neolithic should only refer to the period with the end of the Jōmon culture, between 900 BC. and 300 AD., when the Yayoi culture introduced the agriculture and started to cultivate white rice (Lewis 23rd September, 2021; Kobayashi 2004:133; cf. Barton 2012).

The Jōmon culture is the earliest one that we can identify in Japan. Yet it is little known about it because it was unfamiliar with the writing (Burns 2017). For this reason, the main source of knowledge about it are archaeological finds, such as pottery (Ibid.). Conventional time frames given for the Jōmon culture usually differ, depending on a given source (Cf: Solovyeva 2017:157; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2). The chronology shown below is provided by scholars, such as Tatsuo Kobayashi (2004:5, Fig.1.2) and ChungHae Amana Oh (2011:35), and has been established basing on estimated radiocarbon dates from the last decade of the twentieth century (Amana Oh 2011:35). Accordingly, the Jōmon culture spans between 13600 BC. to 900 BC. and is traditionally divided into the subsequent periods: Incipient (13600-9200 BC.), Initial (9200-5300 BC.), Early (5300-3500), Middle (3500-2500), Late (2500-1200 BC.), and Final (1200-900BC.), when the Jōmon style wares and statues were gradually replaced by Yayoi pottery (ChungHae 2011:35, Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2).

The Jōmon culture came into existence with the end of the Last Glacial Period, and when it was in a gradual process of development, the Global Warming with significant climate change had already begun (Kobayashi 2004:1; Jomon Japan 2017). Consequently, sea levels rose in the contemporary world, causing in the region the inflow of the warm Tsushima Current into the Sea of Japan, and furthermore the growth of abundant forests of beech, chestnut, walnut and acorn in the Japanese archipelago (Kobayashi 2004:19). With time, “the ocean moved further inland, bringing with it [additional wealth] of fish and shellfish” (Jomon Japan 2017). Such favourable climate changes allowed contemporary groups of humans to use and “[manipulate] the resources available to them in the natural environment” (Kobayashi 2004:3). Jōmon groups initially led a nomadic and then a semi-sedentary life (MET 2022; Jomon Japan 2017); at that time, they built their villages composed of “pit dwellings arranged around central open spaces” (MET 2022), mostly along the ocean coast or along rivers and lakes, and obtained their food by gathering and fishing, collecting shellfish and hunting (Jomon Japan 2017). There was no need to move further, as they could dispose a large quantity of natural resources in one place, being usually stored in deep house pits (Kobayashi 2004:21). Kobayashi (2004:21) speculates that Jōmon peoples could have lined their storage pits with clay, as in the case of the West Asian Natufian culture, and so the Jōmon pottery could have originated from Japanese peoples’ observations that protruding fragments of the clay-lining hardened by the heat from nearby ovens (Ibid.:21). Or, there was a case when a piece of clay from the house wall (e.g. Ganji Darehor) or one dropped from the clay lining of a basket (e.g. North American southwest), was accidentally burnt and fire-hardened (Ibid.:21). Consequently, the Jōmon culture could have started processing clay wider to finally use it as a substance for containers (Ibid.:21). Although these are only some of speculations about actual foundations of pottery in Japan (Ibid.:21), they may constitute “a clue to the origins of pottery making in this region” (Ibid.:21). 

Gradual increase in temperatures in Japan resulted in further remarkable inventions (Kobayashi 2004:7), such as “adoption of revolutionary new technologies and tools” (Ibid.:7). Typical of the Jōmon culture was an innovative way of cooking by means of pottery, which allowed them with time to initiate a typically sedentary lifestyle (Jomon Japan 2017). Accordingly, greater settlements were established, together with constant residential centres, sometimes featuring graveyards (e.g. Kakinoshima Site, Hakodate City, Hokkaido), and later also impressive monuments in the form of stone circles (e.g. Oyu Stone Circle, Kazuno City, Akita Prefecture or Kiusu Earthwork Burial Circles, Chitose City, Hokkaido) (Ibid.).

According to the archaeological evidence, It is said that groups of people who produced the earliest pottery mainly inhabited the main Japanese island of Honshu, though the centre of the mature Jōmon culture was more likely established in southern Hokkaido and northern Tohoku (northern end of Honshu) (e.g. Irie Takasago Shell Midden, Toyako, Town, Hokkaido or Futasumori Shell Midden, Shichinohe Town, Aomori Prefecture) (Jomon Japan 2017). Such a hypothesis is also supported by the fact that, despite that Honshu and Hokkaido areas had been divided by the Tsugaru Strait, different Jōmon peoples from these areas produced pottery of comparable shapes and by using analogous designs (Ibid.).

The Jōmon pottery was produced by hand, by employing turntables but without the use of a proper wheel, which had been unknown in Japan till the Yayoi phase of development (Kobayashi 2004:77; MET 2022). “The clay was mixed with a variety of adhesive materials, including mica, lead, fibres, and crushed shells, [and when] completely dry, [the pottery] was fired in an outdoor bonfire at a temperature of no more than about 900°C” (MET 2022). Kobayashi (2004:21) compares the earliest Japanese pottery manufacture to a contemporary process of baking a cake of crushed nuts and water. The Jōmon pottery is characterised by a cord pattern and hence the name of the culture – ‘Jōmon’, which stands for a ‘cord design’ (MET 2022). Apart from pottery vessels, also typical of the Jōmon culture were intriguing “[clay] figurines […] and other ritual [objects], demonstrating a rich spirituality” (Jomon Japan 2017). Most recognisable of all are definitely the so-called Dogu. Some researchers believe such pottery clay figures actually represent divine ancestors of the ancient Japanese (Burns 2017).

Shintō, the traditional native religion of Japan based on Japanese mythology, can be translated as the way of gods, literally kami-no-michi, where kami means gods (Shintō 2022). Hence, Japanese people believe in kami celestial beings who are still to reside in modern Japan (Burns 2017). According to an ancient Japanese tradition, there are millions of Kami; each has its own personal characteristics and can inhabit different entities, such as people and animals, or even objects (Ibid.). They come down to earth from Takama-ga-hara (High Plain of Heaven), and inhabit Jinja, which are in the Japanese Shintō religion places of worship devoted to various kami (Ibid.). Kami, in turn, are usually thought to be represented as the Dogu figurines (Ibid.). Around 15,000 Dogu representations in the form of various human-like creatures have been found throughout Japan (Ibid.). Also, according to alternative researchers, Dogu are surely to represent the mythological Kami that visited the earth in ancient times; they have goggle-like eyes and their bodies are covered with rivets, which may indicate an outfit or a type of an armour.

“While the many excavations of Jōmon sites have added to our knowledge of specific artifacts, they have not helped to resolve certain fundamental questions concerning the people of the protoliterate era, such as their ethnic classification and the [actual origins] of their language [and of phenomenal pottery vessels and clay figurines they unceasingly produced]” (MET 2022).

Edwina Palmer (2007:49) suggests that while discussing Jōmon Japanese culture, one should use plural Jōmon peoples as the term should be understood as various groups of “the population spanning at least thirteen millennia across the whole of the present Japanese archipelago”(Ibid.:49). The author also believes “that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that some [Jōmon groups] spoke an Austronesian language or languages” (Ibid.:49). Such assumptions have resulted from a long-term debate on the origins of the Jōmon culture in Japan (Cf. Palmer 2007). Scholars, like Charles Loring Brace et al. (1990) and Peter Bellwood (1997) supported an ‘Out of Taiwan’ hypothesis, postulating that Jōmon culture might have been established by migrations from Taiwan (Palmer 2007:47-49). Simultaneously, it is claimed that in the Jōmon period, some groups travelled by sea from Sundaland (modern-day Southeast Asia) due to a postglacial flooding and eventually settled down on the islands of present-day Japan (Ibid.:47). Even though these two theories seem contradictory, Palmer (2007:47) assumes that “an ‘Out of Sunda’ scenario of migration to Japan in the [Jōmon] period is not necessarily entirely incompatible with an ‘Out of Taiwan’ theory” (Ibid.:47). And so she concludes that there must have been numerous migrations in Japan during a long-time Jōmon period, according to “[a] common-sense approach […] that humans were never traveling in only one direction at any time […]” (Ibid.:48). Such an approach “may, [at the same time], accommodate many aspects of the various theories proposed” (Ibid.:48). Similarly, it is underlined by Ryan W. Schmidt and Noriko Seguchi (2014:43), who claim that the Jōmon culture was rather like an ethnic mosaic composed of various Palaeolithic peoples migrating to the islands of Japan, and so “in this respect, the biological identity of the Jōmon is heterogeneous, and it may be indicative of diverse peoples who belonged to a common culture, known as the [Jōmon]” (Ibid.:43). That, in turn, agrees with the claim that “the [Jōmon] revolution, [creating pottery], did not arise from [an isolated] microlithic culture in the archipelago, nor was it the result of just a single wave of influence from the continent, but rather a [consequence] of several phases of intervention and interaction” (Kobayashi 2004:14). Consequently, there were hypotheses the pottery could have originated in the continental East Asia, invented independently by different groups of people, and then brought with numerous waves of migrations to contemporary Japan and consequently adopted by its inhabitants (Ibid.:19).

The Jōmon pottery is generally distinguished by its characteristics (Cartwright 2017) “that [clearly identify its makers] and [set] them apart from all other [later] Japanese [or contemporary Asian] cultures” (Bleed 1976:107), including the first cases of pottery in Western Asia (Kobayashi 2004:20). A suggested similarity of the Jōmon pottery to examples found in eastern Siberia, China, the Korean peninsula or Taiwan has been challenged, adding to that the pottery in Japan is generally dated earlier than in most parts of contemporary East Asia (except for China and Siberia), where its invention was possibly a result of analogous technologies (Palmer 2007:48; Kobayashi 2004:19; Rudgley 2000:28-29; Norman 2004-2021). Only later, like in the Early Jōmon period, “[similarities] between pottery produced in Kyūshū and contemporary Korea suggest that regular commerce existed between the Japanese islands and the Korean peninsula, [together with the Mainland Southeast Asia]” (MET 2022). It is also theorised that the earliest pottery may have been invented independently in various locations in East Asia, with eastern Siberia, China and the Japanese archipelago in the lead (Kobayashi 2004:20). Moreover, by studying the origins of pottery in Neolithic Middle East, it can be analogically assumed that the Jōmon pottery could also have had a few different foundations (Chosuke in Kobayashi 2004:20).

On the other side, the question of the earliest pottery finds ascribed to the Jōmon culture between the Incipient and Initial periods appears much more complex in terms of its different but subsequential decorative styles (Bleed 1976:108), such as “linear relief, fingernail impression, and simple cord marking” (Ibid.:108). Such pottery remains were usually unearthed further from the said mature Jōmon centre (Jomon Japan 2017), namely, in the area from southern Tohoku to Kyūshū (Bleed 1976:108), which is the region considered “the forefront of the [Jōmon] revolution” (Kobayashi 2004:17). Additionally, it is evident that such early examples of pottery were made by peoples with divergent tools, technologies and skills (Bleed 1976:109). “In sum, […] all the evidence available indicates that during [the Incipient period in Japan, the Jōmon culture] continued to be [highly] complex […], characterized by regionally diverse and distinctive technologies. This kind of complexity and regional diversity is also apparent during the succeeding cultural horizon, [when throughout] central Honshu, fingernail-impressed pottery was [subsequently] replaced by ceramics finished with simple exterior cord marking” (Ibid.:109). Generally, foremost features of the Jōmon pottery and its technological homogeneity are more widely observed only with its later stages (Cf. Bleed 1976), yet, “the population of Jōmon Japan [remained] by no means [anthropologically] homogeneous” (Palmer 2007:49).

In conclusion, the invention and continuity of the Jōmon pottery mostly resulted from the plentiful environment of the Japanese archipelago, together with its effective adaptation and development by independent groups of contemporary humans (Shinpei in: Kobayashi 2004:19; Bleed 1976:113). Kobayashi (2004:20) compares the invention of Jōmon pottery to the so-called ‘springboard principle’, where a technological knowledge of manufacturing earthenware vessels met the actual human needs for such a product (Cf. Kohler in: Kobayashi 2004:20). Yet, apart from being regarded as a product of a technological development, playing mostly a functional role as a container and a cooking vessel, the early Japanese pottery should be equally seen as the beginning of the Jōmon cultural revolution, and so could be interpreted wider, by means of social, economic, religious and artistic ways of expression (Kobayashi 2004:12,22).

Featured image: Reconstruction of the Sannai-Maruyama Site in the Aomori Prefecture. The site shares cultural similarities with settlements of Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula, as well as with later Japanese culture, pointing to continuity between ancient and modern Japanese culture. Photo by 663highland (2014). CC BY 2.5. In: ‘Jōmon period’, in Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (2022).

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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The Hindu Symbol of Lingam of the God Shiva

In Hinduism, the term stands for the phallic symbol of the Hindu deity Shiva. It is also an abstract or aniconic representation of the god in Shaivism. The stone representations of lingas were worshiped as a symbol of the god’s creative power, often depicted in conjunction with yoni, the symbol of his wife, Parvati (Devi).

Featured image: An eleventh-century linga-yoni plaque with a worshipper (Nepal). Nepal, dated 1068 Sculpture Repoussé gilt copper alloy Purchased with funds provided by Harry and Yvonne Lenart (M.85.125) South and Southeast Asian Art. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Lingam” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


“Lingam” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3vPT8so>. [Accessed 9th May, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 230. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Unique Pyramid of Polonnaruwa with Little Trace in History

In my head I could still hear the noise of the airport, a commotion and rush at the customs control and at baggage claim, when I suddenly fell into the arms of tropical scenery, with its heavenly peace and tranquility given by the sound of the river and the whisper of huge leaves swaying in the wind. Hidden in the shadow of the tall boughs on the shore, I lazily observed a bright sunlight pouring profusely over the river and a group of elephants frolicking in it.

At first, I could not believe that I had become part of this picturesque image: in the background of a dense curtain of tall palm trees and thick creepers protruding from green ficuses and their trunks, heavily wrinkled bulks of elephants were wading in the silvery water of the river. Some turned over and poured water on each other, using their long trunks like watering cans.

Rhapsody for an elephant

Elephants have always been a very important national element of Sri Lanka and as such these animals have become part of the folklore and leading characters of Southeast Asian legends. Throughout ages, men in Asia have taken numerous advantages of elephants’ strength to create massive constructions, using the animals not only for dragging heavy loads and their transportation but also for military purposes. The aforementioned king of Sigiriya, Kashyapa (also Kassapa), was to take part in his last fight also on the back of an elephant (see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana).

Especially the white elephant with long tusks has always been of a great importance to both, Hinduism and Buddhism, where, as tradition says, it serves either as a mount for the Hindu god, Indra, or appears in a dream of the mother of Gautama Buddha, just before he is conceived. The white elephant is an equally significant symbol of the royal power in Sri Lanka. During the processions of religious festivals in Kandy, the king’s white elephants have driven a reliquary with the most venerated there a Buddhist relic, namely, the famous Buddha Tooth preserved to our times, and brought to the island in the fourth century AD. by Mahinda’s sister, Sanghamitta. The same relic had previously been also preserved in another ancient capital of Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa, where it was possibly housed in the shrine of Hatadage.

Tired after the journey in the cramped seat of the plane, I was laying on the steps of the stairs leading down to the river, and I was watching a wonderful spectacle of playing elephants as if I had been in a daydream. But such a sweet laziness could not last forever. And after a short break in Pinnawala, a famous elephant orphanage on the island, we finally set off on the way to meet archaeology of one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka.

Gateway to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa was first designed as a country residence before it became the successive capital of the Sinhalese kings, after the destruction of the former royal centre in Anuradhapura, in 993 AD. (UNESCO 2021; Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005).

In the foreground of the remnants of the Palace of the kings of Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Actually, Polonnaruwa was designated as a capital by the Chola dynasty, who abandoned the previous one in Anuradhapura for strategical reasons (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). In 1070 AD., it was, however, overtaken by Sinhalese kings who kept Polonnaruwa as their capital (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). As a matter of fact, it was during the Sinhalese rule when the city’s glory reached its peak (Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). Among the greatest kings of that period was the second king who ruled the capital, namely King Parakramabahu the First, whereas the third one, the King Nissanka Malla (1187 – 1196) eventually led the kingdom to bankruptcy and so, in the early thirteenth century, the glory of Polonnaruwa had ceased (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). Finally, it was abandoned, and the Sinhalese capital was moved to the western side of the island, to the city of Kandy, which became the very last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020).

Part of the Cultural Heritage Triangle of Sri Lanka

Together with two other historical capitals, Anuradhapura and Kandy, the city of Polonnaruwa creates one of the three angles of the pyramid-shaped graphic sign of the Cultural Heritage Triangle of Sri Lanka (Saumya 2020; see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana). As an archaeological and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Polonnaruwa comprises numerous monuments of different periods and functions; besides the Brahman ruins of the Cholas rule, from between the tenth and eleventh centuries, there are picturesque remnants of abundant Sinhalese constructions, built between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, including a famous king’s, Parakramabahu the First, magnificent garden-city (UNESCO 2021; Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020).

Unknown building among royal and sacred edifices

Almost all the constructions in the area of Polonnaruwa are historically recorded (Mohan 2019). Apart from earlier temples dedicated to Hindu gods, there are mostly secular buildings, like the Royal Palace and the Audience Hall, and Buddhist shrines, most famous of which are Dalada Maluva, including the Sacred Quadrangle with the unique Vatadage (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020), “where the Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha was housed” (Bell 1903:14-15 in: Manatunga 2009:2004), Lankatilaka Vihara and Gal Vihara (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020).

The Satmahal Prasada in Polonaruwa. The only feature that may give some insight into the origins of Sathmahal Prasada are sculpted statues. Nevertheless, their identity has been disfigured by intentional destruction. Copyright©Archaeotravel. Photo by Bernard Gagnon (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Satmahal Prasada” (2021). Photo source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Nevertheless, there is no account of a pyramidal-like stepped edifice situated in an elevated area, which is generally perceived as the most mysterious structure of all in the whole ancient city and sometimes the only ancient pyramid in Sri Lanka (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:2004; Lapkura 2021).

Named as Sathmahal Prasada

The structure has been named in modern times as Sathmahal Prasada, which literally means a seven-storey building (Mohan 2019). It is located in the proximity of the Vatadage and so it is included within the Buddhist complex of Dalada Maluva (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). This is why Anura Manatunga (2009:204) thinks it was also build for religious purposes  as other constructions on site. For this reason, Sathmahal Prasada is believed to have served as a stupa, built in the proximity of other prominent Buddhist ruins such as stupas and monasteries of Polonnaruwa (Lapkura 2021).

As much as the Quadrangle may have played the role of the most important royal monastery of Sinhalese kings ruling in the city, Sathmahal Prasada must have had a very significant function as well (Manatunga 2009:204). Yet, the pyramid may not have belonged to the Buddhist complex originally (Mohan 2019). And as Anura Manatunga (2009:204) admits the construction “is still unidentified and remains an ambiguous monument [as] we cannot [pinpoint its] builder, purpose or even the ancient name of the building”.

Accordingly, experts do not know who built it or why it was built (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:204; Lapkura 2021). Its original name is equally lost in history (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:204). As such, it can be described only by means of its appearance and it actually resembles a stepped pyramid with entrances on all four sides (Mohan 2019; Lapkura 2021). Moreover, it is also one of no more than four other ancient constructions on the island with square bases, providing that the others are all older religious ruins in Anuradhapura, most of which are damaged (Lapkura 2021). It is equally worth mentioning that none of the three structures reveal any signs of having been pyramids and all appear to have been rather squat in their shape (Ibid.).

Origins shrouded in mystery

Due to its growing mystery, Sathmahal Prasada has continuously provoked some new theories and scholars’ guesses concerning its provenience and function (Manatunga 2009:204-205). For example, Don Martino de Zilva Wickremasinghe (1865–1937), an epigraphist and archaeologist of Sri Lanka, speculates (1928:92-93) that it may have been once a palace, as much as it is claimed today about the function of the construction on top of the Rock of Sigiriya (Ibid.:204). The scholar based his theory on the fact that epigraphical sources say that one of the most famous kings of Polonnaruwa, Nissanka Malla (1187- 1196) had built a seven-storey palace for himself (Ibid.:204). Nevertheless, unlike in the case of the so-called ‘Palace’ on top of Sigiriya, academics commonly agreed that “the solid tower-like building [of Sathmahal Prasada] is not habitable and, therefore, cannot be residential building” (Ibid.:204).

Another symbolic representation of the Mount Meru in the shape of a pyramid

Most relevant of all seems to be a suggestion made by Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), a Sri Lankan Tamil metaphysician, pioneering historian and philosopher of Indian art, who proposed  (1965:165) that Sathmahal Prasada actually represented the mythical Mount Meru, as much as many other examples of sacred architecture in Southeast Asia and in India (Manatunga 2009:204). Some alternative authors even claim it has similarities with pyramidal architecture, created by contemporary oversea cultures (Lapkura 2021).

A Buddhist monk passing by Sathmahal Prasada, in Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Harry Charles Purvis Bell (1851-1937), who was the first Commissioner of Archaeology in Ceylon, describes Sathmahal Prasada in his Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey 1903, 1906, and 1910 (2009:14) as “a solid brick structure with seven storeys that diminished in width and height stage by stage” (Manatunga 2009:204). And although he does not directly call it a pyramid, his narrative undoubtedly identifies it as a pyramidal structure. HCP Bell (1903:14) also adds  that “[the] top of the building has collapsed but it is still high, at 53 feet, [which is over 16 metres. And] at the ground level it is a 39 [feet] 2 inches square building, [that is, almost 12 metres]” (Ibid.:204).

Southeast Asian affinities

In terms of the construction’s origins, Anura Manatunga (2009:204) claims that Sathmahal Prasada, together with Gal Vihara statues and Pothgul Vehera, shows more likely Southeast Asian affinities. Her theory is also supported by earlier authorities (Ibid.:204-205). Reginald Le May (1885-1972), a British art historian and a Honorary Member of the Siam Society, writes in A Concise History of Buddhist Art in Siam (1962:97-98) that Sathmahal Prasada bears some similarity to a bigger and taller pyramidal structure of Wat Kukut in Northern Thailand, which is additionally contemporary to the Polonnaruwa Quadrangle (Ibid.:205). Among other contemporary Thai constructions similar to Sathmahal Prasada, the book Sri Lanka and South-East Asia: Political, Religious and Cultural Relations from A.D. C. 1000 to C. 1500 by W. M. Sirisena (1978:123) also enumerates Suwanna Chedi in Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai, which is also pyramidal in its structure (Ibid.:204).

On the other side, HCP Bell (1903:14-15) claims that Sathmahal Prasada resembles more Khmer constructions of the Angkor complex in Cambodia (Manatunga 2009:204). Accordingly, the construction would be “an architectural link between the simplest form of rectangular pyramid such as Ka Keo, [possibly Ta Keo] with plain vertical walls and strait of stairs up the middle of each side and the elaborate towers at Mi-Baume, [in Angkor Wat] and other similar shrines” (Bell 1903:14 in: Manatunga 2009:204).

Mysteries come in pairs

Nowadays, in its ruined but still pyramid-like shape, Sathmahal Prasada is usually compared to an equally mysterious Khmer temple in Cambodia, namely, the unique pyramid of Prasat Thom (Prang) of Koh Ker, which also features seven platform, or to Baksei Chamkrong temple in Siem Reap (Mohan 2019; Saumya 2020; “Polonnaruwa” 2021; Lapkura 2021). Possibly significant is the fact that the both temples were once dedicated to Shiva and built around the tenth century AD. (Mohan 2019; Lapkura 2021). What is more, they resembles some Mayan temples built in Mesoamerica, though on a smaller scale (Lapkura 2021).

On the whole, the construction of Sathmahal Prasada is entirely distinctive from other ancient temples in Polonnaruwa or other buildings, characteristic of Sri Lanka (Mohan 2019; Saumya 2020; “Polonnaruwa” 2021; Manatunga 2009:204). There are no such architectural parallels found in the country or in the South Asia (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:2004). In fact, both tourists and archaeologists are puzzled, while looking at the construction (Mohan 2019).

The mysterious pyramidal structure of Polonnaruwa has been named in modern times as Sathmahal Prasada, which literally means a seven-storey building. Its original name is unknown, whereas most of the constructions in the city is identifiable. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Pyramids also come in pairs

In all ancient civilisations, there are similar pyramidal constructions, built in different time and in various places around the world (Mohan 2019; Lapkura 2021). Stepped pyramids exist in Egypt, Mexico, in lands of the former Ancient Mesopotamia (ziggurats), and in India (Mohan 2019). Generally, such structures appear in a given area usually in numbers and, as it has been speculated, there is also another stepped pyramid in Sri Lanka, possibly once built on top of the Sigiriya Rock (Ibid.). The latter is sometimes referred to as the Great Pyramid of Sri Lanka, in comparison to Sathmahal Prasada, which is much smaller in scale but more completely preserved than its possibly larger equivalent of Sigiriya (Ibid.).

Two pyramids found on the island

After Praveen Mohan (2019), Sathmahal Prasada is actually a perfect match for the pyramid on top of Sigiriya; it features bricked ramps and is also built with the lime mortar set between the bricks. It is furthermore composed of the four sides, with a bricked quadrangle base, like at Sigiriya (Ibid.). It also contains a remaining flight of stairs made of bricks, on the west side of the pyramid, leading up to the first storey (Manatunga 2009:2004; Mohan 2019). Looking at Sath Mahal Prasada, it is also possible to speculate how the Great Pyramid of Sigiriya would have looked like before its upper part was demolished (Mohan 2019).

Carved figures with disfigured identity

The only feature that may give some insight into the origins of Sathmahal Prasada are sculpted statues; namely, “[the] centre of each storey of the building has niches on all four sides. A standing figure, [possibly] of a deity made of bricks and stucco is projected on these niches” (Manatunga 2009:2004).

The area between the twelfth century’s shrine of Hatadage and the pyramid of Sathmahal Prasada of the unknown age. There is another mysterious construction; namely, the stone wall featuring visible polygonal masonry. Such elements, as the pyramid and the boundary hedge question the real origins and age of the site of Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

An anomaly regarding the sculpture is that the faces of all the statues carved around the stepped pyramid are entirely chopped off, erased or disfigured (Mohan 2019). It could not be an effect of natural forces as the visible destructions are strikingly similar on all the four sides of the structure (Ibid.). Consequently, it can be claimed that the statues’ faces were meant to be deliberately destroyed and so their identity was to be forgotten together with the name of the pyramid’s builder and the true origins of the construction itself (Ibid.).

Polygonal masonry in Polonnaruwa

Yet before I approached the towering façade of Sathmahal Prasada, my attention was immediately drawn by a stone henge separating the remnants of an ancient shrine of Hatadage, built by King Nissanka Malla in the twelfth century, and the pyramidal construction itself. Interesting was the fact that the wall featured polygonal masonry, where huge megalithic stones of various sizes and shapes had been dressed together in a way they resembled a jigsaw puzzle. I also observed that surfaces of each polygonal stone had been cut either with straight or rounded sides but all had joints perfectly fitting adjacent blocks. Sometimes among two or more larger slabs, there were tiny polygonal stones, matching perfectly the free space between them. I was just amazed. The same type of polygonal masonry is very characteristic of megalithic constructions not only in Asia but also in the whole world. Is the wall contemporary to the bricked pyramid of Polonnaruwa? Or maybe it is even more ancient as possibly are some examples of megalithic masonry at Sigiriya … (see: Denied Pyramid on Top of the Rock of Sigiriya)

The question of the lost civilization appears again

Nowadays, all the four entrances to the pyramid of Sathmahal Prasada are completely sealed off and there are guards preventing anybody from walking inside it (Mohan 2019). Such precautions are said to protect people from being at danger in case the structure accidentally collapses (Ibid.).

Two friendly macaques were sitting down on the bricked wall of the Eastern Gate. They are apparently attracted by passing tourists, or rather by contents of their bags and backpacks. In the background, the facade of Sathmahal Prasada. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘It is a pity that Sathmahal Prasada cannot be properly restored and seen also from the inside’, I thought, while observing its upper part, narrowing behind a bricked wall of the Eastern Gate to the city. Two friendly macaques were sitting down on it, visibly attracted by passing tourists, or rather by contents of their bags and backpacks.

For a while I was observing with pleasure their graceful movements over broken bricks of the wall.

‘Oh, how much this bricked wall differs from that beside Sathmahal Prasada’, I was still considering the matter of the seen example of polygonal masonry.

Finally, gathering all the facts about the two archaeological sites of Sri Lanka, with their partially surviving constructions, namely the said gigantic stepped pyramid on top of Sigiriya and the smaller one in Polonnaruwa, it can be understood that there was possibly once an ancient civilisation who built pyramidal structures and created polygonal megalithic walls on the island, as elsewhere, anyway, in the whole ancient world (Mohan 2019).

Featured image: The area between the twelfth century’s shrine of Hatadage and the pyramid of Sathmahal Prasada of the unknown age. There is another mysterious construction; namely, the stone wall featuring visible polygonal masonry. Such elements, as the pyramid and the boundary hedge question the real origins and age of the site of Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


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Sacred Enclosure of Abaton in the Ancient World

In ancient times, the name given to holy places, sacred district or underground, usually Greek temple buildings, or a sacred grove, accessible only to priests and so restricted to common people. Sometimes, it was accessible to the faithful who have submitted to ritual cleansing. In Greek, the definition described ‘untrodden place’, as only priests were allowed to set foot in most of them.

The term stands either for an inaccessible religious building, such as a monastery or part of a sacred building and its enclosure. In ancient Greece, abaton was also meant as a bedroom for patients expecting miraculous healing while sleeping and it was usually built as a long stoa.

Among others, abaton is mostly used in reference to an enclosure or a temple of Asclepius, in Epidaurus (sixth century BC.-fourth century AD., Peloponnese, Greece), a temple on the island of Bigeh, in the Nile river situated in historic Nubia, where ancient Egyptians venerated the burial of Osiris (The Middle Kingdom, 2055–1650 BC.), and finally a monument on the island of Rhodes, erected by Artemisia the Second of Caria to celebrate her conquest of the island (the fourth century BC.).

Featured image: View of the Island of Philae with Isis Temple and Trajan’s Kiosk, in the Nile, Nubia. Island of Bigeh and its ruins in foreground. 1838 painting by David Roberts. Painting by David Roberts (1838). Public domain. Image cropped. Photo and caption source: “Bigeh” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


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Votive offerings or Deposits in Ancient and Modern Societies

From Latin: ex voto – ‘by vow’

A religious object for a specific intention or as an expression of gratitude, or as a means of giving thanks for the fulfillment of a wish. They can include “one or more objects displayed or deposited, without the intention of recovery or use” (“Votive offering” 2021). Such votive objects or offerings are usually dedicated to gods (in polytheism) or to the God or saints (in Christianity) in a shrine, temple or a church, or others places of pilgrimage.

In pagan antiquity, a votive was often a symbolic offering, given to a deity or deities as a thanksgiving (agalma) or in order to ask for answering the faithfuls’ prayers. It was usually in the form of small terracotta or metal (bronze, lead) figures or body parts made of clay, and even vessels. The more rare form of votive offerings were statues or small buildings.

Christian religious offerings are symbolic items related to a specific intentions of the faithful or their gratitude for all that they have received from the God. Christian votive objects can take various forms, usually of devotional articles, such as lit candles and rosaries.

Featured image: Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos votive; a Mexican votive painting of 1911; the man survived an attack by a bull. Photo by Andreas Praefcke (2008). Photo and caption source: “Votive offering” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


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