Tag Archives: Sculpture

Story of The Rock-Cut Tombs of Ancient Telmessus

Lycian Turkey is just one of numerous parts of the world, where monumental tombs were carved out of the rock to satisfy religious needs of contemporaries, who by all means wished their dead kings, rulers and relatives to find the right way to the afterlife. As it seems, the more large and intricate a tomb was, the more privileged the dead was and the more direct and straight was their journey to the next world.

Worldwide phenomenon

The idea of making rock-cut tombs is a very ancient one (Ching et al. 2010:173). The oldest known examples come from Egyptian Thebes as they date back to the sixteenth or fifteenth century BC. (the Middle Kingdom) (Ibid.:173). There are also Hittite rock-hewn sanctuaries, which were made in 1250 BC. (Ibid.:173). Examples of such sepulchral architecture can be also found in Italy and they belong to the so called Etruscan culture (from the eight to the third centuries BC.) (Ibid.:173). A huge necropolis of rock-cut tombs is also present near the town of Paphos, in Cyprus, where several tombs are designed in the form of an impluvium (Ibid.:173). The roc-cut tombs in Lycia on the southern coast of Turkey date back to the end of the fifth century BC. (Ibid.:173).

Nowadays, some of the tombs are largely damaged. In the time of their construction, there was a financial fine for any violation of the tombs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The custom of cutting the tombs out of the rock was brought further eastwards by Darius the First (522-486 BC.), whose own tomb was carved out of the cliffs (Ching et al. 2010:173:173). It is actually one of the four rock-cut tombs of Achaemenid kings at the site of Naqsh-e Rustam, near Persepolis, in modern-day Iran (“Tomb of Darius the Great” 2020). “They are all at a considerable height above the ground” (Ibid.), as much as the tombs in Lycia. One of the most impressive site with rock-hewn tombs of strikingly similar character are located in the lost city of the Nabateans, which is Petra, in Jordan (Ching et al. 2010:173; see: Markoe ed. 2003). They are said to have been built between 300 BC. and 200 AD. (Ching et al. 2010:173).  

Common but outstanding

Although rock-cut tombs were often made in imitation of traditional buildings, their construction techniques are very different (Ching et al. 2010:173).

The “Harpy Tomb” of Kybernis, a solid sandstone pillar with the sarcophagus of Kybernis on top (c. 480 BC). One of the best preserved examples of a typical Lycian pillar-tomb. Photo by Panegyrics of Granovetter (2010). CC BY 2.0. Photo and caption source: Photo source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Masons building such sepulchral monuments must have started from the top of cliffs and continue downwards so that the discarded stones did fall down to destroy the new building elements (Ching et al. 2010:173). Working from the top down required a different type of planning and engineering (Ibid.:173). It is also significant to remember that such a technique was used not only for sepulchral architecture but also for temples (Ibid.:173). Buddhist chaityas or viharas in China and India, and Hindu caves (Ellora, Ajanta) probably go back to the third century BC. and were continued throughout the first millennium AD. (Ibid.:173). The same technique was equally applied for rock-carved churches in Cappadocia, Turkey (around 900 AD.), and in Lalibela, Ethiopia (around 1200 AD.) (Ibid.:173). What is unique is the fact that the same technique was also used in secular architecture, namely, in the case of urban buildings, like houses, carved out in solid rock at a mysterious ancient site of Tiermes, located on the edge of the Duero valley in modern-day Spain (Ibid.:173). The dating of the fortress, as it is referred to, is questionable (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). Nevertheless, it is believed to have been carved either at the Celtiberian or Roman times, probably between the first century BC. and the first century AD. (Ibid.).

Tombs commemorating ancestors

Veneration, or even, worship for ancestors, was undoubtedly universal in the ancient world (Bean 1989:31).

One of the most impressive temple-tombs in Fethiye sepulchral complex. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All peoples inhabiting Anatolia before the Greek colonization built beautiful, monumental tombs in commemoration of their ancestors; the Lycians developed this art to perfection, which was undoubtedly easy for them thanks to the soft sandstones found in their land (Miszczak 2009). Although early Lycian buildings were mostly overbuilt, as elsewhere in Asia Minor, first by Hellenistic and then Roman constructions, Lycia remains one of the best places in Anatolia, where the native culture of the region is still visible and can be admired at each step (Bean 1989:30). Although various foreign influences are visible in the Lycian monuments, they have yet retained its unique character (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009).

Transporter of the souls

Many examples of the sepulchral art shows a high quality of still well-preserved mason work and are covered in tell-tale sculptures adorning the tombs (Bean 1989:30; Miszczak 2009). Reliefs depict, among others, mythological scenes, funeral feasts, battles and animals (Miszczak 2009).

Persian influence on the tombs is evident in the way scenes of feasts, battles and hunts are depicted, for example in the tombs of Xanthos, while he Greek influence is most clearly manifested in mythological scenes, for example, in the original Lycian representations of lions, the favourite royal symbol in this land (Ibid.). On the other side, the distinctive feature that distinguishes the Lycian tombs from the classical Greece and Rome is their location (Ibid.). While in the Greek and Roman cultures, the burial places of the dead were customarily located outside residential areas, often along the roads leading to cities, the Lycians made the tombs an integral part of the urban landscape, which is evidence of their relationship with contemporary cultures of the East (Ibid.). A good example is Patara, where monumental tombs are proudly presented along the port (Ibid.).

House-tombs in Fethiye. As their name indicate, they were built in a way imitating the wooden architecture of Lycia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Accordingly, the Lycians interacted with the ghosts of their past by inviting them to their everyday life (Miszczak 2009). The Lycians seem to have believed that the souls of their dead relatives were transported from their tombs to the afterlife by winged mermaid-like creatures, represented as hybrid birds, so they often placed tombs along the coast or on top of steep cliffs to facilitate the task to the flying creatures (Ibid.). Round altars decorated with inscriptions or ornaments were often placed near the tombs (Ibid.). They were used to make offerings to the deceased (Ibid.). The offerings to the ancestors varied greatly, as can be seen from the finds from the tombs (Ibid.). Often these were terracotta statues and jewellery (Ibid.). After the Greek custom, the Lycian also put a coin in the mouths of the deceased, as a fee for Charon – the carrier (Ibid.). Sometimes it is even possible to determine the social status and profession of the dead, by means of a character of objects buried along them (Ibid.).

Cult of the dead and its legal protection

Owing to the rich legends and history of these lands, the landscape of all of Lycia is decorated with fascinating monuments of the past; the Lycian tombs scattered around the region mostly date back to the times before Alexander the Great (before 334-333 BC.) (Bean 1989:30; Miszczak 2009). Rock-hewn tombs and those of masonry are typical of the whole Asia Minor but they do not appear in such an abundance as in Lycia (Bean 1989:31). According to the latest research, there have remained one thousand eighty-five tombs carved in the rock in the land of Lycia, and partially also at its western border with Caria (Miszczak 2009).

Owing to the rich legends and history of these lands, the landscape of all of Lycia is decorated with fascinating monuments of the past; the Lycian tombs scattered around the region mostly date back to the times before Alexander the Great. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

An opportunity to see them all in our times should be at least partially ascribed to the fact that already in the times of ancient Lycians, the tombs had been carefully preserved from any damage of profanation, sometimes by a special committee, called the mindis (Bean 1989:31). Also epitaphs inscribed on Lycian tombs often end with a warning of uttering a curse or imposing  financial fine for any violation of the tombs (Ibid.:31). Later, the responsibility for the protection of the Lycian tombs was taken over by the city (Ibid.:31). Such efforts visibly show how important for the ancient was the cult of the dead and the places of their final rest (Ibid.:31).

The tombs of Lycia

The tombs of Lycia are usually divided into four separate categories, according to their distinctive features, namely pillar-tombs, temple-tombs, house-tombs and sarcophagi (Bean 1989:30).

The Lycians seem to have believed that the souls of their dead relatives were transported from their tombs to the afterlife by winged mermaid-like creatures, represented as hybrid birds, so they often placed tombs along the coast or on top of steep cliffs to facilitate the task to the flying creatures. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Most typical of Lycia are the pillar-tombs, which are also believed the earliest preserved of all (Ibid.:30). They mostly appear in the western part of the region and feature a huge rectangular pillar situated on the stone base, whereas at the top of it, there is a grave-chamber, additionally crowned with a massive cap-stone (Ibid.:30). Their sculptured surfaces are limited to the top sides of the grave-chamber, if such carved decoration appears at all (Ibid.:30-31). Temple-tombs present on their front temple facades in miniature, which is the Hellenistic influence having appeared since the fourth century BC. and therefore they are not exactly in Lycian artistic character, though they definitely used to express Lycian beliefs of the afterlife, as much as the previous category of the tombs (Bean 1989:30; Ching et al. 2010:173).

Temple-tombs are also typical of Caria (Caunus) and other parts of Anatolia (Bean 1989:30; see Bean, v.3 1989:139-151). However, those from Lycia slightly vary from the former; the façade of a temple is adorned with two columns in antis (two columns between antae) which are usually in Ionic order (Bean 1989:30). Such a façade also has an epistyle and a pediment (frontispiece) (Ibid.:30). A grave-chamber, which is a plain room with stone benches for the corpses, can be reached through the door from the porch (Ibid.:30). Similar interiors are characteristic of the third category, though its exteriors differ (Ibid.:30). House-tombs, as their name indicate, were built in a way imitating the wooden architecture of Lycia, namely one, two or three-storeys wooden houses, including the projecting square or round beam-ends above the door opening, which later developed into a dentil frieze (Bean 1989:30; Ching et al. 2010:173).

Numerous examples of different tomb types are encrusted together in the cliff-face in Fethiye; two of them belong to the category of temple-tombs, whereas the lowest ones are of house-type. The rest of the tombs resemble pigeon-holes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Sometimes, their façades feature a pediment that can be in the form of a pointed arch, similar to the one in the Gothic style (Bean 1989:30). The walls of this type of Lycian tombs usually are carved in relief, which also appear in the pediment, and occasionally on the adjacent rocks (Ibid.:30-31). When it comes to the last category, it was very common in the contemporary world, however, the early Lycian sarcophagi vary from typical forms of generally known tombs (Ibid.:30). Firstly, the Lycian version is much higher and is composed of the three successive parts: a base, which played the role of hyposorion (a second grave-chamber for the owner’s dependants), an actual grave-chamber, and a crested, ‘Gothic’-like massive lid, which are both frequently in reliefs (Ibid.:30-31). In the Roman times, the Lycian sarcophagi diminished in size and intricacy, and the corner of their lids, yet still with the crest, became rounded (Ibid.:31). Apart from those four major categories of the Lycian tombs, there also exist their different variations (Ibid.:31).

Telmessus or Fethiye?

The finest specimens of the Lycian tombs are at the ancient site of Telmessus or Telmessos, located by the Aegean Sea, in Lycia (Bean 1989:40). The city’s name was only changed in the eighth century to Anastasioupolis, in order to commemorate Anastasios the Second, the Byzantine Emperor, who ruled from 713 to 715 (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021).

View of Fethiye Marina. The modern city of Fethiye was once known as Makre or Makri, which in Greek means ‘long one’, referring to the name of the island at the entrance to the harbour. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

That name, however, had been forgotten till the tenth century, when the city was commonly known as Makre or Makri, which in Greek means ‘long one’, referring to the name of the island at the entrance to the harbour (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021). Finally, in the twentieth century, the city was renamed as Fethiye and it is called so in present (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021). The town and its district, incorporating a long beach, Çaliş Plaji (Beach), with an extensive promenade along the coast, on which a row of hotels are based, remain today one of the most prominent tourist destinations in the Turkish Riviera (“Fethiye” 2021). Fethiye is slipped away in the south corner of the gulf, and although it is quite hot in summer there, a fresh breeze coming from the sea makes the heat tolerable (Bean 1989:38), which is contrary to Alanya in the Mediterranean region, where the humidity reaches in summer 100%, and at around 40 degrees one feels boiling hot.

During our three-week stay in Fethiye, I visited the city a few times to enjoy its ancient remains and silent atmosphere of its streets. At that time I was spending my holidays with my little sister, Agnieszka, and my aunt’s large family (see: Island of the Sun in Favour of Gods). As my uncle is a university lecturer of Fine Arts and a real devotee of antique art, he seizes any occasion to sightsee, even though his family prefers to spend their time in a slightly different manner. Once we all headed off to Fethiye for the best döner kebab in the area. Afterwards, we decided to wander around the town in search of its ancient remains, which are scattered within its modern boundaries.

Little known site with monumental architecture

Unfortunately, very little is known about the origins of the ancient site of Fethiye (Bean 1989:38). Although its monuments feature Lycian inscriptions, it does not appear as Lycian at first in history (Ibid.:38). After some records, in the fourth century BC., the Lycian dynast, Pericles, fought against the Telmessians and besieged their city (Ibid.:38). Since then, Telmessus had become a part of Lycia, as it is attested by a contemporary historian, known as Scylax (Ibid.:38).

Historic map of Fethiye by Piri Reis (c. 1465 – 1553). Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Hayk using CommonsHelper (2006). Public domain. Photo cropped. Photo and caption source: “Fethiye” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Naturally, it had also been a member of the Lycian League till the time Lycia stayed under the Roman Empire (Ibid.:38). The Telmessians held then a peaceful agreement with Alexander the Great (334-333 BC.), and at the time of by Ptolemy the Third, in 240 BC., the city was offered to Ptolemy, son of Lysimachus (Ibid.:38-39). After the battle of Magnesia, in 189 BC., it was handed over by the Romans to Eumenes of Pergamum and it stayed within the Pergamene kingdom till its end, in 133 BC. (Ibid.:39). Consequently, it was then included to the Roman province of Asia (Ibid.:39). Yet in the first century BC. the city possibly did not belong to Lycia anymore (Ibid.:38).

Treasure is either underground or high-up

First, we decided to take a closer look of the famous Lycian rock-hewn tombs; so far we had just had an occasion to catch a tantalising glimpse of their façades and mysterious openings in the hillsides, from the distance, while we were travelling by bus through the region. The major group of the tombs of Telmessus are located on the east, just outside the modern town (Bean 1989:40). Numerous examples of different types are encrusted together in the cliff-face; two of them belong to the category of temple-tombs, whereas the lowest ones are of house-type, in two or three storeys, and are much smaller than those of the previous group (Ibid.:40). The rest of the tombs resemble pigeon-holes (Ibid.:40). They are all cut in the rock, encrusting the hillside, which looks out on to the east and west (Ibid.:40). Some of them may be reached by a stone staircase or by the strength of one’s own muscles, while climbing up the hill (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, others are more or less inaccessible without special equipment (Ibid.:40).

Who was Amyntas?

The most impressive of all the tombs of Telmessus is situated to the right of the major group and can be easily reached by visitors (Bean 1989:40).

An inscription from the fourth century BC. on the left-hand pilaster of the tomb, reveals the name of “Amyntou tou Ermagiou”, which stands for Amyntas son of Hermapias Although, such a name is unknown in history, it could have been a person of importance due to the size and masonic mastery of his tomb. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Obviously, I was to climb the hill to see the details of the ancient grave. Together with my uncle, we quickly left behind other members of our family, who were walking lazily up towards the monument. From the foot of the hill, we were led up there by a modern stepped zig-zag path, which directs straight to the most famous and magnificent of all the tombs (Ibid.:40). It clearly manifests its temple façade, which is already very easily seen for those who look at it from below the hill (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, only at closer look, this temple-tomb fully demonstrates its monumental size (Ibid.:40). At the foot of the tomb, there are yet four steps to reach the porch in the Ionic order, characterized by two columns in antis (Ibid.:40), of which the left-hand is broken at its base. Each pilaster features a row of three rosettes at their top (Ibid.:40). They are surmounted by a pediment (fronton) with three acroteria, mounted at its apex and its two corners; unfortunately, two of them bear the traces of large damage (Ibid.:40). Below the pediment, there is a dentil frieze, also known as a teethed cornice, which in this category of the tombs exchanged the wooden ornamental elements carrying the roofs in Lycian houses (Bean 1989:30, 40; Dosseman 2019).

Fethiye Rock graves Amyntas tomb. Photo by Dosseman (2019). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Tomb of Amyntas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These were in turn also imitated in stone by the Lycian house-tombs (Bean 1989:30; Dosseman 2019). An inscription from the fourth century BC. on the left-hand pilaster, reveals the name of “Amyntou tou Ermagiou”, which stands for Amyntas son of Hermapias (Bean 1989:40; Dosseman 2019). Although, such a name is unknown in history, it could have been a person of importance due to the size and masonic mastery of his tomb (Ibid.:40).

Robbers and vandals have already done their job

From the space of the porch (the narthex), I could see in detail the massive double doors to the grave chamber, which in Greek architecture, were hidden from the outside view by a portico; the door of the tomb is believed to be the most ancient and best preserved in Greek art, which greatly influenced this type of the Lycian tombs (Bean 1989:40; Dosseman 2019).

Amyntas Tomb among Fethiye rock – cut tombs. Photo by Dosseman (2019). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Tomb of Amyntas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

My uncle had already stayed in front of it, analyzing its particular components. The imitated doorway opening of the grave-chamber is squared and framed by mouldings; additionally, above it, there is a protruding moulded cornice supported on console brackets in the form of volutes. The stone surface of the door is divided into four panels, which are additionally covered in decorations imitating iron studs (Bean 1989:40). It was possible to enter the chamber through the bottom right panel, initially sealed with a sliding stone slab (Ibid.:40). It the recent past, it has been damaged by grave robbers who broke into the chamber; as a result, the entrance now remains open (Ibid.:40). When we both came through the broken panel, we found ourselves inside a single chamber with a flat ceiling and three separate benches hewn in the rock along the sides of the walls, where the dead used to be deposited (Ibid.:40). Some modern ‘vandals’ had decided the grave chamber would have been the best place to confess their love, as the walls have been covered in graffiti inscriptions in black and red paint (Dosseman 2019).

When we finally decided to come back, we realised we were alone in front of the tomb, and our family had been lost somewhere on the way up. After a while, we clearly discerned colourful figures on descend the hill; they were sitting down or impatiently looking in our direction. Deeply engaged in studying the tomb, we only now understood they had never climbed up the hill with us.

Sarcophagus outside the city centre

Apart from the visited site, there are many more tombs of different types within and around Fethiye (Bean 1989:40). Possibly, the best preserved and the most excellent in all Lycia is the tomb of sarcophagus category, which now stands beside the municipal building of the town (Ibid.:40). Like the Tomb of Amyntas, the sarcophagus dates back to the fourth century BC. (“Telmessos” 2021).  Its façade imitates two-storey wooden building with protruding house-beams (Bean 1989:40). However, the most interesting is its ‘Gothic’ arched lid that, along with the surmounting crest, is richly covered in reliefs, representing warriors (Ibid.:40-41). The ends of the lid, likewise the ends of the main chamber, are divided into four squared panels (Ibid.:40-41).

My sister and cousins resting at the stones of the Theater, in the shadow of massive blocks of stairs and surrounded by dispersed remains of decorated architectural elements. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Telmessos Theater

Our sightseeing of Fethiye finished just behind the city harbour, where there are remains of one of the two theaters of Telmessus that remind today a trace of the Roman times of Lycia (Bean 1989:41; TripHobo 2021). The so-called Telmessos Theatre is actually dated back to the Late Hellenistic, which is supported by the sign on the site, and it was reused by the Romans who added the stage in the second century BC. (Fethiye 2021). What has been preserved are seating stairs and reddish walls surrounding a huge space of the amphitheater, which was once designed for six thousand spectators on twenty-eight rows. (TripHobo 2021; Fethiye 2021). We were resting there for a while, in the shadow of massive blocks of stairs and surrounded by dispersed remains of decorated architectural elements.

The remains of one of the two theaters of Telmessus that remind today a trace of the Roman times of Lycia. What has been preserved are seating stairs and reddish walls surrounding a huge space of the amphitheater, which was once designed for six thousand spectators on twenty-eight rows. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the late afternoon, full of excitement after experiencing the Lycian past, I finally left the hot city of Fethiye, and with the rest of the tired group we went back to the sandy shores, washed by the refreshing sea waves.

Featured image: The most impressive of all the tombs of Telmessus is situated to the right of the major group and can be easily reached by visitors. 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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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

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

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

Dosseman (2019). In: “Tomb of Amyntas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wL1Au2>. [Accessed on 13th March, 2021].

Kosmiczne opowieści (2017). ”Zagadka Tiermes – starożytna budowla która pozostaje tajemnicą”. In: Kosmiczne opowieści Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3ccRpoQ>. [Accessed on 10th March, 2021].

Markoe G. ed. (2003). Petra Rediscovered. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

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

TripHobo (2021). “Roman Theatre, Fethiye”. In: TripHobo. Available at <https://bit.ly/3eCrzgO>. [Accessed on 13th March, 2021].

Royal Terraces without a Palace of the Kings

We had just left behind a stone forest of the fifty-four towers of the State Temple of Bayon, situated at the very heart of Angkor Thom. They followed us with the eyes of the faces looking out to the Baphuon Temple, and further on to the North Gate.

The both temples, Bayon and Baphuon, are definitely the most beautiful and complete in comparison to other numerous remains of temples and secular structures of different ages and styles scattered around Angkor Thom (Teo 2014); there are ruins of Prasat Chrung, composed of “four temples located at the corners of the wall, in southwest, northwest, northeast, and southeast” (Ibid.), then Preah Pithu Group, Prasat Suor Prat, the Khleangs, Tep Pranam, the so-called Monuments 486 and 487, and the Royal Palace area with the Royal Chapel of Phimeanakas and two monumental terraces (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020; Teo 2014).

Perished Palace of Angkor Thom

The city of Angkor Tom “was [once] inhabited by tens of thousands of common people who lived in wooden houses, that have long gone. The city was highly developed with a system of roads and waterways, as well as four hospitals” (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020).

One of the main stairway leading to the Terrace of the Elephants. Photo by Diego Delso (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Terrace of the Elephants” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The city of Angkor Thom was not evenly covered with ever-lasting stone structures; in comparison to southern part of Angkor Tom, which seems now desolate, the northern side of the city abounds in various architectural creations, unfortunately now mostly in ruins. To the North of the Bayon the king Jayavarman VII built his Royal Palace (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020). “Since it was built of perishable materials as were other urban constructions, nothing of it remains today except for the Royal Terraces that were made of stone” (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020; see Pałkiewicz 2007:176). Consequently, both the Elephants’ Terrace and the Leper King’s Terrace has still marked the eastern extremity of the Royal Palace enclosure (Ibid.).

Terrace of the Elephants

We walked to the north, from Baphuon in the direction of Phimeanakas, two former state temples incorporated to the twelfth century’s Royal Palace (“Angkor Thom” 2020). There is a huge square adjoining the Terrace of the Elephants (Teo 2014). Its two and a half-meter tall edifice is really impressive: it extends in length for over three hundred metres; we observed that it already starts at the foot of the Baphuon Temple and reaches northwards to the second Terrace of the Leper King (Glaize 1944; Teo 2014).

Terrace of the Elephants’ long wall is adorned with intricate carvings, major part of which represents royal and holy animals – elephants, which proudly walk along the terrace’s pedestal. Photo by Marcin Konsek (2016). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source:Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Nevertheless, these two boundaries of its large architectural construction “remain imprecise in their layout and the terrace itself shows evidence of additions and alterations” (Glaize I 1944), made partially by Jayavarman VII in the late twelfth century, and then continued by his successor (Teo 2014).

Elephants everywhere

The terrace’s long wall is adorned with intricate carvings, major part of which represents royal and holy animals – elephants, which proudly walk along the terrace’s pedestal (Pałkiewicz 2007:165). Hence the terrace’s name (Ibid.:165). During the golden age, the royal cavalry consisted of two hundred thousand elephants, the pride of the army, as well as a large number of horses, oxen and carts (Ibid.:170).

Often the result of a battle depended on the number of elephants that took part in it (Pałkiewicz 2007:170). Wars on land usually started in the dry season, which made it easier for the troops with elephants to move quicker around (Ibid.:170). During the battle, clouds of dust stirred up by elephants rose in the air, which, as the verses of an epic Khmer poem say, even covered the Sun (Ibid.:170).

Five-headed horse

The terrace’s wall spans the front of Baphuon Temple, the Royal Chapel of Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace area in the centre of Angkor Thom (Teo 2014). The northern segment of the wall (a part of an ancient façade) shows a panel densely decorated in high relief with the five-headed horse, around which there are complex, possibly mythological scenes (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014): “the king’s horse sheltered under tiered parasols, […] surrounded by apsaras and menacing genies armed with sticks who chase some terrified smaller figures” (Glaize I 1944). Three sections of retaining walls of the Terrace of the Elephants together with its two side walls compose five outworks extending towards the square in the centre (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014).

Terrace of the Elephants, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. Photo by Diego Delso (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Angkor Thom” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Their middle sections are covered in life size legendary Hindu bird-like creatures, called Garudas, and lions, all depicted in the pose of atlantes (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014). Towards either end of the wall, the entire length of the panel is sculpted in a high relief, representing a parade of nearly full in size elephants depicted in profile and mounted by famous Khmer mahouts (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014). Various level changes in the wall are in turn ”marked with lions sculpted in the round and Naga-balustrades on blocks with [their opponents, Garudas], on the [snakes’] hoods” (Glaize I 1944).

Three-headed elephant

The Terrace is double-levelled, and its upper part has furthermore two levels with an elevated platform, whose base is carved with Hamsas (sacred geese) (Glaize I 1944).

Three-headed elephant from the Terrace of the Elephants, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. Photo by Anita (2014). In: kolibri5. Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

Five stairways, as many as there are gates to the city, lead to the Terrace of the Elephants (Glaize I 1944). They are all also fully covered in carvings but three of the staircases seem most dominant of all (Ibid.). The southern one displays exceptionally beautiful sculpture (Ibid.), namely, it is “framed by motifs of [a three-headed elephant, Airvan], with trunks forming pillars tugging at lotuses, [the sculpture already found on the gates of Angkor Thom] (see Passageway through the Stargate). The same arrangement can be seen on the two secondary stairways which frame the central perron” (Ibid.). The stairway on the northern façade is partly sculpted in a bas-relief of horizontal bands; there are “scenes of sport, wrestling, chariot racing and polo, […] which originated from India” (Ibid.).

Royal stand

Around eight hundred years ago, the Terrace of the Elephants must have been a spectacular meeting place (Teo 2014); it was probably “used as a giant reviewing stand for [spectacles], public [and religious] ceremonies, and served as a base for the king’s grand audience hall” (Teo 2014; see Pałkiewicz 2007:165). Triumphant military parades and colourful spectacles took place at its foot, and despite the fact that the construction had been damaged many times, its majestic appearance still makes a great impression (Pałkiewicz 2007:165). The bas-reliefs of the Terrace of the Elephants, and the whole Angkor Tom, show how great the magnificence of the royal court of Khmers really was (Ibid.:170).

Terrace of the Elephants is the largest of the two in Angkor Thom. It is compsed of five outworks with five stairways leading to double-levelled platform. The terrace may have served as a ceremonial stand. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A traveller and journalist, Jacek Pałkiewicz (2007:170) imagines the ceremonial protocol of that time: here is the divine ruler with a tiara on his forehead, seated on a high terrace in the shade of ceremonial umbrellas. Handmaids in colourful, silk robes are approaching him, while offering refreshing fruit (Ibid.:170). The king is surrounded by an entourage of clergy, dignitaries and diplomats (Ibid.:170). In their company, the ruler is watching the infantry and cavalry troops heading towards the central Palace (Ibid.:170). Flags and banners are fluttering in the wind (Ibid.:170). It was a real propaganda for the diplomats, envoys and travellers who came from abroad (Ibid.:165,170).

Envoy’s reports

The contemporary chronicles also report a great prosperity in trade in the Khmer Empire (Pałkiewicz 2007: 174). Gold was imported from Sumatra and Korea, tin and fabric from Malaysia, mercury from China and an extremely valuable aromatic tree, silk from India (Ibid.:174). Spices and dyes were transported by water or by carts drawn by Indian buffaloes or by men from lower castes (Ibid.:174).

An envoy from China, Chou Ta Kuan, reports that people from lowest classes in Angkor had dark skin and lived a very simple life (Pałkiewicz 2007: 174). On the other side, aristocrats and inhabitants of the Royal Palace, both men and women fair complexion, which is probably due to the fact that their skin had not been exposed to sunlight (Ibid.:174). Generally, both men and women only wore a loincloth (Ibid.:174). They bound their hair up at the top of the head and walked barefoot, including emperors’ wives (Ibid.:174). According to the envoy’s records, the king had five wives (Ibid.:174). As for concubines and palace maidens, their number ranged from three to five thousand (Ibid.:174). They were divided into many classes, but these women rarely had the opportunity to be in the royal quarters (Ibid.:174). The best noble families competed with each other, offering their daughters to the king, thus seeking privileges (Ibid.:174).

Terrace of the Leper King, Angkor Tom, Cambodia. Photo by Olaf Tausch (2015). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Angkor Thom” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Apart from the being admired at his Terrace of the Elephants, the king equally gave audiences twice a day at his Royal Palace, which, unfortunately, no longer exists (Pałkiewicz 2007: 170). Chou Ta Kuan writes that this Palace had colourful interiors decorated with wood and gold (Ibid.:170). And the king himself, during the audience, appeared in the window with golden cornices, holding his sword in his hand (Ibid.:170,174). The entire ceremony was performed to the accompaniment of music (Ibid.:170). After being summoned by the king, a minister or another official sat on a tiger’s skin before the king and submitted interpellations (Ibid.:174). While leaving the site, I thought about a mystery of those ancient times, yet brining back in such details by the envoy’s contemporary reports and magical movements and dance of the sculpted stone figures frozen in the past.

Terrace of the Leper King

Soon we reached the second terrace of the Royal Palace, called the Terrace of the Leper King, situated at the north end of the Terrace of the Elephants (Teo 2014); it is aligned with it but forming a separate architectural unit of twenty-five metres wide by six metres high (Glaize II 1944). The Terrace resembles a bastion, which is entirely sculpted in the mixture of high and low relief (Ibid.). All the filigree carvings are depicted in five visible registers (Maurice Glaize II (1944) mentions seven); unfortunately, some of the sculpture, especially the uppermost, is strongly damaged or worn out, and thus hardy readable (Glaize II 1944; Pałkiewicz 2007:174).

Dense sculpture encrusting the Terrace of the Leper King in Angkor Thom, Cambodia. Photo by one_life (2016). Free images at Pixabay.

Both the internal and external reliefs show lines of seated mythological figures of Naga, Garuda, and Kumbhanda (Glaize II 1944). There are also meditating silhouettes of women, images of monarchs in crowns, armed with short swords, various species of animals, hunting scenes, games and activities (Pałkiewicz 2007:174,176). All of them “haunt the flanks of Mount Meru, shown as giants, […] sometimes with multiple arms […], sword or club bearers, and women with bare torsos” (Glaize II 1944).

Apsaras in pearls

When I approached the construction from its north side I saw yet different looking sculpture; there was a sword swallower and some figures wearing a curious side-chignon, who kept following him (Glaize II 1944). Having moved to the south side, I entered the internal corridor or passage dividing the carved mound in two (Glaize II 1944; Pałkiewicz 2007:176). I admired a well preserved set of carvings whose décor is composed of the same elements as the exterior but it is additionally adorned with my favourite Hindu characters, graceful and benevolent Devi, also called Apsaras (Glaize II 1944).

The summer light penetrating from the above fell on the sculptures covering the interior walls, emphasizing the shapely naked breasts of charming female upper bodies adorned only with strings of pearls (Glaize II 1944; Pałkiewicz 2007:176) and “triangular head dress with flaming discs” (Glaize II 1944). Some sculpted characters on the south side were also seated upon a lower frieze built up of depictions of fish, elephants and a river running vertically (Ibid.).

Leper King

Following the rows of scenes, I eventually climbed laterite steps to the upper level of the Terrace, where “[surrounded by three smaller decapitated statues carrying clubs on their right shoulders, the ‘Leper King’ sits in the Javanese manner with his right knee raised” (Glaize II 1944). Possibly his position has originally been on a simple stone slab he is seated on (Ibid.). The sculpture is itself unique in Khmer art, as it represents the King entirely naked, with no trace of his genitalia though (Ibid.).

Seated statue (a copy) venerated in Buddhist orange clothes in the photo gives the Terrace of the Leper King its name. Photo by McKay Savage (2009). CC BY 2.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Terrace of the Leper King” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

I looked at the figure and I immediately got an impression he is smiling, pleased with his entourage and location, or maybe visitors taking him loads of photos. When I started wondering why the seated figure is called the Leper King, I unexpectedly found the answer to my question: although the figure has no sign of leprosy as such, it is discoloured. Anyway, the original sculpture of the ‘King’ had already been replaced with a copy (Pałkiewicz 2007:174); “[the] statue was moved from the Terrace in Angkor Thom to the National Museum in Phnom Penh” (Miura 2015).

The statue which gave the Terrace of the Leaper King its name has been replaced by a replica. Photo by Serinde (2004). Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Terrace of the Leper King” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Maurice Glaize (II:1944), as a French architect, archaeologist, and Conservator of Angkor from 1937 to 1945, had an opportunity to describe the original statue in his the guidebooks to the Angkor monuments. He writes that besides being stained and disfigured, it also bears a few patches of lichen, which may have resembled a person with leprosy (Glaize II:1944; see Pałkiewicz 2007:174). The source of the King’s and thus the Terrace’s name could be also because of a Cambodian legend of an Angkorian king, Yasovarman I (889–910 AD.), who was a great creator of Angkor and possibly he died of leprosy (“Terrace of the Leper King” 2020; Pałkiewicz 2007:174). Consequently, he went down in history as the Leper King (“Terrace of the Leper King” 2020; Pałkiewicz 2007:174). Yet, he had reigned much earlier than the Terrace was constructed in the late twelfth century.

Sculpture of the so-called Leper King from the Terrace named after that figure. Does he really represent a king? Or maybe a demon or the god of the dead? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After some scholars neither the statue represents a leper nor a king. Actually, the identity of the sculptured character is unknown. It is held by some that it represents ‘Shiva ascetic’, others believe that a later inscription on the Terrace’s base, which reads a ‘Dharmaraja’ reveals the statue’s real name (Glaize II:1944).“[It] is sometimes given to Yama and sometimes to one of his assessors – ‘the Inspector of Qualities and Faults’ – the supreme judge in the hour of judgement, [and so] the ‘god of the Dead’” (Ibid.). However, the hairstyle of the individual, namely composed “of thick coils starting from the front and covering the nape of the neck – emphasises, like the two ‘fangs’ near the corner of the lips, his demonic character” (Ibid.). Is it then one of demons from Hindu tradition? Is it maybe a depiction of Ravana?

Dharmaraja at Mount Meru

It is probable that the Terrace of the Leper King was once dominated by the sculpted mound, possibly complemented with pools, and with the buried wall; this curious arrangement may have been a symbolic representation of Mount Meru (Glaize 1944).

On the other side, “the fact that it occupies an area to the north of the Royal Palace – the area […] reserved still now for royal cremations known as ‘Val Prah Men’ (the name of the pavilion prepared there for the funeral pyre) – leads one to suspect that the Terrace of the Leper King was none other than a permanent [Val Prah] Men, which would explain why, when this cult was still remembered [in the fifteenth century, the name] of Dharmaraja [as the god of the dead, had been] placed [just] there” (Ibid.).

Ancient heritage

From the main entrance to the Royal Palace, that is halfway along the wall of the Terrace of the Elephants, there is an almost one and half kilometre long Victory Way that leads to the fifth and most important passage within the citadel of Angkor Thom, the Victory Gate or the Fifth Gopura (Pałkiewicz 2007:176).

Following the road I kept passing by numerous remains of ancient structures of Prasat Suor Prat, plunged in the greenery, and I was thinking about their links to modern times of Cambodia. I looked around and except for tourists from abroad, there were many Khmers visiting the city. Contemporary inhabitants of the country, although fiercely experienced by the regime of the Red Khmers, are still very proud of the ancient past of their country, and happy to show that it boasts a great medieval culture, as does Europe (Pałkiewicz 2007:176).

Featured image: Devi, also called Apsaras among the sculpture from the Terrace of the Leper King; the inside passage. 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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Angkor Thom” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3nWh1KB>. [Accessed 20th January, 2021].

“Terrace of the Elephants” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3c1NhcZ>. [Accessed 20th January, 2021].

“Terrace of the Leper King” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bYB3Sa>. [Accessed 20th January, 2021].

Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fTQX0u >. [Accessed on 17th August, 2021].

Glaize M. (I) (1944). “A Guide to the Angkor Monuments (Translation NT); Part Two: The Royal Square: the Terrace of the Elephants”. In: The Angkor Guide. Available at <http://www.theangkorguide.com/text.htm>. [Accessed 19th January, 2021].

Glaize M. (II) (1944). “A Guide to the Angkor Monuments (Translation NT): Part Two: The Royal Square: the Terrace of the Leper King”. In: The Angkor Guide. Available at <http://www.theangkorguide.com/text.htm>. [Accessed 19th January, 2021].

Konsek M. (2014). Photo: “Angkor, Angkor Thom, Taras Słoni”. In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3sOEZLx>. [Accessed 20th January, 2021].

Miura K. (2015). “From “Originals” to Replicas: Diverse Significance of Khmer Statues”. In: Kultur als Eigentum: Instrumente, Querschnitte und Fallstudie [online]. Growth S., Bendix R. F. and Spiller A. (dir.). Göttingen: Göttingen University Press. (generated 10 September 2020). ISBN: 9782821875500. Available at <http://books.openedition.org/gup/550>. [Accessed 20th January, 2021].

Pałkiewicz J. (2007). Angkor. Poznań: Zysk i S-ka Wydawnictwo.

Renown Travel & Tour Agency (2010-2020). “Angkor Thom”. In: Renown Travel. Available at <https://bit.ly/2YiBz5L>. [Accessed 18th January, 2021].

Teo R. (2014). “Gates of Angkor Thom”. In: Reubenteophotography. Available at <https://bit.ly/2YiYoXa>. [Accessed 18th January, 2021].

Jamb of a Window and a Door in Architecture

The term jamb stands for a recess between the wall face inside the room and the side of a fitted window (window jamb) or door (door jamb) or other wall opening.

The jamb on a medieval church doorway (in a Gothic portal accompanied by lintel and trumeau) is normally occupied by a cascading row of carved figures. “These [jamb] statues are often human figures, typically religious figures or secular or ecclesiastical leaders” (“Jamb statue” 2020). Such jamb figures are very often visible in Gothic cathedrals of France and elsewhere in medieval Europe.

Featured image: The fragment of the West Portal of the Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, France. The portal is occupied by the so-called jamb figures of saints and angels, which is typical of the French style of medieval architecture. The figures are positioned below the so-called capitals. Above them, there is a fragment of a beautifully carved archivolt and of the tympanum. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Framuga” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3y6hjn8>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].

“Jamb statue” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3miJYTK>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art, p. 122.

Discovered but Uncovered Palenque of the Ancient Maya

Having entered the Mayan city of Palenque, I left a group of colleagues slightly behind to plunge into the labyrinth of the Palace complex. From there, the facade of the Temple of the Inscriptions kept proudly looking at me, while holding its mystery intact. For a moment, I was slowly walking among the jagged ruins, passing by their openings of strange shapes and of unknown functions, and, as if without a plan, I groped among the contradictory theories put forward on Palenque over the years by various researchers. On the other hand, the accumulation of such conflicting hypotheses forces a deeper reflection and a closer look at debatable structures and artifacts. Or maybe it is worth taking a general look at the Mayan culture and their city first and then going into details? But sultry Palenque still remains a mystery.

Outstanding rulers of Palenque and their city running out of food …?

The oldest traces of settlement in the area of Palenque are dated back to the third century AD., but most of the buildings and facade decorations go back to the Classic Period, the time when the city flourished between 600 and 800 AD. (Prager, Grube 2013:447; Von Däniken 1991:163).

K’inich Kan B’alam II, one of the many rulers of Palenque. Detail from the Temple XVII Tablet. Photo by Mdcarrasco – Own work (2007). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Palenque, Chiapas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It was then, under the rule of the most significant of the local rulers: K’inich Janaab Pakal, his son Kan Balam II (684-702) and K’an Joy Chitam (702-711) (Ibid.:447). This dynasty was interrupted by the capture of K’an Joy Chitam around 711 by the hostile city of Tonina, but its rule was continued by K’inch Ahkal Mo ‘Naab III (721-736), coming from the adjacent line of the family who eventually commissioned the construction of the Temple XIX (Ibid.:447).

While the city was certainly one of the main centres of the Maya people, this fact is quite surprising to some scholars, as Mark Van Stone, PhD. (Burns 2012). For in the jungle the soil that could be cultivated was unusually thin and so could not provide enough food with such a large urban centre (Ibid.). What makes it even more astonishing is that Palneque was one of the most populated cities of the Maya, even twenty times more than it is observed in the region today (Ibid.).

Complex sewage system

Ancient Palenque rises high above the plains of Usumacinta, at the foot of the Tumbalá Mountains, in the Mexican state of Chiapas (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202; Burns 2012; Von Däniken 1991:173). The ritual centre itself is situated on hills and artificial terraces, which perfectly fit into the natural terrain (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202). The terraces themselves are separated in turn by the Otolum stream into the western and eastern parts (Von Däniken 1991:173). Its natural bed was directed by an artificial and wide underground network, so that in some places the Otolum waters still flow through the city by means of vaulted canals (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202; Von Däniken 1991:173; Burns 2012).

Palenque Center, Chiapas, Mexico; view from the Temple of the Cross on the palace complex. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Based on the research to date, it is also known that the inhabitants of Palenque additionally developed a complicated system of aqueducts, and obtained water pressure by leading the artificial channels from the main riverbed (David Hatcher Childress in: Burns 2012). In the past, this sophisticated sewage system also took over streams of rainwater flowing from the roofs of temples, then led through aqueducts and underground channels to the structure, known commonly as the Palace (Von Däniken 1991:173). For Erich von Däniken, who often followed in the footsteps of archaeologists by asking them a series of uncomfortable questions, the similar sewage system in Palenque is already a cause for amazement (Ibid.:173).

What experts claim

Mesoamerican culture experts believe that Mayan construction techniques primarily determined the need to drain water as quickly as possibly during heavy rainfall, especially in dense jungle areas, and the need to take appropriate steps to store it for later use (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Free-standing courtyards with houses on platforms, arranged at different levels and perhaps surrounded by gardens, were perfectly suited to these requirements (Ibid.:200). The water could flow in any direction and be stored in domestic cisterns or huge tanks (Ibid.:200). The same rule was applied in case of monumental buildings, such as palaces and temple architecture (Ibid.:200). Stucco-covered courtyards or large squares, and in some cases causeways, were probably designed to channel and store water (Ibid.:200).

Palace complex seen from the base of the Temple of the Inscriptions. . Outside the Palace, on the west and north sides, there are impressive entrance stairs and cloisters. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Moreover, largely due to the tropical climate, very few enclosed and covered rooms were built in the area (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Most of the activities, public and private, could be performed outdoors or under a light roof (Ibid.:200). Therefore, it seems logical, as specialists claim, to focus on Mayan cities’ open spaces when analysing their complex architecture (Ibid.:200).

Successive excavations and discoveries

Although excavations in the city of Palenque began in the 1940s, the ruins of the city itself have still not been sufficiently explored (Prager, Grube 2013:447; Burns 2012). The archaeological site measures 1780 hectares, including nine major recorded areas with 1400 buildings (UNESCO 2021). On the whole, the archaeological research carried out so far covers around 10% of the whole area (UNESCO 2021; Prager, Grube 2013:447; Burns 2012). Moreover, due to the rainy season, excavation work is usually limited to four months of the year (Von Däniken 1991:179). Since so far the greatest discovery in Palenque, which was revealed in  the Temple of the Inscriptions, another Temple of the city, labelled as the Temple XIII, has unveiled the tomb of the so-called Red Queen (1994) and a stone throne has also been discovered in the Temple XIX (1999) (Prager, Grube 2013:447). And there was yet uncovered another burial in the Temple XXI (2013) (Ibid.:447). Therefore, new important archaeological finds may hopefully come to light soon (Ibid.:447).

Wealth of architectural elements and details

A breath-taking architecture of the city, such as the so-called Temple of the Inscriptions, the Palace complex, the Ceremonial Courtyard, and several smaller temples and residential districts around it, all constitute the essential centre of Palenque (Prager, Grube 2013:447).

A bas-relief in the Palenque museum that depicts Upakal K’inich, the son of K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Naab III. Photo by Soerfm (2018). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo and caption source: “Palenque, Chiapas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

All buildings in the city were once decorated with rich stucco reliefs and colourful wall paintings (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202). They even appear in the vaulted sections found at the rear of the edifices, which similarly to their facades and stair ramps, also contain the remains of beautiful stucco reliefs (Ibid.:203). In turn, inside the buildings, there have been preserved large and artistic wall reliefs, made of particularly fine-grained limestone (Ibid.:203). Like Mayan hieroglyphic inscriptions, such reliefs often refer to complex figural scenes (Ibid.:203). The so-called roof combs at gable ridges are typical of the Mayan architecture; also in Palenque, if preserved, these peculiar crests still crown the central part of the roof of the temples (Ibid.:203-204). Since the roof combs are filigree structures, they feature multiple openings, and so together with the temple they give a whole compact blocks of architectural pyramids a specific lightness (Ibid.:203-204). In the past, they were additionally decorated with colourful painted surfaces and stucco (Ibid.:203-204). Roof combs, which seem to have been intended for the gable ridges of more important sacred buildings, also gave the structures an impression of height and monumentality (Ibid.:199).

Temple of the Sun with an intricate roof comb. Photo by Éclusette – Own work (2009). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Temple of the Cross Complex” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Moreover, the door openings reached almost to the level where the corbelled vaults began and were topped with stone lintels or stone beams (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). In turn, numerous vaults in Palenque reveal unusual leaf-shaped trefoil, and mysterious keyhole arches appear in the city’s niches, window openings and doorways (Ibid.:203). Did they serve merely as a decoration or did they evoke a symbolic meaning?

Significance of the keyhole

Window openings and arches in the form of a keyhole appear all over the city of Palenque, where they feature some buildings of the Palace complex and, particularly, the Temple of the Foliated Cross (Burns 2020).

Surprisingly, they do not occur in architecture of any other Mayan cities. A similar symbol had been, however, used in sacred and sepulchral architecture of many ancient cultures around the world (Ibid.). The keyhole form is, among all, observed in the shape of burial mounds in Japan and Algeria, geoglyphs in Saudi Arabia, sacral-astronomical structures in Peru, in the United States, on the Italian island of Sardinia and in India (Ibid.). Some of them are so huge that their shape can be recognized only from the bird’s eye view (Ibid.). As an Arabic legend goes, a similar symbol also adorned the so-called Seal of the biblical King Solomon, which served him as a tool for subjugating demons and so using them to build a Temple for the Ark of the Covenant (Ibid.).

Temple of the Foliated Cross with mysterious window openings in the form of a keyhole. Rob Young from United Kingdom – Temple of the Foliated Cross (2012). CC BY 2.0. “Temple of the Cross Complex” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In ancient Egypt, the so-called menat necklace was worn with a heavy pendant at the back, in the form of a keyhole, used as its counterbalance; it was mainly associated with the goddess Hathor, who was also called Meant, and with the Moon god, Chonsu, who was a guardian of the invisible worlds (Burns 2020; “Menat” 2020). “His name means ‘traveller’, and this may relate to the perceived nightly travel of the Moon across the sky” (“Khonsu” 2021). In ancient Egyptian iconography, the meant is often passed down by gods to members of the aristocracy (Burns 2020). What is even more intriguing, a similar symbol was an attribute of another lunar deity, the Phoenician goddess Tanit (Ibid.). Moreover, a mysterious well-like structure in the shape of a keyhole in Sardinia was also architecturally associated with the Moon; namely, its dome was apparently designed to observe the Moon at its highest stage, that it to say, at the moment of the so-called lunar standstill (Ibid.). A similar structure built in India also refers to the same astronomical phenomena, which is the lunar cycle that lasts eighteen years (Ibid.). For this reason, some researchers have suggested the keyhole symbol is associated with celestial bodies such as the Earth and the Moon, and therefore, with our planet’s relations with the sky (Ibid.). Did the keyhole openings in Palenque use to have a similar function?

An elaborate menat necklace depicted in a relief at the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, Egypt. Photo by Olaf Tausch – Own work (2011). CC BY 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Menat” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Today, it is still a mystery why so many ancient cultures in different and distant corners of the world, including the Maya, used to illustrate such a symbol in their architecture or sacral objects (Burns 2020). Keys and locks have existed since ancient times, serving indirectly to open gates and doors (Ibid.). As such, the keyhole may have had a ritual significance in opening symbolic gates (Ibid.). But what did they open to?  And what is the key to those gates, matching the keyhole? The origin of the symbol still remains a mystery, but whatever inspired its shape, it had to be quite significant to our ancestors (Ibid.).

Corbelled vault and its key functions

While major elements of Mayan architecture were relatively simple, they developed into quite rich and varied forms (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). Between the Preclassic and Early Classic periods, there were observed some changes in building techniques; specialists note that the walls of contemporary Mayan buildings were built of more precisely cut stones, which made the layer of lime plaster applied to them much thinner (Ibid.:198). The use of a corbelled (cantilever) vault, the method used to build a roof using stones and mortar, had also increased at that time (Ibid.:199;. see: Mystery of the Casas de Piedra in Palenque).

Fragment of one of the long corridors of the Palace seen from the inside of the complex. The building feature strange openings in the shape of the letter T and of a keyhole (on the left). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In a corbelled vault, also referred to as a false vault, horizontal blocks of stone protrude further inwards in individual layers, getting closer to each other, and thus connect two supporting walls (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). The vault was eventually closed by means of a flat stone slab (Ibid.:199).

Other solutions in vaulting the roof

In the Early Classic Period, most of the burial chambers in the deeper layers were cut off and closed with a corbelled vault (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199).

K’inich K’an B’alam II (“Chan Bahlam II”). Photo by Sergio~commonswiki (2006). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Palenque, Chiapas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

False vaults had been widely used in many buildings from Late Classic centres, such as Palenque, although there were also vaults composed of rubble and ceilings with wooden beams covered with a layer of stucco (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199199). The latter were widespread in the Mayan lowlands in the Late Classic and Postclassic periods (Ibid.:199). They had the advantage of covering large room spaces (Ibid.:199). At the same time, they were quite unstable (Ibid.:199). In order to prevent water from penetrating into the building, especially in the rainy season, new layers of stucco had to be constantly applied (Ibid.:199). In turn, vaults made of rubble was a system, where the stones protruding from the wall structure in a false vault were replaced with a mixture of mortar and stone, in such a way that the vault stones visible from the below were nothing but a clever illusion (Ibid.:199).

More intricate constructions

The use of a corbelled vault allowed a construction of long houses with several entrances and two or three rows of vaulted rooms, placed one above the other, and providing the building with subsequent levels, to which the entrance led with separate stairs (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199).

The city of Palenque rises on terraces in the northernmost part of the Chiapas Mountains above the wide, once densely forested plains of the Gulf of Mexico. The Palace seen from the Temple of the Cross. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The vaulted rooms were placed either alternately or one above the other (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). The facades of buildings were clearly divided into a horizontal wall and a fragment filled with vaults, often with the base between the terrace level and the upper edge of the floor inside the building (Ibid.:199). These areas were usually separated by sills (Ibid.:199). An example of such a multi-storey complex in Palenque is the so-called Palace.

Analysis of the Mayan architectural functions within a city-state

An accessibility, location and connection system of Mayan building complexes within a given city state indicate whether the area was used for private or public functions (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200).

Religious ceremonies were believed to have been held in centrally located buildings, not easily accessible, but well recognizable (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Limited access to the complexes erected on elevations, most often on several levels, near large, open squares, proves that they were used as palaces, as much as it is present in Palenque, whose Palace is placed just in the center (Ibid.:200). “The plan [of the city itself] follows a pin-wheel arrangement, as well as a gridded system. [Already its early] explorers [had] noted stunning similarities in the design of [its] stone structures and their apparent use.” (Blankenbehler 2015).

The Palace is one of the greatest Mayan structures of its kind and the largest architectural complex in Palenque. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Depending on the location within the whole city layout, separate areas were used for representative purposes or domestic functions (Ibid.:200). In many regions of the central lowlands, ball fields, which are most typical urban features of the Pre-Columbian cities, are usually located in front of the palace complex (Ibid.:200). This location is different in Palenque, where the remains of an area interpreted as a ball field are located in the northern part of the city complex. In turn, in the north of the lowlands, separate parts of buildings considered as Mayan palaces, such as residential, representative and administrative parts, were housed in distinct building complexes (Ibid.:200).

In Palenque, the said Palace complex was located in one single, though intricate complex, which would be indicative at once of its private, administrative and representative function. At the same time, along with the nearby temples erected on stepped pyramids, it would accordingly perform ceremonial functions.

El Palacio

The Palace of Palenque was discovered at the end of the eighteenth century by the Spanish (Burns 2012). It is one of the greatest Mayan structures of its kind and the largest architectural complex in Palenque at all (Ibid.). The palace complex is located in front of the Temple of the Inscriptions, just in the middle of the ancient city (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202). According to archaeologists, it had been changed and rebuilt many times (Ibid.:202). In its present form, it contains several extremely varied courtyards located on a common platform together with internal stairs (Ibid.:202). Outside the Palace, on the west and north sides, there are impressive entrance stairs and cloisters (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203).

The architecture of Palenque is impressive not only because of its impressive size, but also because of its elegance and simplicity. El Palacio seen from the Temple of the Cross. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The huge edifice of the complex is divided into three floors, one above the other (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:173). The platform on which the palace complex stands is ten meters high (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203). Its space (80×100 meters), in turn, is divided into many smaller and larger courtyards lying on different levels (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:173). Today they are referred to as the Main Courtyard, West Courtyard, East Courtyard and the Tower Courtyard (Von Däniken 1991:173). The lower part of the Palace on the south side is called Subterraneum (Ibid.:173). In the East Courtyard, a stone slab (2.4 x 2.6 meters) has additionally been found; it is decorated with two hundred and sixty-two Mayan engravings, including mythological scenes, heads of gods, figures of people and animals, and calendar hieroglyphs (Ibid.:173).

At first glance, El Palacio gives the impression of a labyrinth-like structure, because its complex is so confusing that tourists sometimes lose their orientation while walking among its walls (Von Däniken 1991:173). There are also rooms of various sizes (Ibid.:173). A number of elongated buildings have double barrel vaults (Ibid.:173). Their corbelled, vaulted ceilings slant back and, like many other buildings, they are equally adorned with stucco decorations (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203).

Astonishing finds in the corridors of the Palace

A system of sewage pipes and stone toilets were discovered in the Palace, including a small room with a toilet (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). All of them were placed in strategic points of the building and they were cleaned with water, which carried the waste underground (Von Däniken 1991:174).

The squared tower is an important structure within the Palace complex, which stands out significantly against the background of the maze of corridors, rooms and courtyards. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The presence of toilets convinced archaeologists of the secular character of the complex (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203). Additionally, there was probably a ventilation system that supplied air also to the underground parts of the building, where long corridors also ran next to the rooms (Ibid.:174). One of the longest reaches twenty meters and ends with a flight of stairs leading up to the centre of the complex (Ibid.:174). As the corridors are intricately decorated with reliefs, researchers believe that important rituals must have taken place there, possibly related to the underworld (Ibid.:174). For others, however, these corridors are not anything special, even despite their truly unique decorations (Ibid.:174-175). The western, elongated facade of the Palace is dominated by five two meters thick square columns, which are all covered with stucco reliefs (Ibid.:173).

Erich Von Däniken (1991:173) recognizes in one of them a Mayan fighter skating on rollers! (Ibid.:173). Other interesting features of the Palace are T-shaped openings, which are  in the walls; they are sometimes interpreted as symbolic attribution of the sun or wind god, but were apparently used for observing the sky (Burns 2012). Likewise, many buildings in Mayan cities were designed to provide favourable conditions for astronomical observations (Ibid.).

Modern names of the buildings and their original purpose

Such a majestic building must have had an important purpose at the time of the Maya, but what was it? (Von Däniken 1991:173). El Palacio is just a modern name of the building as it was claimed that it was the royal palace (Ibid.:173). Later it was also considered a convent for women or dwellings of priests (Ibid.:173).

Temple of the Cross during the primary stages of excavation. Photo by Unknown author or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Created: between circa 1871 and circa 1907. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Temple of the Cross Complex” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Däniken’s local Indian guide suggests, however, that it was once a famous university in the region (Von Däniken 1991:173-174). After him, the history of the Maya people was taught on the ground floor, chemistry and nature were taught on the first floor, and mathematics and astronomy on the second floor (Ibid.:174). Thus, various interpretations of archaeologists and nomenclature is rather conventional, as it is based on very uncertain foundations (Ibid.:174).

Other terms used for buildings in Palenque and elsewhere in Mesoamerica, such as the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Temple of the Sun, or the Temple of the Foliated Cross, are just modern names and so not given by their builders themselves (Von Däniken 1991:175-176). Hence, one cannot be sure about the purpose of these buildings (Ibid.:175-176).

Squared tower of the Palace

The very thesis about the Palace as a Mayan university can be supported by another important structure within the complex, which stands out significantly against the background of the maze of corridors, rooms and courtyards; it is a fifteen-meter tower rising on a huge pedestal with a base of 7×7.5 meters, above the south-west courtyard of the Palace, known as the Courtyard with the Tower (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174).

Today, researchers believe that Palenque kings and priests watched the stars from that squared construction. Accordingly, it was a Mayan astronomical observatory. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The similar structure of the tower remains unique in Mayan architecture and is believed to have been added as the last element of the palace during the reign of the penultimate Palenque ruler, K’uk ‘Balam the First (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). The tower was previously thought to be a viewing point or a watchtower, although the Mayan cities were not fortified but open on all sides (Von Däniken 1991:174). Today, researchers believe that Palenque kings and priests watched the stars from that squared construction (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). Similar function of the tower is supported by the hieroglyph found there and identified as symbolizing the planet Venus or a star (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). This hieroglyph was apparently painted as part of the date of the patron of the month of yax, in 1516 (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203). The tower could have therefore been an observatory that served once Palenque elite and theoretically university students to study astronomical phenomena in the sky (Von Däniken 1991:174). Certainly, this activity was facilitated by large windows, placed on all sides of the tall building (Von Däniken 1991:174; Burns 2012). What’s more, there was no entrance to the first floor in the tower, and its narrow stairs led directly to the second and third floors (Ibid.:174).

Obsession with astronomy

The observatory and T-shaped windows of the Palace are not the only testimonies of the Mayan fascination with astronomy in Palenque (Burns 2012). The city’s temples were also associated with particular times of the day and year (Ibid.). The main ones are the equinoxes and solstices (Ibid.).

The Temple of the Sun on the left, further the Temple XIV and the ruins of the Temple XV on the right. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

According to the echoes of many ancient myths, including the Egyptian and Mayan, while disappearing in the west, the Sun takes a journey by entering the underworld and then reappearing in the east at dawn (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Similar beliefs also translate the four astronomical events, the solstices and equinoxes (Ibid.:200). When the Sun rises and sets down at the summer and winter solstices, it moves between the extreme points on the horizon (Ibid.:200). In turn, at the beginning of spring and autumn, on the days of the equinoxes, the Sun rises and sets halfway between these points (Ibid.:200). Additionally, the Maya believed that the lines connecting the Sun’s four turning points correspond to the four sides of the world, each associated with a different colour and different characteristics (Ibid.:200).

Such astronomical phenomena, like the solstices and equinoxes, had been carefully observed by various ancient civilisations, and accordingly reflected in their architectural layouts (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Everywhere in the Mayan world, there is evidence of how the Mayans’ knowledge of astronomy was reflected in their structures, which were unmistakably linked to the observation of the astronomical year (Burns 2012). Linda Schele (1942-1998) an American archaeologist and an expert in the field of Maya epigraphy and iconography, noted that on the winter solstice the sun sets exactly “inside” the Temple of the Inscriptions, a phenomenon that repeats itself in reverse phase in the day of the vernal equinox, when the sun rises “from within” the Temple of the Inscriptions (Burns 2012; “Linda Schele” 2021).

The whole phenomenon in both cases can be easily observed from the roof of the Temple of the Sun, which is located east of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Burns 2012). Thus, the layout of the buildings in Palenque (as in other ancient Mesoamerican cities) is not a matter of coincidence (Ibid.). The Temple of the Sun itself was set on the plinth of a four-level pyramid, so it is more than two times lower than the pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Von Däniken 1991:176; Burns 2012). Such a design of buildings and their arrangement in the city space must have had a great impact on the general perception of the above-described astronomical phenomena (Burns 2012).

The Temple of the Sun

The Temple of the Sun has a square base (23×23 meters) and positioned on the stepped pyramid it is nineteen meters high, up to the comb roof of the temple (Von Däniken 1991:176). The Temple’s front crest is decorated with refined reliefs in stucco as much as the side walls of the building (Ibid.:176). There are three entrances to the Sanctuary of the Temple (Ibid.:176).

On both sides of the central entrance, the walls are covered with stucco reliefs, depicting two figures of natural height with elaborate clothing decorations (Von Däniken 1991:176). Between them, there is an entrance leading to a small room with the so-called Sanctuary Tablet or Tablet of the Sun, from which the Temple possibly has taken its name (Ibid.:176). The tablet itself is a well-preserved relief depicting a shield on which two spears decorated with feathers intersect (Ibid.:176-177). The shield is positioned between two male figures, probably priests. Apparently, the image on it symbolizes the Sun of Jaguar (Ibid.:177).

Right next to the Temple of the Sun, there are the ruins of two minor temples, labelled as Temples XIV and XV.

Complex of the three temples

The Temple of the Sun, along with the Temple of the Foliage Cross and the Temple of the Cross all constitute a group of the three temples that were built during the reign of King Kan Balam in 692 AD., so ten years after Pakal’s death (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). Like other temples in Palenque, this trio was also set on substructures in the shape of stepped pyramids (Ibid.:204).

The Temple of the Cross is the greatest of the complex composed of the three temples, built on the stepped pyramids. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The so-called Temple of the Cross is extremely important among the three temples, also in the context of this article. It is located on a large elevated square in the eastern part of the city (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The other two temples, the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Foliage Cross, are much lower than the Temple of the Cross itself, which definitely towers over the entire ensemble of three pyramids (Ibid.:204). It is distinguished not only by proportions, but also by a preserved, magnificent comb in the middle of the roof, originally decorated with figures and stucco (Ibid.:204).

The Temple of the Cross and its Tablet

Like the other two temples of the complex, the Temple of the Cross contains a sanctuary, called by the Maya pib naah, which stands for the birthplace of the gods (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The walls of the sanctuary, on the other hand, are decorated with Mayan stone reliefs, which are one of the most outstanding examples of Mayan sculptures of possibly deep religious significance (Ibid.:204). A limestone relief on the back wall of the sanctuary, in turn, became the source of the name for the temple itself (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Wagner 2013:282).

Entrance to the Temple of the Cross, which features on its roof a beautifully decorated crest, a typical element of the Mayan architecture. On the right of the entrance, there is another keyhole opening. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Namely, the very central motif on the sculpted tablet is in the form of a cross (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Wagner 2013:282). Actually, it is believed to be in fact a highly stylized representation of the Tree of Life or the Tree of the World, growing from a sacrificial vessel, atop which an exotic bird sits (Wagner 2013:282). The latter is actually the god Itzamna, who is a Mayan sky deity, represented there in its zoomorphic form (Ibid.:282). According to archaeologists, the scene tells about the creation of the world and the birth of the tutelary deity of Palenque (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The tree in the form of a cross itself is believed to mark the centre of the sky, as demonstrated by the heavenly belt on which it stands; the location of the Temple of the Cross accordingly marks the northern quarter of the cosmos assigned to the sky (Wagner 2013:282).

Tablet of the cross restored from the Temple of the Cross. Photo by Ineuw (2017). Public domain. Photo source: “Tablet of the Cross restored” (2017). In: Wikipedia Commons.

An identical cross motif with a strongly stylized exotic bird on its top, as depicted on the Tablet of the Cross, also appears on a much older relief adorning a highly controversial sarcophagus from the Temple of the Inscriptions. Are there any relations between these two representations at all, as it seems? If so, why are not they compared together but interpreted separately or even contradictory?

Featured image: The squared tower of the Palace complex in Palenque. It is believed to have served as an astronomical observatory. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Image cropped and modified. Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

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

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Noah’s Beasts Released on the Hills of Göbekli Tepe

Perhaps the key to understanding the site of Göbekli Tepe lies in its impressive carvings situated on the cluster of pillars (Conrad 2012). As described in my previous article (see: The Oldest Temple in the World and its Mystery), they are ‘T’-shaped and decorated with strange zoomorphic imagery. The latter represent elaborate and naturalistic animal characters, both in low, high and full relief, showing three-dimensional figures, signifying improbable menagerie (Conrad 2012; Noren 2020).

Images of various animals found, including birds and insects, all in all, create an astonishing menagerie that continues to amaze archaeologists who have studied the site to this day (Burns 2010). An archaeologist, Paul Bahn, PhD., admits that there is no other archaeological site in the world with a similar variety of zoomorphic representations in stone (Burns 2017). Their juxtaposition is also interesting (Ibid.). Therefore, there are many different speculations concerning their interpretation; for example, an author, Andrew Collins, suspects that Noah’s Ark had actually been immortalized on the stones of the site, as if it had been a livestock inventory of the Ark (Burns 2010; 2017). Discovered five hundred kilometres south of Mount Ararat, considered by Biblical scholars to be the resting place of Noah’s Ark, the reliefs of Göbekli Tepe suggest that certain species of animals come from other regions than it has been previously considered (Ibid.). Could these sculptures prove that the memories of the Great Flood described in the Bible and its aftermath were preserved by the builders of Göbekli Tepe? (Ibid.). Some researchers believe that the traces of this cataclysm and the story of Noah’s Ark were actually written on the stone pillars (Ibid.). If so, the Great Flood would have occurred at the end of what scientists call the end of the Ice Age (Ibid.).

Stone Age masterpiece of sculpture

Sumber sci-news.com/mage credit: by Nico Becker, Göbekli Tepe Archive, German Archaeological Institute, DAI. Source: Kompasiana (2018).

The mystery of the imagery of the site became even greater when discovered reliefs have revealed animal species that have never been endemic to the region, such as geese, armadillos or wild boars (Burns 2017). Moreover, the masterpiece of the sculpture found also suggests their builders must have been highly advanced artists with engineering skills, taking into account the fact there is no trace of their tools in situ (Conrad 2012). Physical characteristics of the animals carved are very clearly depicted (Ibid.). In many cases anatomical details openly express a rather aggressive attitude, embodied by their posture and grinning teeth (Ibid.).

T-shaped pillars and their flock

Klaus Schmidt argues that the animal component of the site is crucial in its iconographic interpretation (Conrad 2012). According to the Professor, represented animals have mainly wild, male and predatory connotations (Busacca 2017:313-314). He interprets the zoomorphic depictions either as having a protective role as the guardians of the pillars (especially high-relief sculpture), or being a part of a horrifying spectacle (Conrad 2012; Busacca 2017).

Eastern central pillar of Enclosure D. Image cropped. Photo by Nico Becker, DAI. Photo and caption source: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). “The Site”. In: The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

The ‘T’-shaped pillars, as he points out, are in turn the abstract representations of human bodies with the upper part resembling a man’s head in profile, the shaft of the ‘T’ standing for the human corpus, with arms, palms and fingers incised in stone (Conrad 2012; Busacca 2017). Below them, there is the representation of a belt encircling the pillar with loincloth looking like an animal skin (Ibid.). Such features as the hands with elongated fingers on the stomach, around the the navel area, amazingly reappear on other ancient representations in the wold (Burns 2017). Such a motif repeats, for example, carved in the great Moai statues on the Easter Island (Ibid.) or even on sculpted stone fragments crumbling among the old-Irish idols at the cemetery on the Boa Island, in Northern Island. They equally occur on anthropomorphic menhirs in France, Italy, Romania and elsewhere in the world (Ibid.). A similar iconographic element in some a way joins all these statues of different cultures and age and so testifies to the fact that Göbekli Tepe may not have developped in isolation, but was a part of a worldwide, prehistoric culture that once existed (Ibid.). Or it itself may have given rise to a later universal iconography by means of its mysterious heritage (Ibid.). Are the anthropomorphic statues from Göbekli Tepe and other parts of the world a carved in stone story of an alien race that lived on the earth before the cataclysm? (Ibid.). If so, maybe such monuments were erected in places where people were rebuilding civilization after the Great Flood (Ibid.). Maybe the builders of the site tried to save from oblivion what had taken place about 12,000 years ago? (Ibid.).

Professor Schmidt says that the ‘T’-shaped pillars are gathered on the hillside as if there was “a meeting of stone beings” (Scham 2008:27). Despite their anthropomorphic features, the pillars are deprived of facial features, which makes Schmidt think that the human-like monoliths personify spiritual beings, and probably they are the earliest imagery of deities or god-like ancestors (Conrad 2012). Accordingly, Schmidt also suggests that the disintegrated now temple doorway could metaphorically have stood for the entrance to the netherworld (Conrad 2012). If so, Göbekli Tepe must have been related to the cult of the death (Ibid.).

One of the most enigmatic symbology shown on the ‘T’-shaped pillar 43 with vultures flying above the scorpion. Source: Sandra Scham (2008:25). The World’s First Temple. Archaeology, v. 61, no. 6, New York: Archaeological Institute of America, pp. 22-27.

Vital to creating that dark world are the creatures carved on the pillars (Conrad 2012). It is not even difficult to imagine the site as a temple devoted to the dead, especially at night, when the portal leading to the flickering by the fire netherworld may have involved humans into strange rituals performed beneath the monumental human-like pillars, dressed up with the aggressive elements of nature (Ibid.). In the course of ritual performances, including sound, scents and probably under shamanic drug haze, the images on the pillars may have seemed alive and active (Busacca 2017). Gusaldo Busacca (2017), a PhD. student at Stanford University, admits, however, that very little can be said on the purpose and nature of such rituals. Some kind of ritual paraphernalia have been found at the site, such as benches, niches (altars), cup holes and limestone vessels, probably used for libations to the spirits and extensive feasting (Schmidt, 2010; Dietrich et al. 2012).

According to Klaus Schmidt, the site may have been also a pilgrimage location (Scham 2008:26). He assumes “that once pilgrims reached Göbekli Tepe, they made animal sacrifices” (Ibid.:26). That theory is supported by the archaeological finds of animal bones belonging to various species, such as gazelles, goats, boars, sheep, wild birds and so on (Scham 2008; Busacca 2017). Most of these animals belong to the carved menagerie in question (Ibid.).

What was first: religion or civilisation?

As Prof. Joris Peters notices, although the animistic nature dominates in the Palaeolithic art of the caves, at Göbekli Tepe the control over the nature is visibly taken by humans in the disguise of the ‘T’-shaped pillars (Conrad 2012).

Pillar 27 from Enclosure C with the three-dimensional sculpture of an animal catching a prey in low relief below. Photo (2008). Public domain. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Schmidt also notices that all the zoomorphic images are carved only below the so-called head of the pillars, which suggests that people had already became superior to animals (Conrad 2012). Gods themselves had left their animal disguise and started to look like humans (Ibid.). As Schmidt underlines, such imagery may reveal the Stone Age man’s desire for having control over the nature (Ibid.). The new religion gave humans an enormous psychological advantage (Ibid.). It placed people above the animals and above nature, and that mental leap forward, as Prof. Joris Peters says, was needed to start to domesticate animals and plants (Ibid.). Accordingly, it was first the urge to worship that sparked civilization (Ibid.). The theory is yet radical: namely, it suggests that it was the religion itself which brought people to farming, and not the other way round, as it has been believed so far… (Ibid.). In this context, Göbekli Tepe would have been a dramatic point in mankind development (Ibid.).

The hardest challenge that archaeologists have to face

Gusaldo Busacca (2017) underlines in his study of Göbekli Tepe that he takes “the hardest challenge that archaeologists have to face” (Ibid.:313) due to fragmentary evidence, time and cultural distance, and finally lack of written sources or oral traditions (Ibid.). Many scholars working at the site have already proposed their interpretations of the complex animal symbolism present there by using different contexts, such as shamanism (Benz & Bauer, 2015; Lewis – Williams & Pearce 2009), human-animal linkage (Verhoeven 2002), and burial rituals (Schmidt 2012), with a particular emphasis on the aggressive attitudes, predatory and wild aspects of the depicted animals. Other scholars also identify phallocentrism (the ideology that the male aspect is the central element in the organization of the social world) (“Phallocentrism” 2019), as the major symbolic theme of the most aggressive representations at the site (Hodder and Meskell 2011).

Most of the ‘T’-shaped pillars at the site show wild animals, such as lions/leopards. Source: Sandra Scham (2008:22). The World’s First Temple. Archaeology, v. 61, no. 6, New York: Archaeological Institute of America, pp. 22-27

Basing on Schmidt’s research, Busacca (2017) claims that the most frequently represented animals are snakes, then foxes, boars, bulls and wild ducks. Less often motifs include cranes, spiders, quadrupeds, vultures, wild sheep, asses, gazelles and felids (Ibid.). Although the majority of depicted animals belong to predatory and venomous species, it is worth remarking there are also non-dangerous animals in the iconographic repertoire (Ibid.). Along the zoomorphic imagery, there are also abstract motifs, especially ‘H’- shaped pictograms, as well as some anthropomorphic motifs, like headless human bodies, which would suit the theory the temple was dedicated to the dead (Conrad 2012; Busacca 2017). Furthermore, Busacca (2017:316) notices that “the depicted motifs and their distribution vary markedly throughout the four main enclosures.”

Further attempts of interpretation

In terms of animistic ontology, Busacca (2017) focuses on exploring the role of images as a category of animated non-human beings (Ibid.).

Pillar with the sculpture of a fox. Photo by Zhengan (2012). CC BY-SA. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

He calls these images “composite entities constituted by both material and immaterial components” (Ibid.:315) as they are placed between two different spaces: the present and the absent, the visible and the invisible (Belting, 2011). The scholar argues that prehistoric artists may have believed that the act of making an image sparked a specific relation between the carver and the spirit inside the material medium (Busacca 2017:315-316). The carver did not create an animal out of the stone but he released it (Carpenter 1973). In this context, the zoomorphic images should be reconsidered as active participants between humans and material objects (Busacca 2017:315-316). Animals do not simply represent but they are material personification of animal spirits (Ibid.:315-316). The author also underlines the importance of their location within the architectural space in which they first appeared (Ibid.:315-316).

As the author remarks, the zoomorphic imagery has been mainly defined as a human concern with wild animals, “masculinity and violence prior to the ‘domestication of symbols’ that accompanied the transition toward agriculture and settled life” (Busacca 2017:319). The violent part of the iconography can be also linked to the dominant agents in prehistoric communities, identified as shamans (Benz & Bauer 2013). Another researcher, Borić (2013:54) claims that the dynamic and narrative postures of the carved beasts are the notions of “strong, dangerous spirits lurking beneath the skin of the depicted animals” (Borić 2013:54). Quite innovative interpretation is proposed by Yeşilyurt (2014) who argues that the site should be interpreted as prehistoric research laboratory, where the representations of animals actually illustrate research carried out on specific species.

Stone Age menagerie in motion

Busacca (2017:322) also analyses the sculpture in the context of stylistic features, such as the dynamism and movement of the animal figures. In order to refer to stylistic techniques used at Göbekli Tepe, the author has borrowed the terminology used in the studies on Franco-Cantabrian Upper Palaeolithic rock art, where similar style can be observed (Ibid.:322). Nevertheless, he underlines that “these similarities in techniques of visual representations should not be considered evidence of direct contact, ancestry or diffusion, but as independent, though similar, phenomena” (Ibid:322).

The use of ‘split action’ in the depiction of possible bird figures. Photo by Klaus-Peter Simon (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The movement is shown at Göbekli Tepe by means of two major techniques which seem to have been applied selectively only to certain types of animals depicted (Ibid.:322). Both predatory and non-predatory species, including gazelle, wild ass and crane, have their legs bent and/or are caught in oblique position (postural information) which generates some sort of motion (Ibid.:322). The wavy lines of the snake depictions are equally the representations of movement (Ibid.:322). Also the use of ‘split action’ technique is applied by the reiteration (superimposition or juxtaposition) of the subject, where an animal is depicted at successive stages in time (Ibid.:322). Examples of such artistic approach is clearly shown in the representations of water birds, especially wild ducks (Enclosures C and D) (Ibid.:322).  

Description of the stylistic traits is followed by an analysis of the orientation of the carved imagery (Busacca 2017:313,324). To conduct the study, the author makes a distinction between the central  pillars, which are those arranged in pairs, usually larger in size, and radial pillars – those arranged along the enclosures (Ibid.:313,324).

Internal subdivision of T-shaped pillars Photo by Irmgard Wagner, German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (modified). Source: Gesualdo Busacca (2017:322). “Places of Encounter: Relational Ontologies, Animal Depiction and Ritual Performance at Göbekli Tepe”. In: Cambridge Archaeological Journal, v. 27, issue 2, pp. 313-330.

Radial pillars have been furthermore subdivided into two groups, frontal and lateral (Ibid.:313,324). All the locations of the carvings on pillars have been clearly labelled by means of simple abbreviations that the author has provided together with the photographs illustrating his concept (Ibid.:313,322,324). Accordingly, he marked them as follows: ‘FH’, ‘BS’, ‘LH’, ‘LS’, where ‘F’ stands for frontal, ‘B’ for back, ‘H’ for head ‘S’ for side, ‘L’ for lateral and left in some cases (Ibid.:313,322,324). Taking into consideration the lateral sides of the radial pillars, the author notices that 29 out of 34 total animals depicted on the pillars are facing toward the centre of the enclosure (Ibid.:313,322,324). High relief and full relief sculptures also indicate a centripetal orientation (Ibid.:313,322,324). As the author suggests “emerging from the walls or from the top of them with their full bodies or only with the head, these sculptures suggestively resonate with the general impression of a centripetal ‘jump’ of the animals into the enclosures”(Busacca 2017: 324).

On the other hand, the bas-reliefs carved on the frontal sides are facing either downwards or upwards or the right or left (Ibid.:313,322,324). Hence their pattern is less clear to be easily defined (Ibid.:313,322,324). The author suggests that the dynamism and mostly centripetal orientation of zoomorphic depictions may refer to the liminal space of the enclosure calling for animal spirits to its centre (Ibid.:313,322,324). Providing that the ‘T’- shaped pillars represent anthropomorphic spiritual beings, as mentioned above (Schmidt 2010), the enclosures can be identified as places of encounter between humans and animal spirits (Busacca 2017:313,322,324). In this context zoomorphic images play the role of the bridge between human and non-human beings (Ibid.:313,322,324).

Pillar 2 from Enclosure A with low reliefs of possibly a bull, fox and a crane. Photo by Teomancimit  (2011).CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Busacca (2017) also emphasizes the importance of the iconographic repertoire in any attempt of interpreting enigmatic functions of Göbekli Tepe. Unlike in post-agricultural societies within which wild animals meant danger and wilderness, hunter-gatherers would have had rather social and inter-personal attitudes towards such beasts, still without excluding the always present threat of their violence, which is probably expressed by aggressive aspects of zoomorphic representations (Ibid.:327). The author suggests that “socialising with the animal on the peer-to-peer basis would be just another way of ‘domesticating’ the animal without bringing it under complete human control” (Ibid.:327). Such an idea, however, would contradict the interpretation proposed by Schmidt, according to which the carved ‘T’- shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe show humans completely superior to animals. Although Schmidt’s assumption does not negate the whole idea of ontological relations between humans and animals, their character would be quite different from that defined by Busacca (2017).

Vulture Stone

On the other side, some independent researchers, such as Paul Burley (2013), Graham Hancock (2016) and Martin Sweatman (2019) claim that at least a few zoomorphic representations on the pillars of Göbekli Tepe are grouped and arranged in a way to create the sky map. Such features are mainly revealed by the limestone ‘T’- shaped Pillar 43, also known under an intriguing name of the “Vulture Stone”, which is incorporated along with other ‘T-‘-shaped pillars of a similar height into the stone wall on the north-west side of the Enclosure D (Burley 2013; Sweatman 2019:22). The latter, in turn, comes from the Layer III, which is not only the oldest, and hence the lowest in the ground, but also distinguished by a variety of mysterious thematic aspects and sophisticated artistic depictions (Fleckney 2020). Whereas the wall of the Enclosure D, made of rough stones, is radiocarbon dated back to over 9 500 BC., the pillars embedded in it definitely predate it (Sweatman 2019:22). It is also worth mentioning that again we are dealing here with the phenomenon where more ancient finds are more advanced in many respects than those dated as being more recent.

Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Zhengan (2012). CC BY-SA 4.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Since the Pillar 43 started to be regularly studied, it has become widely iconic for the site of Göbekli Tepe (Sweatman 2019:22). It is simultaneously one of the most mysterious and captivating human imagination objects yet found in situ. The pillar does not belong to the greatest of the site; it is three metres tall, one and a half metre wide, a half metre thick, and weighs around five tons (Ibid.:22). The key to its popularity, however, has turned out to be its outstanding iconography. Not only does it include a clearly defined group of various animals but also an ithyphallic and headless anthropomorphic figure (Sweatman 2019:22; Fleckney 2020). The whole imagery is further enriched and so complicated by a set of abstract symbols, which, moreover, seem reminiscent of so far undecipherable images appearing in different ancient cultures, including Ancient Egypt, Assyria (Iraq), the Olmecs (La Venta, Mexico), and even Pumapunku (Bolivia).

Zoo of the shaft

All the carvings covering the Pillar 43 are in low relief (Burley 2013). Starting from the bottom of the shaft, there is a bird head upon a long neck, possibly belonging to a goose (Sweatman 2019:22). Just behind the bird’s neck, on the right, a figure of a headless man appears (Ibid.:24). Right there, the bottom corner of the pillar is broken. Still on the shaft, above the bird’s head, there is a clearly defined, huge scorpion, crawling upwards, whereas on the left of the long-necked bird and the scorpion, one can discern the head and front legs of another animal, probably a quadruped of some type, like a wolf (Ibid.:22-23). Just above its head, there is either an animal tail or a snake, maybe a viper, with a triangular end, looking like an arrow.

The bird king with its scepter on the pillar head

Moving to the ‘T’-shaped pillar head, on the left, there is the largest image of all, which has eventually given the name to the pillar (Sweatman 2019:22). Precisely, it represents some kind of a bird of pray, probably and eagle or a vulture with its wings outstretched, which may suggest it was depicted in flight (Ibid.:22).

The Goddess Nekhbet, Temple of Hatshepsut, circa 1479 –1458 B.C. Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art MET. By Charles K. Wilkinson. Uploaded by Pharos (2017). CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Photo and caption source: Wikimedia Commons.

In its iconography, the bird looks like a strongly stylized representation of the ancient Egyptian vulture, personifying Nekhbet, “an early predynastic local goddess in Egyptian mythology, who was [originally] the patron of the city of Nekheb […]. Ultimately, she became the patron of Upper Egypt and one of the two patron deities for all of Ancient Egypt when it was unified. […] Nekhbet usually was depicted hovering, with her wings spread above the royal image, clutching a shen symbol, representing eternal encircling protection, frequently in her claws” (“Nekhbet” 2021). The said shen symbol additionally resembles a plain circle beside the vulture’s outstretched wing from the Pillar 43. The significant difference between these two images, however, is the placement of the disc in the both cases.

On the Pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe, unlike in Egyptian images, the vulture’s left wing seems to hold or horizontally support the disc, which, hovering above it, is situated centrally on the pillar head and so in the middle of the visual context of the whole scene (Sweatman 2019:22; Burley 2013). By these means, the disc provides a sense of an order on the pillar’s surface, which at first sight, seems to be just filled in with randomly depicted elements (Burley 2013). In the right lower corner of the pillar head, another stylized figure of a bird is depicted, possibly of the same species as its larger companion, as they both feature the same hooked beak (Sweatman 2019:22-23). Or maybe, it is just the same individual but depicted in motion, as it is visible in other carved images on pillars?

Long-body creature with an arrow

The example of the believed image of a snake, represented in carving on the back of a stone human head from Nevalı Çori. Artifact photographed at Şanliurfa Museum, Turkey (early Neolithic period, 8400-8100 BC.). Photo by Vincent J. Musi. Originally published by National Geographic. Photo and caption source: Prata E. (2011). “The Mystery of Gobekli Tepe”. In: The End Time.

The most interesting of all, however, is the top part of the pillar head. To the upper-right of the title bird character, there is a bird with long legs, looking like a flamingo (Sweatman 2019:23). Between its beak and lifted thin legs, there is an undecipherable image, which Martin Sweatman (2019:23) compares to a “wriggling fish in [the flamingo’s] beak”. For myself, the element more resemble a snake with a tail or a head ending in an arrow, like in the fragmented image on the shaft of the same pillar or on other T-shaped pillars of Göbekli Tepe, featuring similar representations (Johannes 2005; Courtesy of the Göbekli Tepe Project, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut 2005). One creature of this kind is also present at the back of a sculpted human head from Nevalı Çori (Şanliurfa Museum, Turkey) (Prata 2011; see: The Oldest Temple in the World and its Mystery).

From letter symbols to handbags

To the very right of that duo of the flamingo and the snake, aka fish, there is an abstract symbol resembling a squat letter ‘H’ and, slightly above a letter ‘I’ or just the same letter ‘H’ but turned 90° right (Sweatman 2019:23). Above the flamingo’s back, in turn, there appears a frieze-like stretch, interrupted on the left by the vulture’s head and equally by additional components above, yet it stretches to the very top of the pillar head. It is composed of two rows of interlocked symbols in the shape of the letter ‘V’, which all appear on both sides of the narrow and horizontal belt of squares (Ibid.:23).

Finally, in the upper part of the ‘frieze’ and so of the pillar head itself, there is a row of the three mentioned elements, generally compared to ‘handbags’ (Sweatman 2019:23), though my eight-years old nephew claims these are padlocks …

Some of the so-called ‘H’-blocks which were interconnected (or intended to interconnect) with other andesite blocks forming blind miniature gateways. The shape of the blocks are sometimes compared to the ‘H’ symbol from the “Vulture Stone”. Photo by Janikorpi (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Pumapunku” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Such strange components as the ‘handbags’, found among a zoomorphic gathering, become even stranger if one realizes that they also appear in other ancient cultures; namely, they are being carried by winged geniuses in Assyrian reliefs (between 2000-600 BC.) or by an Olmec from La Venta, travelling ‘inside’ a feathered serpent (between 1800 BC.-200 AD.). In the Pillar 43, each ‘handbag’ is additionally coupled with an animal character (Ibid.:23). Yet, all the three are difficult to be recognized as particular species (Ibid.:23). The left-most one resembles a minuscule version of the bent flamingo (Ibid.:23), depicted below, the middle one represents a quadruped, which Martin Sweatman (2019:23) interprets as a “standing or charging […] gazelle, goat or ibex, with large horns or ears bent backwards over the body”, whereas the animal on the most-right, seems to crawl downwards, like a lizard or a frog (Ibid.:23).

Constellations inscribed the outlines of the animals

Although the actual function of Göbekli Tepe is still a mystery, an author, Andrew Collins, proposes a theory, suggesting the site was erected for reflecting celestial phenomena (Burns 2017; see: The Oldest Temple in the World and its Mystery). Accordingly, the successive circles of the site with its elaborate stone ‘T’-shaped pillars and, finally, their complex iconography would have their astronomical meaning (Burley 2013; Sweatman 2019). In line with such assumptions are also theories related to the Pillar 43. Martin Sweatman (2019:24) studies a hypothesis proposed by Paul Burley (2013) and Graham Hancock (2016), according to which the title vulture occupying the pillar head represents the modern-day constellation of Sagittarius and the huge scorpion crawling on the shaft, the constellation of Scorpius. Additionally, the duo of a flamingo and a snake with an arrow would represent the so-called thirteenth sign of the zodiac, Ophiuchus (Sweatman 2019:24; see Hancock 2016). And the central disc supported by the vulture’s outstretched left wing would relate to the Sun, being close to the center of the galaxy, with the mentioned constellations nearby (Burley 2013; see Hancock 2016).

‘T’ – shaped pillars of the site. Photo by German Archaeological Institute (DAI). Source : Jens Notroff (2016). “Could we really called it a temple?” In: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

After noticing similarities between the patterns of the considered animal images and the range of studied constellations, along with their relative match in context of their positions on the pillar and in the sky respectively, Sweatman (2019:24-32) also tries to support the theory by justifying whether the selection of animals corresponding to the constellations among the thirteen zoomorphic symbols at Göbekli Tepe is adequate and not coincidental (Ibid.:27-32,41). The choice of a scorpion for the Scorpius seems obvious, in turn, the vulture would be the best choice for the Sagittarius among all the animals represented on site (Ibid.:30,32). Additionally, Martin Sweatman (2019:27) pays attention to another constellation, the Libra, which is just below the Scorpius, and finds that the goose represented below the scorpion can match the constellation as it is an animal associated with water. What is more, the fragmented quadruped depicted to the left of the goose can similarly correspond to the constellation of Lupus, the wolf, which is also to the left of Libra in the sky (Ibid.:27). Can it be then a pure coincidence?

Nevertheless, the main problem is that after the mainstream scholars, the knowledge of zodiacal constellations could only appear and develop the earliest with the civilization of Sumer, that is to say, between 3000 and 2000 BC., and it was much later passed down to the modern world by means of the ancient Greece, during the period of the last few centuries BC. (Sweatman 2019:25). For these reasons, the similar knowledge cannot be as old as the site of Göbekli Tepe, which is nearly 12 000 years old (Ibid.:25). But if one alternatively accepts such a possibility, it would mean that ancient Sumerians were not the first who invented zodiacal symbols but they would have learnt their skills in astronomy from much earlier but highly advanced civilizations, who, for some reasons, were erased from human history (Ibid.:31).

Precession of the equinoxes

In order to understand a message encoded on the Pillar 43, Martin Sweatman (2019:36) additionally uses the phenomenon of the so-called precession of the equinoxes (see: Through the Passageway of the Khmers’ Stargate of Angkor Tom).

Göbekli Tepe and a panoramic view of the southern excavation field. Photo by Rolfcosar (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to the conventional teaching, the discovery of precession of the equinoxes should be ascribed to Hipparchus of the Greeks who would have come up with this idea in the second century BC. (Sweatman 2019:36). Yet, after alternative researchers outside of Academia, such knowledge had already been in use by the sculptors of the “Vulture Stone”, around 13 000 years ago (Ibid.:36). Providing that the disc over the vulture’s wing stands for the Sun, the researcher observes the phenomenon of precession in earlier epochs, with the summer solstice as the reference day (Ibid.:38). As a result, he finds out that the position of the constellations in relation to the Sun, represented on the Pillar 43, only correspond to the date anywhere between 11 200 and 10 700 BC. (Ibid.:38). It is because only within this range of time the Sun appears in such an arrangement between the constellations as it is represented on the pillar (Ibid.:38).

Handbags as sunsets

After Martin Sweatman and his wife, Alison (2019:39), the mysterious symbols at the very top of the Pillar 43 resemble semicircles of the Sun disc at the moment of sunset. Furthermore, if we assume the represented image reflects the summer solstice in 10 950 BC., when the Sun was in front of the constellation of Sagittarius (the vulture), the three handbags (sunsets) may signify the other three solar phenomena in the astronomical year, namely the winter solstice and the spring and vernal and autumn equinoxes (Ibid.:34,37-39). Accordingly, at the spring equinox in 10 950, the Sun moved to Virgo, at the winter solstice, it appeared in Gemini, and at the autumn equinox, it entered the constellation of Pisces (Ibid.:39).

By analogy with the zoomorphic figures symbolizing the constellations in the main part of the pillar, the miniature creatures beside the ‘handbags’ would stand for the constellations corresponding to the three astronomical days that the ‘handbags’ possibly represent (Sweatman 2019:39). Staring from the oldest date and so the upper-right ‘handbag’, the crawling downwards frog beside it would symbolize Virgo, the horned quadruped in the middle, Gemini, and finally the bent bird with long legs would stand for Pisces (Ibid.:39). Surprisingly, the outlines of all the three constellations perfectly correspond to the shape of miniature animal images depicted beside the respective ‘handbags’ (Ibid.:40; see Figure 10 in: Sweatman 2019:40).

Zoomorphic code language of hunter-gatherers

Martin Sweatman (2019:40-44) admits that the results of his studies may be just a coincidence, though it is rather improbable. On the other side, they heavily undermine the current scientific status quo in all its aspects, particularly concerning the acknowledged range of astronomical knowledge of the ancients and how far back in time it could be scientifically justified (Ibid.:40,44).

All in all, the Stone Age builders must have represented the animal symbols at the site for important reasons. Either the representations were religious or totemic, artistic or scientific, at least a few of them were definitely nested in astronomy. Did the builders of Göbekli Tepe encode more than one meaning behind the carved imagery of their Noah’s Ark? Was it done deliberately? And was it intended to be deciphered and read by contemporaries at all if the site had been eventually buried? Or maybe it was to immortalize in stone a turning point in their history, such as the Great Flood or another cataclysm and its further consequences.

Bison in the great hall of polychromes, at Altamira Cave, Cantabria. Photo (2008)by Rameessos. Public domain. Source: “Franco-Cantabrian region” (2019) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Today, our insight into the zoomorphic world is guided by a set of fixed ideas, interpreting various animals in a strictly defined, though often ambiguous way, often by attributing to them human characteristics. We know this code from ancient myths, medieval bestiaries, fairy tales and legends. Did the builders of Göbekli Tepe used a similar key to the meaning of zoomorphic symbols before they eventually passed them on to later generations in the relief carvings on the ‘T’ shaped pillars? Or maybe their understanding of the menagerie was different from ours and it only survived to our times in distorted fragments over the span of thousands years.

Featured image: The so-called Vulture Stone in Gobekli Tepe, Turkey. Photo by Sue Fleckney (2013). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

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Eagle’s Wings Spread over the Round Face of the Earth

Unlike the present prevailing idea of linearly running time, many ancient peoples around the world have thought of time as cyclic, which was particularly common in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (Gillan 2019). “The Aztecs, among other groups, [such as the Mayans], believed in a succession of world ages and they depicted those ages on [the Calendar Stone]” (Andrews 1998:21).

Cyclic time

Representation of the Aztec glyph for Nahui Ollin (4 Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the Ollin element, replaced by the god’s face on the Calendar Stone. Illustration from the Codex Borbonicus. Photo: “Figure 3. A standard presentation of the hieroglyph for Nahui Olin (Four Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the Olin element. From the Codex Borbonicus”. Source: David Stuart (2016). In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

According to one version of the story, which is also analogous to the Mayan understanding of time, the Calendar Stone of the the Aztecs represents four ended eras or suns and the fifth one that is lasting now in the middle (George 2004:25; McDonald 2013). Each of the four rectangles standing for the four eras/suns additionally includes a number 4 in the forms of 4 dots or beads, which is quite significant while reading the glyphs (Aztekayolokalli 2018). Accordingly, 4 (as there are four dots) Jaguar is the oldest era of creation, supposedly between 956-280 BC (McDonald 2013). Giants who populated the Earth in that era were devoured by jaguars as they had not performed their duties to the gods (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013). The next era – 4 Wind, ruled by the god Ehecatl – lasted for 364 years and it had monkey men in some versions, who were carried away and destroyed by hurricanes (Ibid.). 4 Rain was ruled by a water deity, Tlaloc, and it ended when its denizens, who were near human beings, were destroyed by the rain and fire (probably a volcano eruption) and supposedly eaten by turkeys (Ibid.). The last date – 4 Water – was the era ruled by the goddess Chalchihuiticue and destroyed by a 52-year flood and within which men drowned and maybe turned into fish (Ibid.).

Center of the Sun Stone with Nahui Ollin and five eras or suns: four destroyed and one that still exists (Painting by R. S. Flandes. Source: Source: O’Connell (2020).

The present creation (the fifth era) began on 4 Movement/Earthquake in around 1195 AD (McDonald 2013). Tonatiuh, the sun god and Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Monster, were both created for this era by means of their own bloody sacrifice (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). This current creation was meant to be stable on the condition that the blood sacrifice was continuously made to the gods and it could probably last forever (Ibid.). Constant penitent sacrifice of human blood was therefore required for this era so the symbolism shown in the Sunstone is apparently all about the Aztec current world (Ibid.). By means of the Sunstone it was foretold that if the blood sacrifices had ceased, the world would have ended in earthquakes (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013). These are some pretty vivid and scarily specific cataclysms responsible for the final destruction of the following eras but the most significant is the very central part of the Calendar Stone, as it stands for the current world and possible circumstances of its end (McDonald 2013).

If it is the Earth, where is the Sun?

Although the central face of the Calendar Stone may not represent Tonatiuh (see: Faces of the Fifth Sun in the World of the Aztecs) the image of the Sun is very present in the Calendar Stone (Aztekayolokalli 2018). The Sun is, however, hidden for those who do not want to see it (Ibid.).

The Calendar Stone represents four ended eras or suns and the fifth one that is lasting now in the middle. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

In artistic representation of Tonatiuh, where he is wearing eagle feathers, there are direct connections between the Sun and an eagle (Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Tōnatiuh” 2020). It is “relating to the belief that an eagle is a reference to the ascending and descending eagle talons, a visual metaphor for capturing the heart or life force of a person. This particular form of symbolism points to ritual of human sacrifice, which was associated with Tonatiuh and his devouring of the hearts of victims” (“Tōnatiuh” 2020). Hence the sacrifice of human heart offered to the Sun was called the Eagle Cactus Fruit (McDonald 2013). Tonatiuh‘s symbolic association with the eagle [also] alludes to the Aztec belief of his journey as the Sun, […] travelling across the sky each day, where he descended in the west and ascended in the east” (“Tōnatiuh” 2020).

Accordingly, Tonatiuh may have been represented in the Calendar Stone in its zoomorphic disguise (Aztekayolokalli 2018). If so, where is it? Just in the center, caught in its flight (Ibid.).

Eagle representation as the symbol of the sun god, Tonatiuh, hidden within the complex image of Calendar Stone. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

In order to discern it, one should look beyond the both elements building up its picture, the goddess Tlaltecuhtli and the Nahui-Ollin glyph (Aztekayolokalli 2018). There is the eagle’s beak sticking out of the Earth and pointing up to the sky, in the direction of the date of 13 Reed (Ibid.). There are its talons being at once Tlaltecuhtli’s claws grasping human hearts and tail feathers, just below the round Face of the Earth (Ibid.). The eagle’s wings are in turn shaped by the four “wings’ of the cosmic Butterfly, and outspread to four corners of the universe (Ibid.).

The three superimposed images create Nahui Ollin glyph (4 Movement) within the Calendar Stone. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

The Sun is then superimposed over the shape of the Butterfly, and subsequently, they are both superimposed over the Face of Earth – astronomical event that takes place every year on July 26th, when the Sun is directly above Mexico City, in its zenith (Aztekayolokalli 2018).

Combined worlds

In the deeply carved background of the ring surrounding 4 Movement glyph, there are a few smaller date glyphs (McDonald 2013). On the right of the pointer at the top, there is the date 1 Flint Knife (Ibid.). On the left, there is a headdress glyph (Ibid.), which is interpreted as the name of Montezuma (Stuart 2016).

Four other Aztec glyphs adjacent to the Nahui Olin sign. On top in blue, there is a hairdress on the left , and 1 Flint on the right. At the bottom, there are 7 Monkey on the right and 1 Rain on the left. Drawing by E. Umberger: “Figure 4. The two principal hieroglyphs (in blue) adjacent to the Nahui Olin sign. To the left is the name of Moteuczoma II, to the right is 1 Flint, the likely calendar name of Huitzilopochtli”. Source: David Stuart (2016). “The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation”. In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

Hence, some scholars ascribe the Calendar Stone to the last emperor of the Aztecs (McDonald 2013). At the bottom of the same field, adjacent to the Nahui-Oliln glyph, there are also 7 Monkey (on the right) and 1 Rain (on the left) (Stuart 2016; McDonald 2013). These dates may refer to actual historical milestones in Aztec history (Ibid.). For instant, 1 Flint is likely to be the calendar name of Huitzilopochtli (Stuart 2016). As the god is the patron of the Aztecs’ city of Tenochtitlan, it may refer to the date when the Mexica tribe left their homeland, a legendary Aztlan, to found their new capital, which is now Mexico City (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, the Calendar Stone would also contain historic records (Ibid.).

Xiuhpohualli and Tōnalpōhualli

The Mesoamerican “calendar consisted of a 365-day calendar cycle called Xiuhpohualli (year count) and a 260-day ritual cycle called Tōnalpōhualli (day count). These two cycles together formed a 52-year calendar round. The Xiuhpohualli is considered to be the agricultural calendar, since it is based on the Sun” (Gillan 2019), whereas Tōnalpōhualli is regarded more in a sacred dimension of time counting (Ibid.).

Some scholars see the reference to Xiuhpohualli in the Calendar Stone, representing 20 days of each of 18 months of the Aztec year in its second ring, whereas additional 5 days of the year are said to be found as 5 stone bosses around the Nahui-Ollin glyph. Photo: “Figure 1. Photograph of the sculpted face of the Aztec Calendar Stone, or Piedra del Sol. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City.” Source: David Stuart (2016). “The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation”. In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

“[The] Aztecs divided their year into 18 months of 20 days plus 5 days at the end” (Noble 2009:51). Some scholars see the reference to Xiuhpohualli in the Calendar Stone, representing 20 days of each of 18 months of the Aztec year in its second ring, whereas additional 5 days of the year are said to be found as 5 stone bosses around the Nahui-Ollin glyph (Noble 2009:51; see Gillan 2019; “Aztec Calendar” 2020). However, according to others, these 5 signs refer to the five suns; the four gone and the one, which is currently lasting in the current era (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Although the same sings may have got a double meaning, it is probable that only one of the two significant Mesoamerican calendars has been depicted by the Aztecs in the Sunstone (Ibid.). It is Tōnalpōhualli (day count).

Tōnalpōhualli (day count)

A ring of 20-day names circles the key image of the central creation in the Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013). The cycle starts slightly to the left of the pointer above the central face; so the cycle begins with the glyph of a Crocodile and ends with the glyph of a Flower (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Accordingly, the first day is represented by a Crocodile or an Alligator (McDonald 2013). The next to the left is Wind (Ibid.). After that a House, Lizard, Serpent, Death, Deer, Rabbit, Water, Dog, Monkey, Grass, Reed, Jaguar, Eagle, Vulture, Movement (Earthquake), Flint knife, Rain and finally a Flower (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Aztec Calendar” 2020). To the right, the glyphs representing the Movement and Flint knife are depicted in miniature, compared to their larger characters around the central face (McDonald 2013). Additionally, “each of the day signs also bears an association with one of the four cardinal directions” (“Aztec Calendar” 2020).

A representation of the Tonalpohualli – ‘Counting of the Days’ 260-day calendar used by ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Two systems ran simultaneously with a group of 13 numbered days combined with a group of 20 name days. Thus, each day had a unique combination of day and number. Illustration by Richard Graeber (2016). Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

That cycle of 20-day names consisted of a 260-day period (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018), which “was recorded in 13-day cycles” (“Aztec Calendar” 2020). It means that “each day [was] signified by a combination of a number from 1 to 13 and one of the twenty day signs. With each new day, both the number and day sign would be incremented: 1 Crocodile is followed by 2 Wind, 3 House, 4 Lizard, and so forth up to 13 Reed, after which the cycle of numbers would restart (though the twenty day signs had not yet been exhausted) resulting in 1 Jaguar, 2 Eagle, and so on, as the days immediately following 13 Reed. This cycle of number and day signs would continue similarly until the [twentieth] week, which would start on 1 Rabbit, and end on 13 Flower. It would take a full 260 [20×13] days for the two cycles, [where twenty day signs are multiplied by thirteen numbers] to realign and repeat the sequence back on 1 Crocodile” (Ibid.). Accordingly, the whole cycle “was broken up into 20 periods, [or 20-day names] of 13 days each, which was reflected in two interlocking wheels in this 260-day ritual calendar” (Gillan 2019).

This round of days was not meant by the Aztecs to depict an actual date but rather to represent the counting of time itself (McDonald 2013). The 260-day ritual calendar was an important characteristic of all Mesoamerican pre-Colombian cultures (Ibid.). Apparently, “it originated by ancient peoples observing that the [Sun] crossed a certain zenith point near the Mayan city of Copan, every 260 days” (Gillan 2019). Yet for the Aztecs it was not related to any solar or astronomical calendar features as it seems (McDonald 2013). Most likely it could have been related to the length of pregnancy (9 months) in correlation with the period of the earth’s translation around the Sun in a 365.25 days of the solar year (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2012; “Aztec Calendar” 2019). This idea is confirmed by the fact that Mesoamerican peoples named their children after the day name of their birth in this ritual calendar (McDonald 2013). “When the child was born he or she was given the name and number of that particular 24 hour piece of time. The ancestors could identify the potential, qualities and capabilities that existed in that space of time, and this was the basis of his/her responsibility to everybody and everything that surrounded them. [In this context], mother and father were responsible for insuring their child grew up recognizing and knowing its potential and capacities and thus its responsibilities by maintaining the rhythm in which it was born” (Aztekayolokalli 2012).

Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl

The next ring of carvings consists of a repeated design of 5 dots, called quincunx, which are inscribed in little squares (McDonald 2013). After scholars they seem to represent preciousness or maybe jadeite (Ibid.). An archaeologist, Nicoletta Maestri (2019) writes they represent the five-day Aztec week in each square. Aztekayolokalli (2018), however, interprets that symbol differently. He claims that 5-dot symbol represents the five movements of Venus around the Sun in a period of eight years (Ibid.). The last number comes from 8 triangular signs set upon the ring of quincunx, which can be interpreted as rays of the Sun (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018; Maestri 2019).

Tlāhuizcalpantecuhtli, as depicted on page 14 of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis. The sign above him is the year 1 Reed in the Aztec Calendar. The god manifested the dual aspect of the planet Venus. Painting by an unknown author – Codex Telleriano-Remensis. Public domain. Source: “Tlāhuizcalpantecuhtli” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“Known to the Mesoamericans as a bright star, […] Venus was especially important in [their] religious and agricultural calendar with its average 584-day cycle being carefully observed and precisely calculated. Even the architectural layout of [important Mesoamerican cities] were built and aligned in accordance with the appearance of Venus at particular moments during its cycle. […] Mesoamerican astronomers recorded that the planet appears for 236 days as the morning star in the east, then sinks below the horizon for 90 days, and reappears for 250 days as the evening star in the west before disappearing again for 8 days before restarting the cycle over again. In actual fact, Venus can be seen with the naked eye for approximately 263 days in each spell, and it is not known quite why or how the ancient astronomers had arrived at their particular calculations” (Cartwright 2017). And it is probably a coincidence that this number of days when Venus is visible also overlaps with the 260-day ritual calendar. However, there is no evidence confirming that the Mesoamerican day count, Tōnalpōhualli, was related in any way to the appearance of Venus.

As the morning star, Venus was described as the Beginning of the Daylight, and as the evening star – it was named the Companion of the Sun (Aztekayolokalli 2018). “Each aspect of Venus – morning and evening – was manifested in the form of two ancient Mesoamerican gods: the feathered-serpent Quetzalcoatl and his canine companion Xolotl. Quetzalcoatl represented Venus as the morning star, and Xolotl represented it as the evening star” (Cartwright 2017; see Aztekayolokalli 2018). Simultaneously, another Mesoamerican deity, “Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli manifested the dual aspect of the planet Venus (Ibid.). As the twin brother of Xolotl and the avatar of Quetzalcoatl, he was imagined as both and so represented the morning and evening star aspects of Venus (Ibid.).

The Moon

Going outwards, the next string or band of images in the Calendar Stone is obscure to scholars (Mc Donald 2013).

“The image above reproduces the Coyolxauhqui Stone, showing the Aztec goddess of the Moon. The giant monolith was found at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. Image courtesy of the Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico. Source: National Earth Science Teachers Association (2020). “Coyolxauhqui”. In: Windows to the Universe.

There may be some representations of feathers, beads and blood drops but it is really not clear (Mc Donald 2013). Aztekayolokalli  (2018) believes the ring represents kernels of corn. There are 10 such kernels between each of the 8 sun-rays (or triangles pointing outside the center), which create a pattern looking like a lace decorating the ring (Ibid.). Additional 3 grains of corn are visible on top of the square, sticking out in the middle of the “corn lace” (Ibid.) Consequently there are 13 grains of corn altogether, and the number 13 represents the number of the Moon rises in a year cycle (Ibid.). What is more, the Moon also moves 13 degrees per day around the Earth (Ibid.).

Two encircling dragons

The final, encircling ring consists of two thick fire serpents or dragons, called Xiuhcoatl (McDonald 2013). Such imagery points to the fact that symbols of serpents are significant in Mesoamerican cultures (Ibid.). The fire serpents’ tails are at the very top with their pointed ends framing the date of 13 Reed (Ibid.).

Ballcourt marker from the Postclassic site of Mixco Viejo in Guatemala. This sculpture depicts Kukulkan (Quetzacoatl) with a human head sticking out of its jaws agape. Some scholars define it as the head of a human warrior emerging from the serpent’s maw. In the Calendar Stone such images are identified with divine beings. Photo by Simon Burchell. Photo: “Ballcourt marker at Mixco Viejo” by Simon Burchell (2005). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Kukulkan” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Their bodies are divided into squared segments that have butterfly symbols (Nahui-Ollin glyphs) inside them and the serpents encircle the whole disc only to end with their open moss at the bottom of the Stone (McDonald 2013). These rather nasty looking serpent faces have noses or perhaps tongues that curl up and back (Ibid.). They are probably adorned by star signs (Ibid.). Revealed in the dragons’ mouths are two more deities, represented as two anthropomorphic heads sticking out of the animal bulks (Ibid.). Such imagery is typical of the Mayan god, Kukulcan (the equivalent of Quetzacoatl), who has been similarly represented among others in Chichen Itza (Mexico) or Mixco Viejo (Guatemala) as a feathered serpent with a human head protruding out of its open jaws. Yet the gods on the Calendar Stone are identified by archaeologists as other deities. The left god is probably the Sun god and one on the right is the fire god, Xiuhtecuhtli (Ibid.). One interesting thing about more or less human looking faces of the deities on this stone is that they all look quite ferocious (Ibid.). They have got open mouths as if screaming or biting in a hostile and aggressive manner (Ibid.).

In the margin of the Circle

But It is not the end of the mysteries of the Stone (McDonald 2013). The ragged looking edges of the Calendar Stone have some meaning as well (Ibid.).

Depiction of Itzpapalotl, Queen of the Tzitzimimeh, known as Aztec star demons. Illustration from the Codex Borgia. Painting: “A drawing of Itzpapalotl, one of the deities described in the Codex Borgio”. By an Unknown author. Public domain. Source: “Tzitzimitl” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These unfinished looking side areas depict the constellations or, as the Aztecs called them Tzitzimimeh, which means star demons (McDonald 2013; “Tzitzimitl” 2020). They were “associated with the stars and especially the stars that can be seen around the Sun during a solar eclipse. This was interpreted as the Tzitzimimeh attacking the Sun, thus causing the belief that during a solar eclipse, the tzitzimime would descend to the earth and possess men” (“Tzitzimitl” 2020). These demonic beings were terrifying to the Aztecs as they were responsible for the eclipse of the Sun and by extension for the death of the Sun and the Earth (McDonald 2013). Eclipses were the moments of terror for the populace of the Aztecs and the only thing they could do to keep the Sun moving in the sky was to feed it human hearts and blood, as much as the gods once sacrificed themselves in order to create the Sun, the Earth and the Moon (Ibid.).

The Queen observing the ceremony of offering human sacrifice at the top of the pyramid. Shot from the film Apocalypto (2006), directed by Mel Gibson, with the Queen played by Diana Botello. Photo: “Sophisticated culture … Apocalypto”. Source: Alex Von Tunzelmann (2008) In: “Apocalypto and the end of the wrong civilisation”. In: The Guardian.

Star demons were part of the Mesoamerican cosmic mythology but it does not mean that the Aztecs did not understand the eclipse phenomenon. Such an assumption would be rather peculiar, providing that Mesoamerican cultures used to reflect important astronomical events not only through their art but also in layouts of their whole cities. The Calendar Stone itself is a complex mechanism combining the Aztec multi-dimensional understanding of time with particular dates and astronomical events. And even though the Aztecs dressed most celestial bodies and events in colourful mythical costumes, they held the essential knowledge of the universe and its cosmic scheme. It is probable, however, that such knowledge was ultimately reserved for the Aztec elite, namely emperors and priests, in order to keep control over the peoples within the Empire and to threaten their enemies.

Fragment from Apocalypto (2006): Director: Mel Gibson; Writer: Farhad Safinia Stars: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Gerardo Taracena; Network: Touchstone Pictures. Icon Productions.
Although the film tells the story of the Mayas, it looks more like a portrayal of the Aztec Empire just in the eve of the Spanish Conquest (see: Von Tunzelmann A. (2008). The fragment shows the solar eclipse and the reason of the Aztec dominance due to their astronomical knowledge. Source: vsprlnd25 (2012). In: vsprlnd25 Youtube Channel.

Such an idea has been well represented in one of the scenes from the film Apocalypto, directed by Mel Gibson (2006). Although the director has meant to represent the culture of the Maya, its interpretation rather fits the Aztecs and their ceremony of massive human sacrifice in the city of Tenochtitlan. In the scene, when the eclipse of the Sun takes place, darkness falls down on the crowd at the foot of the pyramid. It looks as if the end of the world was coming. People are terrified, the next victim is stretched over the altar and waiting for cruel death. But the emperor and the High Priest are not afraid. They exchange a knowing look as if they knew what is going to happen. Another religious attendant is theatrically entering into trance, while the High Priest is assuring the gathered faithful that the gods have been sated by the offered sacrifice; hence they will spare the Sun and life. Finally, he turns to the gods asking them to let the Sun shine again. And after a while, the Sun reappears in the sky. The crowd is cheering. The Aztec elite has once again legitimized their power and right to intermediate between people and the deities.

The Stone of Tizoc

Apart from the Sunstone, probably the best and most interesting example of other Aztec stones to look at is the Stone of Tizoc (McDonald 2013). This is also because it may shed some light on the meaning on the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). By comparing both monuments, it can be seen what a masterpiece and a great accomplishment the Sunstone is (Ibid.).

The Stone of Tizoc. The sun-disk and band of stars on top represent the heavens. National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; Central Mexico room. Photo: “The sun-disk and band of stars on top represent the heavens”. Source: George Grant MacCurdy, An Aztec “Calendar Stone” in Yale University Museum, American Anthropologist, (Oct. – Dec., 1910), pp. 481-496.

The Stone of Tizoc was found buried in the Zocalo just a year after the Calendar Stone was found, namely in 1791 (McDonald 2013). Tizoc was the Aztec tlatoani (1481-1486) who came just after Axayacatl (1469-1481) (Ibid.). He was not a very successful emperor and so he did not reign very long, just about six years (Ibid.). Yet his stone is a masterwork of propaganda and cosmic imagery (Ibid.). It is proportionally thicker than the Calendar Stone but has a much simpler design on its topmost surface (Ibid.). The image there is probably meant to be a solar disc and it is very similar to the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). Although much simplified (Ibid.). There is also a carved depression in its center, which was meant to hold the blood and hearts of sacrificed warriors (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). Hence it is likely that this stone was used as Cuauhxicalli for holy sacrifices (McDonald 2013).

Tom sides of the Stone of Tizoc represent historical, though mythologized scenes. Its size is impressive while observed beside the Museum visitors. National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; Central Mexico room. Photo: “Piedra de Tízoc original. Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City” (2006). No machine-readable author provided. GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The most interesting part of the Stone of Tizoc is actually represented on its tom sides (McDonald 2013). First of all, there are fifteen repeated images of Tizoc carved in very sharp cut but fairly shallow relief on the surface (Ibid.). Tizoc is not shown as himself but rather in the guise of the god Tetzcatlipoca, known as the Smoking Mirror, or Huitzilopotchtli – the patron deity of the Aztecs (Ibid.). The scenes depict Tizoc conquering neighbouring places in the repetitive motif in which the emperor-god grasps the hair of the personified town (Ibid.) (likewise pharaohs are represented in Egypt while fighting back their enemies). In reality Tizoc had a reputation of a coward and an unsuccessful ruler (Ibid.). But the interesting thing about the Tizoc monument is that it combines historical events and places with the cosmic ones, just like the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). As such, they both serve at once as a historical document and a religious one (Ibid.). Tizoc has been shown conquering or rather claiming to have conquered real places, like Xochimilco (Ibid.). On the other hand, he has got a divine mission (Ibid.). On the surface of the sacrificial stone there is probably depicted the Sun, on the underside – the Earth Monster; in such a context, Tizoc is depicted just between them, metaphorically holding apart the Sun from the Earth (Ibid.). So this device gives a ruler the central role, not only in military expansion but in cosmic terms, just like in the Maya world, or elsewhere in other ancient cultures beyond America (Ibid.).

The Stone of Tizoc (detail). The scenes depict Tizoc
conquering neighbouring places in the repetitive motif
in which the emperor-god grasps the hair of the
personified town. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Calendar Stone is similar in its meaning to the Stone of Tizoc but even more significant (McDonald 2013). As it seems, It functions at several levels at the same time (Ibid.). It combines some historical dates with the cosmic scheme of creation and destruction of the previous worlds/eras or the suns (Ibid.). And it commands in a sense a continuation of sacrifices to the gods through its imagery and places all these variables in the mandala like scheme of really great complexity (Ibid.).

Definition of the Disc

Not all is still understood about the Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013). So great is the content and the information depicted (Ibid.). Whatever the final and exact interpretation of the Sunstone is, it gives some interesting knowledge about Mesoamerican cultures and their relation to the cosmic scheme of the universe and their deities (Ibid.). The Calendar Disc also contains “millennia of accumulated astronomical knowledge and wisdom” (Aztekayolokalli 2012). It combines historical and mythological worlds and translates their truths through various understandings of the time. “It was not just a way to keep time – it was a complete philosophy of time in which every day had a religious significance. [The Aztecs] also believed that time went in cycles – ultimately in the repeated destruction and recreation of the world” (Gillan 2019).

The Calendar Stone combines historical and mythological worlds and translates their truths through various understandings of the time. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As Dr McDonald (2013) also believes the enormous sculpture of the Calendar Stone not only has encoded a message about the cataclysm and cosmic destruction but also the warlike imagery of the Aztec nation itself. It must have been an imposing and threatening message to those who saw it (Ibid.). There was serious intimidation going on there and cooperation must have been coerced through the art (Ibid.). The very shape of the stone itself calls to mind the ultimate human sacrifice of blood and hearts (Ibid.). This was the kind of monument which reminded the populace of Tenochtitlan and of the peripheral provinces of the Empire of the power of the gods and of the rulers and state itself (Ibid.). The destruction of the Sun and the universe hung in the balance, so obviously obeying the authorities was the best course to follow for survival (Ibid.).

Featured image: Calendar Aztec Stone in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City. Photo by Dezalb (2018). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

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

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Noble W. (2009) In the Aztec Empire. Mitchell Lane Publishers.

O’Connell R. W. (2020). “The Aztec Calendar Stone”. In: Astronomy 1210. University of Virginia. Available at <https://at.virginia.edu/2AEy0hB>. [Accessed on 5th June, 2020].

Photo: “Ballcourt marker at Mixco Viejo.” Simon Burchell (2005). CC BY-SA 3.0. “Kukulkan” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3lViYWt>. [Accessed on 6th June, 2020].

Photo: “Piedra de Tízoc original. Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City” (2006). No machine-readable author provided. GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/36XtF6T>. [Accessed on 8th December, 2020].

Stuart D. (2016). “The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation”. In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment. Available at <https://bit.ly/2XZABdS>. [Accessed on 5th June, 2020].

Von Tunzelmann A. (2008). Photo: “Sophisticated culture … Apocalypto”. In: “Apocalypto and the end of the wrong civilisation”. In: The Guardian. Available at <https://bit.ly/3dDqUs4>. [Accessed on 6th June, 2020].

Disaster of the Bronze Age Spreads Beyond the Epicenter

Experts have only recently learnt the true scale of the disaster triggered by the volcano eruption on Thera (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans). As they have concluded, its deadly impact stretched far beyond the island of the tiny Minoan island (Mitchel 2011). The volcano spewed out huge plumes of ash, carried by wind southwards (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006). It travelled from Thera to Crete in less than half an hour (Masjum 2006). When the dense clouds appeared, it must have seemed to the Minoans on Crete that nature had turned against them (Lilley 2006). ‘Imagine this ash coming over the island’, asks the professor of Greek archaeology, Jan Driesser (Ibid.). ‘It blackened the air [and the] blue sky for several days’ (Ibid.).

I looked up in the azure colours of the sky over the Mediterranean. I just could not imagine it turning into black pitch and breathing fire and ashes.

Town under the ashes

In 1980s, Prof. McCoy and his colleagues found ash deposits on neighbouring islands and on the seabed near Crete (Lilley 2006). ‘We calculated the amount of the volume of this material, which is how we [figured] out how explosive [the] eruption had been’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). Recent analysis of the seabed around the island has revealed that sediments from pyroclastic flow extend over thirty-two kilometres and are up to eighty meters deep (Mitchell 2011).

The earthquakes on Akrotiri seemed to happen in a couple of waves. One set did substantial damage to the town. Photo by Gretchen Gibbs. Source: Mari N. Jensen, UA College of Science (2018).

Excavations on the island of Santorini reveal that pyroclastic flow broke the upper fronts of the buildings on Thera (Mitchell 2011). Subsequently, the Minoan settlement was buried in a layer of volcanic ash and pumice stones more than forty meters deep (Jensen 2018).

Biblical darkness

With time, more evidence of Thera’s deadly deposits began to emerge not just from the Mediterranean but as far as the Black Sea (Lilley 2006). Volcanic ash must have plunged the region into darkness for weeks (Mitchell 2011). Computer modelling expert and volcano enthusiast, Dr Stuart Dunn, decided to plot the results by creating a database putting together all ash thicknesses with their locations (Lilley 2006). The location and thickness of these residues allowed to calculate how many millions of tons of material were blasted across the region (Ibid.). ‘We concluded that the eruption was very much larger than [it] was previously thought’, admits Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). ‘Now we’re up to ten times of the explosivity of Krakatau’, he concludes (Ibid.). After scientists, It was one of the most violent volcanic eruptions in human history, one hundred times the eruption of the volcano at St Helens and forty thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Mitchell 2011).

The ruins of the palace of Knossos on Crete, excavated and then reconstructed by Sir Arthur Evans at the beginning pf the twentieth century. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The clouds of ash caused the climate collapse over the whole region and subsequent lightning and hail storms (Masjum 2006; Wengler 2009). Temperature around the world lowered, inhibiting plant growth even in the British Isles (Mitchell 2011). Before collapsing into itself, the volcano expelled twenty billion cubic metres of molten lava and pumice has been found far inland of the Mediterranean region, where could have been carried by the waves of tsunami (Wengler 2009). Hundred and forty pumice stones from Thera’s eruption were found by Prof. Bietak in Avaris, in the Delta Nile (Ibid.). It is the same site, where the Egyptologist has found the Minoan fresco. Some number of pumice has been also found by archaeologists in Sinai (Ibid.).

Decorative flower-like rosettes from a fresco at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera, today Santorini. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Also this has prompted some scholars to suggest that the stories in the Bible may be linked to Thera eruption (Masjum 2006). In the Book of Exodus, signs of the ten Egyptian plagues include thunder and hail and total darkness, the phenomena that could have been volcanic in origin (Ibid.). And another plague mentioned in the Bible, namely the waters of the Nile turning into blood (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer explains that huge amounts of reddish dust, as upper layer in Santorini, and lot of dead material actually wiped out over the area of Egypt (Ibid.). He says that all this volcanic dust was in the atmosphere and was brought in the Nile by very heavy rains falling at a time and so the colour of the Nile could have changed from its natural into reddish tint (Ibid.). For the people of the entire Mediterranean observing such phenomena, the world must have descended into chaos (Ibid.).

Fire in the sky

Prof. McCoy assumes that in the morning, after the eruption, Minoans at Knossos and other towns along the northern coast, must have seen the clouds of smoke on the horizon (Masjum 2006). Although they must have already been frightened, they had no idea yet what was in store for them (Ibid.).

The north entrance to the palace of Knossos passing by the North Pillar Hall. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘They saw black sky, lightnings, darkening clouds enveloping them and ash falling on the ground all around them. And constant earthquakes. For them the world looked like it was ending’, he says (Masjum 2006). ‘When something blew up, north of them, on the horizon, they must have known it was the island’, he speculates (Ibid.). ‘Maybe some [Cretans] had family or friends there. There was fire in the sky, […] ash falling out of the sky and even torrential rains coming along with the latter part of the eruption’ (Ibid.). Earthquakes from the eruption triggered further fires setting ablaze the Minoans temples, houses and other buildings (Ibid.). Climate change also badly influenced their agriculture (Ibid.). The effect on them must have been tremendous (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer adds that ‘the volcano brought a lot of pumice, the material that floats very easily and have covered apparently most of the eastern Mediterranean for years, making rowing or sailing impossible, so this commercial empire lost its major part of existence’ (Ibid.).

Each numbered triangle represents the deposit of ash from Thera. Source: Harvey Lilley (2006). The Real Atlantis. A Quickfire Media Wales Production for BBC and Arte France.

Until recently, many archaeologists believed that the ash from Thera suffocated the entire island but Dunn’s computer model shows that only the eastern part of Crete received a significant covering, whereas the western part of the island reminded virtually untouched (Lilley 2006). Prevailing winds blew most of the ash clouds away (Ibid.). If the ash did not cause the Minoans’ downfall, what then did? (Ibid.).

Catastrophe speeding up towards Crete

Today the serenity of Crete is a far cry from the fabled land of half-human monsters, bloody sacrifices or natural disasters (History Channel 1980s).

Gramvousa Peninsula in north-western Crete is nowadays a dream destination for tourists. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Much of what is encountered today seems barely to have changed in the course of its mysterious past (History Channel 1980s). Just in the ancient times, the forests were logged because the wood was needed for monumental architecture and ships (Ibid.). Sheep and goats graze here as they have for thousands of years (Ibid.). The work of farmers and shepherds give little hint that this island was once the center of a powerful commercial empire (Ibid.). After centuries of foreign occupations, residents here are more aware of their immediate past (Ibid.). The tale of the Minotaur has faded into a legend (Ibid.). Only at the beginning of the twentieth century, following the independence from the Ottoman Empire archaeologists came (Ibid.). Among the first, there was Sir Arthur Evans, able to start digging into Crete’s great past (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated on eastern coast of Crete. Photo source: Ian Swindale (2020) “Palaikastro”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization.The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage. ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr. Sandy McGillivray.

The archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray has been excavating the Minoan town of Palaikastro on eastern Crete (Lilley 2006). The extent of ruins found there suggests that this was the largest Minoan settlement after Knossos and home to around five hundred people, stretching from the mountainside to the seaside (Ibid.). Like in other Minoan settlements, paved roads with drains were laid on a grid pattern in its town plan (Ibid.). Palaikastro’s extensive workshops produced everything from basic foodstuffs to some of the finest art, yet discovered on Crete (Ibid.).

Today the small hill, the town stood on at the water’s edge is eroding into the sea (Lilley 2006). It reveals strange layers of chaotically mixed material of pottery, building material, stones, cattle bones and lumps of ash, reaching up to five metres above Minoan sea level (Ibid.). After Prof. Hendrik Bruins, a soil scientist who specializes in identifying and dating unusual layers, the deposit does not look like natural archaeological stratification or the result of an earthquake (Ibid.). To find out the origins of the strange deposits in Palaikastro, Prof. Bruins has conducted thorough laboratory studies (Ibid.). He was thrilled by the results (Ibid.). ‘We saw foraminifera in these deposits’, he says (Ibid.). Foraminifera are the shells of tiny organisms only found beneath the sea (Ibid.). Accordingly, it suggests that the deposit has been formed with the power of sea waves (Ibid.). Another marine creature within the soil sample is coralline algae from the seabed (Ibid.). ‘These come from below the sea level and in order to deposit them in that level, where we found them in a promontory, [they had] to be scooped up […] to [the] level, where the sea normally never comes’, explains Prof. Bruins (Ibid.). No storm would have lifted the algae from the seabed and left it stranded metres up on the island (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there is another powerful natural force that has the power to do that (Ibid.). These are tsunami waves (Ibid.). Are the Palaikastro beach deposits the terrifying footprint of a tsunami? (Ibid.).

Now it makes sense

Prof. Costas Synolakis, an expert on tsunami, has explored the excavated part of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated three hundred metres from the beach (Lilley 2006). He has found there further evidence that something extraordinary happened there in the far past (Ibid.).

Tsunami waves demolishing the coast of Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage (Lilley 2006). ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr Sandy McGillivray. Prof. Costas Synolakis claims that ‘this is what we [observe] in modern tsunamis. We call this the blow out. The sea comes in [and] blows out the walls. If the building is strong enough, the side walls […] will survive but the walls facing the ocean […] collapse’ (Ibid.). For Dr Sandy McGillivray ‘all of the sudden a lot of deposits [around Palaikastro] began making sense […] because [the town] had these buildings pulled away, [it] had the fronts of buildings missing. [it] had buildings raised right down the foundation level’ (Ibid.). What kind of wave was then powerful enough to cross three hundred metres of land before demolishing a town? (Ibid.).

When Thera erupted, it unleashed a powerful force into the sea, which caused giant waves of tsunami, breaking into Minoan cities, mainly on the north-eastern coast of Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

The scientists also travelled further inland of Crete to find out how wide was the range of the waves terrible progress (Lilley 2006). Around one kilometre from the shore, and well above sea level, they have found deposits of seashell (Ibid.). Soil samples from excavation from ancient Palaikastro also contain the tale-tell microscopic signs of marine life, which is another evidence that the tsunami deluged the town (Ibid.).

Destructive tsunamis

When Thera erupted, it unleashed a powerful force into the sea (Masjum 2006). Scientists believe it caused giant waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Hour after hour, pyroclastic flows on Thera were pushing volcanic debris into the sea, causing great tsunami waves that battered the Aegean coast (Masjum 2006; Mitchell 2011). ‘And then what happens is that the centre of the volcano […] has been blasted. it collapses to produce today’s caldera’, describes Prof. Floyd. ‘The land suddenly fell in, the ocean poured in and out producing constant tsunami’ (Masjum 2006). Inhabitants of nearby Crete could notice warning signs, but did not have enough time to react (Mitchell 2011). The first tsunami moving at the speed of three hundred and twenty kilometres per hour reached the coast of Crete within twenty minutes (Ibid.). At the time of contact with the land, the wave could have been up to twenty meters high (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Malia, Crete. Scientists have found there layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that are observed along the northern coast of Crete as the results of the tsunamis. Source: Ian Swindale (2020) “Malia”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization.

Apparently, the tsunami generated by Thera eruption was powerful enough to ravage the entire civilization (Lilley 2006). On the north coast of Crete, fifty kilometres west along the coast from Palaikastro, Malia lies. Now it is known for ruins of a Minoan palace but once it was the third largest settlement on coastal Crete (Ibid.). Close by the ruins, the team of scientists has found the same layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that they have observed in Palaikastro (Ibid.). That is further evidence that a huge wave had struck the northern coast of Crete, dumping marine life onto the land (Ibid.). Next step was the study of the Minoan port of Amnissos (Ibid.). The site is located west of Malia and near the settlement of Knossos (Ibid.). Four thousand years ago, a villa nestled among olive groves on this idyllic coast (Ibid.). It was decorated with frescoes that celebrated the Minoan love of nature (Ibid.). But about the time of eruption of the volcano, the villa was destroyed and the frescoes torn from the walls (Ibid.). Pumice from Thera was once found in the ruins of this Minoan villa (Ibid.). Initially it was thought that the petrified volcanic froth may have been brought in there by a storm (Ibid.). However, the team has also found Thera pumice higher in the hills behind the villa, twenty metres above sea level, which may suggest it floated in on a massive tsunami (Ibid.).

NOVA senior science editor, Evan Hadingham, described the tidal wave as ‘terrifyingly destructive’, perhaps larger than the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in 2004. Source: Telegram.com (2007).

Dr Sandy McGillivray says that he remembers from his childhood a big anthill at one end of the garden and as a child he used to go with a garden hose and wash ants off it (Lilley 2006). That memory keeps coming back to in his memory when he is thinking how the tsunami destroyed the Minoans on Crete (Ibid.). Tsunamis weeping people out to the sea must have been just like washing ants off the anthill. ‘It is a terrifying thing’, he admits (Ibid.). ‘Those ants never had a chance [to survive]’ (Ibid.). ‘Once the tsunami starts climbing up on dry land’, he continues (Ibid.). ‘It’s moving at [such] speed that nothing can stop it’ (Ibid.).

You wish you hadn’t found out …

Evidence gathered also demonstrates the range of destructive powers of the tsunami that would have struck on northern coasts of Crete (Lilley 2006).

As it can be concluded, when the caldera of Thera collapsed, it sent several walls of water into the Aegean Sea, like a pebble dropping into a pond (Lilley 2006). These waves cumulated around the islands and bounced off them (Ibid.). As a result, Crete was hit not by one but by several rebounding waves (Ibid.). The intervals between them were from around forty-five to thirty minutes (Ibid.). Recent studies have shown that more tsunamis ravaged cities on the northern coast of Crete for hours or even days after the eruption (Mitchell 2011). It is estimated that they killed from thirty to forty thousand people (Ibid.). After the first tsunami, there were surely Cretans who escaped but they came back to look for the injured and dead relatives and friends, smashed by the powerful wave (Lilley 2006). They did not realize that another wave was coming (Ibid.). Consequently, the survivors of the first wave may have become the victims of the second (Ibid.).

Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell; Writer: Rhidian Brook; Stars: Stephanie Leonidas, Reece Ritchie, Langley Kirkwood; Network: BBC One
Documentary tells the story of the greatest natural disaster of the ancient world, an event that some experts believe inspired the legend of Atlantis. Source: Youtube.

Dr McGillivray has been deeply moved by the obtained results. ‘You know, it’s like time looking for something and then when you find it, you wish you hadn’t because it becomes too real and, you know, you begin to feel the experience’, he admits (Lilley 2006). ‘This is life, this is people just being washed out to sea [in vast numbers]. There’s a whole instant that flashes through your head’ (Ibid.).

Mysterious legend that haunts to this day

The most massive volcanic eruption of the ancient world blew the island of Thera apart and buried for centuries all the evidence of the lives of people who had once called it home (Westbrook 1995). Yet memories have remained (Ibid.). Footprints in the dust have finally been discovered by archaeologists (Ibid.). There are, however, no written records left about the Thera’s eruption and subsequent tsunamis, no figures for the death or destruction it has caused (Lilley 2006). It is only known that the rich culture of the Minoans, one that awed and inspired the earliest civilizations of the Mediterranean, completely vanished at the end of the Bronze Age (History Channel 1980s). Was the powerful empire of the Minoans destroyed by natural forces or was there human intervention? (Ibid.).

Bronze Group of a Bull and an Acrobat, the so-called a bull-leaper. Said to be from south west Crete. Today it is preserved by the British Museum. Photo by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany (2011). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Minoan Bull-leaper” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On Thera, a massive eruption had buried Minoan streets and buildings beneath the flowing lava (History Channel 1980s). Meantime, clouds of ash engulfed the entire region (Ibid.). Crops were ruined and livestock suffocated (Ibid.). Consequently, all life on Santorini was destroyed (Ibid.). The utter destruction of the island and its people who settled there, must have left the powers of the region awestruck (Westbrook 1995). The palaeontologist, Charles Pellegrino, claims that the Egyptians must have known Thera (Ibid.). In the Bronze Age, it was surely known as a powerful colony of the Minoans (Ibid.). Egyptian ships would have travelled north to the very mountainous island for trading (Ibid.). After the volcano eruption, there was nothing but the silvers of broken rib-like land (Ibid.). Pellegrino thinks that to the ancient Egyptians finding the still smoking and blooming crater probably meant that the whole island and its inhabitants had simply sunk and disappeared (Ibid.). In centuries to come a great legend was heard of a Utopian island society that vanished in the sea “in a single day and night” (Ibid.).

The Palace of Knossos: North Passage. 3D Digital Reconstruction by John Carlina (2011). Source: Youtube.

Did the Egyptian priests mean Thera in their written story of the sunken island that they retold to Solon? According to some scholars, the history of the volcanic disaster on Thera may have been recorded by the ancient Egyptians and survived in repeatedly embellished stories (Mitchell 2011). In the fourth century BC., they may have inspired the Greek philosopher to write a morality play about the rise and fall of a great civilization, called Atlantis (Ibid.). For centuries, Plato’s words were considered a legend, until archaeologists discovered a lost world on Thera (Ibid.).

In one day and one night

The legend of Atlantis has teased human imagination ever since (Westbrook 1995). Some scholars definitely claims the story is a myth, others believe it is a true story and they either still keep looking for it or point to the small dot in the Aegean between Egypt, Greece and Asia, today just a rim of volcanic rock jutting out of the sea (Ibid.). Is Thera a legendary Atlantis? (Ibid.). Plato described the island of Atlantis as alternating rings of land and sea (Mitchell 2011). The port was full of ships and buyers from all over the world (Ibid.). Such great wealth had never been seen before (Ibid.). Bulls grazed at Poseidon’s temple, and ten princes hunted for them using wooden sticks and ropes (Ibid.). Then came powerful earthquakes and floods (Ibid.). In one day and one night, Atlantis was swallowed up by the sea and disappeared (Ibid.).

Bull’s head rhyton from the palace at Knossos, Crete. It is made of black steatite, jasper, and mother-of-pearl. One of the greatest finds. Now exposed by the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After some enthusiasts of the legend, like Pellegrino, there are some convincing clues and local finds that confirm that Plato’s Atlantis was in fact the island of Thera (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). “Like the Atlanteans, the Minoans were island-dwellers with shipyards, powerful fleets and a thriving maritime commerce. They had fine houses and superb artifacts, and were skilful builders and engineers – again like the Atlanteans. As in Atlantis, the bull, sacred to Poseidon the earth-shaker, was important in Minoan rituals (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Also Plato describes Atlantis as an island made of sea and land rings (Mitchell 2011). Thera’s reconstructions before the volcanic eruption show that the island could have fit this description (Ibid.). The unusual terrain was the effect of the most powerful geological forces on earth, always active beneath the island throughout its geological history (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there would have just been one concentric ring of land and two of water, building up the island, whereas Plato describes Atlantis as a fortified dwelling place with concentric rings, two of land and three of water (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). Thera, as one of the Minoan colonies in the Mediterranean, was too small to be self-sufficient (Mitchell 2011), yet it was as wealthy and self-assured as much as the settlements of Minoans on Crete (Lilley 2006). Its geographical location made it an important trading point in the Mediterranean (Mitchell 2011). Its buyers acted as intermediaries by trading precious metals, oil, wine, ceramics and spices from Africa, Asia and Europe (Ibid.).

Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed). Today in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Photo by Jebulon and one more author – Own work (2015). Originally at Wikipedia. CC0. Bull-leaping was an important initiation ritual for young Minoan men, perhaps also for women (Mitchell 2011). Photo source: Dr. Senta German (2020). Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos. In: Khan Academy.

Also the bull, especially bull-leaping, is a recurring theme in Minoan art and there are many depictions of this powerful animal (Westbrook 1995). Such representations echo Plato’s description of Atlantis; there are described golden cups with scenes of bull ceremonies engraved on the sides, also analogous to Plato’s narrative (Ibid.). Such details as bulls being tied up by nooses and with rope furthermore match the author’s descriptions (Ibid.). Pellegrino also recounts the moment ‘early in [the twentieth] century, when the Minoan civilisation was being unearthed’ (Ibid.). ‘Some of the first archaeologists to arrive on the site, looking at the paintings of the bull ceremonies, and so on, said: ‘that’s Plato! That’s his Atlantis story!’, he claims (Ibid.). Plato also mentions that “first noble and innocent, the Atlanteans in time became power-hungry aggressors, seeking to subjugate neighbouring lands. Eventually, they were however, defeated by the Athenians, and then their island was destroyed by natural forces, earthquake and flood” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). As archaeological records suggest, the Greeks indeed invaded and conquered the Minoans in the second half of the fifteenth century BC. Moreover, like the wonderful civilization of Atlantis, Thera was destroyed by a terrible cataclysm during its greatest heyday and vanished (Westbrook 1995). “If Plato’s date for Atlantis, 9 000 years before Solon, were to lose a zero (a scribal error, perhaps, or storyteller’s exaggeration), [after some scholars], it would fit neatly into the timescale of Minoan culture” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21).

Elephants on Thera?

“But problems remain, not least the fact that Plato explicitly states that Atlantis lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules, [on the Atlantic Ocean]” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Although Thera’s explosion blew the island apart, it only precipitated the downfall of Minoan Crete, which eventually happened generations after the volcano eruption with the invasions of Mycenaeans from Greece (Ibid.:21). Correspondingly, the Minoans were not defeated by “the Athenians” before the natural disaster but long after it. There are also other differences between Plato’s story and archaeological facts about ancient Thera. Among animals living on Atlantis, there were elephants, which did not live on Thera, at least not in the Bronze Age (Ibid.:18). Thera was also too small to fit Plato’s description or to be divided into ten kingdoms between Poseidon’s descendants, like Atlantis actually was (Ibid.:18).

Found at Akrotiri, Minoan frescoes of Boxing Boys or Girls (on the left) and Gazelles (on the right) Today they are exposed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo source: Ricardo André Frantz (User: Tetraktys). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

What is more, Crete and not Thera was the headquarters of the Minoan empire. And, unlike the legend of Atlantis says, Crete did not disappear in a single night and day (Westbrook 1995). It was only Thera that vanished (Ibid.). Plato does not either mention any volcano eruption on Atlantis but the fact the island was destroyed by earthquakes and floods (Masjum 2006). Moreover, although recurring representations of bull ceremonies are the traces left by the Minoan civilization, the evidence is hardly found on Santorini (Westbrook 1995). Yet it is abundant on Crete (Ibid.). Or maybe was Thera (and the Minoans) just a legacy of the Atlanteans, and not Atlantis itself?

Fatal thread to Cretans

Prof. Walter Friedrich, a geologist, thinks that the volcano eruption was entirely fatal for Thera, but not for Crete (History Channel 1980s). For Cretans living on the northern coast of their island, the biggest thread came from the sea (Ibid.). Giant waves of tsunamis swept across the Aegean, destroying their glamorous architecture and powerful fleet (Ibid.). The tsunami was enough to bring a great civilization to its knees but there were survivors (Lilley 2006). Knossos, the Minoan capital was too far inland to be destroyed (Ibid.). According to archaeological evidence, the Minoans rebuilt their palaces, and although they never regained their full power and influence, they could still create exquisite works of art (Ibid.).

Detail of the Palaikastro Kouros. It is a statuette of a male figure, probably an idol, made of serpentine, hippopotamus ivory, and gold. The statuette was deliberately destroyed during social unrest following the volcano eruption. (Archaeological Museum of Siteia, photo by Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0). Source: Dr. Senta German (2020). “Statuette of a Male Figure (The Palaikastro Kouros)”. In: Khan Academy.

‘Did the volcanic eruption on Santorini directly destroy the Minoan culture’, asks Dr Don Evely, the archaeologist (Masjum 2006). ‘The answer is simply no. If, however, we ask a more subtle question: did it contribute to the decline? Did it undermine the Minoan power? The answer is almost certainly yes.’ (Ibid.). The devastating effects of Thera’s eruption on Crete are not limited to the number of dead and destroyed palaces (Mitchell 2011). Minoan society suffered a serious shock (Ibid.). Archaeological data testifies a deep social unrest; towns and temples were looted and set on fire (Ibid.). People were probably sacrificed (Ibid.).

Invaders from Greece

A final outburst of destruction overtook the Minoans in around 1450 BC (Lilley 2006). In western Crete, an excavation in the heart of the modern town of Chania has revealed evidence of arson, which proves strong fires once took place there (Ibid.). It is a pattern repeated also in other sites across the island (Ibid.). Was this a revolution within the Minoan society or is it the evidence of conquest by outsiders? (Ibid.). The archaeologist, Dr Maria Vlazaki, discovered a highly unusual cemetery in Chania (Ibid.). It dates from the same period as the widespread destruction in the Minoan world (Ibid.). ‘These are warrior graves’, she claims (Ibid.). ‘They are single burials, something that is in opposition with the traditional [Minoan grave. The buried were of the age] between twenty-four and thirty. They [were] tall, robust and they look [like] invaders’ (Ibid.). These invaders’ burials have been also found at Knossos and elsewhere on Crete so it suggests an invasion from the mainland of Greece (Ibid.). The invaders are believed to have slashed and burned their way across Crete, overwhelming the Minoans (Ibid.).

Flotilla fresco of the miniature frieze from the West House or House of the Admiral at Akrotiri, Room 5, south wall: detail. It probably represents a mountainous landscape of the island of Thera with its flourishing port and fleet. Source: Fritz Blakolmer (2012). “Image and Architecture: Reflections of Mural Iconography in Seal Images and Other Art Forms of Minoan Crete”. In: Minoan Realities. AEGIS Approaches to Images, Architecture, and Society in the Aegean Bronze Age, pp. 83-114. Diamantis Panagiotopoulos et Ute Günkel-Maschek (dir.), fig. 27.

Dr McGillivray believes that the tsunamis and forthcoming social unrest may have actually helped the Mycenaeans to attack Crete (Lilley 2006). Coastal towns of the Minoans, like Malia, had no protective walls (Ibid.). Minoan defences rested instead on their control of the sea as the leading naval power in the ancient world (Ibid.). ‘The [islanders] were so confident in their navy that they were living in unprotected towns and cities all along the coastline’, he explains (Ibid.). All that naval force must have been, however, smashed and lost in the waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Meantime, the fleet of Mycenae had grown in power (Ibid.). ‘[Their] traditional homeland is on the southern shores of the Gulf of Corinth’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). The archaeologist thinks that the tsunami could not reach into there because of its geographical landscape and natural closure from the sea (Ibid.). ‘Mycenaean Greeks up there were probably the only people who had survived with a navy, possibly in the whole eastern Mediterranean’, he explains (Ibid.). Hence their upcoming powerful empire.

Idyllic life on the coast of Crete. The town of Amnisos was believed to have served as the harbour of Knossos, which was located farther inland and so was not directly affected by the tsunamis. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: Sherna Bhumgara (2004). Hooked on Inspiration’s Blog.

Did these invaders encounter a dark side of Minoan culture? (Lilley 2006). In Knossos, archaeologists have found grisly human remains (Ibid.). ‘One of the most telling and horrifying deposits from the post-Thera eruption period in Crete was a deposit recovered in the town of Knossos up along the Royal Road and that [were] these cannibalized youths’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). ‘The analysis of these bones from this […] deposit strongly [suggests] that [the bones] have been hacked up in order to take the flesh off [and] eat [it]. This cannibalistic aspect of the Minoans is probably one of the things that was recalled when the Greeks first arrived in Crete’ (Ibid.). Was this an origin of the Minotaur myth? (Ibid.). Did the Greeks imagine that these unlucky victims had been led to the labyrinth to be sacrificed to the Minoan bull god? (Ibid.). Whatever is the truth of their myth’s origins, within a generation of their arrival, the Greeks had conquered Crete (Ibid.). The last embers of Minoan culture flickered out (Ibid.).

Between now and then

Today, the only things that have survived from the Minoan culture are the remains of their monumental architecture, being visited by flocks of tourists every summer (Masjum 2006).