Tag Archives: Sepulchral monuments

Inside the Pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions

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

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

Architecture of mystical dimensions

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

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

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

The Temple of the Inscriptions

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

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

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

Shaft leading down

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

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

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

Emergency exit for the soul

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

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

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

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

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

Buried mystery in the heart of the pyramid

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

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

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

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

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

Inconvenient dates

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

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

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

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

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

Epitaph fifty years before death

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

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

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

Asking geologists

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

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

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

(Hancock 2001:163).

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

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

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

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

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

Another intact sarcophagus

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

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

Further questions about Pakal’s identity

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

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

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

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

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

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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Language of the Megalithic Tiya and its Translation

The site of Tiya is among the most important and representative of all (Rey 2015; UNESCO 1992-2020). It contains thirty-six monuments (UNESCO 1992-2020), including “[roughly] aligned over an axis of [forty-five metres] a group of thirty-three stelae, with another [cluster] of three stelae a short distance from [the larger group]” (Rey 2015). Among them all, there are thirty-two carved stones, covered in symbols in low-relief; although some of them can easily be identified, most still remain difficult to decipher (UNESCO 1992-2020).

When the site was discovered, all of the stelae, except for one, were fallen on the ground. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The standing stones on the site are generally taller than the monoliths found elsewhere in the region (Reese 2019). Most measure between two and three metres high with the tallest reaching over five meters (Finneran 2007:244; Reese 2019). Tiya’s sanding stones can be divided into three types: anthropomorphic, phallic (snake-like), and non-anthropomorphic (Reese 2019; Mire 2020:20). While anthropomorphic stelae resemble a human shape, though highly schematized, the phallic or snake type looks like a tall and thin shaft (Finneran 2007:244; Reese 2019). The final groups contains flat monuments with irregular edges but usually resembling rectangular blocks (Derara 2008; Reese 2019). Yet, most of them narrow up to the pointed end, looking like a knife sticking out of the ground (Mire 2020:20). Furthermore, all the monoliths “may [originally] have been coloured in organic pigment” (Finneran 2007:244).

Plan of Tiya stelae field (after Joussaume 1985). Source: Finneran (2007:243; Figure 6.16).

Either type bears a series of particular symbols carved on them. Their combination predominantly includes engravings representing a sword, the so-called forked branch sign, and what Joussaume (1995) describes as la triade symbolique (the three signs), consisting of the design similar to zigzag (Σ), Х, and finally discs or circles (Mire 2020:11) Most stelae in Tiya also have mysterious perforations on their bottom part (Ibid.:11). Just one stela was still standing at the site of its initial studies, and this in situ stone revealed that the perforations had once been below the ground (Ibid.:11).

Weapons on the megaliths

Among the symbols carved on the Tiya standing stones, the most frequently utilised is the ubiquitous engraving of a dagger, lance or epée (on around twenty-eight stelae), which also widely appears at other megalithic sites in the region, such as Odotibo, Firshi, Seden and Lalou (Finneran 2007:244; Mire 2020:11).

Some steale are covered at least in four different types of symbols of unknown meaning. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Its symbolism is ambiguous; it may refer either to general weapons used in the community, or to the occupation of men buried beneath the stones (Finneran 2007:244; Derara 2008:70). In the latter option, the symbol of lance could signify a burial of a hunter or a warrior, while the number of daggers carved on a particular stela would signify the rank of the warrior or the number of killed enemies (Derara 2008:70). Hence, it is also possible that some male remains belonged to individuals who were killed in battle (Reese 2019). The signs of daggers may also refer to the ritual hunt or slaughter (Mire 2020:21). In further hypothesis, such weapons as represented on the stones were possibly made of iron, which would be another significant insight into the economy of the megalithic community (Finneran 2007:244).

The group of three stelae at closer look. Like others, they are all covered with typical enigmatic symbols. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

However, to make the whole picture complete, it should be also mentioned that the position and layout of the so-called weapons on stones vary; sometimes, the dagger’s blade points up, the other time, it is directed down. Certainly, it must once have had a meaning; nonetheless, it is unknown today. Maybe it was a symbolic representation of warriors fighting against each other, providing that each dagger would represent a warrior on each side of a combat. There is even a theory saying that the so-called daggers pointing at each other look more like starting or landing space rockets than weapons. 

Signes ramifiés

Unlike the symbol of the lance, which form is observable in a material world, some of the designs at Tiya, or elsewhere in the region, are more abstract than others. Likewise, a few of the megaliths “at Tiya carry a very distinctive Y-shape, described by Anfray (1982:126) as signes ramifiés (vegetable signs or a branch of a tree) (Finneran 2007:244; Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:11). Like other engravings, it is also accompanied by other different signs, including the daggers (Mire 2020:11). This is probably why Anfary (1982) also compares it to a projective weapon like a spear (Derara 2008:71). Still, there are many other alternative theories on its possible meaning.

The enigmatic symbol of signes ramifiés translated in various ways by scholars studied the megalithic culture of Ethiopia. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This enigmatic image features the rectangular base and branched pillar attached to this base (Derara 2008:71). “In connection with this depiction, there are different plausible but still controversial views” (Ibid.:71). Assuming it is an actual representation of a tree, the sign could suggest its religious and ritual meaning in a society and so “be interpreted in the light of the tradition of sacrificial flora, sacred grass and trees associated with the fertility rituals currently practiced in the Horn of Africa” (Mire 2020:11). In the burial context, the symbol may stand for continuation as much as continuous is the circle of nature (Ibid.:17). After a Swedish-Somali archaeologist, Sada Mire (2020:17), “[this] would make sense in Tiya in terms of the archaeology as the place is clearly linked to ritual and, perhaps, the blessings of the ancestors and the protection of a family […]. The sprouting or a ‘vegetable’ sign of Tiya may therefore be associated with the regeneration of the lineage. [To this day], plants are also part of ritual meals and are used in many local [religious rites].”

A bifurcated stick carried by the pilgrims of Dire Sheik Hussein. Source: Mohammed Ademo (2011).

 There is also another evidence indicating a ‘vegetable’ nature of the symbol; it is linked to present-day beliefs of the Arsi-Oromo people who represent a Cushitic ethnic group of Ethiopia (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17). They believe in the powers of the so-called dhanqee or dhanquu, which is a short and bifurcated (rather forked) stick, carved from a sacred tree and carried as such by the pilgrims of Dire Sheik Hussein (a holy site for Muslims) (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17). Although it is today mostly associated with Islam, the symbol of dhanqee is as well a part of the long lasting tradition of the Sky-god religion as practised by the Oromo today and in the past (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17).

Wooden ‘pillows’ of headrests (Gime) are used by many groups in southern Ethiopia to support the head during sleep and in some instances to preserve a complicated coiffure. Source: Hamill Gallery (2020).

Nonetheless, an archaeologist Worku Derara (2008:71) claims that although the Tiya symbol’s “branches at the top resemble the stick, [its] rectangular base cannot be correlated with the pointed metal called Ankase, which is attached at the base of the stick held by pilgrims.”

Another theory, which is widely accepted, is based on the oral information from the area suggesting the enigmatic design represents the traditional wooden headrest (Derara 2008:72). Such wooden ‘pillows’, locally called Gime, are used by many groups in southern Ethiopia to support the head during sleep and in some instances to preserve a complicated coiffure (Derara 2008:72-73; Ethnix 2012). However, as Derara (2008:73) points out, morphological differences between the Y-shaped symbol and the wooden headrest does not allow to openly connect them.

Gender ambiguous

On the other side, the engraving of the forked branch is “not unlike the bucranial symbol from the prehistoric rock art of the north” (Finneran 2007:244), which is usually interpreted as manhood or male virility.

One of the two anthropomorphic stelae in Tiya dedicated to female burials. The standing stela represents typical of the Soddo region female features, such as a necklace and schematized breasts. The woman’s image is, however, deprived of the arms and head. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In this context, the sign “may be related to fertility symbolism” (Ibid.:244). Accordingly, if a standing stone is read in an analogous way to a human body, the Y-shaped symbol is found approximately at the level of human genitalia (Ibid.:244). Simultaneously, two other megaliths of Tiya “are [distinctly] feminine in nature [by their form and decoration]” (Ibid.:244). The anthropomorphic slabs, of which one is standing and the other fallen on the ground, both reveal the visible outlines of woman’s breasts below a sort of necklace (Finneran 2007:244,248). The standing one is already deprived of the arms and head, but there is still the lower half of the tombstone, exposing the feminine features (Adventures … 2012). it is obvious that such stone slabs were obviously reserved for buried women (Finneran 2007:244,248; Adventures … 2012).

Similar representations among the stones of Soddo indicate the notion of strong gendered associations (Finneran 2007:244,248) that go “beyond the narrative of [male] heroism [and] so may [turn out to be the key to] the meaning of [the Tiya] symbols [in general]” (Mire 2020:21). It also happens that two genders are even combined and exposed by the shape of a single stone, as it is in the case of Tiya fallen anthropomorphic stela and almost identical representation on Gora-Shino stela (Finneran 2007:244,248; Mire 2020:21). In both cases, the phallic-fashioned monolith additionally bears a schematic female figure, standing akimbo (with hands on the hips and elbows turned outwards) with noticeable breasts and a more intricate necklace than in the first case of the Tiya standing stela (which probably indicates a woman of significance) (Finneran 2007:244,248; Mire 2020:21; Adventures … 2012; Reese 2019).

Such a combination of genders, however, is not exclusive to Ethiopia. As a matter of fact, it has got a much longer tradition than the megaliths in the region of Soddo, providing that the latter are dated accurately. Similar iconography had already been applied in abstract forms of art as early as in the Bronze Age, or even earlier, the most striking exemplum of which are the so-called Anatolian Discs from Cappadocia.

Phallic or snake shaped stelae?

Among the stelae of Soddo, also present at Tiya, there are monoliths described as phallic as they resemble penis in erection. Nevertheless, some scholars interpret them as snakeheads (Mire 2020:20).

Gora Shino Stela, which is similar to the fallen female stela in Tiya. Both reveal a mix of genders by means of phallic/snale head and female breasts. Source: Finneran (2007:246; Figure 6.19.b).

As a matter of fact, there is a visible connection between both images, not only in the context of their physical appearance but equally “between snake worship and phallic symbolism” (Ibid.:20), which is also strongly interwound in ritual use of fertility stones (Ibid.:20). These may be additionally covered in patterns resembling reptile skin, as it appears in the form of sinuous zigzag shape on the phallic, mixed gender stela of Tiya (Ibid.:20). This is not merely the matter of iconographical interpretation; such analogy is visible in current practices associated with the Cushitic religion, where phallic ritual objects are also covered in snakeskin (Ibid.:20). Moreover, in the tradition of Africa snakes are generally seen as symbols of renewal and fertility, as much as it is expressed by phallic imagery (Ibid.:20). “The occurrence of phallic symbolism, therefore, may be seen not just as a symbol of a victorious battle and masculinity but also as a symbol of reconciliation […], purification [and by extension, the continuation of the family and resurrection” (Ibid.:20).  

The fallen female stela in Tiya; the frame around its rectangular part is covered in sinuous zigzag patterns resembling reptile skin, which may introduce snake symbolism. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Snake rituals may have been also related to the perforations on the stones of Tiya (Mire 2020:20). Such holes feature the stela part initially buried in the ground; snakes as chthonic animals are believed to live and move underground and the perforations at the base of stones stuck in the ground may have been intended to make this movement possible (Ibid.:20). This may also “relate to the notion of ancestor spirits moving in the form of snakes underground”(Ibid.:20).   


Another engraving appearing profusely is another abstract sign, which resembles the letter W or M in a reversed position (Derara 2008:70; Mire 2020:11). Others compare it to the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, epsilon (Σ) (Stardust’s Shadow 2007). “As noted by Anfray (1982) this representation has remained mysterious because no possible explanation can be given” (Derara 2008:70).

The abstract sign in the shape of the letter W or M in a reversed position, or the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, epsilon (Σ). Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nevertheless, the symbol may be read as a metaphor for a ploughing trace, as it is represented in a scene at the Eritrean rock art site of Amba (Baahti), dated back to the first millennium BC (McCann 1995:39; Finneran 2007:84-85).

Ploughing scene, Baahti Focada, Eritrea (after Graziosi 1941). The zig-zag symbol from Tiya may be a metaphor for ploughing and so a symbol of the cultivation of land. Source: Finneran (2007:85; Figure 3.5).

Although the pastoral scene shows a continuous zig-zag design left by the activity of ploughing in the field by a long beam plow driven by oxen (McCann 1995:39), creators of medieval stelae may have used just its section to represent the very same idea. Moreover, it was easier to represent it in such an artistic abbreviation due to limited surface of the stela they worked on. Additionally, carving in relief took longer than painting the scene on the rock. If it is the case, the abstract design possibly symbolized the land owned by the buried man or the significance of land cultivation itself.

Eyes of a god

Discs or circles may be interpreted as the eyes of the Sky-god, a supreme deity of the Cushitic or Nilotic-speaking pastoralist groups of southern Ethiopia. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Another mysterious symbol on the stones of Tiya looks like a circle or a disk. Two such engravings appear on nearly all the Tiya monoliths and on others in the region (Mire 2020:11,21). They are carved on the same level of the stone and usually in the proximity of one or two of the three mentioned above symbols: the forked branch (ϒ), zigzag (Σ) and (Х/H), which are usually depicted between or below them (Ibid.:21). The disks may signify the eyes of an omnipresent, all-seeing deity and so are possibly related to the cult of the Sky-god, who is usually associated by contemporary believers with the eye and seeing (Ibid.:21). As Mire (2020:21) claims “belief systems […] tend to linger”, and so the same deity may have been also worshiped by the megalithic builders.

Scarification rituals?

Alternative theory says, however, that all the signs highlight again the significance of gender symbolism and so they expose intimate detail of a human body (Mire 2020:21). In this context, the two discs would stand for male breasts (Ibid.:21), especially if they are placed above Y-shaped symbol, earlier identified as male genitalia. More problematic are attempts to interpret two other symbols, which appear in the proximity of the previous ones.

The engravings’ placement, form and configuration must convey a meaning, yet not revealed so far. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The X or H-shaped sign, is usually positioned between the discs and the forked branch and may refer to the stomach or naval. Sometimes, however, it is replaced by the zig-zag design. Otherwise, either of them is carved on the right or left side of the first two. Are these scarification signs on the belly area? Among Somali, such decorating of a human body is still applied as a healing ritual; this could have been also practised by the megalithic culture (Ibid.:21). Irrespective of a possibility of such a link, the engravings’ placement, form and configuration must convey a meaning, yet not revealed so far.

Ringing stones

“Another interesting [finds] at Tiya are drum stelae” (Mire 2020:22). They may “have been related to ritual and have been symbols of status or used to call upon or ward off spiritual beings. [Such] stone drums are still used in Lalibela to call people to prayer” (Ibid.:22) as they give a particular metallic sound, like gongs, tin drums and bells usually do, especially while being tapped with a metal object.

Rigning stones serving as stone chiurch bells at Christian Monastery on Lake Tana. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The stelae’s ringing ability is attributed to the iron content of the diabase (“Ringing rocks” 2020). Little is known, however, about the ‘drum stelae’ discovered through archaeology” (Ibid.:22).

Finding the key

The stelae of the Soddo region can be a link between the ancient megalithic culture and the current peoples living in southern Ethiopia. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The carved designs on stelae in the region of Soddo may have been “used for regulating and organizing people as well as the material world. The may [have] simply [conveyed] information [in time, from generation to generation, or signified] power, social organization or cult system, or [else] the economy of a given society” (Derara 2008:69). Equally they must have played a transcendental function by witnessing to “the relevance of the community in association between the dead (ancestors) and the living”(Mire 2020:3). These and similar hypotheses have been proposed by scholars for centuries. Generally, many scholars suggest that “a megalithic tradition in the Horn [of Africa] seems to go back millennia” (Ibid.:3). Nevertheless, “it is problematic and [highly ambiguous] to infer the meaning of symbols [without] the presence of a living culture similar to or comparable with what the stelae exhibit”(Derara 2008:79). It is the missing piece that would probably shed light on mysterious character of the megalithic culture of the Soddo region and its ancient creators (Ibid.:80).

There is a need for further exploration of the site and its symbolism. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The “anonymity behind [the symbolism of the Tiya stelae] can be, [however], resolved through ethno-archaeological studies conducted on the material culture of the diverse communities living [over the wider part of southern] Ethiopia. It is also valuable to look into the evolution and relation of megalithic art in the Horn of Africa because of the long-standing contacts and cultural ties over the centuries” (Derara 2008:79). Apparently, the monoliths of the southern Ethiopia “represent the archaeological evidence for Cushitic or Nilotic-speaking pastoralist groups of the southern highlands, whose lives, […] were disrupted by the migration of the pastoralist Oromo (‘Galla’) who emerged from their ancestral lands on what is now the northern Kenyan [and] southern Ethiopian border and in a series of massive population movements thrust northwards into the highlands during the sixteenth century” (Finneran 2007:248)Although Oromo people adopted in time either Christianity or Islam, they have maintained their special identity which may be a bridge between their contemporary rituals and those once conducted by the megalithic builders (Ibid.:248).

The living reveal the secrets of the dead

Today, “despite some Semitic speaking clusters, the majority of people living in southern Ethiopia are Eastern Cushitic speaking people” (Mire 2020:10) and “[it] is noteworthy that there are systematic cultural similarities within [their groups, such as Oromo or Konso], and that these commonalities are crucial to an understanding of Tiya cemetery in particular and of stelae traditions in southern Ethiopia in general” (Ibid.:11).

The fallen stela with visible perforations at the base, probably once being set in the ground. A series of hypotheses are proposed for such marks. Some are related to the snake and ancestors cult. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

For instance, “a close study of Oromo funerary material culture, which is hugely distinctive and symbolically expressive, in the case of Oromo in the Arssi region may have  drawn upon certain elements derived from the earlier megalithic carving traditions” (Finneran 2007:248). Among the Eastern Cushitic speaking groups, both the Oromo and the Konso (Ibid.:5), the “stones erected for the dead served not only as grave stones but also as symbols of ancestors and fertility and the preservation of the family. […] Their traditions and […] archaeology of indigenous practices furthermore offer important insights into the site of Tiya and the practices that may have once taken place there”(Ibid.:11).

The people who live today around the site of Tiya, in the Gurage Zone, are called the Guraghe themselves (hence the area’s name) (Mire 2020:10). They are Ethiopian Semitic group who originally come from the Harar region, not the Tiya area itself (Ibid.:10). Nevertheless, like the Eastern Cushitic people of southern Ethiopia, they also “share a belief in a traditional deity they call the Sky-god, Waaq” (Ibid.:11), which shows, they have probably absorbed it from an earlier Cushitic culture, like Oromo (Ibid.:10-11), “given that the Sky-god religion is a region-wide belief and [its rituals] are recognised by all the people” (Ibid.:17).

Southern Ethiopia is a real mosaic of peoples, their rituals and cultures. It is a real paradise for both ethnographers and photographers. There is equally much work to do for archaeologists who can look for some evidence of still present customs in reference to the monuments, decorations and burial practice of Tiya. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the other side, it is likely “that the Oromo [people] themselves would feel affinities with the religious culture of the people who had created the stelae of Tiya” (Ibid.:17). It is also why they trace their ancestry also to the part of Soddo, where the site in question is located (Ibid.:17). The Oromo “imprint upon highland society is evidenced by a distribution of their language, yet they transformed socially in response to their new surrounds in the case of the adaptation of their Gada social system (a system of an age-grade classes)]” (Finneran 2007:248). In such a way, they could have also absorbed and preserved the notions of the ancient culture.

Such cultural elements as “language, religious beliefs and sociopolitical organisation, enable [scholars] to explore the ideas expressed at Tiya cemetery since these ideas seem today to encompass all the elements essential to the living and to their relationship with each other of times of death and birth” (Mire 2020:11). Important aspects of current life in the region to some extent overlap with archaeological and ethnographic evidence regarding human fertility, animals, cultivation of land, inheritance, wealth and burial practice (Ibid.:3-17). This is why there is a need for “studies involving careful examination of the material and culture of the people residing over the wider part of southern Ethiopia” (Derara 2008:76). It can also be relevant to Tiya, where some evidence of still present customs is consolidated by the monuments, decorations and burial practice (Mire 2020:11).

Unrevealed secrets of Ethiopia

Since the site of Tiya became a part of the UNESCO World Heritage in 1981 (Mire 2020:11), it has been recognised as one of unique archaeological locations in Ethiopia, such as Axum, Lalibela, Abuna Yemata Guh, Debre Damo, Fasiledes Castle or Konso landscape (Reese 2019). Although all these sites represent the testimony of the ancient past of Ethiopia, there have not been enough studies to fully understand it yet (Ibid.). Also little research has been done lately on Tiya, likewise in case of other megaliths in the region, whose purpose and meaning behind their physical appearance still remains unclear (Ibid.).

Last photos of the Tiya megalithic site. It is definitely one of the many precious archaeological sites in Ethiopia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

To protect the site, however, authorities conducted some conservation work in 2017 (Ibid.). Keeping the stelae in good shape not only may attract more tourists but also help to continue further research to finally unlock some significance of the story the monuments still hold secret.

Featured image: Megaliths with engraved figures in Tiya. Photo by Julien Demade – Own work (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Tiya (archaeological site)” (2020). 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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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.


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Ancient Lycia in the Middle of Anatolian Traditions

When I now look back over ten years of my archaeological exploration of the world, I distinctly remember my summer travel to Lycian Turkey and its ancient rock-cut tombs encrusting high and steep cliffs. Such monuments of sepulchral architecture are scattered around the whole region of Lycia and partially the neighbouring Caria. They both are located on the south-western coast of Turkey, by the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, and their mountainous scenery looking out the blue waters is truly breathtaking.

Beautiful view of Marina in Fethiye, Turkey. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Today, Lycia belongs to the Turkish province of Antalya, and the most frequently visited seaside resorts of the region are definitely tourist Kemer, turquoise Ölüdeniz and peaceful Fethiye, where I stayed in 2008 for over two weeks to explore the region (Miszczak 2009).

Location of Lycia

The area of Lycia occupies the major part of the Teke Peninsula; namely, it is located south of the imagined horizontal line drawn from the town of Köyceğiz to the city of Antalya, where the former is a district of Muğla Province in the Aegean region of Turkey, and the latter – a gateway to Turkey’s southern Mediterranean region (Bean 1989:19; Miszczak 2009). The terrain of Lycia is mountainous to the north, and towards the south, it gradually descends and becomes flat in places along the coast (Miszczak 2009). Much of the area is densely forested (Ibid.). The region of Lycia is geographically featured by two vast masses belonging to Akdağ Mountains; the ancient mountain range of Massicytus expanded to the west and the ancient Solyma, (modern Bey Daği) to the east (Bean 1989:19). Accordingly, Lycia’s borders have been delineated from the south by the Mediterranean Sea, and from the east, north and west by three mountain ranges (Miszczak 2009). Two of them are known today as Boncuk Dağları and Baba Daği – the part of the Taurus Mountains, and the third are the Bey Dağları Mountains (Ibid.). The latter reach even three thousand meters above sea level, and caps of snow lie on their highest peaks until the beginning of summer (Ibid.). The most famous peak of this range is Mount Tahtalı (Ibid.). Owing to these mountain ranges, Lycia was practically cut off from the rest of Anatolia (Bean 1989:19-20; Miszczak 2009). As such, it had won its advantageous strategic location and uniqueness of its culture (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009).

Ölüdeniz Beach in Fethiye District. Photo by Dan Taylor (2004). CC BY 2.0. Photo and caption source: “Fethiye” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Central Lycia consists of many tiny valleys separated by mountains, with the two largest; to the west of Akdağ Mountains, there is the valley of Xanthus, which is a real heart of Lycia, and to the east of Bey Daği is the valley of Alakır (Bean 1989:19; Miszczak 2009). Two major rivers flow through them: Xanthos and Limyrus, the former of which, longer and larger, was called Sibros or Sirbis in ancient times and was the main source of drinking water for the inhabitants of Lycia (Bean 1989:19; Miszczak 2009).

People of Lycia

The region was itself unevenly populated due to its mountainous terrain and most people settled either in main cities along the coast, sometimes still interrupted by the mountains descending directly into the sea, or in the in the valley of Xanthos (Bean 1989:19; Miszczak 2009). In Antiquity, the whole population of the region has been estimated at no more than around two hundred thousand (Bean 1989:19).

Location of Lycia (in red) and Caria at its north-eastern border with the city of Caunus (Dalyan), which once belonged to Lycia. Anatolia/Asia Minor in the Greco-Roman period. The classical regions, including Lycia, and their main settlements. Image by Caliniuc (2018). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Ancient Lycians had always been very distinctive in the background of other Anatolian peoples (Bean 1989:19). In ancient times, Lycia was adjacent to Caria region with its ancient city of Caunus to the west and northwest, Pamphylia to the east, and Pisidia to the northeast (Miszczak 2009). Nevertheless, its geopolitical map had often changed throughout ages (Bean 1989:19-30; Miszczak 2009). Although the region is often studied as a whole, the ancient Lycia had never been a single state organism, but well-established federation of city-states (the Lycian League) that pursued a common foreign policy, dictated by their strong instinct for union (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009). That, in turn, built up a sense of a Lycian nation, which differed with a nation understood by contemporary Greeks who saw it just as a unity within individual city-states, being constantly at enmity with each other (Bean 1989:20). Accordingly, locked in their mountainous country,

Lycia, from Travels in Lycia, Milyas, and the Cibyratis, in company with the late Rev. E. T. Daniell (1842). Showing the routes taken by T.A.B. Spratt, the naturalist Professor Edward Forbes and the Reverend E.T. Daniell during their exploration of the region in 1842. By Lieutenant T. Spratt, R.N., uploaded in 2012. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Lycians diligently guarded their freedom independence, trying to resist an outside domination (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009). The region was also the last in Asia Minor to have been incorporated into the Roman Empire, and even then it retained a partial independence in the form of the Lycian League (Miszczak 2009). As such, Lycians had their own language with its peculiar characters, though related to the Hittite and Luwian languages, their own culture, customs and an outstanding style of sepulchral architecture, for which Lycia is interesting today, especially to archaeologists, and tourists making breaks from pleasures offered them by the resorts (Bean 1989:20, 22-23; Miszczak 2009).

At the crossroads of different cultures

By a continuous development of its seaside settlements, ancient Lycia became a major naval power in the region and so it also fully benefited from marine trade (Miszczak 2009). Its coast for centuries had been of great strategic importance for the successive empires ruling over Anatolia, as an important section of the sea route leading from the Aegean Sea eastwards, to the Levant and Egypt (Ibid.). In addition to its military importance, this sea route also greatly contributed to the development of trade and the transmission of civilization achievements (Ibid.). It is worth mentioning that Saint Paul himself came from Greece to Lycia on a merchant ship to spread Christianity in the region (Ibid.). But the history of the Lycian country is much more ancient than the times of Christian apostles, and the land itself is soaked with various legends.

Origins shrouded in mystery

After a Greek tradition recorded by Herodotus (the fifth century BC.), Lycians as a people originated in Crete, where there was a quarrel or fight over the power between two noble brothers, Minos and Sarpedon (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009). Finally, defeated Sarpedon was forced to leave his homeland and together with his supporters, he crossed the sea to Asia Minor and settled down in Lycia, at the time called Milyas, being occupied by Solymians (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009).

SVG Map of ancient Lycia in Turkey. The map of Lycia showing significant ancient cities and some major mountains and rivers. Red dots are mountain peaks, white dots are ancient cities. Prepared by Erp at English Wikipedia (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The name Lycia itself, as Herodotus claims, comes from Lycus, son of Pandion the Second, the mythological king of Athens, after whose death, Lycus was driven from his domain by his own brother, Aegeus (the famous Theseus’ father) and eventually found the refuge by joining Sarpedon in Asia Minor, where people took from him the name and became called the Lycians (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009). According to Greek myths, it was the time of the mysterious labyrinth at Knossos, its monstrous inhabitant, Minotaur devouring children, and a conflict of Athens with Crete.

Written tradition

More precise, though unreliable dates of these events are provided by the so-called Parian Chronicle (or Parian Marble), a Greek chronology table covering the years from 1582 to 299 BC., inscribed on a stele found on the island of Paros (the Cyclades) (Bean 1989:20). According to the Greek inscription, it was the early thirteenth century BC., when Lycus reached Asia Minor, whereas the fight between Minos and Sarpedon happened in the latter half of the fifteenth century (Ibid.:20). The given chronology is still confused by the fact there was another Minos at the time of Lycus and Aegeus, and another Sarpedon in the time of the Trojan War, that is to say, in the thirteenth century BC. (Ibid.:20). Yet, the dating from Paros cannot be simply rejected as the names could repeat in history. Moreover, ‘Minos’ may have actually stood not for a name but for a title, as much as ‘pharaoh’ in ancient Egypt (see: Castleden 2000).

Lycia coin, c. 520–470 BC. By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (2018). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the other hand, the Hittite records also mention a nation of the Lukka, which is their own name for Lycia (Ibid.:20). They say that Lukka became subject to the Hittite ruler, Suppiluliumas, in the mid-fourteenth century BC. but the lands were continuously rebellious against his domination (Ibid.:20). Nevertheless, it did not discourage Lycian forces to fight later on the side of the Hittites against Egypt in the Battle of Kadesh (1295 BC.) (Miszczak 2009). According to George E. Bean (1989:21), the Hittite records about ‘Lukka’ must have concerned the lands to the west or south-west of the Hittite capital of Hattusa. Also contemporary tablets found in Tell el-Amarna (the mid fourteenth century BC.) records some ‘Lukki’ among the sea riders plundering Cypriot settlements, which would locate them in the region of Caria and Lycia (Bean 1989:20-21; Miszczak 2009). As far as Greek literature is concerned, Homer (the eight century BC.) often mentions the Lycians in the Iliad as allies of Troy (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:24). According to the author, the Lycian military contingent was commanded by two famous Lycian warriors and heroes, Sarpedon and Glaucus, whose role in the famous war was not undistinguished. (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:24). And it is commonly accepted the Trojan war took place in the thirteenth century BC. (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:24).

More evidence provided

In the Hittite accounts, there also appear the names of the cities conquered by the king Suppiluliumas in Lukka in the fourteenth century, namely Dalawa and Hinduwa (Bean 1989:21). Whereas the latter may be identical with Lycian Candyba or Kandyba (district of Kaş), Dalawa may be the same as the Lycian Tlawa (Tlos), located in the valley of Xanthus (Ibid.:21). If such assumptions are correct, then it can be accepted that Lycia had already been established in the fourteenth century, which also acknowledges the information given by the stele of Paros that the Cretans under Sarpedon reached Asia Minor around 1400 BC. (Ibid.:20-21).

The Greek historian Ephorus of Cyme (the furth century BC.) adds that Sarpedon came first to Caria, the region to the west of actual Lycia, and founded the city of Miletus, renamed after a place in Crete (Bean 1989:21). Alternative sources assert that the first city of the future Lycians was actually Idrias (later Stratoniceia), still situated in Caria but further south-eastwards, towards the Peninsula of Tepe (Ibid.:21). If the provided records are reliable, such a settlement would mark the way of Sarpedon southward, from the Aegean Coast to the lands of Lycia (Ibid.:21).

Greek name for a foreign country

Speaking of the name itself, the terms ‘Lycia’ or ‘Lycians’ were used only by Greeks, as much as the Hittite described the same peoples the Lukka, and ancient Egyptians, the Lukki (Bean 1989:20-21; Miszczak 2009). The inhabitants of Lycia, however, called themselves Termilae or Trmmili, and their land, Trmmisa, which is confirmed by their native inscriptions (Bean 1989:22; Miszczak 2009). For this reason, Herodotus’ account that Lycia adopted the name of the Athenian Lycus should be debunked (Bean 1989:22). Possibly, the historian tried to explain the etymology of the name used by the Greeks to describe their neighbours, which was yet adopted, though, slightly modified, by other contemporary civilization. The Greeks had never used their proper name, which actually often has happened throughout history (Ibid.:22). It is enough to provide an example of the people commonly known as Minoans who had created a civilization on Crete; their name was, however, taken by Sir Arthur Evans from the Greek myth mentioning the king of Minos, and has nothing to do with their proper name. Yet, there exist ancient sources describing the same people as Keftiu (Egypt) or Caphtorites (the Hebrew Bible).

Back to legends

The origin of the word Lycia can be rather found in Greek myths, namely in the story of Leto, the goddess from the generation of giants (Titans), who also was the guardian of the entire Lycian people, their homes and tombs (Miszczak 2009).

Lycian dignitary in Achaemenid style, at the Karaburun tomb near Elmalı, Lycia, c. 475 BC. Unknown author (2018). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to the legend, the Greek god Zeus fell in love with her but his jealous wife, Hera, chased her husband’s mistress to Asia Minor, exactly to Patara, where the goddess gave birth to the divine twins, Apollo and Artemis (Miszczak 2009). According to alternative story, however, the twins were born later on the island of Delos or Ortygia (near ancient Ephesus in ancient Turkey) (Cartwright 2019). However, yet before giving birth, the persecuted Leto was accompanied on her way through the country by wolves, who guided her across the Xanthos River (Miszczak 2009). To commemorate their help, the goddess called the whole region Lycia, because lycos stands for a wolf in Greek (Ibid.).

More Greek deities

The main deities worshiped in Lycia were therefore Leto and her children, Apollo and Artemis (Miszczak 2009). The most important religious sanctuary of Lycia, dedicated to Leto was located in the Xanthos valley (Ibid.). Some historians believe that the cult of Leto was one of the manifestations of the mother-goddess worship widespread throughout Anatolia, while others believe that the two cults developed in parallel and only later did Leton and the mother-goddess, known in Lycia as Eni Mahanahi, mingled into one divinity (Ibid.).

Dynasts of Lycia: Perikles. Circa 380-360 BC. Photo by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (2018). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Apollo and Artemis were also widely worshiped throughout the region; the ancient Carian Telmessus (another Telmessus was in Lycia, at modern Fethiye) was known in antiquity for soothsayers who referred to Apollo in their divinations (Miszczak 2009). On the other side, the main centre of the cult of Artemis was Myra, where the daughter of Leto was considered the next incarnation of the mother goddess (Ibid). In addition, the Lycians also worshiped other figures in the Greek pantheon, including Athena, Zeus, Hephaestus, and Ares (Ibid.). An interesting fact, however, are the traces of the cult of Mithras, a deity most likely from Persia, who was worshiped in Olympus by local pirates (Ibid.). Apparently, the Romans inherited the cult of Mithras just from them (Ibid.).

Rebellious nation who loved independence

The history of Lycia is to a large extent the history, mainly of struggles for maintaining independence, fought for with a fluctuating success (Miszczak 2009).

By the sixth century BC, almost the whole western Asia Minor had fallen under the rule of the kings of Lydia, except for the Cilicians and Lycians (Bean 1989:24). Yet in 546 BC., the kingdom of Lydia passed to Persia (Ibid.:24). The Persian invasion under the command of Harpagus, one of the generals of Cyrus the Great, is considered the first attempt at the conquest of Lycia (Bean 1989:24; Miszczak 2009). About 540 BC., the Persians attacked Xanthos, the inhabitants of which made a heroic attempt to resist (Miszczak 2009). Eventually, they committed mass suicide, setting their city on fire, including women and children gathered in the acropolis (Ibid.) Lycian men, on the other hand, fought to the last fighter (Ibid.). Archaeological excavations confirm this tragic story, as a thick layer of ash from this period of history has been unearthed in the city (Ibid.).

Rock-cut tomb at Telmessus (modern Fethiye). Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 – Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, Vol. 2, Page 380. Uploaded in 2012. Public domain. Photo source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Persian occupation of Lycia turned out to be quite mild and was reduced to the collection of tribute, leaving the management of the land to the Lycian hands (Bean 1989:24; Miszczak 2009). The period of relative calm was conducive to economic growth, as it is supported by the large number of Lycian coins minted at that time (Bean 1989:24; Miszczak 2009). It was also the time of the creation of the first monumental sepulchral art and the heyday of literature (Miszczak 2009).

Still feeling free, though under occupation

After the Persian wars (480-479 BC.), in which the Lycians contributed on the side of the defeated Persians, the Athenians formed the Delian Confederacy (the maritime league), together with the cities on the western coast of Asia Minor; about 468 BC., the Athenian general Cimon, with a fleet of three hundred ships, drove the Persians out of Lycia and Caria, who were, in turn, to join the Delian Confederacy and pay the tribute to the Athenian league (Bean 1989:24-25; Miszczak 2009). When the Lycians refused, their lands were plundered and the tribute possibly imposed (Bean 1989:25; Miszczak 2009). Nevertheless, when the Athenians became defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (404 BC.), the Delian Confederacy ended and Lycia again found itself under the Persian domination (Bean 1989:25; Miszczak 2009). Yet, the Lycians did not stop to issue their own coinage or fight for their freedom. Finally, in the early fourth century, they found themselves under the rule of a famous Persian satrap of Caria, Mausolus. Although Lycia resisted under its native dynast Pericles, it became an area under occupation, and military garrisons were located on its territory at strategic points (Bean 1989:25; Miszczak 2009). As a result, the rulers of Caria began to suppress the indigenous Lycian culture and impose in its place the Hellenic-Carian culture (Miszczak 2009).

Alexander the Great in Lycia

Any pretentions to Lycia made by Mausolus’s successors eventually was put to an end by the appearance of Alexander the Great in Asia Minor, who arrived there between 334 and 333 BC. (Bean 1989:25-26; Miszczak 2009). The Lycians had been already tired with the Carian domination and friendly welcomed the Macedonians, even including brave and rebellious Xanthus (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). After the death of Alexander the Great, in 309 BC., one of his generals and the Pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy, took control of Lycia (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). The Ptolemy dynasty that derived from him lasted in Lycia for over a hundred years (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009).

Silver Drachm of Trajan from Lycia, 98–99 AD, minted during Roman rule. Photo by Ancientcoincollector (2017). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Unfortunately, it was the time when Lycia began to lose its linguistic and cultural identity, which was gradually replaced with the Greek one (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). Greek influences are also very evident in Lycian art from this period of history (Miszczak 2009). An example is the growing popularity of sarcophagi, which began to replace the typical Lycian tombs carved in the rocks (Ibid.). The Lycian League had its beginnings at that time as well (Ibid.).

From hands to hands

In 197 BC. Lycia was passed from the Ptolemies to Antiochus III the Great, a Greek Hellenistic king of the Seleucid Empire (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). After he was defeated by the Romans in 192 BC., at the battle of Magnesia, Lycia was handed over to the Rhodians, who were in favour of Rome (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). As a result, the Lycians, rebellious as always, spent the following years fighting for independence and writing petitions to the Roman Senate, which, exhausted by problems with Lycia, finally declared it and Caria free in 167 BC., after which they enjoyed a long time of freedom. Also the Lycian League became more prominent. In the second century BC., the Lycian League acted twice in defence of its independence against usurpers, first in the event of their attempt to gain control over the Xanthos, and then over Tlos (Bean 1989:26-27; Miszczak 2009). Facing such a fierce determination of the Lycians, the Roman Empire left the country untouched during the creation of its province of Asia (129 BC.) (Bean 1989:28; Miszczak 2009).

The growth of the Lycian League

The first century BC. was the period of the greatest splendour and power of the Lycian League, which at that time included as many as thirty-six Lycian city-states on democratic principles (Bean 1989:27-28; Miszczak 2009). During the invasion of the Pontic ruler, Mithridates, on the western part of Asia Minor, in 88 BC., Lycia, unlike other lands that welcomed him as a liberator from Roman occupation, persisted in favour of Rome (Bean 1989:28; Miszczak 2009). Eventually, the Pontic king was defeated in 84 BC. by the Romans, who renewed the guarantees of independence for Lycia as a reward for its loyalty (Bean 1989:28-29; Miszczak 2009). Nevertheless, during the Roman civil war (the first century BC.), Lycia suffered again from the hands of Brutus’ troops till the time it was liberated by the Roman army under Octavian and Mark Antony (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009). The latter granted its independence in 42 BC. and Lycia was the only area of Asia Minor that was not included in the Roman Empire. It was again a time of prosperity and peace for the land (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009).

Saint Nicholas of Myra. Painting by Jaroslav Čermák (1831 – 1878). Uploaded by Galerie Art Praha (2016). Public domain. Photo source: “Saint Nicholas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The independence of the Lycian Federation ended in 43 AD. during the reign of Emperor Claudius, who joined it to neighbouring Pamphylia as a Roman province (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009). The Lycian freedom was granted back by Nero (54-68 AD.) and had lasted till the reign of Vespasian (69-79AD.) (Bean 1989:29). Moreover, even as a part of the Roman Empire, the Lycian League continued to exist, and the region itself was rich and prosperous (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009). As the Greek geographer, Strabo (the first century AD.) notices, although Rome was still responsible for the matters of war or peace on the terrain of Lycia, its internal affairs were left in the hands of the League (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009). Furthermore, when, in the early fourth century BC., the Emperor Diocletian divided the Lycia and Pamphylia province into two separate lands, the boundary of the former was extended north-westwards and so included Caunus in Caria (modern area of Daylan) and then also the Carian city of Calynda (Bean 1989:29-30; Miszczak 2009). During the Roman Empire, Lycia went through a far-reaching process of romanization, both in the area of its culture and art, and in everyday life (Miszczak 2009).

Santa Clause in Lycia

After two major earthquakes between the second and the third centuries AD, some Lycian cities were turned into ruins (Miszczak 2009). In the third century, Christianity came to the Lycian region and brought significant social and cultural changes (Ibid.). Until the fourth century AD., Christians were persecuted in Lycia, as much as in other parts of the Roman Empire; a few contemporary  Lycian martyrs have gone down into history, together with performed by them miracles (Ibid.). The most famous Christian figure from Lycia is undoubtedly the bishop of the city of Myra, called Nicholas (Ibid.). Yes! Santa Claus comes from Turkey! (Ibid.). He lived in the years 270 – 346 AD. and became well known as a miracle maker, a zealous preacher, converting to Christianity, and a patron of the local population (Ibid.).

And the ancient glory came to an end

The end of Lycian glory was the result of the Plague that blew out between 542 and 745 AD. and increasing acts of piracy in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea; flourishing cities and Lycian ports were abandoned or diminished to the size of villages, which were additionally surrounded by walls protecting them against continuous attacks (Miszczak 2009).

Abandoned Greek city of Kayaköy. Photo by the User Wmck (2011). CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The collapse of the region was also visible by the re-use of the stone from ancient tombs and columns to build city fortifications, as it can be observed in Tlos (Miszczak 2009). Lycia had remained almost uninhabited for several centuries, until the thirteenth century, when the Turks, led by the Teke dynasty, settled on its territory (Miszczak 2009). Hence the name of the Peninsula. The Turks yet stayed away from the coast, which was constantly tormented by pirates who had also established their own settlements there till the eighteenth century (Ibid.). In the early nineteenth century, the rulers of the Ottoman dynasty began to re-populate Lycia, settling in its area the Greek population of the Aegean islands (Ibid.). The few descendants of the ancient Lycians most likely mingled then with the Greek settlers by marriages. After all, they were connected with the Greeks by both, the religion, namely the Eastern Orthodox Church, and a common language, Greek. However, people of the Greek origins were displaced from Lycia again following the peace agreements following the Turkish-Greek war of 1919-1922 (Ibid.). Together with the Greeks, the descendants of Lycia were thus relocated to Greece; just abandoned villages remain after that time on the Tepe Peninsula (Ibid.). The most famous of them is Kayaköy, the so-called Stone Village, which is now a tourist attraction for holidaymakers visiting the region of Fethiye (Ibid.).

When we finally arrived to our hotel from the airport in Antalya, it turned out to be a real heaven, beautifully located in a pine forest, near a narrow path leading to the beach. At last we could take a refuge from insistent rays of the sun and rest from its heat in the shade of wide trees. In the hotel’s open courtyard, a few guests were sitting languidly by the swimming pool, while the waiters were making tables for the upcoming dinner. I sat nearby in the greenery and closed my eyes. Despite my tiredness after the trip, I was looking forward to travelling around the region and discovering monuments of ancient Lycia.

Featured image: Marine of Fethiye, the town situated on the coast of ancient land of Lycian Turkey. Photo by fikret kabay (2017). 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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“Saint Nicholas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d7xc5G>. [Accessed on 10th April, 2021].

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

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Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fTQX0u >. [Accessed on 24th June, 2021].

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

Naiskos in the Funerary Architecture of Ancient Greeks

A type of tombstone in ancient Greece, mostly in the fourth and fifth centuries BC. It imitated the shape of templum in antisIt, namely, it looked like a small temple in classical order with antas, columns or pillars and a decorative pediment, also decorated with figures in the facade. The pediment (frontispiece) was usually filled with family scenes in high relief, where the dead appeared inside the house alongside the living. Also “[some] of the Hellenistic inscriptions found in the Bay of Grama, [in the Ionian Sea of Albania], are placed inside a naiskos, and in this case the religious context is an invocation of Castor and Pollux, [the] Dioskouroi [in Greek and Roman mythology], for a safe passage across the Adriatic, rather than funerary” (“Naiskos” 2020).

Funerary naiskos of a young soldier (Aristonautes, son of Archenautes, of the deme Halai). Pentelic marble, found in the Kerameikos necropolis in Athens, ca. 350–325 BC. Photo by Marsyas (2005). CC BY 2.5. Photo and caption source: “Naiskos” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

The naiskos form developed from an Attic tombstone stelae in the second half of the fourth century BC.; initially simple in shape, with time they had acquired a more complicated form referring to the facade of a Greek temple with a pediment supported by columns.

The facade of Naiksos also appears as a decorative motif  in the funerary “black-figure and red-figure pottery of Ancient Greece at the Loutrophoros and the Lekythos and the red-figure wares of Apulia in South Italy, [the fourth century BC.]” (“Naiskos” 2020).

A similar style of funerary tombstones can be also observed in the so-called aedicula, typical of Roman art.

Featured image: Naiskos-style funerary stele of Cyzicus (an ancient town of Mysia in Anatolia, in the current Balıkesir Province of Turkey), with high-relief decoration; epitaph inscribed on the plint: “Attalos, son of Asklepiodoros, greetings!” Made of marble, from the second quarter of the second century BC. Stele of funerary banquet represents, from left to right, a servant holding a round object, perhaps a model of the Arsinoeion in Samothrace, a seated woman, a half-reclining man holding a phiale in which a snake is drinking, a boy cupbearer. Department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, Denon, ground floor, room 11 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France). Photo by Jastrow (2008). Credit given by W. H. Waddington, (1854). CC BY 3.0. Image cropped. Photo and caption source: Wikimedia Commons (2021).


“Naiskos” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bQQvhL>. [Accessed on 28th February, 2021].

“Naiskos” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2PkkoiN>. [Accessed on 28th February, 2021].

“Naiskos stele of Cyzicus” (2021). In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bHRUaa>. [Accessed on 28th February, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 274. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Matzevah – a Traditional Form of a Jewish tombstone

Jewish tombstone in the form of a vertically positioned rectangular stone or wooden slab, and from the nineteenth century also made of cast iron, topped with a straight line, triangle, semicircle or two segments of a circle, decorated with a bas-relief in the upper part and covered with an inscription (epitaph) at the bottom. The Hebrew epitaph was placed on the eastern side of the slab, as both, the tomb and the tombstone were oriented to the east. The stone slab was placed on the grave, on the headboard or in the legs of the deceased. It was often supported from the back by a stone block with a rectangular or semicircular cross-section, very rarely decorated.

Matzevot at the Cemetery in Warsaw at Okopowa Street. Photo by Grzegorz Petka (2008). Public domain. Image cropped. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Macewa” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

The reliefs in the upper part of the tombstone are not only decorative, but also symbolic; from the sixteenth century on, above the epitaph but under the top of the matzeva, there were usually sculpted symbols referring to the name of the deceased, their profession, character features, or sadness, mourning and death. Some of the decorative motifs on the matzevot are intended for representatives of traditional groups of the Jewish community, e.g. for a person from a priestly family (kohena) – those were hands folded in prayer, for a descendant of a Levite family, a cup, for a scholar or a rabbi – a Torah crown or a book for a woman, a lamp-stand, for the descendants of the tribe of Judah, a lion. Over time, the matzevot were given an increasingly complex architectural form, with cornices, columns, and recesses, and its height increased, sometimes reaching four meters.

Matzevah derived from the distant past, when it first meant sacred pillars in Canaanite sanctuaries, and then boulders, placed in memory of some important event; placed in cemeteries by Ashkenazi Jews.

Such a tombstone was adopted in Poland; the oldest one preserved there dates back to 1203 and is now at a Jewish cemetery in Wrocław (Poland), at Ślężna Street. The form of the matzevot is also recalled by erratic boulders placed on graves in Jewish cemeteries in north-eastern Poland. When in the early nineteenth century’s Poland, the administrative authorities of the partitioning powers ordered Jews to take surnames, Jewish traditionalists placed an appropriate entry containing this name on the reverse, unfinished side of the matzeva. In the areas associated with German culture, from the mid-nineteenth century, it was customary to place an epitaph in Hebrew on one side of the matzevah, and in German on the other. Similar records can also be found in Jewish cemeteries in large cities of central Poland, on the graves of assimilated Jews.

Featured image: Matzevot at the old Jewish cemetery in Wrocław. Photo by Barbara Maliszewska (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0 pl. Image cropped. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Macewa” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.


“Macewa” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3tXyQwX>. [Accessed 14th February, 2021].

Jagielski J. (2021). “Mazewa”. In: Portal DELET. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ZeT6fx>. [Accessed 14th February, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 244. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.