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As a New Zealander I thought it was high time I posted some archaeology a bit closer to home.

A very important Pacific archaeological site located on the south eastern coast of Raiatea, French Polynesia -the Taputapuatea Marae.

For those of you who don’t know, a marae is a sacred religious gathering place in Polynesian societies. This particular marae was already established by 1000 AD, and was once known as the religious centre and central temple of Eastern Polynesia. Here, people such as priests and navigators would meet to share knowledge and preform sacrifices to the gods.

Member of the Moari iwi Te Rangi Hīroa (anthropologist, politician), upon visiting the site in 1929 was overcome with grief due to the state of the once great marae, and consequently wrote:

I had made my pilgrimage to Taputapu-atea, but the dead could not speak to me. It was sad to the verge of tears. I felt a profound regret, a regret for — I knew not what. Was it for the beating of the temple drums or the shouting of the populace as the king was raised on high? Was it for the human sacrifices of olden times? It was for none of these individually but for something at the back of them all, some living spirit and divine courage that existed in ancient times of which Taputapu-atea was a mute symbol. It was something that we Polynesians have lost and cannot find, something that we yearn for and cannot recreate. The background in which that spirit was engendered has changed beyond recovery. The bleak wind of oblivion had swept over Opoa. Foreign weeds grew over the untended courtyard, and stones had fallen from the sacred altar of Taputapu-atea. The gods had long ago departed.

(ref: D. Hanlon, Voyaging Through the Contemporary Pacific)

Fortunately, as of 1994, the archaeological remains of Taputapuatea has been restored, and is currently being pushed to become a recognized United Nations World Heritage site.

Photos courtesy & taken by Pierre Lesage.

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The Stonehenge, believed to be built between 3000 BC to 2000 BC, is a prehistoric monument in the English county of Wiltshire.

Stonehenge is made of the remains of a ring of standing stones, and is one of the most famous sites in the world. Showing such large degrees of sophistication of architectural design for a prehistoric megalithic monument, the Stonehenge is too a highly significant complex, which offers us great insight into the era in which it was built, namely the funerary and ceremonial practices in Britain in the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

UNESCO World Heritage’s description of the site:

Stonehenge, Avebury and their associated sites represent a masterpiece of human creative genius of the Neolithic age.

The site of Stonehenge and Avebury is the best-known ensemble circular megalithic characteristic of the Neolithic civilization in Britain. A number of satellite sites make it possible to better understand the more famous sites by situating them in a broader context.

Stonehenge, which was built in several distinct phases from 3100 to 1100 BC, is one of the most impressive megalithic monuments in the world on account of the sheer size of the menhirs, and especially the perfection of the plan, which is based upon a series of concentric circles, and also because of its height: from the third phase of construction on, large lintels were placed upon the vertical blocks, thereby creating a type of bonded entablature. For the constructions two different materials were used: irregular sandstone blocks known as sarsens, quarried in a plain near Salisbury and bluestones quarried about 200 km away in Pembroke County, Wales. An avenue with a bend in it leads to and away from the exterior circle.

Although the ritual function of the monument is not known in detail, the cosmic references of its structure appear to be essential. The old theory that the site was a sanctuary for worship of the Sun, although not the subject of unanimous agreement among prehistorians, is nevertheless illustrated by the yearly Midsummer Day ceremony during which there is a folkloric procession of bards and druids at Stonehenge.

Avebury (about 30 km to the north), although not so well known as Stonehenge, is nevertheless Europe’s largest circular megalithic ensemble. Its exterior circle comprises some 100 menhirs. In all, 180 standing stones were put into place before the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC, as demonstrated by abundant ceramic samples found on the site. There are four avenues (of which only the southern one, West Kennet Avenue, is still lined with megaliths) leading to the four cardinal points of the ‘sanctuary’.

Not far from Avebury, among a several satellite sites, are to be found Silbury Hill, where Europe’s largest known barrow of prehistoric times is located, as well as Windmill Hill, West Kennet Long Barrow, and Overton Hill.

Photo courtesy Angeles Mosquera

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The ’Queen of the Night’ Relief, also known as the Burney Relief.

Old Babylonian, 1800-1750 BC. Courtesy & currently located at the British Museum, London.

The Queen of the Night, renamed by the British Museum after their purchase of the artifact in 2003, this relief is one of the most recognizable ancient Mesopotamian artworks discovered to date. It originates from Southern Iraq, though the exact site in which it was found is unknown, as the relief was not archaeologically excavated. 

In addition to the relief’s distinctive iconography, the high relief and large size suggests that it was used as a cult relied, which makes it a very rare survival from the period. Though the authenticity of this object has been questioned from its first appearance in the 1930s, over the later decades, the opinion of authenticity has generally moved in its favor.

Artifact statement from the British Museum:

This large plaque is made of baked straw-tempered clay, modelled in high relief. The figure of the curvaceous naked woman was originally painted red. She wears the horned headdress characteristic of a Mesopotamian deity and holds a rod and ring of justice, symbols of her divinity. Her long multi-coloured wings hang downwards, indicating that she is a goddess of the Underworld. Her legs end in the talons of a bird of prey, similar to those of the two owls that flank her. The background was originally painted black, suggesting that she was associated with the night. She stands on the backs of two lions, and a scale pattern indicates mountains.

The figure could be an aspect of the goddess Ishtar, Mesopotamian goddess of sexual love and war, or Ishtar’s sister and rival, the goddess Ereshkigal who ruled over the Underworld, or the demoness Lilitu, known in the Bible as Lilith. The plaque probably stood in a shrine.

The same goddess appears on small, crude, mould-made plaques from Babylonia from about 1850 to 1750 BC. Thermoluminescence tests confirm that the ‘Queen of the Night’ relief was made between 1765 and 45 BC.

Photo credits: Aiwok

The Rosetta Stone, Egypt, Ptolemaic Period, 196 BC.

One of the most influential and famous ancient artifacts discovered, the Rosetta Stone is an ancient Egyptian granodiorite stele inscribed with a decree issued at Memphis in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V. The inscription has three languages on it (Greek, demotic and hieroglyphs), each saying the same thing. Because of the translations, it provided great insight into the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The first hieroglyphs were deciphered through distinguishing the name ‘Ptolemy’ in all three scripts.

Courtesy & currently located at the British Museum, London. Photo taken by Hans Hillewaert.

A valuable key to the decipherment of hieroglyphs, the inscription on the Rosetta Stone is a decree passed by a council of priests. It is one of a series that affirm the royal cult of the 13-year-old Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation.

Artifact statement from the British Museum:

In previous years the family of the Ptolemies had lost control of certain parts of the country. It had taken their armies some time to put down opposition in the Delta, and parts of southern Upper Egypt, particularly Thebes, were not yet back under the government’s control.

Before the Ptolemaic era (that is before about 332 BC), decrees in hieroglyphs such as this were usually set up by the king. It shows how much things had changed from Pharaonic times that the priests, the only people who had kept the knowledge of writing hieroglyphs, were now issuing such decrees. The list of good deeds done by the king for the temples hints at the way in which the support of the priests was ensured.

The decree is inscribed on the stone three times, in hieroglyphic (suitable for a priestly decree), demotic (the native script used for daily purposes), and Greek (the language of the administration). The importance of this to Egyptology is immense.

Soon after the end of the fourth century AD, when hieroglyphs had gone out of use, the knowledge of how to read and write them disappeared. In the early years of the nineteenth century, some 1400 years later, scholars were able to use the Greek inscription on this stone as the key to decipher them.

Thomas Young, an English physicist, was the first to show that some of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone wrote the sounds of a royal name, that of Ptolemy. The French scholar Jean-François Champollion then realized that hieroglyphs recorded the sound of the Egyptian language and laid the foundations of our knowledge of ancient Egyptian language and culture.

Soldiers in Napoleon’s army discovered the Rosetta Stone in 1799 while digging the foundations of an addition to a fort near the town of el-Rashid (Rosetta). On Napoleon’s defeat, the stone became the property of the British under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria (1801) along with other antiquities that the French had found.

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The ancient golden Helmet of Coţofeneşti, is a Geto-Dacian helmet dating from the first half of the 4th century BC. The helmet was uncovered by chance by a child on the territory of the village of Poiana Coţofeneşti (now Poiana Vărbilău), Romania.

This is an exceptionally well preserved helmet, missing only the part of its skull cap. It is made of pure gold, almost a kilogram in weight, and displays the “autochthonous character” of this artwork. The helmet is decorated with two large apotropaic eyes, intended to ward off the evil eye and magical spell. It is believed to have once belonged to an unknown local Geto-Dacian local aristocratic noble or a king from around 400 BC.

One theory suggests that this item was the sacred helmet of Zalmoxis, the living god-prophet of the Dacians. It has, however, never been proven.

The extensive decorations depict an illustration, (on either cheek-piece), of a ritual enactment, as well as depictions of a range of mythical creations.

The cheek-pieces of the Poiana-Coţofeneşti helmet show a ram being sacrificed by a man who kneels on its body and is about to cut its throat with a short knife. The iconography on the right side of the helmet is of a great interest, and has been interpreted in light of the tauroctony scene from the Mithraic Mysteries. Environment and affluence might well account for a change to a larger beast in the species offered and a similar interpretation of a bull-slaying episode. This sacrifice of the ram might have been performed by the “king-priest-god”

The pair of Voracious Beasts on the Coţofeneşti neck-guard occupy a lower register along with a similar creature deprived of a victim’s leg. This motif of the “Voracious Beast” is found earlier in Assyrian art, and was popular among the Etruscans. Phoenicia was probably the intermediary for its transferral to Italy and around the Adriatic, but Voracious Beast must also have traveled through Asia Minor to appear in a North Thracian idiom not only on the Coţofeneşti neck-guard but also in high relief on the base of the Aghighiol beakers (Aghighiol is a village near the Danube Delta in eastern Romania).

The upper register displays a row of three seated or squatting winged creatures, rather monkey-like with human faces, long forearms, and long tails. These, however, are surely direct, if run-down, descendants of the sphinxes on a gold beaker from Amlash.

The decorations such as rosette, strips, triangles, spiral and others are specific Geto-Dacian art motifs. The scene of sacrifice the ram is an oriental Iranian theme that entered in the Greek art and from there in the ‘barbarian’ art. Therefore, the helmet seems to have been realized in a Greek workshop. But, in the same time the awkward technique of execution that contrasts with the perfect technique of a Greek craftsman points out to an autochthonous one. (x)

Courtesy & currently located at the National Museum of Romanian History. Photo taken by CristianChirita

The Bimaran Reliquary. From stupa 2 at Bimaran, Gandhara (in modern Afghanistan), 1st century AD.

The Bimaran Reliquary is a small gold reliquary for Buddhist relics, and shows one of the earliest depictions of Buddha from the north-west region of Gandhara. The inscription stated that the reliquary contained some of the actual ones of the Buddha (the bones, however, are missing). Instead, the relic was deposited with beads of precious stones, small burnt pearls, and four coins.

Segment from the British Museum artifact statement:

The arcading round the side consists of eight pointed arches, known as caitya arches, that rest on pilasters. The compartments are divided principally into two sets of three niches. Each has a Buddha in the centre flanked by two similar deities in profile who face the Buddha.

The remaining two compartments show a figure frontally with his hands held together in a prayerful gesture of reverence, anjali-mudra. In the spandrels between the arches are eagles with outspread wings and heads turned so that they face each other. The entire frieze is sandwiched between registers of garnets that alternate with a four-lobed floral motif.

The Bimaran casket was kept in a steatite box, with the inscriptions stating that it contained some relics of the Buddha. The inscriptions on the box read:

From the main body of the container:

“Shivaraksita mumjavamdaputrasa danamuhe niyadide bhagavata sharirehi sarvabudhana puyae”

“Sacred gift of Shivaraksita, son of Munjavamda; presented for Lord’s relics, in honour of all Buddhas”

And from the lid of the container:

“Shivaraksita mumjavamdaputrasa danamuhe bhagavata sharirehi”

“Gift of Shivaraksita, son of Munjavamda; presented for Lord’s relics”

This reliquary is a crucial object for the history of Buddhism, the development of the Buddha image on Buddhist art, and the best preserved example of early Indian goldsmithing.

Courtesy & currently located at the British Museum, London. Photo taken by World Imaging