Famous Roman ‘Tomb’ May Have Actually Been A Temple

At the Roman necropolis in Carmona, Spain, visitors are led to the popular “Elephant’s Tomb,” a large underground chamber that gets its name from a crude sculpture of an elephant found there.

Now archaeologists are saying it may not be a tomb at all, but rather a temple to one of the ancient world’s most mysterious religions. A team from the University of Pablo de Olavide, Seville, has analyzed the structure and says it was once a mithraeum, an underground temple for the god Mithras.

Mithraism centered on secret rites centered on the mystical slaying of a bull was one of the most popular faiths in the last years of paganism. Several mithraeums are scattered about Europe, including in London, Mérida, and along Hadrian’s Wall.

The archaeologists point out that its general shape, with a columned, three-chambered room leading to an area for altars, is the same as other mithraeums. They also found astronomical alignments. Sunlight would hit the center of the chamber during the equinoxes, and during the winter and summer solstices, the sun would light up the north and south walls respectively. As the sun shines through the window during the spring equinox, Taurus rises to the East and Scorpio hides to the West. The opposite occurred during the autumn equinox. Taurus and Scorpio figure prominently in the religion’s astrological symbolism, with the God Mithras slaying a bull as a scorpion stings the animal’s testicles.

It was only later that the temple was turned into a burial chamber, researchers say.

Carmona is less than 20 miles from Seville and is a popular day trip from there.

[Top photo courtesy Daniel Villafruela. Bottom photo courtesy Henri de Boisgelin.]

From myth to Empire: Heracles to Alexander the Great

Today’s royals have nothing on the ancients.

Alexander the Great and his predecessors enjoyed a sumptuous lifestyle that beats anything William and Kate will ever enjoy, not to mention real power as opposed to lots of TV time. Now an amazing new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, gives an insight into the life of the royal family of Macedon.

Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world before his death in 323 BC, but he didn’t come out of nowhere. He was the second-to-last king of a proud royal lineage that traced its roots to the legendary Herakles. Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures of the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy looks at the development of one of the ancient world’s greatest royal families. Their palace was almost as big as Buckingham Palace and what remains shows it was much more luxurious. There was gold, silver, ivory, and jewels everywhere, and plenty has made it into this exhibition. There’s everything from ornate golden wreaths to tiny ivory figurines like this one, which graced a couch on which a king once quaffed wine and consorted with maidens. It’s good to be the king.

The displays focus on more than 500 treasures from the royal tombs at the ancient capital of Aegae (modern Vergina in northern Greece). Three rooms show the role of the king, the role of the queen, and the famous banquets that took place in the palace.

%Gallery-122395%Especially interesting is the gallery about the role of the royal women, who are often overlooked in all the accounts of manly battles and assassinations. Women had a big role to play in religious life and presided at holy festivals and rites alongside men. They also wore heaps of heavy jewelry that, while impressive, couldn’t have been very comfortable.

The banqueting room shows what it was like to party in ancient times. Apparently the master of the banquet diluted the wine with varying proportions of water to “control the time and degree of drunkenness”!

There are even items from the tomb of Alexander IV, Alexander the Great’s son with princess Roxana of Bactria. Alex Jr had some pretty big shoes to fill, what with dad conquering most of the known world and all, but he didn’t get a chance to prove himself because he was poisoned when he was only thirteen. At least he went out in style, with lots of silver and gold thrown into his tomb with him.

This is the first major exhibition in the temporary galleries of the recently redesigned Ashmolean. Expect plenty of interesting shows from this world-class museum in coming years.

Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures of the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy runs until August 29, 2011. Oxford makes an easy and enjoyable day trip from London.

[Image © The Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism – Archaeological Receipts Fund]

More Egyptian pyramids to open to the public

Visitors to Egypt have always flocked to the pyramids of Giza and Saqqara. Many people don’t realize, however, that these are only the most famous of more than a hundred pyramids in the country. In fact, there’s a whole “pyramid field” to the west of Cairo that includes Giza, Saqqara, and numerous other groupings across a long swath of desert. Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities is now opening some of them to visitors for the first time.

At Dahshur, more than a dozen pyramids give an interesting lesson in pyramid construction. The largest of these were built in the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2613 to 2494 BC) just prior to those at Giza. The founder of this dynasty, the Pharaoh Sneferu, was quite the pyramid builder. His first attempt was at Meidum, 100 km (62 miles) south of Cairo. It collapsed, and he moved his workmen to Dahshur for his next try.

This was the famous Bent Pyramid, pictured above in a photo from Jon Bodsworth’s excellent collection at the Egypt Archive. Check out the gallery below for more of his work. The architects started building the pyramid at a 55 degree angle, but when the structure showed signs of weakness they chickened out and built the rest at a more stable angle of 43 degrees. This gives the pyramid unique appearance. The pyramid’s two interior passages will open for the first time to visitors in December. A third passage leads 25 meters (82 ft) to a nearby smaller pyramid of Sneferu’s queen so the two could have conjugal visits in the afterlife. His third try was the Red Pyramid, built at the safer 43 degree angle. It held up nicely and is the third largest pyramid in Egypt at 104 meters (345 ft) tall.

Other pyramids at Dahshur include smaller examples from later dynasties. They aren’t nearly as grandiose as the earlier ones, perhaps because later rulers couldn’t command as much authority or they simply had other things they needed to spend their money on. The Black Pyramid of Amenemhat III (c. 1860-1814 BC) makes for an odd photo. To save money, the architects only used stone on the outside, and when later generations stole it for other building projects, the mud brick interior was revealed. This has been weathering away for the last four thousand years and now looks a bit deflated, although it’s still impressive.

%Gallery-97617%Between Giza and Saqqara lies the royal necropolis of Abusir, home to 14 pyramids that will open to the public this month. The necropolis on the outskirts of modern-day Cairo was started in the fifth dynasty (c. 2494 to 2345 BC) after the previous dynasty had filled up Giza with pyramids and temples. Abusir’s pyramids are smaller than those at Giza, and some have all but disappeared after millennia of weathering, but the site is still worth visiting. Most are step pyramids like the famous one at Saqqara, not flat-sided “true” pyramids like those at Giza. Some have smaller pyramids next to them to house the pharaoh’s queens.

One pyramid, that of the pharaoh Neferefre, was never finished, and has given archaeologists a glimpse at the construction techniques that went into building these behemoths. Some people like to think the pyramids were built by aliens or people from Atlantis, but archaeological evidence and the Egyptians’ own written records prove they built the pyramids themselves.

These “new” pyramids are just a few of the large number of Egyptian attractions opening in the next three years. Several museums are under construction, and the area around the Pyramids of Giza has been cleaned up. This month the famous Avenue of Sphinxes between the temples of Luxor and Karnak is opening, with about 900 statues and a recently excavated Roman-era village nearby.

Note to budding Egyptologists: this article is way too short to cover all the various theories and discoveries at Abusir and Dahshur. You need a few books to cover all of them! A good start are the works of Miroslav Verner, including The Pyramids: The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt´s Great Monuments and Abusir: The Realm of Osiris.

Ancient Egyptian tombs discovered

Two painted tombs have been discovered at the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Saqqara, twenty miles south of Cairo.

The rock-hewn tombs belong to a royal official named Shendwa and his son Khonsu. Both men lived in the Sixth Dynasty (2345-2181 BC) of the Old Kingdom. The pharaohs of this dynasty are buried at or near Saqqara. The pyramid of Pepi II is shown here, although it isn’t in the best of condition.

The find comes just a month after the tomb of a royal scribe was discovered at Saqqara and brings further attention to an important archaeological site many tourists miss. Saqqara is home to the oldest pyramid built of dressed stone–the Step Pyramid of Djoser constructed from 2667 to 2648 BC. Earlier pyramids made of brick are known from Mesopotamia and can now be found in modern Iraq and Syria.

Image courtesy Jon Bodsworth via
Egypt Archive. Check out the site for some amazing photos of some of Saqqara’s painted tombs.