Monday, January 25, 2021

EASTER ISLAND'S GIANT STATUES: How Did They Move Them? by Caroline Arnold at The Intrepid Tourist

Easter Island's Giant Statues (Moai)

WEEK 4: 52 Places to Go

The first European visitor to Easter Island was a Dutch sea caption, Jacob Roggeveen, who landed on April 5, 1722.  In the tradition of his time, he named his “discovery” for the day of his arrival, which was Easter Sunday.   Today, the island is known both as Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish) and Rapa Nui, a Polynesian name given to it in the nineteenth century by Tahitian sailors.

Sixteen centuries ago, about 400 A.D., a small group of seafarers and their families sailed east across the Pacific from their island homes in central Polynesia.  Their large double canoes were filled with food, water, tools, and other things they needed to survive.  After many weeks they reached the rocky shores of a small island, later known as Easter Island.  There they established homes, planted gardens, and started a new life.  They developed a rich and complex culture that lasted for more than a thousand years.  Perhaps their most remarkable and unique accomplishment was the carving of giant stone statues called moai.  They created nearly a thousand of these stone figures, some more than three stories high, and erected hundreds of them on huge stone altars called ahu.  Even more amazing is that all this was accomplished by people whose only tools were stone, bone, and coral.

The ancient Easter Island statue makers were skilled craftsmen specially trained in the art of stone carving.  They were privileged and honored members of the community, and, according to legend, they did no other work.  They were provided with food by fishermen and farmers.  Ruins of stone houses found at Rano Raraku are believed to be the places where the sculptors lived.
    Sculptors carved the moai with basalt adzes, or axlike tools called toki.  Thousands of toki litter the ground in the Rano Raraku quarry.   Basalt was also used to make axes for wood cutting as well as for fishhooks and household tools. Obsidian, a glass-like rock that is formed when lava cools rapidly, is another stone that Easter Islanders used for tools.  Obsidian is extremely hard and can be shaped into a razor-sharp cutting edge,  It was used to make cutting and scraping tools, drills, and files.  Because obsidian absorbs tiny amounts of water when it is cut, this can be measured to determine the date that the tool was made.  

    Sculptors carved a moai with the statue lying on its back.  After chipping the outline of the statue’s profile into the quarry wall, they made a niche around it so they could work from both sides.  People at the back side worked in a cramped space about two feet wide and five feet deep.  The sculptors began by carving the head of the moai and finished with the hips. 
    No two moai are exactly alike, although most follow a basic model.  All of them are designed to be standing figures with the base at about hip level.  The arms hang straight down the sides of the body, but the hands, which have elongated fingers, curve around the front of the abdomen.  Moai heads are elongated and always face forward.  The faces usually have narrow lips, large noses, and deep eye sockets below a large forehead.  The ears are usually long and sometimes have depressions in the earlobes where ornaments could be inserted.  Most moai are male although there are a few examples of female figures.

Moai at Anakena
   After the carving of the top, or the front half, of the moai was complete, the bottom was slowly undercut until a narrow ridge of rock was all that attached it to the quarry.  This was then cut away and the moai was lowered to the bottom of the hill with ropes.  There the figure was set upright into a hole in the ground and carving of the back was finished.  The standing statues that now litter the slopes of Rano Raraku are abandoned moai whose lower portions gradually became buried by eroding rocks and soil from above.
    The real challenge in moving the finished moai was getting it from the quarry to the ahu where it would be erected.  Most of these sites were at least several miles away, an enormous distance to transport a huge object weighing many  tons.  The ruts of several roads that were used for moving statues to various parts of the island from the quarry can still be seen.
    No one knows exactly how the moai were moved or whether the statues were transported lying down or standing up.  A variety of experiments have been conducted, both with real moai during the process of reconstruction, and with models, to test possible methods of transportation.

    In the July 2012 issue of National Geographic, the cover article asks the same question. How did people move the moai, which, in some cases, weighed more than 80 tons?  According to local legend, the giant statues “walked” from the quarry to the altars where they were mounted.  In experiments conducted in 2011, scientists showed that as few as eighteen people could maneuver a large statue by tipping it from side to side, as if it were walking, and move it a few hundred yards.  Perhaps this is the answer.  But, no matter how the moai arrived at their destination, they will always be an impressive sight.

I visited Easter Island in 1996.  My experience there inspired my book Easter Island: Giant Stone Statues Tell of a Rich and Tragic Past (Clarion, 2000). (Now available as a Kindle book.) The picture on the left, of a detached Easter Island head, was taken in front of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.  If you imagine the full-size statue, relative to my height, you can appreciate the enormous size of the Easter Island moai.

Note:  For a fictional story set on Easter Island, inspired by real events, you  might enjoy reading Easter Island:  A Novel, by Jennifer Vanderbes.  I recently read this book and it brought back many memories of my visit there.

UPDATE (November 12, 2012):  To view the latest attempt to solve the question of how the Easter Island moai were moved, you can watch the PBS Nova program The Mystery of Easter Island online. In it researchers demonstrate how the statues may have "walked" to their sites.  The program first aired on November 7, 2012.

For a picture of a finely carved moai exhibited in the British Museum, see my post London in Winter.

All text and photos copyright Caroline Arnold.

Monday, January 18, 2021

TURKEY: EPHESUS AND SIGHTS AROUND SELKUK, by Caroline Arnold at The Intrepid Tourist

The Ancient Greek City of Ephesus, Temple of Hadrianus

WEEK 3: 52 Places to Go

Until I visited Turkey, I never realized the breadth of the ancient Greek and Roman empires.  A little over a year ago, after spending a week in Istanbul for a writer’s workshop, I signed up for an add-on tour of Ephesus and other sights in Selkuk, plus a trip to the ancient city of Hierapolis and thermal baths of Pamukkele.  We flew from Istanbul to Izmir (the ancient Greek city of Smyrna) and boarded a bus from there to Selkuk, about an hour’s scenic ride along a river valley to the south. There we spent two and a half days, jam packed with sightseeing.

View of Selkuk from the path to the Cave of the Seven Sleepers on Mount Pion
Our first day included a visit to the Temple of Artemis, the caves of the Seven Sleepers, the Ephesus Museum (where many of the sculptures from the the ancient city are displayed), the House of the Virgin Mary (said to be the final resting place of Mary the mother of Jesus), and finally, a tour of the ancient city of Ephesus itself, which is just two kilometers outside the city.  Our English speaking guide narrated as we went.  Here are some selected photos from our first day:
Statue on grounds of the House of the Virgin Mary
Beginning of the mile-long ancient road through the city of Ephesus.  We walked from from parking lot at the top of the hill, down through the city to what had been the ancient port, now silted in, passing the remains of temples, fountains, public baths and lavatories, amphiteaters, a library and more along the way.
Facade of the Library of Celcus at Ephesus.  It initally housed 12,000 books.  The first human settlements at Ephesus were around 6,000 B.C. and it gradually grew into a city/state.  Alexander the Great conquered Ephesus in 304 B.C.  In the Augustan period of the Roman Empire, Ephesus was one of the most important cities of Roman Asia.  The library was built after the death of Celcus, the Roman Governor of Asia Minor, who died in 114 A.D.
Ephesus Museum in Selkuk.  Sculpture from one of the fountains at Ephesus.  In ancient times three rivers provided water at the rate of 100 liters per second.  Water was used for public baths and lavatories, fountains, and for daily use.
Ephesus, upper amphitheater, the Odeion, with the Stoa Basileios (the Royal Walk) to the left.
Mosaic floor, Ephesus

A report of our excursion to Pamukkele will be in a future post (8/12/2013).
Other posts on Turkey:

8/18/2014 Ephesus Turkey, Guest Post by Kathryn Mohrman
4/8/2013  Room With a View
8/27/2012  Ephesus: Temple of Artemis
8/20/2012  Letter from Istanbul
8/6/2012  Istanbul: A Food Lover's Delight
5/28/2012  Istanbul:  Museum of Innocence

All text and photos copyright Caroline Arnold.

Monday, January 11, 2021

SEPTEMBER IN SARDINIA, Part I: Ancient Crossroads of the Mediterranean, by Caroline Arnold at The Intrepid Tourist

Su Nuraxi:  Bronze Age tower and village built about 1500 B.C.

WEEK 2: 52 Places to Go

Grazing sheep, olive groves, and ancient vineyards stretched on either side of the road as we drove through the rolling Sardinian countryside.  Then, as we rounded a curve, the ruins of a huge, beehive-shaped tower loomed over the landscape.  We had arrived at Su Nuraxi, the remains of a neolithic settlement that had been a center of Sardinian life more than 3000 years ago.  Huge stone towers, called nuraghi, are unique to Sardinia and give the Bronze Age culture that built them its name. The Sardinian landscape is littered with Nuraghic ruins (more than 7,000 sites have been documented) as well as the remains of Etruscan, Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, and other civilizations that have put their stamp on the island.  The richness of Sardinia's ancient history was one of the reasons we wanted to visit.
My husband and I spent a week in Sardinia in September of 2011, visiting ancient ruins, hiking in the mountains and along the coast, going to museums, birdwatching, and enjoying the rich and delicious Sardinian cuisine.  With blue skies and comfortable temperatures (in the 70's), it had all the elements of a ideal vacation.

Cagliari, the Provincial Capital

Cagliari: Gate to the Citadel, location of Museum of Archeology
Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean (after Sicily). We arrived in Cagliari, the capital, in the southern part of the island. After a night at the Holiday Inn, chosen because it was near the airport and theoretically easy to get to (we got hopelessly lost trying to find it), we headed for the center of town to visit the museums in the Citadella, or citadel, the old fortified part of the city at the top of the hill above the port.  The Archeology Museum in Cagliari is the largest and most complete collection of ancient artifacts on the island.  With four floors chock full of pottery, masks, clay, bronze and iron figures, jewelry, projectile points, mosaics and more, representing Sardinia from prehistoric times through the Roman period, it was the perfect introduction to the mix of cultural influences that have created Sardinia and a clue to the wealth of ancient artifacts that have been found there.  Luckily, the introductory panels in each room, which often included maps and diagrams, were in both Italian and English.
Archeology Museum: Wrestlers, Bronze Age figures for votive offering
Sardinia has been part of modern Italy since 1861 and Italian is the official language. Children learn to speak Italian in school, but their first language is Sardi, a Latin-based language, but with words and word forms from earlier times and other cultures. Before the trip, I took a short course in Italian for travelers.  It helped a LOT because, with few exceptions, most people do not speak English in Sardinia.  If they do speak another language other than Sardi or Italian, it is most likely to be French. (The island of Corsica, which is French, is directly north of Sardinia.)

Agriturismo–Farm Stays in Italy
Throughout Sardinia and the Italian countryside, you see signs offering Agriturismo, which is basically a bed and breakfast stay at a working farm.  For our second night, we stayed at Su Boschettu, a typical agriturismo hotel about an hour’s drive from Cagliari, located in the midst of an olive grove.  It also offered dinner, advertising that everything on the menu was organic and locally grown.  The first course, antipasti, included the typical Sardinian green olives (perhaps from their own orchard), which have a delicious, slightly sharp, nutty taste, and the classic crisp Sardinian flat bread, carasau, brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and toasted.  (Throughout our stay in Sardinia, every meal began with olives and carasau.)
The bread and olives also came with a roasted eggplant dish, sauteed onions and cabbage, and a type of seafood ceviche.  This could have been enough, but was followed by ravioli filled with ricotta (the primi piatti) and salad with a plate of cold meats– sausage, duck and ribs–  (the secundi piatti).  Dessert was fruit, grapes and super-sweet melon, and a small cup of thick Italian coffee.  (I always asked for caffe decaffienato because, at full strength, I knew that the coffee would definitely keep me awake all night.)  We went to bed stuffed, leaving our window open to the fresh country air and perfect silence.

View of the village of  Pauli Arbarei from Su Boschettu

Su Nuraxi–A World Heritage Site

View from the walkway at the top of the Su Nuraxi Tower; stone walls were built without mortar
Our destination the next morning was the town of Barumini and the ancient site of Su Nuraxi, a UNESCO World Heritage site. At Su Nuraxi one can see the ruins of a large central tower, surrounded by four smaller towers and the remains of a large village.  It is the largest and most complete Nuraghic excavation in Sardinia.  From about 1500 BC onwards, villages were built around the tower-fortresses called nuraghi (Northern Sardinians call them nuraghes, Southern Sardinian call them nuraxis, plurals of nuraghe and nuraxi respectively), which were often reinforced and enlarged with battlements. The boundaries of tribal territories were guarded by smaller lookout nuraghi erected on strategic hills commanding a view of other territories.

Nuraghic model of a tower showing the flared upper story

We bought our tickets for the tour of Su Nuraxi (the only way to visit the site), and although the tour was supposed to be only in Italian, the guide generously translated everything into English for us and several other English speaking tourists.  We followed our guide up the stairs of a scaffold on the outside of the tower so we could descend the steep stone steps within the wall to the inner courtyard to enter the lower rooms and see the well. (Many nuraghi were built around wells.  Water has always been a valuable resource in Sardinia.) Only two levels of the tower remain, but originally it rose to 65 feet! Given the size of the huge stone blocks used for building, one has to marvel at the engineering.
Our ticket also got us in to several museums in Barumini.  One displayed artifacts discovered in the excavation of Su Nuraxi; another displayed farm implements and Sardinian cultural items, including the many different forms of Sardinian bread; and another explained the making and playing of a flute-like instrument called  launeddas.

Maps and Guidebooks: We relied on our Michelin map to get us around Sardinia.  You can order it online.  Our main guidebooks for sites, hotels, restaurants, etc., were the Lonely Planet Sardinia and Rough Guide Sardinia.  We also made good use of Sardinia: Car Tours and Walks by Andreas Stieglitz, which has very specific instructions for walks and driving routes.

(Look for Sardinia Part II:  The Supramonte and Sardinia Part III: Giants' Tombs, Sassari, and Sinis Peninsula posted October 24 and 31, 2011.) 

All text and photos copyright of Caroline Arnold.

Cagliari, Sardinia, view from below the Citadel

Monday, January 4, 2021

CHICHEN ITZA: At the Heart of Mexico's Ancient Mayan World, by Caroline Arnold at The Intrepid Tourist

Chichen Itza, El Castillo


The ancient city of Chichen Itza, with its towering pyramid, 13 ball courts, many temples, giant market, and numerous other buildings, is the most famous and best restored of the many Maya ruins in the Yucatan. Once a thriving religious and political center, Chichen Itza was abandoned in the 14th century.  On a trip to Mexico in July, I visited the ruins with my family. As we explored, we could only imagine what it was like in ancient Mayan times.

Chichen Itza, ruins of the observatory as seen from the Mayaland Hotel
We stayed at the historic Mayaland Hotel, surrounded by lush gardens and adjacent to the archeological site. From the window outside our room we viewed the back of the ancient observatory, which, after dark, was lit up with a beam of light, making a dramatic vista.  Shortly after we arrived that afternoon, even though it was raining lightly and it was the end of the day, we decided to visit the ruins. Inside the compound, we were almost completely alone except for a few vendors packing up their wares.  With the light rain and waning light it all felt rather ethereal.  We returned to the hotel for a light meal before going to a planetarium show called Mayan Skies–a useful introduction to Mayan history and culture and a glimpse into the incredible knowledge the Mayas had of astronomy.

Ancient gate to Chichen Itza
All the tourist books strongly advise visiting Chichen Itza early to avoid the crowds, so we set our alarm to be up for breakfast at 7:15 so we could go in when it opened at 8:00.  We arranged for a guide and were impressed by his dramatic telling the story of the Maya and the building of the city.  When we asked, he said his first language was Mayan, then Spanish and English.  He also spoke German and French!

Ceremonial structure at the top of El Castillo
Our guide emphasized several times the even though the pyramid is called El Castillo, the Spanish word for castle, it is NOT a castle but a ceremonial center.  He pointed out the importance of numbers in the structure, 91 steps up each of the four sides plus one large step at the top to make 365 representing one year. (In the past, tourists could climb to the top, but that is no longer allowed, partly for safety and partly to preserve the monument). In Mayan times, every 51 years an extra 13 days were inserted into the calendar and used for a celebration and to make up for the missing leap years.

Feathered serpent head at entry to ball court
On one side of the pyramid, huge serpent heads frame the first step and it appears that a large serpent is sliding down the sides of the stairway.  The building is designed so that on the spring and fall equinoxes, the shadows of the corner blocks ripple along the stairway edge making it appear as if the serpent is alive.  Everywhere in the complex we saw images of feathered serpents, jaguars, and harpy eagles.

Stone ring, ball court, Chichen Itza
We were particularly intrigued with the huge ball court where players had to hit the ball--with their hips, and also with a wooden bat--through large stone circles mounted on the walls of each side. We were told that ball courts of various sizes and designs have been found throughout Mexico and Central America and that rules varied–from games for fun to games where  the captain of the losing team was beheaded.  Some rather grisly stone murals of beheaded players lined the side of the ball court. Outside the ball court was a platform (filled with grass and iguanas sunning themselves) supported by a stone wall decorated with carvings of skulls.

Sacred Well, Chichen Itza
We proceeded with the guide to another ruin (which he characterized as the Pentagon of the Mayas) and to the rows of columns that had supported the roof for a large marketplace.  We had one last stop with our guide at the ruins of the observatory and then had time to wander on our own. We followed a long pathway lined with vendors to the cenote (a sinkhole filled with water) known as the Sacred Well. Wells and caves had a special significance in Mayan culture as entries into the underworld. The name Chichen Itza (pronounced with the emphasis on the last syllable) comes from three Mayan words meaning “the mouth of the well of the Itza”.  From the railing at the top, we watched birds with long blue tail feathers (turquoise-browed motmots) swooping over the water.

Platform decorated with carvings of skulls

After several hours exploring the ruins the day had grown warm and tour buses had arrived.  It was time to leave. We walked back to our hotel and jumped in the pool to cool off.  We had gotten a taste of the incredible richness of Mayan culture. It made us want to learn much more.
Note: In 2007 Chichen Itza was placed at the top of the list of the New 7 Wonders of the World, a poll of famous monuments initiated in the millennium.  Other monuments on the list are Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janiero, the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Petra, the Taj Mahal, and the Colosseum in Rome–all worthy of anyone’s “bucket” list.

You can also read about our trip to the Yucatan in my 8/19/2013 post, Mexican Food in the Yucatan, and my 8/5/2013 post, Akumal, Mexico: Place of the Sea Turtles. 

All text and photos copyright Caroline Arnold.