One frequent topic of speculation in the field of Ancient Mysteries centers a set of enigmatic images and objects that outwardly look like modern-day handbags. They take a variety of different forms that include petroglyphs, incised carvings, and actual stone objects, and have been found in such diverse locales as Turkey, Iran, India, Egypt, Central America, and New Zealand, among cultures ranging from the Sumerians and Egyptians to the Olmecs and the Maori. Likewise they appear in archaeological contexts that pertain to a wide range of historical eras, appearing soon after the end of the last Ice Age.
Representations of these objects typically feature a rounded handle-like top and a rectangular bottom, and may include varying degrees of additional details of texture or pattern. Carved images sometimes depict them as stand-alone objects, or illustrate them in the grasp of a person or a mythic being, held in much the same way that a contemporary basket or handbag might be. In these representations they are sometimes paired with the image of a forward-pointing pomegranate that is typically positioned between the fingers of the figure’s other hand.
Perhaps the earliest carvings of three such figures are pictured together on a pillar at the archaic megalithic site of Gobekli Tepe, located in southeastern Turkey. As one aspect of this mountaintop sanctuary, they appear alongside numerous finely-carved images of animals and other symbolic shapes. Here it is arguable that the intended symbolism was cosmological, since much of what is depicted in the associated carvings had known significance to the creation traditions of later cultures.
Looked at geometrically, the handbags combine the figure of a hemisphere on their upper side with that of a square on their lower side, and so conjure ancient cosmological themes of above and below and of squaring a circle. In ancient cultures from Africa to India to China, the figure of a circle was associated symbolically with concepts of spirituality or non-materiality, while that of a square was often associated with concepts of the Earth and of materiality. Consequently, various approaches to squaring a circle came to symbolize the act of reconciling the non-material and material aspects of creation.
Similarly, a temple was understood to be a place where the non-material and material realms meet and come into reconciliation with one another, and so based on that outlook, the figure of a dome (a three-dimensional hemisphere) came to be associated with the concept of a temple. In fact, an early type of temple called a Chaitya, found in Iran (anciently part of the Fertile Crescent region that also embraced southeastern Turkey), was iconically defined by the figures of three domes. From this perspective, the three Gobekli Tepe handbags, taken as an early form of those icons, could be said to symbolically define the site as a temple.
Many ancient cultures from the era of 3000 BC attest to having acquired certain civilizing skills, such as agriculture, weaving and pottery, through deliberate instruction in archaic times. This instruction is credited to knowledgeable mythic teachers, and is often said to have occurred at a remote location. In keeping with this outlook, we find that the first evidence of numerous civilizing skills appear in the very same region and era as the Gobekli Tepe site. These include the earliest evidence of cultivated grains, of the domestication of farm animals, of metal-working skills and of skilled stone masonry. Likewise, cultures such as ancient Egypt itself make specific claims that their systems of writing were instructed gifts from deities. These claims are in keeping with the ways in which we interpret the carved Gobekli Tepe images to have been used, as a kind of proto-writing based on iconic images, that may have preceded the first formal systems of writing.
From these perspectives, we might interpret the Gobekli Tepe site as having also served as an instructional sanctuary, where (if we believe the statements of later cultures) civilizing skills might have been intentionally introduced to humanity. We find this same outlook expressed in myths that survive in some cultures. For example, among the Maori of New Zealand, one mythic storyline tells of how a deified ancestor named Tane ascended to a place where the gods lived and returned with three baskets filled with knowledge. Within the context of this type of myth, the notion of a basket comes to be associated symbolically with instructed knowledge.
An Egyptian term for “basket” hetep is a homonym for other features we also find at Gobekli Tepe. [see Budge, p 519b] It can refer to “a place of peace or propitiation”, “the shrine of a god”, to a “slab of stone” (written with a glyph shaped like the Gobekli Tepe pillars), and to a “graving tool, stylus, chisel”. The term is formed from the same phonetic root het/get/chet that can imply the concept of a temple or sanctuary in various ancient languages.
Both the shape and temple/shrine symbolism of the handbag images is also reflected in later cultures such as ancient Egypt. In his book Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, Barry Kemp of the University of Cambridge in England discusses the attributes of a type of predynastic portable shrine called a seh that, in his view, became the prototype for temple architecture and symbolism in dynastic Egypt. [see Kemp, pp 92-93] He characterizes the seh as an early “tent” shrine, built from poles and cloth or animal skins. The lower part of the shrine was squared, much like a modern dining room cabinet, while the poles of the upper part were bent into the shape of a domed arch, creating a covered shelf. The overall shape is a match for the Gobekli Tepe figures, and presents a good physical and conceptual correlate to the handbag symbols. In his Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary, Sir E.A. Wallace Budge defines a phonetically-similar word sa as “a shrine or sanctuary in which a god or goddess was housed.” [see Budge, p. 633b]
Some cultures refer to their ancient system of cosmological symbols and concepts as the “basket system” of creation, a designation that might harken back to carved basket shapes. When French anthropologist Marcel Griaule met with a Dogon priest named Ogotemmeli to discuss attributes of a Dogon shrine (a counterpart to a Buddhist stupa) that serves as the defining symbol of their cosmology, the blind teacher reached around the inside of his hut, searching with his hands until he found a woven basket to use as a physical prop to illustrate the symbolic attributes of the shrine.
Symbolism based on the concept of reconciling the figure of a circle with that of a square also lies at the heart of other ancient shrine architecture. We see it in a four-stone cairn where three stones are set to lean against one another in the rough shape of a circle and are topped by a square, flat stone. We see it in the Buddhist stupa shrine, where a round base is initially squared, then rises to rounded roof features. A Mongolian or Siberian Yurt carries the same symbolism as a Buddhist stupa, but again in the form of a portable shrine that could take several different configurations. One of these is a structural and symbolic match for a Navajo roundhouse. Another, called a teepee, is a match for a traditional Native American teepee. By Imperial dictate in some cultures like ancient Japan, symbolic artifacts that reflected the innermost secrets of the ancient creation tradition were only permitted to be stored in portable shrines comparable to a seh or a yurt, precisely because those shrines facilitated the possible need to move the artifacts quickly.
Each of these perspectives on the symbolism of these baskets shapes as they were understood in ancient times lends credence to the notion that a basket represented a cosmological symbol, one that likely also reflected the importance of actual woven baskets in the life of an everyday person. Looked at from our modern perspective it may be hard to remember that a basket was, in its own way, as impactful a technological development as a thumb-drive has been to modern society. As such, it became a powerful icon for meanings that relate to cosmology and knowledge.
– Laird Scranton, 2016
About the Author: Laird Scranton is an independent researcher of ancient cosmology and language. His studies in comparative cosmology have served help synchronize aspects of ancient African, Egyptian, Vedic, Chinese, Polynesian and other world cosmologies, and have led to an alternate approach to reading Egyptian hieroglyphic words. His degree is in English from Vassar College.
He became interested in Dogon mythology and symbolism in the early 1990s. He has studied ancient myth, language, and cosmology since 1997 and has been a lecturer at Colgate University. He also appears in John Anthony West’s Magical Egypt DVD series. He lives in Albany, New York. His writings include books and articles published or taught by Colgate University, Temple University and the University of Chicago.
Click here to learn more about Laird and his work. Photo of Laird compliments of Shane Von Boxtel.