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Mediterranean Worlds: Cultures of Interpretation Famagusta, Cyprus, June 6-8, 2009 Panel: Contact zones—the Afro-European-Asia dynamic

Eastern Mediterranean University, Faculty of Arts and Science, Department of History

Slobodan Dan Paich, Director and Principal Researcher

Artship Foundation, San Francisco, USA

Where Olive, Lemon, and Laurel Trees Grow:

A diachronic examination of cultural similarities under different names in greater Mediterranean history


From the standpoint of the History of Ideas, some recurrent Mediterranean themes will be approached with open questions and critical reflections. The attempt in this paper is not to prove any hypothesis, but to point to some instances of cultural similarities at different Mediterranean locations. We will cite archeology, surviving artifacts, folklore, and cultural currents. In other words, tangible and intangible examples point both to the cultural similarity and diversity of sources often flowing in a number of directions in the Middle Sea, the watershed of Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Keywords: Mediterranean Prehistoric Temples, Goddess figures, Archaic polyphonic singing

Antecedents, Context, Scope, Methodology and Open Questions

The methodology and the cultural sensibilities of this paper are inspired by and based on the pioneering work in the early-twentieth century, of the Germany Art Historian, Aby Warburg and his younger colleagues Fritz Saxl and Erwin Panofsky. Together they evolved a methodology of extending formal art history to include research in to meaning by following, identifying and collecting shared motifs in imagery and creating the science of iconography. They expanded the discipline of Art History to comprise a discernable, observable cultural field inclusive of the subject matter. This methodology includes the meaning of works of art in their historic context as opposed to studying the form alone. This approach is exemplified by the work of The Warburg Institute of the University of London. The prospectus of the institute summarises this comparative approach as:

The classical tradition is conceived as the theme which unifies the history of Western civilization. The bias is not towards 'classical' values in art and literature: students and scholars will find represented all the strands that link medieval and modern civilization with its origins in the ancient cultures of the Near East and the Mediterranean. It is this element of continuity that is stressed in the arrangement of the Library: the tenacity of symbols and images in European art and architecture, the persistence of motifs and forms in Western languages and literatures, the gradual transition, in Western thought, from magical beliefs to religion, science and philosophy, and the survival and transformation of ancient patterns in social customs and political institutions. (W.I. web. 2009)

Another intellectual antecedent of this paper is the inter-disciplinary work exemplified by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. In A World on the Wane (Tristes Tropiques, 1955) he links literature, music, sociology, earth science, geology, history, to a number of academic disciplines in a comparative work celebrating and observing cultural phenomenon diachronically and cross culturally.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, challenged the view of the centrality of Western civilization through systematic observation and contact with Indigenous peoples of Brazil and North America. He describes the ‘indigenous mind’ as having comparatively equal structures as the ‘cultivated modern mind’. He posited that characteristics of ‘sapiens species’ are the same world over and across time. As a father of Structuralism, he searched for the original patterns of thinking, deliberation and reflection in all forms of cultural activity.

The context of this paper is based on a careful cultural comparison of previously unlinked phenomenon and traces of intangible heritage. Examples include music practices, oral traditions and festival procedures gleaned from multiple archeological remains and surviving or recently recorded samples from the continuous folkloric tradition.

In comparative methodologies of disciplines like biology, social science, hydraulic engineering, etc, the statistical analysis of accumulated data is one of the primary sources, the backbone of the study, whereas in comparative cultural research, describing, evaluating and comparing similarities and differences of the material evidence are the main investigative practices. For example, comparing facts gleaned from historic recordings of ‘whistling language’ of shepherds from Cannery Islands, Anatolia and Caucasus is an example of a ‘comparative cultural investigation’.

One of the sub-themes of this paper’s comparative, regional and diachronic approach, positions it in contrast to nationalist and mono-disciplinary methodologies.

We shall briefly look at a history of the establishment of national academies to bring in to focus a discussion about the nationalist and mono-disciplinary approaches and how these approaches potentially hinder regional, transnational methodologies, research and findings. The question in our study of specific cultural similarities of the Mediterranean is shaped by a response to the nationalistic views of culture as distinct and separate impenetrable boundaries. The fact that the Mediterranean is the watershed of Asia, Africa, and Europe with continual interchanges challenges the nationalist point of view.

To bring this discussion in to sharper focus we shall look to the histories of the National Academies and more specifically at formation of some Academies of Science.

In England the national beacon of scientific knowledge is the Royal Society of London founded in 1662 by Royal Charter. The society aided and participated in expansion of the British Empire. Today with the grant from Her Majesty's Government, The Royal Society is the scientific advisor and the United Kingdom's Academy of Sciences. In France in 1699 Louis XIV established The Royal Academy of Sciences. The seventy-member body was housed at the Louvre in Paris. In the 18th Century it encouraged the emergence of the scientific movement, competed with England and was a direct adviser to those in power. After a brief lapse it continued to receive funding and is still closely linked to the French Government. The National Academy of Sciences in the United States was established as a response to conditions of state and government caused by the Civil War. President Lincoln signed The Act of Incorporation on March 3, 1863, with a central aim to service the nation. Over the years, the National Academy of Sciences has broadened its services to the government. During World War I it became apparent that the limited membership, then numbering only about 150, could not keep up with the volume of requests for advice regarding military preparedness. In 1916 the Academy established the National Research Council at the request of President Wilson to recruit specialists from the larger scientific and technological communities to participate in the war effort.

Academies concerned with literature, language, philosophy and the arts were closely linked to an emergence of a new nationalistic spirit, particularly in the nineteenth century. Out of numerous examples we can point to the birth of United Italy, New Germany or small countries emerging after the dissolution of Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires. Funding, publication and respect came to those who were part of these nationalist movements.

In her comprehensive book titled A World History of Nineteenth-Century Archaeology-Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Past Margarita Diaz–Andreu disuses the relationship and emergence of archaeology as a discipline to the establishment of nationalist movements and politics. She writes:

Archaeology thus grew out of a political context in which the nation was the major element which provided legitimacy to the state. This happened in Europe as in all the other parts of the independent world, including the Near East, Latin America, China, and Japan. The very nature of the nation, however, was an arena of negotiation in which archaeologist had a voice. To start with, it was necessary to demonstrate that the nation indeed existed, and for this the construction of its life history was crucial. Knowledge of the past and an understanding of the events that had led to the specific make-up of a nation became a political tool. (Pg. 399)

Challenging the nationalist view of the past are numerous tangible and intangible examples that highlight the cultural similarity and diversity of sources often flowing in a number of directions in the Middle Sea, the watershed of Asia, Africa, and Europe. One of the primary sources for this paper is R. R. Holloway’s, The Classical Mediterranean, its Prehistoric Past and the Formation of Europe. He writes:

[…] we must also avoid limiting our vision of the past only to the surviving material evidence without acknowledging that the objects are also pointers to technology -- and thus to verbally transmitted knowledge -- to traditions -- and thus to social continuity -- to both utility and display -- and thus not only to the working life of a community but also to creativity and the diplomacy […] (Pg. 1) -- are part of the original text

R. R. Holloway continues:

To keep in mind what is superficially missing in the physical record but was present in its creation opens our eyes to many things that in a literate society would be recorded but that with the judicious use of imagination can be recaptured even in the absence of the written word. (Pg. 1)

R. R. Holloway points to the potential arbitrariness and limitation of a nationalist and disciplinary classification. He talks about how ancient pottery styles became the standard of cultural identity, splitting, reducing and trivialising larger cultural units along the lines of craft production. At the same time the organization of archaeology within modern national boundaries artificially creates polarising classifications. The cultural heritage of modern Balkans is an example, and hostage, of the nationalist model.

R. R. Holloway ends the opening of his essay with:

The classical period is affected by deep-seated prejudices. Architecture is surely that branch of Greek archaeology of which Italy and Sicily have preserved the majority of the standing monuments of the sixth and fifth centuries. But reading the introduction to William Bell Dinsmoor's standard treatment of the subject one realizes that in the author's view Greek architecture was the product of Greece within its modern boundaries. Our sense of division between the Aegean and the Central Mediterranean is also heightened by what happened in historical times. (Pg. 2)

In this paper though a diachronic examination of cultural similarities in the greater Mediterranean, the inter-disciplinary and comparative methodologies and sensibilities may lead to new understanding of cultural connections previously excluded by nationalist and mono-disciplinary approaches. In this case, identifying and collecting shared motifs may lead to the greater comprehension and appreciation of ingenuity, refinement and sophistication of ancient humanity. In its complexities the paper also explores the issues in a ‘post-reductionist’ mode of writing that encourages open questions. Also probing and reflective, the paper is inspired by scholarly writing favouring critical ‘story format’.

Prehistoric Temples and Goddess Figures

Malta, Gozo, Corsica

In the field of the History of Ideas and cultures, certain insights may be gleaned through parallel observations. A more holistic scholarship based on broader regional views can be encouraged. In this way, it is liberated from 19th century prescribed cultural paradigms and classification by countries and the specialised research of separated disciplines.

Reflection on Maltese Temple Complexes opens the comparative nature of this paper:

Ninety-three kilometres from Sicily and two hundred and eighty eight kilometres from the North African mainland, almost in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, lies the Maltese Archipelago consisting of Malta, Gozo and Comino with a few smaller uninhabited islands. The navigationally and territorially strategic position of Malta’s safe harbours is reflected in the diversity of people who claim it as their domain. Shaping the Maltese Archipelago’s history are the Stone-Age and Bronze-Age people, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Castilians, French and British.

There is one aspect of the complex and rich history of Maltese islands that we touch upon in this paper: the number and refinement of prehistoric temples and presence of some of the most intriguing and sophisticated sculptures of goddess figures. Also in this paper, reflecting upon the possible interconnectedness of Mediterranean Stone-Age cultures, we shall examine two, out of seven known sites of remarkable temples on the Maltese Archipelago—the Ggantija double temple on the island of Gozo and the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum on the island of Malta.

Ġgantija Temple Complex

Facing the southeast, like all the Neolithic, megalithic temple complexes on the Maltese Archipelago, the Ggantija (c. 3600-2500 BC) was built on the Xaghra plateau on the island of Gozo. The twin megalithic monument consists of two precincts built within the body of the architecturally unified temple complex. The older and larger of the two lying on the more southern side of the complex was built in approximately 3600 BC. In the ground plan of five interrelated, cloverleaf shaped apses unified by the central axis. The spaces between, the inner semi-circular and outer monumental walls, are filled with smaller stones. Tentatively reminiscent of the dry stone corbelling technique of circular building in Apulia, southern Italy, the technique dating also possibly to prehistoric periods. The Apulian buildings are called trulli (plural of trullo) and are circular stone dwellings. Trulli are traditionally built without using cement or mortar and are associated with the Italian region of Apulia (in Italian Puglia) just as the Nuraghi are associated with Sardinia. This type of construction is also prevalent in the region's countryside where most of the fields are contained by dry-stone walls, as is the case in many parts of the Mediterranean.

The trulli were constructed in two layers. The inner layer of limestone boulders were carefully positioned and progressively cantilevered to form an internal circular in plan and internally parabolic in section in the domed space. The outer layer of limestone acted as a counterweight and kept the inner parabolic structure from "springing" out. The outer layer tapered upwards and could either be circular or square in plan.

In Salento, the most southern part of Apulia, the internal circular structures were traditionally built directly on the ground. The curve of the domed space started at ground level. The walls were very thick, providing a cool environment in summer and insulation from cold in winter. The archaic trulli of the Salento region do not have windows, the only light coming in through the door.

The reason for mentioning the construction of southern Italian trulli is an instance of the comparative method of this paper. Exploring the issues diachronically and trans-nationally certain insights may be gleaned through this parallel observation.

There are three comparative issues arising from observing the Ggantija and other temple complexes on the Maltese Archipelago: first, the consistently southeasterly direction of the temples; second, the twinness of some of the precincts; and third, the non-rectangular, curvilinear nature of the buildings’ arrangement.

To probe the southeastern direction two reasons could be explored - geographical: is the Africa facing direction of any significance? Or astronomical: is there some stellar, lunar or planetary event occurring in the sky at a certain time of the year informing the choice of direction? Another interesting question is: is there a connection with twinness in African religions in the shape of the temple precinct, representing twin goddesses in at least one surviving sculpture from Cozo?

Also, is curvilinear Maltese megalithic architectural planning connected to the arrangements of traditional African architecture and settlements?


In Paola on the island of Malta lies the unique temple complex known as the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni. It is a rare prehistoric underground temple on three levels, and the best known in the world.

The Hypogeum was possibly a combination of a fertility sanctuary, an oracular center and a necropolis in prehistoric times.

Going below ground, on the second level, are located the Main Room, the Holy of Holies and the Oracle Room.

The Main Chamber, hued out of rock, is circular, in a similar esthetic to the curvilinear temples above ground. Using the typical megalithic three stone structure: two vertical posts supporting a horizontal lintel, the trilithon is represented by the way the rocks are curved. Although some parts of the hypogeum have freestanding stone structures, it is the effect of monumental architecture carved out rock that gives the hypogeum its unique, intended experimental quality.

In this Main Chamber the statuette of the sleeping lady was found.

The Oracle Chamber is acoustically tuned to the human voice and produces not only an echo but also overtones to specific notes, which attest to the sophistication and knowledge of the builders and users of the hypogeum. The room is decorated with spirals and circular nodes in red ochre. Were they a notation, a score of some kind?

In an interview with Jennifer Berezan prompted by the release of her compact disk, ReTurning, recorded in the Oracle Chamber in the Hypogeum at Hal Saflieni, we read:

The bones of thousands of people were found in one of the rooms. It was obviously used as a burial chamber, the bones apparently brought down after the flesh had decayed. We do not know about the actual ritual, but we do know that many Neolithic people practiced two-stage burials. After vultures and other birds of prey had de-fleshed the body above ground, the bones were brought down, perhaps at specific seasonal times. According to the great archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, the Hypogeum was not only the tomb; it was also the womb. (Grace Millennium, Volume1: Issue1 Winter 200)

The interplay of fertility and death at the Hypogeum is striking.


The abundance of statuettes of well-rounded women in Maltese temple complexes links them to sanctuaries across the Mediterranean and to the watersheds of the Black Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Venus of Willendorf, 25,000 BC is the best-known example of this type of cult figure.

Thematically, Maltese goddess figurines are also linked to Africa by the discovery of the Venus of Tan-Tan in the Atlantic watershed of the river Draa in vicinity of the town of Tan-Tan, Morocco. The Venus of Tan-Tan is considered one of the oldest artifacts of the Stone-Age found between two chronologically identifiable layers, one 200,000 and the other 500,000 years old.

This global and Pan-Mediterranean thematic connection of goddess figures is strikingly articulated through a discovery of the typical violin shaped figurine from Asia Minor at Messina in Sicily.

R. R. Holloway in The Classical Mediterranean, its Prehistoric Past and the Formation of Europe writes:

The most recent discovery to emphasize the interconnections of the Aegean and central Mediterranean at the dawn of the Bronze Age was made at Messina in 1991. […] Although this piece is unique in Italy or Sicily, such objects are well known in Anatolia and the Aegean at this period. Thus, there is little question that the figurine was imported, […] (Pg. 1)

R. R. Holloway continues:

Is this object then a curiosity that has strayed far from its home to a foreign shore where no one would have understood it or valued it? Or is it the signal that the central Mediterranean, the Aegean and western Anatolia were fundamentally unified, although in a way not emphasized by the archaeological record? The purpose of this paper is to argue that there is a fundamental unity to this area. The sea was the essential unifier of this region of villages. And as important as the villages were the federal sanctuaries which gave the Aegean and Italian communities the ability to act in union. These leagues or amphictionies became first the basis of Greek survival and then of the Roman commonwealth. Indeed, they are the forerunners of the modern democratic state, the roots of which thus lie deep in prehistory. (Pg. 1)

R. R. Holloway, after following the archaeological data of potentially imported violin shaped figurine from Asia Minor to Sicily, makes a case for the intangible transmissions of knowledge and methodologies “… a sea borne cargo that functions through human agents and can function perfectly well through agents unaccompanied by objects, belonging as it does to the realm of ideas and technology rather than goods and materials” (pg.1). Thus R. R. Holloway’s observations will set the stage and be a poignant conceptual springboard for this paper’s next chapter dealing with the music of the prehistoric Mediterranean.

R. R. Holloway then goes on to talk about the village being the fundamental social and political unit of a community and insightfully makes a point about fluctuating leadership belonging to the dynamic of citizen peers. He also points to the important fact that this community is never so large that the citizen peers are excluded from directly participating in government. He says: “This situation gave vitality first to the village and then to the ancient city-state, and to endure as a city-state, the city-state could never grow past the limits of citizen participation in government. The ancient city-state remained a village” (pg 4)

After setting the scene with a profound understanding of the social and political structure of the Mediterranean village R. R. Holloway asks a key question:

But we have not faced the question of what it was that permitted the citizen villages to unite in the face of great powers. The answer lies in the sanctuaries of early Greece and Italy and the power of federation, temporary or permanent, that the federal associations based on them gave to their members. (pg. 4)

R. R. Holloway’s insights into the possible federation of small units through shared sanctuary could be a starting point in re-examining assumptions about ancient societies. A great number of cultural axioms in use today are based on the 19th century rise of national identity. Looking at the abundance of megalithic temples on the Maltese Archipelago may be one place to re-examine some assumptions about the ancient world, more as a point of discussion than a developed theory, and gives rise to a number of tentative hypotheses and open questions:

Both places have similar ritual uses with underground passages, oracle room, ritual oblations and dreaming chambers. Cume, easily found by following the coast, was a part of Magna Graecia and the classical central Mediterranean. R. R. Holloway in his paper concludes:

…the central Mediterranean, including Italy, Sicily and the Aegean, acquires its claim to a distinct and potent form of social and political life, based on elements small enough to maintain a tradition of citizen peers in government but endowed with the potential to form alliances and finally federations through regional sanctuaries. (pg. 6)

Prehistory of Corsica

In Corsica, which was not a central part of the Greek and Roman world, the Goddess traditions may have persisted longer. The later use of menhirs is striking, and the addition of features such as weapons on them, suggest a possible break in cultural memory, deliberate or otherwise. In literature about pre-historic Corsica the absence of Paleolithic artifacts is generally viewed as result of the rise of sea level.

Corsica’s costal substructures are linked to Sardinia immediately to the south and to Tuscany in the northwest. The lower sea levels in early post-glacial times and connected land mass suggest a different cultural exchange and territorial alliances.

If we look at the Mediterranean coastal sub-structure as a dryer landscape, connections over land or short sea journeys appear. These land connections may be found between Crete and the Balkan Peninsula, Malta and Africa or Cyprus and Asia Minor. Viewing the Mediterranean basin in this way, we can see Crete as the end of a large peninsula stretching from the Danube and Sava rivers in the north, Sicily as the end of the African continent and Corsica as an integral part of the Apennine land mass. Also, on the other side of the Italian peninsula, the Adriatic may be seen as a region of mountains, vales, rivulets and intermittent lakes like Northern Greece, Macedonia, Albania and Monte Negro are today.

The possible presence of Paleolithic humans on Corsica during the last glacial period may share the characteristics of the prehistoric Mediterranean with the Stone Age regions of the Aegean Sea and Crete. Although Bronze Age civilizations developed relatively early in the Aegean and the islands are identified more with that phase of cultural development.

The earliest history of Corsica, Kyrnos to colonizing Greeks, begins in the 4th century BC, following the view of history and the sense of chronology established by the 19th century scholarship. In these views, Stone-Age Corsica plays a very minor role although the vestiges of ancient civilization and particularly goddess worship are strongly present even today. We can sense them in the positioning of stones, choice of sites and relationship to the surroundings reminiscent of other places in the Mediterranean.

Some tentative continuity can be found on Corsica although the stones are re-used and even incorporated into the walls of the Christian Cathedral. More striking than the stone’s endurance is the music of the ancient Mediterranean absorbed in to liturgical use in Corsica, surviving well into the 20th century AD.

Archaic polyphonic singing

Corsica, Sardinia, Albania, Istria

In remote parts of Corsica songs celebrating Mary, mother of Jesus were sang in churches in an archaic three part polyphony. The remote regions of Corsica were only accessible by dirt roads and mule tracks well in to the mid twentieth century. The regions preserved the archaic polyphonic singing transmitted by oral tradition over centuries and were only recorded by musicologist in the 70’s of the 20th century. These field recordings became basis of subsequent revival and integration of archaic polyphonic singing in to Corsican mainstream popular music and emergent national identity. The concert type of polyphonic music is essentially different from devotional intimacy of unaccompanied, orally trained singing. The singers have often growing up and trained together.

In Corsica, polyphonic singing is typically in three parts. It consists of a special contrapuntal relationship between the two upper parts supported by the bass. It is intimate polyphony, traditionally sang by male singers, each part sang with special competences, this competences presume the religious nature of singing that provoke a particular set of emotions, deeper then conventionalized peaty. [This is not a critic of peaty but a diachronic reflection on cultural continuity and similarities across Mediterranean. A comparison drawn from observing the poetic quality found in devotional music in many cultures]. In analysing the performance dynamic of archaic polyphonic music we may reflect on possible reasons for permanence of certain forms of expression over long period of time. The three parts Corsican archaic polyphony adopted it self to Christian liturgical evocations of sacred mother. The three parts are called a sigonda, a terza and bassu:

A sigonda is a part of the singing tradition where the lead singer set the tone. By lifting the vice his role is not unlike muezzin’s call to prayer. A sigonda singer is both the lonely human voice imploring an audience from the un-knowable forces of nature and representative of an individual in a community. The deeps and beauty of his imploring is shard and understood by his community. Man and women identify with the call.

A terza is a poetic, stylized representation of the presence of another human being, answering, contributing to the call, a co- aspirant. The two are soaring together, modeling a sense of solidarity within the bounders of transparent, recognizable local tradition. A terza singer gives to the audience or rather to his community by singing an embellishing counterpoint to the lead singer, a tradition handed down for centuries. The familiar embellishments offer reconciling quality similar to myth and heroic epics. Everyone knows the story but they are reinsured, each time, by the resolution at the end.

Bassu is the grounding, harmonic function of lowest voice. The ancients knew about the evocative quality and the paradox of a deep vice. It is on one hand reinsuring, deeply grounding, wile on the other hand has a quality of implied universality. We are purposefully careful in using terminology to describe intangible here as we wont to stay in the realm of observable phenomenon. Neurologist and musicologist have observed the soothing effect of the deep tones on the human nerves system. The liturgical singing of the Byzantine Rite and particularly Russian Orthodox choral work utilizes this dual function of the deep bass voice.

The versions of this specific type of archaic polyphonic singing can be found in several places around Mediterranean, Balkans and Caucasus.

Polyphonic singing of Sardinia

Very similar to Corsica, Sardinian Canto a tenore survived and flourished in the more remote and pastoral culture of central Sardinia.

While Corsican is a tree part devotional singing, Sardinian polyphonic chanting is performed with four distinct vocal parts by four men standing in a circle very close together. The four distinct parts are boghe the narrator, the lead voice, cronta or contra a dialoging voice, mesa boghe or mesuvoche the harmonizing partner of contra and the consolidating echo of the lead and bassu the grounding and transcending bass. With its deep timbre the Sardinian bass has identical function as Corsican bassu. Although sometime bassu is the narrator as well, the general attitude, function in the community and division of singing parts is clearly part of the same archaic musical tradition.

The tenores polyphonic chants have a overall quality of a lament, both in secular or ceremonial settings. This may be because this music tradition is based in the devotional singing. The Sardinian polyphonic chant’s sacred songs are called gozos. The associative similarity between the name of Maltese island Gozo and Sardinian sacred songs provokes same highly speculative open questions:

The Sardinian A Tenore singing style was recognised, in November 2005, as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Albanian Archaic Iso-Polyphony

Also recognized as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Albania is another Mediterranean mountain region with strong pastoral tradition and survival of an archaic form of singing the Iso-Polyphony, resembling Sardinian and Corsican examples.

“Iso” is the name for the drone accompanying the singing. The drone can de continues or rhythmic depending on the region. Like Corsican or Sardinian polyphony it is generally sang by male singers. Today in the concert halls or on television the lead singes are also women. For thousands of years in pre industrial societies Iso-polyphony were a family tradition transmitted form parents to children, similar to the transmission of traditional crafts, trades and folklore in general.

The recording Albania | Labe County – Complaints and Love Songs is a remarkable document of the majority of the different types of Iso-Polyphony. In the accompanying notes to the compact disk B. Lortat-Jacob and V Sharra write:

With regard to polyphonic music, such practices belong to a shared communal heritage that obliges each to take an active part and set out to move all those assembled. The Albanian music on this recording should be seen and heard in this context. When fully mastered, this singing has a penetrating occult force, a magic. In performance, its singers do far more than simply apply the rules of a relatively straightforward musical grammar of notes and melodic formulas memorized by their ancestors; their music is a sing that they actually do enjoy “being together” evoking in an extraordinarily effective way the charm of solidarity. The performance has in fact as much to do with ethical concerns as with aesthetic ones. For in the process of strictly oral tradition, singing is a collective moral responsibility to work out a sound from in the close company of a select group of friends. (Pg.2. CD, linear notes)

This text and the title of the recording Complaints and Love Songs point to the deep societal function of these songs.

The author of this paper has approached similar issues in his 2005 paper on the phenomenon of the Italian Tarantella dance tradition, in the concluding paragraphs of that paper we read:

In his writing on “The Cult of Pan in Ancient Greece,” Philippe Borgeaud in exploring the inner workings of festivals and assemblies he uses a term recovered closeness in his analysis of the bucolic festivals associated with god Pan in antiquity and offers in-depth insights that are worth noting: Pan’s dance (in a word) conjoins two terms of a transformation: before and after. The perfectly initiated dancer’[Pan] makes others dancers dance with him; his music calls forth harmony, that humane order in the dance of which Plato speaks. But he himself remains at the animal level; he leaps. (pg. 79.)

In another place, Borgeaud writes:

The krotos (sound of clapping), gelos (laughter), and euphrosune (good humor) thus appear as constitutive elements of panic ritual, and this not only in the sense that festive gestures were an ordinary part of most Greek sacrifices. The same point can be made about the dance, which played a fundamental part in the cult of Pan. (pg. 150)

The archaic polyphonic songs, by continuing in the more remote pastoral regions of the Mediterranean are perhaps survivors of Paleolithic goddess worship superseded by Pan and other festivals. In all cases the intended recovered closeness is achieved. Borgeaud continues:

The god made his presence felt in the excited and turbulent chorus of his votaries. A certain balance is achieved by the festival, which brings together in ritual the two extremes of Pan potency, panic and possession, but in such a way that each shows only its positive aspect: the god is present without alienation and the distance between god and worshipper is kept to a minimum. ... In his dance and festival, the individual, while remaining himself, loses himself. This is perhaps what the Pharsalian inscription cited earlier means by “just excess.” The chorus simultaneously displays social solidarity with the extrasocial: it communicates with nature and the gods. The Epidaurus hymn remands us that Pan’s music and dance restore a threatened cohesion. Dance, laughter, and noise become, in the festival, signs of a recovered closeness. (pg. 150)

Just like the physical body continuously works to keep body fluids moving, temperature almost constant, the stomach acid at manageable levels, etc., so does the psychological self produce compensating, relieving images and nonverbal scenarios, or proto-stories to help us deal with life's complexities. The Mediterranean archaic singing has the same function. The continuous interplay of panic and recovered closeness is central to family or community life; it never goes away. Just as babies need continuous reassurance and feeding, so do adults, but in sophisticated ways which reinsure them of implied communal bonds.

Istrian polyphonic tradition and music scale

Istria, in Croatia is a largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea and the most northern point of the Mediterranean. It is a home of a distinctive musical form, a style of two-part polyphonic singing. Usually performed by male singers who sing "thinly" and "thickly", with a consolidating pulse on the lowest note and the final resolution.

In Istria this type of songs is also sung by women, or in the combination of a male and a female voice or by a male voice accompanied by a small shepherd’s pipe.

Like in Corsican, Sardinian and Albanian archaic singing, in Istria to, there is a lead singer performing the narration melody within the usual range of a male voice. The second singer also follows the embellishing, dialog role we found in the earlier examples. In Istria the second singer accomplishes that in the “thin” form of traditional singing, in the high register. "Thin" denotes the high, "thick" the low register of the voice. In same cases the lead singers return to the deepest notes is expressed as a rhythm, the narration’s cadence. It is the most rudimentary expression of the reassuring quality of the deep notes similar to more elaborate bassu singers from the mid-Mediterranean islands. In Istria the role of the singer performing "thinly" is sometimes taken over by a small "flute," sopela that plays the counter part of the dialog and embellishment.

In the notes on Isatrian music accompanying field recording from the archives of Radio-Televizije Beograd, S. Zlatić writs:

The music represents the archaic bottom layer, which has not undergone either temporal or territorial influences. One does not feel here the influence of the neighboring musical folklore areas or the influence of art music. However the most recent tunes - and they are still being created - do use scales based on the tempered musical system, and thus lose the archaic qualities. (pg. 3)

Musicologist studding this archaic bottom layer of music in Istria and near by geographic aria of Croatian cost have identified recognizable five-tone musical scale different from the Pythagorean and Egyptian pentatonic scale we still use today. In the musicological archives of Dr. Milica Ilijin (1910-1992), an early mentor of the author of this paper, are several pages of music notation with notes from experts trying to define the intervals of the Istrian scale writing intervals in percentages next to the notes. These intervals are beyond half or quarter tones of the pentatonic or octave scale as we know them. This unusual sonorities provoke a question: Is the origin of this tonality possibly in natural echoes and overtones of certain sacred spaces codified and carried home for soothing, communal connection and evocation of the Palaeolitic sensibilities of the transcendent?

The stone hand axe about 2 million to 800,000 years old was found in Šandalja Cave near Pula, Administrative center of Istria, Croatia. Marking the human presence in Istria in the Lower Paleolithic. In the Upper Paleolithic there are numerous findings of human presence from 10,000 to 40,000 BC, exemplified by large deposits of bones of hunted animals. The Neolithic period yielded discoveries of pottery, other artifacts with traces of husbandry and agriculture.

To reflect on this possible relationship of Archaic singing to specific places we turn to Professor S. Errede from the Department of Physics, The University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, in his article Pre-Historic Music and Art in Palæolithic Caves he writes:

Recent acoustic experiments carried out in some of the caves in southwestern France under the direction of Iégor Reznikoff have shown that in the majority of such caves, the presence of wall paintings and drawings is highly correlated with the phenomenon of natural echo at that location in the cave, and especially so at particular resonant frequencies. Furthermore, it has been established that indications relating to the nature of the particularly resonant sound are recorded not in the form of some kind of random graffiti, dispersed at the whim of the prehistoric artist, but instead as precisely-coded signs within the pictorial representation, often explicitly indicated by means of lines or dots emerging from the mouth of a person or animal drawn, in precisely those areas of the cave where the echo is most pronounced. (pg.9) S. Errede in the same paper shows the photograph, taken near the entrance, just inside the Pech Merle cave in France. On the ceiling of the cave are red dots placed there by prehistoric people to indicate a zone of special acoustic significance – resonances. Other photograph in the paper show photos of some of the prehistoric drawings of animals and other figures that had been made at various locations on the walls of the Grotto du Pech Mer as a potential prehistoric score.


In concluding this paper, we have followed a number of possible influences from and to Asia, Africa, and Europe in the fields of temple architecture, votive figurines and archaic polyphonic singing. It is an examination of practices of a shared communal legacy that engages an entire small social group, an intimate unit of people, a village, a recurrent Mediterranean theme; this is an inheritance that is far more than simply repeating tradition, it is a transmission of solidarity, a cause of intended “recovered closeness.” From the standpoint of the History of Ideas, looking at archeological findings and artifacts together with its music that may “represents the archaic bottom layer.” These comparisons in the paper are intended not to prove any hypothesis, but to point to some instances of cultural similarities at different Mediterranean locations. Examples include tangible and intangible cultural parallels and diversity of sources, such as the presence of wall paintings and drawings related to the phenomenon of natural echoes in prehistoric cave.

The methodology and the cultural sensibilities of this paper are inspired by and based on the pioneering work in the early-twentieth century of the German Art Historian, Aby Warburg and his younger colleagues Fritz Saxl and Erwin Panofsky. Together they evolved the methodology of extending formal art history to include research into meaning by following, identifying and collecting shared motifs in imagery and creating the science of iconography. Expanding the discipline of Art History into the discernable, observable cultural field, inclusive of the subject matter and meaning of works of art in their historic context, as opposed to studying form alone.

Taking these methodologies and sensibilities further in to the realm of History of Art and Ideas, and through interdisciplinary and comparative observation, may lead us to a new understanding of cultural connections previously locked out by nationalist and mono-disciplinary approaches. All of this leads to greater understanding and appreciation of ingenuity, refinement and sophistication of ancient humanity.

Works Cited

Ciceri, L. Religiosita Popolare in Friuli. Pordenone: Edizioni Concordia 7, 1980.

Borgeaud, P. The Cult of Pan in Ancient Greece. University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Errede, S. Pre-Historic Music and Art in Palæolithic Caves. Department of Physics: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2005.

Diaz-Andreu, M. World History of Nineteenth-Century Archaeology—Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Past. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Holloway, R. R. The Classical Mediterranean, its Prehistoric Past and the Formation of Europe. Corleone: I Congresso Internationale di Preistoria e Protostoria Siciliane, 1997.

Maiuri, B. Museo Nazionale Di Napoli. Novara: Instituto Geografico De Agostini, 1957.

Mertens, D. & E. Greco. “Urban Planning in Magna Graecia.” The Greek World: Art and Civilization in Magna Graecia and Sicily. Ed. G. Pugliese Carratelli. Rizzoli, New York, 1996.

Mueller, F.L. Istorija Psihologije—Pojam Duse kod Grka—Dionisov Kult. Trans. Zorana Stojanovica. Novi Sad, 2005. (Trans. of Histoire de la psychologie de l'antiquité à nos jours, Paris 1960).

Oesterly, W.O.E. Sacred Dances in the Ancient World. Courier Dover Publications, 2002.

Panofsky, E. Studies in Iconology : Humanist Themes in the Art of the Renaissance.

Icon Editions,WestviewPress, A Division of HarperCollinsPublisbers, Boulder, 1979.

Saxl, F. A Heritage of Images: A Selection of Lectures Introduction by E. H. Gombrich. 2 vols.

Penguin, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1970.

Warburg A. La rinascità del paganesimo antico; contributi alla storia della cultura. Pensiero storico 49. La Nuova Italia, Florence,1966.

Zecevic, S. Elementi Nase Mitologije u Narodnim Obredima uz Igru, Zenica: Muzej Grada Zenice, 1973.

Recordings and program notes:

Berezan, J. ReTurning, CD

Recorded at the Oracle Chamber, Hal Saflieni, Malta. Includes liner notes by Jennifer

Berezan. Pub. Edge of Wonder, Berkely November 2000

Chaillet, J. CORSICA - Religious Music of Oral Tradition, notes for the Compact Disk. UNESCO Collection, AUVIDUS/IICMSD/UNESCO, 1989.

Lortat-Jacob, B and V. Sharra, Albania | Labe Count – Complaints and Love Songs. OCORA -Radio France, 2004.

Von Ripka, A. Tenore de Orosei – Amore Profundhu - Voches de Sardinna [1] – Winter & Winter, 1998.

Zlatić, S. The notes on Isatrian music accompanying field recording archives of Radio-Televizije Beograd, 1950.

Web sites and Web Libraries:

Biographical Note

Slobodan Dan Paich is a native of former Yugoslavia, born after the Second World War. He lived in England as a political exile from 1967 to 1985. Slobodan taught the History of Art and Ideas, Design, and Art Studio from 1969 through 1985 at various institutions in London, including North-East London Polytechnic, Thames Polytechnic, Richmond College-American University in London, and as a guest at Glasgow School of Art. From 1986 to1992, he taught at the University of California at Berkeley. With a number of scholars, artists, and community leaders, he founded the Artship Foundation in 1992, and has been its Executive Director ever since. He also served as a board member of the Society of Founders of the International Peace University in Berlin/Vienna from 1996 to 2002, where he lectured annually and chaired its Committee on Arts and Culture. Slobodan attended Classical Gymnasium in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia, and graduated from the Belgrade Academy of Fine Arts. He received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Royal College of Art, London, and served as co-chair of the Royal College of Art Society’s alumni organization. In the last four years, Slobodan Dan Paich has presented ten papers at international conferences. The topics, anchored in the history of art and ideas and art practice, range from looking at traces of prehistoric polyphonic singing, continuity of ancient dance traditions to prehistoric astronomical sites in Armenia and models of conviviality in medieval Spain.

Slobodan Dan Paich, Artship Foundation, 88 Perry Street, #734
San Francisco, CA 94107, USA • +1 (415) 278 5793 • artship@aol.comwww.artship.org