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Could the mysterious handbag really represent the cosmos? Assyrian relief carving from Nimrud, 883 to 859 B.C. (Public domain)

SCIENCE & TECH: Why Are Mysterious Handbags Prevalent in Ancient Carvings Worldwide?

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One of the more mysterious symbols that has been found in carvings from the ancient world is an image that looks uncannily like a modern-day handbag. The shape appears in depictions made by the Sumerians of Iraq, in the ruins of Turkish temples, in decorations of the Maori of New Zealand and in crafts made by the Olmecs of Central America.

Handbags can be seen in the art of disparate cultures from around the world and throughout time, with the first known instance of a handbag appearing at the end of the Ice Age . Once it’s been pointed out, its actually quite hard to avoid and the ubiquity of this mysterious symbol raises captivating questions about its significance and purpose in the ancient world.

What deeper meaning lies behind this recurrent and cross-cultural portrayal of handbags, and what might it reveal about the interconnectedness of humanity’s ancient civilizations? In this exploration, we will delve into the symbolism and potential implications of this timeless emblem, seeking to unravel the secrets hidden within.

Handbags as Representations of the Cosmos?

It’s hard to deny that these supposed “handbags” look surprisingly similar to the contemporary purse. According to Scranton, the objects depicted within ancient art “typically feature a rounded handle-like top and a rectangular bottom, and may include varying degrees of additional details of texture or pattern.” The images sometimes appear as stand-alone objects; while other times they are depicted in the hand of a person, god or mythical being in a manner similar to how one would hold a basket.

One possible theory for the proliferation of this image is that it’s a simple and straightforward representation of the cosmos. The semi-circle of the image—which appears to be the bag’s strap—represents the hemisphere of the sky. Meanwhile, the solid square base represents the earth.

“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,” continued Scranton. Thus, some argue that the image is used to symbolize the (re)unification of the earth and sky, of the material and the non-material elements of existence.

Could the mysterious handbag really represent the cosmos? Assyrian relief carving from Nimrud, 883 to 859 B.C. ( Public domain )

The Oldest Depictions of Handbags

One of the earliest instances of the handbag motif can be seen in the ruins of Göbekli Tepe , located at the top of a mountain ridge in southeastern Turkey. Dating back to approximately 11,000 BC, Göbekli Tepe is one of the oldest temple complexes ever discovered. While the exact purpose of the mountain sanctuary is unknown, it appears that the temple may have served as a site for religious sacrifices since archaeologists have unearthed many butchered animal bones.

The walls and pillars of the temple at Göbekli Tepe are decorated with finely carved animals, gods, and mythical creatures, perhaps in an effort to portray the many different creations of the cosmos. Nestled among this tapestry of carvings from another era, appear to be three handbags, adding an extra layer of mystery and intrigue to the richly adorned walls and pillars of the ancient sanctuary.

Experts believe that early religions worshiped the fundamental elements of life on earth. Therefore, “the three Göbekli Tepe handbags, taken as an early form of those icons, could be said to symbolically define the site as a temple,” argued Scranton.

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Pillar 43 from Gobekli Tepe in Turkey shows three ‘handbag’ carvings along the top. (Alistair Coombs)

Pillar 43 from Gobekli Tepe in Turkey shows three ‘handbag’ carvings along the top. (Alistair Coombs)

Carvings of Handbags Can Be Found from the Middle East to South America

Elsewhere, the handbag image shows up with striking similarities in two stone reliefs, one made by the Assyrians of ancient Iraq sometime between 880 to 859 BC and the other made by the Olmecs of ancient Mesoamerica sometime between 1200 to 400 BC.

In both of these images, a male figure carries the handbag in his hand, as if it were a basket or purse. “When used in Assyrian art it is said the purse holds magic dust. When depicted in Olmec art they postulate it contains herbs for getting high,” explained Freeborn in Noahsage. This suggests that handbags may have been a standard of measurement uniquely discovered by both cultures.

Olmec Monument 19, from La Venta, Tabasco, shows a man holding the handbag in his hand. (Xuan Che / CC BY 2.0)

Olmec Monument 19, from La Venta, Tabasco, shows a man holding the handbag in his hand. (Xuan Che / CC BY 2.0 )

In distant New Zealand, another intriguing instance of imagery which appears to represent handbags surfaces within the cultural context of the Maori people. According to Maori mythology , a revered hero undertook a remarkable journey to the abode of the gods, where he acquired profound wisdom. Upon his return to Earth, this heroic figure was said to be carrying three baskets filled with this divine knowledge.

These Maori “handbags” bear a striking resemblance to the Göbekli Tepe artifacts, both symbolizing a profound sense of reverence and gratitude for the wisdom and insights believed to be bestowed by higher powers. These depictions not only serve as tangible representations of ancient narratives but also highlight the universal human inclination to celebrate and preserve the gifts of celestial inspiration.

Moreover, ancient Egyptian art reveals intriguing handbag-like representations within hieroglyphs. In these depictions, the handbag serves as a divine abode for gods and goddesses. The purse’s straps are symbolized by the domed poles of portable tents, while the square bottom represents the cloth or animal skins draped across these poles.

Remarkably, this structural resemblance draws parallels with other ancient architectural designs, such as the Native American teepee and the central Asian yurt, underscoring the universality of this symbol across diverse cultures and eras.

These numerous occurrences of the handbag symbol suggest its role as a cosmological representation camouflaged within the ordinary guise of a household item, specifically a basket. This subtle approach aimed to facilitate comprehension among the general populace, effectively bridging the gap between the profound cosmic concepts and the everyday experiences of ordinary people.

Top image: Assyrian relief carving, circa 883 to 859 BC, which includes a representation which looks surprisingly similar to modern-day handbags. Source: Public domain

By Kerry Sullivan





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