Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk
Malta, an island at the centre of the Mediterranean. A land littered with huge megalithic temples, built 6,000 years ago. Older than Stonehenge, and more ancient than the pyramids of Egypt.
I’ve just enjoyed lecturing on a tour of the archaeology here, in this sun soaked island. The sites are enigmatic and awe inspiring; temples built here were the centre of life here for well over 1,000 years and they evolved to serve the locals’ purposes of the time, from small clover-leaf shaped structures, to Ggantija on the isle of Gozo, with its 50 ton stones raised to create arching corbelled roof over walls that were once 12m high. The chambers echo the underground Hypogea where the dead were buried in cool natural caverns, enhanced by fake architecture, windows and doors.
The National Archaeological Museum in Valetta takes you on a journey from the earliest settlements on Malta. Humans didn’t arrive on Malta until c.5,200 BC; Grey and Red Pottery from the village of Skorba begin the epic story of their culture’s pottery and its links to their old home of Sicily. Even then, the urge to depict the human form created stylised creations on pots and the first 3D representation of women.
However, limestone was, quite literally, the bedrock of life on this island. Hard Coralline sandstone made ideal outer walls and curving forecourt facing for the temples. Over the centuries, communities at many sites built a second larger and megalithic (ie. with huge stones) temple, and eventually a third might be squeezed in between. Were these new buildings a sign of wealth or of changing times and requirements?
Porthole doors abounded, and oracle stones opened to the outside and between chambers to give space for voices to echo forth from hidden chambers that were only accessible from a rear door. Impressive, belittling courtyards welcomed the masses, but most of the inner lobed chambers could hold only a few people; the honoured priests may have been the only people admitted to the rituals within. As this all occurred before writing was invented, so we may never know exactly what went on in these sacred spaces.
Softer Globerigina limestone was easy to carve with stone, obsidian or even antler or bone. And so it was that the Later temple phase revelled in art that gives us some clues; reliefs of rams (led to the slaughter or counted as wealth?) decorated the temples; birds flew around the pottery, and fish swam across the stones. Colossal skirted statues watched over the ceremonies, and small rotund mother goddess figures multiplied, just as, over the Neolithic millennia, they spread across the Mediterranean from east to west.
The engineering and architecture of these people were way ahead of their time and the beautiful and exquisitely detailed figurines were made hundreds of years earlier than the first Cycladic figures from Prehistoric Greece. Wide, fluted skirts, using far more material than you needed, adorned twin figures, one of whom held some unidentified object. Their feet were coloured with ochre and their hairstyle carefully represented. Just what was the story behind this pair who once sat on an altar at Gozo? Myths, legends and/or religion were undoubtedly rich in stories but, without any writing, this prehistoric society could not leave any clues behind for us. Only the art and the work of archaeologists can provide glimpses into their lives and understanding of the universe around them.
Many figures might be male or female; a cluster of tumbled hand-held sized calm-faced figures, with flat echoes of the fluted skirts, also lay beside an altar at Gozo. Are these faces of actual people who lived ? They feel like watchers, worshippers, while the ‘fat ladies’ seem to sit in power.
We do know this was the life of the earliest farmers on the island. The seasons dictate the circle of life for such societies; At both Ggantija and at Mnajdra, crucial stones were carefully placed to catch the moment of the Spring and Autumn equinoxes.
As time went by, Abstract dots and perfectly executed spirals were carved into the stone. Archaeologists call them ‘rams’ horn spiral’ but personally I see the spirals as an echo of the seashells that were found as both fossils and fresh.
Then, inexplicably, the island was abandoned. Why, we don’t know. Was it famine, plague, do a rejection of the culture than had dominated life on this temple-filled island?
It was a couple of centuries later before people returned. And they brought with them new ideas, a habit of creating their dead and a new material, metal, in the form of bronze. Shining daggers replaced the stone and obsidian blades that had continued long after other societies had embraced the new metal. The Bronze Age had begun on Malta.
Even then, we don’t have all the answers. What was the origins of the (presumed Bronze Age) Cart Ruts that crisis cross the idyllic hilltop? Nicknamed ‘Clapham Junction, these regularly spaced multiple junctions join and then lead to cliff edges, starting and stopping in the middle of nowhere. A disused ancient quarry, grooved by the hacking out of limestone sits nearby. maybe carts (with very high wheel bases) or sledges dragged on stone runners have worn deep grooves. Amidst the beauty of Spring on Malta, many an hour can be spent speculating on the unknown activities and ingenuity that caused these ruts.
Megalithic Malta speaks to us across the millennia with faint echoes; yet their visual and very physical presence is awe inspiring and magnificent. Whoever they were, we feel their humanity and their sense of achievement. Don’t imagine they were primitive; they used their minds withstood much ingenuity that we still don’t know how they erected monuments that will impress and mystify us for generations to come.