The Muddy Archaeologist's Blog

Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist

Megalithic Malta : Prehistoric but far from Primitive

If the Neolithic (New Stone Age) seems remote, primitive and ‘Just a load of old stones’, take a visit to Malta.   Here you can go back in time over 5,000 years; the remains of the amazing temples and the figurines and artefacts that folk left behind here are sophisticated and imaginative.  As far back as 4,000 BC, the sites here bear witness to a culture and a civilisation that was full of art, architecture and spirituality; society here was vibrant and the island is still littered with impressive structures that, even now, fill us with awe.

Unique and, oh, SO Ancient

The megalithic (‘huge stones’) temples in Malta are unique.  Nowhere else can you find structures quite like these.  Huge stones were not that unusual in the Neolithic; explore Orkney’s stone circles and Maes Howe tomb, wander along the long lines of standing stones at Carnac in France or gaze at the massive blocks at Stonehenge and you will see large and heavy stones used for monumental effect.

But in Malta the stones at Gozo weigh 50 tonnes and those at Hagar Qim reach 20 tonnes.  Compare that to Stonehenge’s 25 ton monsters and Orkney’s beautiful Ring of Brodgar’s 10 ton stones.

And consider the impressive age of Malta’s monuments: Ggantija on Gozo was built c.3,600 BC and all the temples pre-date 2,500 BC.  Stonehenge’s great sarsen stones and Orkney’s Ring of Brodgar were erected just as Malta’s temples were being abandoned and the great pyramids were very recent, crisp, new arrivals on the landscape in Egypt; yet by then, Malta’s temples had been in constant use for over 1,000 years. Indeed, Gozo’s Ggantija is the oldest freestanding monumental building in the world.


How the Neolithic folk erected these stones remains a mystery; sheer manpower is not enough, although humans do have an habitual urge to do something just because we can, and the tougher it is, the more of an achievement it is.

Perhaps the stone balls lying by Ggantija temple on Gozo in Malta were just waiting to be the rolling marbles beneath sliding megaliths in transit for the next building phase?  Perhaps there is something organic and long lost that simply haven’t had the mindset to spot (consider the use of frictionless seaweed in a recent televised experiment on Orkney …).

Without any writing, we don’t even know what the temple builders called themselves.  We also don’t know what their beliefs and reasons for such mammoth buildings were.  Yet the prolific nature of the ‘fat ladies’ figurines and statues tell us that, across the island, there was a constant background, legends or beliefs.  Enter the museum at Valetta and these mother goddess figures dominate the artwork for centuries.  Dumpy, wide-skirted, bare breasted women sit alongside huge fat-legged skirted figures.  A bundle of hand-held male figures were found tumbled from an altar in Xaghra hypogeum.  And then, found deep in the hypogeum, the tiny Sleeping Lady rests peacefully, perhaps in the final sleep of all. There must have been stories told and re-told, generation upon generation.

A ‘Special’ World 

Enter the hypogeum (‘below’ ‘ground’) in Hal-Saflieni and you leave space and time behind.  Here, and in other hypogea, such as the Circle at Xaghra on Gozo, they buried their dead (7,000 in Hal-Saflieni alone) in chambers carved with architecture and windows and doors that lead your sight through into another world far from the sunshine above.  An unearthly element is provided by curling artwork on the ceiling and an opening in the ‘oracle chamber’ allows voices raised here to resonate powerfully around the winding trackways and chambers.

Such features are present above ground too; the temples tempt you to peer through high stepped doorways, revealing yet limiting your view.  Oracle holes pierce the walls from inner chambers.  And the curving corbelling arch over the walls of the chambers, once creating the sensation of an artificial cave.

A curving courtyard welcomes you to these temples.  A high plinth edges the temple walls of the courtyard and tethering stones by the doors once held the animals whose sacrificed bones were found within the temples.  Nonetheless, every guest feels that these are good places, there is no sense of foreboding here.  Just an energy, a place to gather in the courtyard, an invitation to glimpse into the other world.

Neolithic Farming, Fertility and Festivals

The evidence is of unbroken centuries of worship or offerings in these places; water is an obvious plea for Malta is not blessed with rivers.  Two streams that dry up in summer provide fresh water and rain alone waters the land which, thanks to the climate of this island (which is further south than northernmost Africa) now yields two or three harvests a year.  Were the ‘Fat Ladies’ fertility goddesses?  They are certainly in a tradition of carved female figurines made since Neolithic Catal Hoyuk in the eastern Mediterranean from 6,000 BC, and the Cycladic figures in the early 3000s BC, and those in Cyprus in 3,000 BC.  The Neolithic was the age of the first farmers; settling down was risky and prayers came naturally with the fear of failed crops every year.

Essential to this early farming was the knowledge of when to grow your crops.  The winter solstice was vital as a marker in time, and the summer solstice too.  At Hagar Qim temple the sun shoots through the solstice holes to strike the carefully placed stones and at nearby Mnajdra the solstice sunrises each run along an opposite side of the front lintel, brush the back of the other side of the threshold and then light up the positioned marker stones.  Imagine the gathered crowds, the very human excuse for a gathering and a celebration, the bustle and the offerings.  Archaeologists still gather for the solstice and the awe felt today seems no less than it must have been 5,000 years ago.

Hagar Qim Muddy Archaeologist

Questions Abound

Archaeologists continue to seek answers to this magnificent culture.

Ggantija, Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, Tarxien, Ta-Hagrat, Skorba, Tas-Silg temples are near neighbours.  Why are there so many temples on Malta?   Why did they develop from rough cover-leaf shapes to complex 5-apsed buildings and acquire ‘add-on’ temples on individual sites?  What did the spirals they carved on them represent?  How great was their astronomical knowledge – and was it just for farming or for navigation across the seas too?

No weapons or signs of war have been found on Neolithic Malta; was this a pilgrimage island?  Perhaps analysis of the animal bones might tell us if folk came from far and wide to be here?

How did they manage to transport and erect the megaliths?  No one knows; the fact remains that they did so in remarkable quantities on Malta.  For 1,000 years, temples were built, new ones with new styles and complex designs erected close by, and then sometimes a third temple was squidged in between the two existing ones.  This was no single burst of genius and energy, it was a constant way of life through many generations.

Who were these people?  And who were the Fat Ladies who gaze out at us, having seen the worship, the gatherings, and heard the language, conversation and raised songs for so many generations?  If only they could talk … what wonders they could tell us.


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