People first settled the Maltese islands around 7,000 years ago, probably coming from Sicily, writes Paul Devereux, though in truth we know little about the movement of peoples around the Mediterranean in prehistoric times. Around 3,400 BC, the building began of megalithic temples unlike any elsewhere in the world and older than the Great Pyramid or Stonehenge
THE 'TEMPLE PERIOD'
The temples were constructed for over one thousand years, a period punctuated by stylistic phases, and thirty sites still survive. They display shared basic characteristics such as the temple buildings and courts being contained within a megalithic external wall with a slightly concave façade. They have a central passage leading from the main entrance in the outer wall into the heart of the temple with a varying number of bays or apses on either side.
Specific architectural features also recur within the temples, including ‘trilithon’ doorways or openings – consisting of a lintel stone supported by uprights – recesses, and stone cupboard-like constructions of unknown purpose. There are also curious apertures in some temple walls that are typically designated as ‘portholes’ or ‘oracle holes’. Decorative or symbolic features, such as rock panels with carved motifs of various kinds, are often in evidence.
The temples seem not to have been funerary in nature but used for public ritual and worship. There is no evidence of human sacrifice though judging by the bones uncovered at temple sites there was animal sacrifice; but to what god? There are indications that it was actually a goddess, an 'Earth Mother' figure. This is assumed to be so because of figurines and statues found in several temples depicting a 'fat lady', a female figure with exaggerated hips and breasts perhaps symbolising fertility.
The Stone Age Temple Period came to a curiously sudden end, and was followed by the arrival of a wholly different Bronze Age people.
A FEW KEY TEMPLE SITES
Ggantija: Situated on Malta's smaller sister island of Gozo, Ggantija is in fact two conjoined temples. The southern one is the older, and parts of its facade still stand up to 6 m (21 ft) tall. Folklore states that .gantija was built by a giantess who nursed a baby and ate beans while she carried the stones. One suspects that this represents an age-old fertility motif relating to the lost earth mother goddess.
Hagar Qim: Located close to Malta's south-west coast, Ha.ar Qim has a trilithon entrance that gives on to a complex cluster of passages, apses, courts, and chambers. The older parts date to c. 3,400 BC A notable internal feature is a fascinating 'floral altar' carved with what seem to be abstract depictions of plants. There is also a stone pillar over 4.5 m (15 ft) tall, which may possibly represent a male deity, a phallic counterpart to the 'fat lady' carved limestone figures found at the site.
Mnajdra: This atmospheric complex of three adjacent temples is situated close to Hagar Qim, near the edge of a steep slope plunging down to the sea. The temples were built in different chronological phases, the oldest part possibly dating to 3,600 BC It can be noted that some of the walling in the temple has an inward leaning (corbelled) construction hinting that there may have been a stone roof here though it is thought most Maltese megalithic temples had timber roofs. The rising sun at the Spring Equinox (21 March) shines through the entrance and down the central passage.
Tarxien: The site now occupied by the remains of the Tarxien temple complex was used since c. 4,100 BC, but the first megalithic structures there date to c. 3,000 BC The complex contains three temple sites: Tarxien South, Tarxien Central and the highly ruinous Tarxien Far East. Among several notable features in Tarxien Central is a large bowl of unknown function hewn from a single block of rock and two large stone screens decorated with relief carvings of spirals, a common motif in the temples. In Tarxien South the stand-out feature is the lower half of what had been a monumental statue probably depicting the ‘fat lady’ goddess, though wearing a skirt in this case.
REALM OF THE DEAD
A hypogeum is a subterranean, rock-hewn set of chambers. It is thought a number of the temples had such features beneath them, but if so, most remain undiscovered. By far the best preserved example is the Hal Saflieni hypogeum, close to the Tarxien complex in Paola. It consists of three main levels of subterranean chambers, galleries and pits, hewn out of the limestone. The quality of the rock-cutting ranges from rough-hewn areas to highly-finished façades as can be seen in the so-called ‘Holy of Holies’, reminiscent of the surface temples on Malta. The upper level is the oldest, dating to at least 4,000 BC The hypogeum was partly an ossuary because the skeletal remains of several thousand individuals were recovered from the site, but it also certainly housed ritual activities.
The hypogeum possesses eerie acoustic qualities – echoes of sounds rumble on in a remarkable manner. Special attention has been focused on the chamber sometimes referred to as the ‘oracle room’ where there is an oval wall niche which, if intoned into, produces a particularly powerful reverberating sound. Most archaeologists dismiss this as mere coincidence, but the Neolithic ceiling painting in this chamber might give the lie to that. Executed in red ochre, it is a spirally vine-like pattern with ‘fruit’ – disks – scattered through it.
This painting tends to be dismissed as Stone Age doodling but when taking part in an acoustic study of the hypogeum the present writer noticed that the ‘fruit’ disks become larger the further one goes into the oracle room and are at their largest as they approach the wall niche, where the ceiling painting stops abruptly. Three large red disks can be seen painted within the niche. Could the ceiling painting therefore be a form of acoustic notation, the red disks indicating the increase of the resonance in the chamber at that point? This is just one more mystery that Malta’s prehistoric past presents us with.