Introduction Prehistoric Architecture in Malta

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Situated 80 kilometres south of Sicily and 370 kilometres east of the Tunisian coast, the island of Malta appears to have been first settled during the early Neolithic period by a wave of immigrants from Sicily. This appearance of Neolithic settlement is however strongly challenged by new research concerning a probable Paleolithic influence.

According to orthodox archaeologists, the remains of bones, fragments of pottery, and marks of fire indicate that human beings have lived in Malta since at least 5200 BC. These early people lived in caves but later built huts and villages. Approximately 1600 years after their arrival in Malta, these people began the erection of spectacular megalithic temples. Indeed, the remaining ruins are the bare skeletons of once magnificent structures, mostly roofed over, paved, furnished with doors and curtains, and beautifully decorated with sculptures and paintings. Some archaeologists calculate that the period in which the early Maltese progressed from their first rock-cut common graves to their last massive temple complexes was between 4100 and 2500 BC. Around 2300 BC, this extraordinary megalithic culture went into rapid decline. A major cause seems to have been the extreme deforestation and soil loss that accompanied the increase in population and the attendant clearing of land for agriculture. Other causes may have been famine, social disruption in response to an oppressive priesthood, and the arrival of foreign invaders. Following the decline of the Temple Culture, Malta may well have been deserted until the arrival of Bronze Age people around 2000 BC.

On the islands of Malta and nearby Gozo, the remains of 50 temples have been found, with 23 in various states of preservation. No particular pattern emerges from the distribution of these temples and this may be explained by the probability that numerous temples were destroyed in antiquity and that others remain to be discovered. There are also numerous menhirs and dolmens scattered across the two islands.

Nearly all of the Maltese temples were constructed in the same basic design: a central corridor leading through two or more kidney-shaped (ellipsoidal) chambers to reach a small altar apse at the far end. The Herculean outer shell of the walls are formed of great blocks of stone propped on end or on edge as orthostats. Internal walls are either of piled rough coralline blocks, or well-cut slabs set as orthostats. All the walls consist of two faces, the space between being packed with earth or rubble. Doorways and passages all use the trilithon principle: two orthostats parallel to each other to support a horizontal lintel. Frequently, doorways consist of a ‘porthole’, in which access is through a rectangular hole in the centre of a slab. The temples were probably roofed over with beams, brushwood and clay. The walls could not have supported the weight of stone roofs as roofing slabs more than two meters in length would have cracked due to their own weight, and no remains of stone roofs have been found.

However, the above settlement dating scenario is now cast into doubt by research conducted by several scientists and interpreted by the ancient civilizations scholar, Graham Hancock, who has conclusively shown a human presence on Malta many thousands of years before the dawning of the Neolithic. Apparently, people did come from Sicily during the Neolithic but long before then, another group of people also journeyed to and lived in Malta.

During the process of researching his book Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization, Hancock was repeatedly drawn to the study of prehistoric Malta and, particularly, to matters that contradicted the conventional archaeological assessment of the island. Primarily the fact that Malta was simply too small in size to have developed and sustained the necessary civilization that gave rise to the enormously sophisticated construction techniques found in the temples of Mnajdra, Ħaġar Qim, Ġgantija and the Hypogeum. How do we account for the presence of twenty-three megalithic temples with no architectural antecedents and with no evidence for the large amount of local domestic architecture that would have housed the people who built and used the temples?

Malta has not always been an island. We learn this fact from oceanographers and the new science of inundation mapping. Around 17,000 years ago, at the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, when the level of the world’s oceans was more than 120 meters lower than it is today, the islands of the Maltese archipelago were the mountain tops of one landmass joined by land-bridge to Sicily (90 kilometers to the north) and the Italian mainland. Therefore, until 16,400 years ago, Paleolithic humans and the animals they hunted could simply have walked from Europe all the way to Malta. These people would have lived, hunted (and perhaps farmed) mostly in the lowland areas and might have constructed some of their temples upon the peaks of sacred mountains. It is possible that the extraordinary architectural style of the Maltese temples could have been developed and influenced by other cultural regions of prehistoric Europe during the thousands of years during which Malta was connected by land to mainland Europe.

By 14,600 years ago the melting ice caps flooded the land-bridge to Sicily and by 10,600 years ago, the waters had risen so high that only the peaks of Malta were above the seas, forming the islands we have today of Malta, Gozo and Comino. The Maltese archipelago would henceforth be completely isolated from European cultural influences and would therefore display unique developmental characteristics, which found in the archaeological record. As Hancock says, “Perhaps this Paleolithic isolation rather than the Neolithic invasion (of 5200 BC from Sicily) was the real genesis of the distinctive character and achievements of Maltese civilization.”

Perhaps, too, the great temples of Malta were not actually constructed during Neolithic times but are in fact artifacts of a much older Paleolithic civilization. Perhaps the elegant astronomical alignments of the temples and the presence of advanced mathematics in their construction indicate that the island of Malta was once part of a sacred geography, formulated by a long lost civilization of high scientific and spiritual achievement. To determine the answers to these questions, it will be necessary to conduct much more extensive archaeological excavations in Malta and, equally important, at the many underwater archaeological sites known to exist in the waters surrounding the islands.

Two different types of limestone were used in the construction of the temples; the hard, gray coralline limestone and the soft, pale globigerina limestone. Both of these stones were deposited in the Miocene geological period. The construction tools available at the time were hand-axes made of flint and quartzite, knives and scrapers of volcanic obsidian, wedges of wood and stone, hammers of stone, and levers of wood. No metal tools of any kind have been found at the temples. Malta has no mineral resources and the flint and obsidian found in Malta and Gozo were probably imported from the islands of Lipari (north of Sicily) and Pantelleria (south-west of Sicily). After the great blocks of stone were quarried, it is believed that they were transported with rollers and levers to the temple sites. At the building sites, the rollers were exchanged for stone balls so that the massive blocks of stone could be moved in any direction.

The earliest interiors were plastered and painted with red ochre. Later interiors were decorated with intricately carved spirals on steps and altars, friezes of farm animals, fish and snakes, and a simple pattern of pitted dots. Still evident are wall sockets for wooden barriers or curtains and niches for ritual activities. Some of the relief decoration is of such delicate work that it is difficult to understand how it could have been carried out using only stone tools. Artifacts and furnishings (now placed in museums) indicate ancestor worship, oracular and fertility goddess cults. The temples seem to have been used only for ritual activity and not as cemeteries, since no burials have been found. Sacrificial flint knives are among the artifacts discovered in the temples but no human bones were recovered, indicating that sacrifices were solely of animals and not humans.

So far, little research has been conducted on the celestial alignments of the Maltese temples. Further studies are likely to reveal a host of other astronomical orientations. However, one astonishing fact that has emerged from studies held so far, concerns an astronomical/mathematical dating of the temples that is many thousands of years older than that assumed by orthodox archaeology. Hancock writes that, it is well known that the sun’s rising points at the solstices are not fixed but vary with the slowly increasing and then decreasing angle of the earth’s axis in relation to the plane of its orbit around the sun. These changes in what is known technically as the ‘obliquity of the ecliptic’ (presently in the range of 23 degrees 27 minutes) unfold over a great cycle of more than 40,000 years and if alignments are sufficiently ancient, they will incorporate a degree of error, caused by changing obliquity. From the error, it is possible to calculate the exact date of their construction.

In addition to their celestial alignments, the Maltese temples also reveal surprising evidences of mathematical and engineering sophistication. One researcher, Gerald Formosa Megalithic Monuments of Malta, has discovered numerous examples of the so-called Megalithic Yard of 2.72 feet. This mathematical constant, found at megalithic sites throughout the ancient European world, was first brought to scientific attention through the studies of Oxford Professor, Alexander Thom. In Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra, examples of the Megalithic Yard are found in the measurements of the portal stones and in triangles etched on the temple floors.

These astronomical, mathematical, and engineering findings are mostly ignored by orthodox archaeologists because Maltese temple architecture is commonly assumed to have developed previous to and independent of any outside influence. D.H. Trump, a noted expert in archaeology in Malta Malta: An Archaeological Guide, comments that, “That there is nothing looking remotely like one of these temples outside the Maltese islands, so we cannot use ‘foreign influence’ to explain them. The almost complete absence of imported pottery further strengthens the argument.”

But, how then, are we to explain the enigmatic presence of the Megalithic Yard? This undeniable artifact of great antiquity suggests that the temples of Malta, rather than being isolated ruins may in fact be part of a pan-regional (or global) sacred geography.

Another mystery concerns the statues of grossly overweight figures found in many of the Maltese temples. Their pleated skirts, generous thighs and small hands and feet have led them to being called fertility goddess deities. However, they are of indeterminate sex, and furthermore, it has been noticed that the “ladies” have no breasts. As a result, archaeologists have now revised their names to the more accurate term of “obese figures.” D.H.Trump comments that, “It must be admitted at the start that to describe (these obese statues), as is usually done, as a goddess or ‘fat lady’ may be no more than male prejudice. The sex is not explicitly indicated. Corpulence in women is frequently, though mistakenly, held to be a sign of fertility. If we call her a goddess from now on, this is a matter of probability and convenience rather than proof.” Additionally, statuettes of men in skirts, with braided and pig-tailed hair, and numerous examples of carved phalluses, demonstrate that the Maltese temples had a general fertility function that included both masculine and feminine elements. Nonetheless, it is true that certain figurines found in Malta, such as the Sleeping Lady and the Malta Venus, show that the Neolithic people of the island possibly had some sort of specific goddess cult.

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