Neolithic Malta

by Tim Lloyd

Tim started his talk by showing us Malta on a map of the Mediterranean, and telling us how, on this ‘sun, sea and sand’ holiday destination, amazing Neolithic temples have been found, which are, in the words of the Daily Mail, “Older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids”. We looked at a timeline of Malta, starting at 5,200 BC with the arrival of man. From 3,200 BC, Neolithic people built megalithic structures; temples and grave sites, with this coming to an end with the arrival of Bronze Age people in 2,000 BC.

Tim explained that the ‘temples’ were so called because of their design, and because they are the earliest man-made structures found on Malta. Elsewhere in the world, similar structures found early in human history are interpreted as having been used for religious and/or ritual purposes. 

We looked briefly at the Ghar Dalam Cave (5,200-4,500 BC), and at grey and red female figurines from the Skorba Phase (4,500-4,100 BC). We saw a map showing several of the temples on the islands of Malta. One was actually in the grounds of the hotel in which Tim had stayed!

We looked at the temple remains at Ggantija (‘place of the giants’) on Gozo. Named after this site, the Ggantija Phase of temple building is dated 3,600-3,000 BC. We looked at watercolours showing Ggantija in the 1770s, and learned that in 1827 the site had been ‘cleared of debris’, in the process destroying the stratification and losing many artefacts. In 1933, the Government took over the site, and from then on excavation was done by the Museums Department. In 1980 Ggantija became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2011 it was opened to the public. 

We looked at a plan of the two temples at Ggantija, both shaped rather like a 5-lobed leaf, with the stem as the entrance corridor. The apsidal chambers to each side are called ‘chapels’, and the apsidal chamber facing the entrance of the older temple was called the ‘chancel’. In the more recent, smaller temple, there was a small apse with a niche facing the entrance. The temples were enclosed by a megalithic wall, and each entrance had a curved stone facade. We saw photographs of the inside of the temples, showing structures called ‘altars’, which reminded viewers of the stone cupboards at Neolithic Skara Brae, Orkney.

We then looked at the temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, first excavated in 1839, which have been roofed to protect them from the elements. A plan of Hagar Qim showed multiple curved-walled ‘chapels’, seemingly squashed into the available space, with the temple possibly being expanded over time. The entrance trilithon doorway had been reconstructed. Inside were found relief sculptures and extraordinarily carved stones. A ‘Porthole’ doorway was cut through a megalith, and had ‘tie holes’ cut into either side, suggesting it once had a door which could be shut and fastened. The wall stones were more finely cut and fitted than at the older temple of Ggantija. Part of Hagar Qim showed the remains of stone corbelling, and this may have been how the temple was once roofed. One chamber marked the summer solstice, suggesting that the temple, although distinctly ‘ritual’ in design, may have been involved in predicting the seasonal calendar, which would have been of great practical use to Neolithic farmers.

Situated next to Hagar Qim and sharing the roof, was Mnajdra, which has three temples. An aerial view showed that the oldest, smallest temple was in the shape of a 3-lobed leaf, while the other two had four lobes or ‘chapels’, and with niches rather than ‘chancels’ facing the entrance. The central, most recently built temple had an ‘altar’ still in place in its niche. In the forecourt of the three temples was seen a large posthole, called a ‘tethering point’, with a suggested function as a place to tether sacrificial animals. We looked at high quality stonework, and at niches cut neatly into megaliths for unknown purposes. One doorway had its lintel and other nearby stones decorated with an extraordinary pattern of densely packed small pits.

We then looked at Tarxien, one of the last temples to be built on Malta at around 3,000-2,500 BC. An aerial photograph showed us this roofed site situated in an urban area. A plan showed an entrance leading into the first of several double-lobed chambers, all connected to each other by short corridors. There was a separate smaller temple with its own entrance to one side, with both temples lying within an enclosure wall. We learned that during the Bronze Age this structure was used as a cremation cemetery and that later, during the Roman period, the area was used for agriculture.

At Tarxien, as with the other temples, trilithon doorways were seen. Again, the stonework was of very high quality, showing how, as time progressed, the Neolithic stoneworkers became ever more skilful. We saw large stone balls, which Tim told us littered the site, and which were probably used to move the megaliths. We saw a finely made ‘altar’ and relief sculptures of spirals and foliage, as well as a large broken sculpture of a well-built person. One extraordinary spiral-decorated stone had a section neatly cut out, and Tim told us that when the cut stone was removed, there was a small niche behind, where objects could be hidden.

All of the carved stones at temple sites were copies, and at Valletta Museum we saw the originals. Spirals with foliage were a popular design, but animal and fish relief sculptures were also seen. We saw human sculptures, including obviously female figures, and also phallic sculptures. A rather lovely terracotta sculpture, painted with red ochre, of a female reclining on a couch, is called the ‘Sleeping Lady’. She was found in a burial chamber at the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum.

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is an amazing underground structure, built on three levels, the lowest part being 33 feet (10.6m) below ground. Used for Neolithic burials, it has many similarities with the temples, including trilithon doorways and curved-walled chambers. Tim explained that on Malta, people had first buried their dead in natural features such as caves or rock holes in the ground, only later cutting into the rock to make burial chambers. We looked at the ‘Brochtorff‘ Circle on Gozo, which has similar underground burial chambers, with high quality stonework, including corbelled roofs, and red ochre spirals painted on some ceilings.

Tim ended his talk with a list of interesting questions, such as what rituals occurred in the structures, which future research and archaeology may or may not ever answer.

Report by Joan Burrow-Newton

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire