If there is something that you see a lot of in Malta, it’s stone. Stone houses, stone rubble walls, stone quarries, stone relics, stone temples, and more. In Gozo, the soft golden coloured stone is the trademark of the place. In Malta, it is the witness of time and history. If walls could speak!

The journey of discovery that is to be found in the Maltese Islands, belongs not only to those who seek to explore it, but to human culture for all the world. It is perhaps for this reason that the UNESCO Committee decided to extend the existing cultural property, the "Temple of Ggantija", to include the five prehistoric temples situated on the islands of Malta and Gozo and to rename the property as "The Megalithic Temples of Malta".

Seven megalithic temples are found on the islands of Malta and Gozo, each the result of an individual development. The two temples of Ggantija on the island of Gozo are notable for their gigantic Bronze Age structures. On the island of Malta, the temples of Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Tarxien are unique architectural masterpieces, given the limited resources available to their builders. The Ta'Hagrat and Skorba complexes show how the tradition of temple-building was handed down in Malta.

The sunrise of the first day of the four seasons enters into the Southern temple of Mnajdra and lights up the interior of the building. The ray of sunlight on summer solstice, lights up the edge of a megalith on the left of the entrance chamber. Likewise, on the winter solstice, the sunbeam arrives on a twin megalith on the right of the entrance chamber. On the Equinox days the sunlight goes into the temple and its beam lights up the main axis of the temple.

The spiral designs from the prehistoric temples have become a symbol of Malta itself. Many look alike, but none are exactly alike.


Celebrating an Island Heritage
by Mark Rose

Volume 50 Number 4, July/August 1997

For English archaeologist John Evans, who excavated prehistoric Maltese sites during the late 1940s and 1950s, the Mediterranean islands were "laboratories for the study of culture processes." On Malta the laboratory experiment took an unusual turn. Its Neolithic inhabitants began, like other Neolithic peoples, as simple farmers and herders but ended up building immense stone temples and digging equally immense subterranean sepulchres.

Why this happened and why the temple builders abruptly stopped constructing temples after a millennium defy easy answers. An Anglo-Maltese project directed by David Trump of the University of Cambridge, Simon Stoddart and Caroline Malone (then of the University of Bristol), and the University of Malta's Anthony Bonanno has done much to sort out the evidence. Working on Gozo, they excavated Neolithic huts at Ghajnsielem in 1987 and underground burials, yielding hundreds of thousands of human bones, at Xaghra from 1988 to 1994.

Using the new evidence and that from earlier studies, the Gozo Project archaeologists have devised a theory about how the temple building culture may have risen and collapsed. They see a shift from an early, egalitarian society, to a hierarchical one marked initially by competition among familes in trade with Sicily, followed by competition among chiefdoms in constructing temples for ritual use. Preoccupation with the temples, increasing population, greater agricultural uncertainty stemming from erosion, and declining links to Sicily left the culture on the brink of collapse. In time the temples were abandoned; the fate of their builders remains unknown.

The seventeenth-century antiquarian Gian Francesco Abela, vice-chancellor of the Knights of St. John, has been called the Father of Maltese Historiography for his Descrittione di Malta (1647), and the Founder of the Malta Museum for his antiquities collection, which he willed to the College of Jesuit Fathers in Valletta, stipulating that the objects be kept "in perpetuo...a benefitio de curiosi antiquarii." In 1902 construction workers discovered an underground burial complex, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, and emptied most of its 32 chambers of bones, dumping them in nearby fields.

The Maltese archaeologist Themistocles Zammitt conducted a clean-up excavation at the Hypogeum a few years later, recovering pottery, stone tools, beads and pendants, and figurines of people and animals. Because of these efforts and his excavations at the Tarxien temples from 1915 to 1919, Zammitt earned the epithet Father of Maltese prehistory. After Zammitt, however, Maltese archaeology faltered and work on the islands was dominated by British and Italian scholars. Today, Maltese archaeology is experiencing a rebirth.


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