The Maltese Islands have a history that stretches back to some 7000 years. The first settlers from nearby Sicily probably made the sixty mile crossing on rudimentary sea craft but soon enough the settlers developed a culture which is unique and very different from any that developed in Sicily, culminating in the construction of Malta’s unique Neolithic temples. The Neolithic civilization survived for around a thousand years and then seems to have vanished completely. The Neolithic people were followed by what are described as Bronze Age people – also from Sicily but quite a different breed from Malta’s first inhabitants.
Little remains of the Bronze Age era. It is thought that they were a war-like people since Bronze Age settlements are invariably found on easily defended hilltops which are sometimes enhanced with defensive walls – a good example of the latter can be found at Borg in-Nadur in Birzebbuga. Bronze Age sites normally also feature circular storage silos cut in the bare rock.
But the enduring mystery of the Bronze Age are the so-called ‘cart ruts’. Cart ruts are pairs of parallel channels cut into the surface of the rock, often extending for considerable distances. They normally run in straight line. Their exact use remains unknown to this day. One suggestion is that beasts of burden used to pull carts along, and these channels would guide the carts and prevent the animals from straying. Another theory goes that carts with heavy wheels driven repeatedly over the same surface actually eroded the rock – this seems a far less plausible idea.
While similar ruts have occasionally been observed in Sicily, Provence and parts of Libya, these are usually associated with quarrying and their dating can be very varied. The Maltese cart ruts reveal no such clues – they are found both near and far from identified Bronze Age sites; some continue mysteriously for a distance along the seabed while a couple of others seem to fly off from cliff edges!
To add to the confusion some theories maintain that the cart ruts are not Bronze Age era artefacts. Historians have speculated that their origin is earlier (that is the Neolithic era) while a prominent Maltese archaeologist has placed them at the time of the Phoenician colonisation of Malta around the 7th century BC. Whatever the truth – and it is almost impossible to scientifically date the ruts – they are a mainstay feature of Malta’s rocky garigue plateaus and offer yet another spicy ingredient to the islands’ rich history.
The largest set of cart ruts in Malta is found at Ghar il-Kbir to the South of Buskett. Here the ruts are numerous and confusingly some sets cross each other – resembling railway lines at a busy station. Little wonder then that the first British archaeologists who surveyed the area nicknamed the place Clapham Junction – a name which has stuck ever since.
Cat ruts are found all over the Maltese islands and on any trek of some length one is likely to come across a set or two – some continue for a mile or more. Cart ruts can be found in and around Mgarr, Mtahleb, Selmun, Salina, Pembroke, Naxxar and Majjistral Park in Malta while they are present in Gozo at Dwejra, Xewkija, Qala and in good numbers at Ta Cenc.