There is hardly another place in the world richer in archaeological sites than the Maltese islands. In a miniscule landmass comprising all of 316 square kilometres are found around twenty megalithic sites of varying interest and importance, numerous Bronze Age village locations, tombs, dolmens and other relics. The sheer number of sites makes it difficult for anyone to visit them all on a short stay but the major ones are certainly worth more than a cursory look.
Malta’s megalithic culture* flourished roughly between 3600 and 2500 BC, although evidence of human activity in the islands goes back to circa 5,000 BC. Through various phases of development this civilisation eventually built complex, free-standing temples quite unlike any others in mainland Europe or indeed elsewhere. There is very little knowledge of who these people actually were – although the strong likelihood is that they crossed over from Sicily - and there is only a very rough estimate (normally placed at around 10,000) of what the islands’ population might have been at the height of this mysterious culture. Even more intriguing is the fact that all clues point to a sudden collapse of this civilisation, while there is as yet no indication to how this came about; whether through invasion, war, or any other calamity.
The National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta houses a spectacular collection of artefacts ranging from the Neolithic up to the Phoenician (or Punic) period (5000 – 400 BC) and any understanding and appreciation of Malta’s earliest civilization must necessarily start here. On display are the best finds from the various sites: the famous sleeping ladies and other statuary, richly decorated stone blocks, altars, stylized animal reliefs, a vast array of pottery and tools, as well as modern day models of the major temples – all this with informative panels for a better understanding of this unique world heritage. A visit to one or more of the temple sites is a natural follow up to the museum.
The Hagar Qim & Mnajdra Archaeological Park near Qrendi is one of the best sites containing two separate temple complexes 500 metres apart and with a modern interpretation centre. Sited on a rocky outcrop little changed since ancient times, both temples are now covered for protection from the elements. This only minimally diminishes their strong visual impact but certainly helps in their preservation, more so in the case of Hagar Qim which is sited on high ground and constructed of the softer globigerina limestone. The lower Mnajdra temple complex is built of the harder coralline limestone and has weathered better – it is also arguably the most impressively sited of the temples, nestling in a hollow and overlooking the sea across to the islet of Filfla. On top of the hill some 250 metres north of Mnajdra are the so called Misqa Tanks, a group of large water cisterns which probably provided the water supply for the temple complexes.
The Tarxien Temples is a complex of four temples built over a thousand years from 3600 to 2500 BC. The complex’s South Temple has the richest decorations of all the islands’ temples, with highly refined animal friezes and sculpted motifs. Ironically Tarxien was only discovered in the early twentieth century when the local farmers repeatedly encountered large blocks while tilling the land. The site was excavated thoroughly by Sir Themistocles Zammit, Director of Museums at the time, and it was his scientific approach that initiated a proper understanding of the temples civilization. A recently added elevated walkway helps the visitor get a better perspective of this complex site. Sadly Tarxien lacks the isolated majesty of Ggantija or Mnajdra, set as it is among modern housing.
Over in Gozo, the Ggantija Temples in Xaghra are one of the oldest of the temple complexes, dating from 3600 to 3200 BC. The site consists of two adjoining temples with a remarkable use of huge boulders and an impressive façade reaching over six metres in height. An interpretation centre recently added to the site contains some of the most significant finds from prehistoric sites in Gozo.
Close to Ggantija, but up to now inaccessible to the public, is the Xaghra Circle. First recorded in the eighteenth century and tentatively dug and refilled in 1826, this funerary complex was all but lost until re-identified in 1964 and re-excavated in 1987-94. The site probably had a circle of stone blocks above ground (as depicted in old drawings) and a number of pits below which were eventually extended. Ongoing study indicates that over 800 individuals were buried here, making it a true communal cemetery. The site has also revealed some exquisite funerary statuary. The excavations are ongoing and a public opening of the site is not likely in the foreseeable future.
Far more complex but serving a similar purpose is the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Paola, Malta. Discovered in 1902, this is a unique underground monument hewn out of the living rock. The complex consists of a number of rock-cut chambers set on three levels. Amazingly the complex mimics the building style of the temples in an underground setting with the features of the temples carved in the rock instead of constructed. It is also the only site where painted decorations in red ochre have survived. When discovered, the complex housed the bones of around 7,000 burials spanning over a thousand years. The Hypogeum is a highly popular attraction but due to the sensitivity of the site visitor numbers are severely restricted and it is often fully booked more than a month ahead. Sensibly however the Museum of Fine Arts reserves a small number of tickets on last minute basis – naturally at a premium.
The village of Mgarr in Malta hosts two other minor but important temple sites. Ta Hagrat is a small two temple complex, as is Skorba. Neither can claim to be the most attractive of the temple sites and interpretation at Skorba especially is far from easy. Skorba’s importance lies mainly in the wealth of information the site revealed, partly due to the site being one of the last to be properly excavated.
There are other temple sites, often with little tangible remains, which are either freely accessible to the public or with very restricted entrance. Of the latter some mention should be made of Kordin III temple which uniquely of the temple sites displays a rock cut trough possibly used for grinding corn – the only such item of its kind found in the islands.
As mentioned earlier the temple culture appears to have vanished suddenly around 2500 BC. A Bronze Age community filled up the vacuum. Less refined than their ancestors, the culture is defined by a number of sites in easily defended locations, indicating a more warlike people. Several of these sites dot the islands, notably on flat hilltops. Not much remains on the ground at these sites but all are recognisable by storage silos dug in the ground while others retain remnants of protective walls in vulnerable places. One such site is at Il-Wardija ta San Gorg on Dingli cliffs. Surrounded by the cliffs on three sides, the site is more notable for its natural beauty and views than anything else.
One of the biggest mysteries of the Bronze Age era is the so called cart ruts. These are pairs of grooves in the surface rock resembling railway tracks and to date their purpose remains unclear. Cart ruts are found all over the islands with a heavy presence at the aptly called Clapham Junction, where a myriad of the tracks cross a rocky plateau south of Buskett. Dolmens are also a feature of the Bronze Age people; of these a handful are scattered around the islands.
The Phoenicians followed the Bronze Age settlers. It is likely that a Temple of Juno existed at Tas-Silg, a hilltop site overlooking Marsaxlokk. Tas-Silg, an intriguing site occupied by various cultures over a span of centuries, remains sadly closed to the public. Other than this site there are hardly any tangible remains of this seafaring people with the exception of a vast number of tombs scattered all over the islands – some still being discovered to this day.
Malta fell to the Romans in 218BC and seems to have prospered in that time. The Roman Domus in Rabat displays the best of the remains of the era but there are other secondary remains of villas and communal baths in other areas.
Malta entered the realm of Christendom as early as 60 AD when the apostle Paul was reputedly shipwrecked here. The vast burial Catacombs at Rabat are the primary remains of this era.
*The major megalithic temple sites are included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List
Hypogeum images supplied by Heritage Malta
Related pages: Historical Malta