More than 4,500 years ago, one of the most remarkable civilisations of European prehistory came to an end on Malta. For a thousand years, a simple agricultural society on the small Mediterranean island and nearby Gozo, comparable to those in many other areas in Europe and the Near East, built megalithic monuments, temples, which were unparalleled at that time and still spark our imagination. These temples are among the oldest freestanding structures in the world and have been the subject of investigations since the early 19th century, but the precise role they served is still shrouded in mystery, as are the striking, corpulent statuettes found within them and in the islands’ similarly gigantic underground tombs. As the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden presents an exhibition on this extraordinary Neolithic culture, we take a broad look at the archaeology of megalithic Malta over the following pages – not only what is on display at the Dutch exhibition but also what can be found at the museums and sites on the islands themselves.
With a total land area of 316km², the Maltese islands – consisting of Malta itself, the smaller island of Gozo to the north-west, and the tiny island of Comino in between – would comfortably fit into the 572km² Isle of Man, one of the British Isles. Yet despite their small size, the Maltese islands are packed with an impressive density and rich variety of monuments, including some famous UNESCO World Heritage sites. Besides the prehistoric temples and tombs we discuss here, there are also Roman sites, including catacombs; the many fortresses and houses founded by the knights of the Order of Saint John (the Order of Malta), particularly in the capital Valletta; and the heritage associated with British rule, such as the impressive naval base. As well as the attractions of sun and sea, these islands have a lot of culture to offer, characterised by international cross-pollination with Arab, Mediterranean, and British elements. The islands are therefore well worth the trip, not least because visitors can come face-to-face with prehistoric monuments that were built 1,000 years before the great pyramids at Giza. These impressive monuments, which are best experienced up close, were accompanied by a curious cult without parallel. The story begins about 8,000 years ago.
Long before its human occupants arrived, Malta was inhabited by unusual animals, including dwarf elephants (Elephas falconeri), hippopotami, and giant dormice. Their bones are mostly found in the Għar Dalam cave, the ‘Cave of Darkness’, in the south of Malta. The unusual size of these animals is probably related to the isolation of the island and the special path that evolution sometimes takes on islands, as Charles Darwin observed. While not the same as biological evolution, we might assume that the rather special cultural developments that would follow millennia later also owed something to the relative isolation of the Maltese islands. The dwarf elephants, giant dormice, and other prehistoric species were already extinct when the first human inhabitants set foot on Malta around 5900 BC, but traces of these first people were also found in the same cave.
These early farming communities colonised Malta after the emergence of agriculture around 9,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent area in the Middle East, probably reaching the island by boat from nearby Sicily, which, at 90km away, is visible on a clear day. Characteristic pottery decorated with impressions made by objects including cockle shells (called impressed ware) has been found on both Malta and Sicily, further confirming this link. The first farmers on Malta had a way-of-life that involved mixed farming, with cereal (barley, buckwheat, and lentils) being cultivated as well as sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. The soil was fertile and there were plenty of natural resources, including water and wood. At the same time, some objects and raw materials were imported, such as glistening black obsidian from the islands of Lipari and Pantelleria, flint and alabaster from Sicily, and greenstone from northern Italy. The island was therefore never completely isolated and there was always a network of people and goods crossing the Mediterranean and stopping in Malta.
We can draw a broad timeline for the developments within these agricultural societies based on their successive pottery styles. The first of these periods is the Għar Dalam phase (5900-4500 BC), named after the cave and distinguished by its dark pottery; this was also when the earliest figurines depicting animal heads were produced. This is then followed by the Grey Skorba (4500-4400 BC) and Red Skorba (4400-4100 BC) phases, with their grey and then red – coloured with ochre – pottery. It is during the Red Skorba phase that we see the first stylised human figures in clay and stone appear: abstract female figures with a triangular shape, like those found in the later Cycladic figurines. One of the few Neolithic domestic settlements discovered so far was also found at the Skorba site in northern Malta, and consisted of an oval hut with a stone foundation.
There is much we do not know about the world of the living during these periods, but the burial culture, especially in the subsequent Żebbuġ phase (4100-3700 BC), is better understood. Increasingly at this time, people were burying their dead in collective rock-cut tombs that were entered through shafts carved into the limestone. These developed from single chambers to multi-chambered complexes, which were used for many years as cemeteries and ossuaries. What this shift signals is a growing awareness of kinship and community. This spirit of solidarity proved to be an important ingredient for the impressive structures that would soon spread across the island.
From around 3600 BC, Malta and Gozo saw the rise of unprecedented architectural feats, megalithic constructions mainly built from the softer Globigerina limestone that forms the subsoils of most of the islands. This was the start of the Temple Period. The temples, of which there are around 20 remaining, vary considerably in size and dimensions; the biggest, such as those at Tarxien, measure over 8,000m². They are complex structures that required considerable planning and organisation, and the input – both time and energy – of many people and animals. The largest blocks are over 6m tall and weigh more than 20 tonnes, so even moving them would be a significant undertaking.
The exact origins of these giant structures remain unknown, but there seems to be a continuation from the round huts, like the one at Skorba. Some of the huts may have developed into communal structures, which we should interpret as above-ground, non-funerary parallels to the multi-chambered rock-cut tombs. The temples mainly have rounded forms and most of them have three apses, but sometimes there are five or even six apses. Over time, there is a trend of them becoming more and more elaborate, with the temples at Tarxien, in southern Malta, forming the absolute pinnacle of design and complexity. First discovered by local farmers in 1914 and then excavated a year later, the Tarxien complex has four structures. One, the Central Temple, boasts a unique six-apse plan, while another, the South Temple, is highly decorated with carvings. Some areas of other temples across Malta were also lavishly decorated with animals and spirals carved into stone slabs.
Both at Tarxien and at other temple sites, there is also an exciting interplay between the outer and inner space. Often there is a forecourt that could accommodate larger groups, while the interior of the temple has altars, passages, and partitions that indicate that not everyone was allowed inside, at least not all of the time. Several small models of temples and rock carvings suggest that the temples could have a (partial) stone or wooden roof, but what they more clearly demonstrate is the thorough planning and organisation involved in designing and building these structures, perhaps under (religious) leadership, and that large groups shared the same monumental goal.
Yet we do not know what beliefs these groups shared or what they worshipped in and around the complexes. Traces of fire, as well as a flint knife and animal bones in a hidden space in one of the altars at the Tarxien complex, hint at offerings and sacrifices. In addition, large vessels and bowls and numerous figures have been discovered, with the largest stone statue standing 2m high. The imposing nature of this skirted statue, of which only the lower half remains, and its position immediately upon entering the South temple, hints at some type of ritual.
A further hint as to the use of the temples comes from their position in the landscape. Some temples, like the one at Mnajdra on Malta’s southern coast, show a clear orientation in relation to the sky. Here, on the equinoxes and on the solstices, the rising sun falls through the doorway onto decorated stone blocks. A stone block with star-shaped engravings from the Tal-Qadi temple also seems to reference the heavenly bodies and the seasons. This could be an important clue to the skyward outlook of the communities behind the temples, since tracking celestial bodies and monitoring seasons is quite common in and useful to Neolithic agricultural societies (think of Stonehenge). It makes sense, then, to consider the temples and the effort in raising and maintaining them as very likely related to the worship of powers or gods associated with the land and the success of agricultural life, and with marking important moments in the calendar.
What is clear as well is that the temples, six of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites, were the domain of the living – unlike some of the other megalithic structures on the islands, particularly the two impressive hypogea (colossal underground burial chambers), where the dead were interred and visited for centuries. In Gozo, from as early as c.4000 BC, the site known as the Xagħra stone circle held the remains of between 400 and 700 individuals, and sculptures of various sizes in rock chambers. Among these figures is a remarkable family-group that seems to depict the human life-cycle from infant to elder. Back on Malta, there is the Ħal Saflieni hypogeum at Paola (also a UNESCO World Heritage site, visitable with advance booking), which was uncovered during the construction of a cistern in 1902. Also starting around 4000 BC, the hypogeum housed the remains of several thousands of deceased people – and evidence of their burial customs – across three different levels. Some of the walls and ceilings are decorated with beautiful spiral motifs in red ochre, and carvings similar to the ornamentation of temples of the same date.
It remains unclear what rituals we should imagine took place within the temples and tombs. But in both places, figurines and statues were found, ranging from the colossal statue from the South Temple at Tarxien, almost 2m in height, to minute figurines carved out of bone, just 4mm in stature. Many of these sculptures – whether towering or tiny – have exaggeratedly corpulent shapes: wide hips, thick thighs and stomachs, and legs and arms with distinctive indications of body fat. It is curious that, with one exception, the head is normally missing; most figurines have a socket in which a head may be attached, but while isolated heads have been found, none fit the existing bodies.
The figures are often depicted standing or sitting, occasionally lying down, and sometimes wearing a pleated skirt; the separate heads tend to have short, bobbed hair. Some of the figurines are very realistic, while others are strikingly abstract and would not be out of place in a modern art gallery. It seems that real sexual characteristics (the breasts and the vagina) are usually lacking, although there are several other figurines that appear distinctly female, so these artists could clearly sculpt a woman if they wanted to. The most beautiful example of these female figurines is the Sleeping Lady, without a doubt the hallmark piece of Malta’s Neolithic culture. This statuette of a woman in repose was discovered in the Ħal Saflieni hypogeum (leading to some suggestions that she represents death or eternal sleep) and can now be viewed at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta (a replica is on display in the Leiden exhibition). Measuring just 12cm in length, the object is full of detail, with the woman in a lifelike pose, sleeping on her side with one arm curled up towards her head. She is naked from the waist upwards and her skirt is decorated in an embroidery-like design. The underside of the bed, which sags under the weight of the person on top, was also executed with a close eye for detail, offering a glimpse at Neolithic furniture.
Because of their remarkable appearance, these sculptures used to be called ‘fat ladies’, but what they actually represented is still under question. More recently the hypothesis that these corpulent figures could be sexless, and therefore potentially portraying any human, regardless of gender, has been offered. But who or what did they represent? The short answer is that we still don’t know. However, the fulsome forms can be viewed as a sign of fertility, prosperity, or abundance, as can some phallic objects and animal figurines from the same period also found at the temples and tombs on the islands. As symbols of fertility, the corpulent forms would then signify the well-being of the land and of the people – individuals as well as the community as a whole. Such a role complements the aforementioned focus on seasons, the sun, and cycle of the year, and forms a logical part of the Neolithic world view. Whether we will ever get closer than this to the exact meaning remains to be seen.
In any case, these abundant body shapes do not reflect the reality of the bodies that we know from studies of the many skeletal remains found in the hypogea of these farming communities. As has been attested from physical anthropological research of these remains, the individuals were lean, muscled and sinewy people who were used to hard work. We might suppose, then, that if these corpulent individuals depicted in statuettes were not simply conjured up in the imagination, but did actually exist, they likely had a ritual or symbolic role in society and were perhaps even cared for and revered, or brought offerings in the temples, similar to temple-priests in some modern-day religions. For now, this is just speculation.
The abundance that these bodies may represent did not last indefinitely. The temples and tombs fell into disuse, and a few intentionally destroyed statues and traces of fire suggest that Malta was abandoned deliberately around 2500 BC. But why? One possible cause for the abandonment is the depletion of the soil and natural resources. Research on the island has found evidence that points to large-scale deforestation, erosion, and decreasingly fertile soil due to overuse. Given the increasing success of these communities, the probable increase in population that ensued could easily have overstressed the capacity of the tiny island of Malta, leading to a sudden demise, like the one on Rapa Nui much later on. Sadly, after 1,000 years, one of the most striking prehistoric cultures had come to an end. For about a century, it seems the islands were uninhabited until people settled again in the Bronze Age and left their traces both in and near some of the Neolithic monuments.
Luckily, the remains of Malta’s prehistoric temples and the related sculptures have survived to tell a story. They show what groups of people – communities – are capable of, and that small-scale farming societies could rise above themselves and build monuments that still inspire awe. The corpulent figurines are enduring emblems of their success and well-being. At the same time, some of the small figurines appear to be very personal and intimate. They show us that the Neolithic inhabitants were people with similar feelings and concerns as us. A 2cm-tall figurine of two people embracing each other in the Leiden exhibition is a particularly illustrative example of this touching and recognisable side to the objects and the vanished prehistoric civilisation they represent. Through the megalithic temples and finds like this, Malta unites the grand and the monumental with the small and the human, the divine with the earthly, and the eternal with the ephemeral.
Further information: Temples of Malta runs at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden, Netherlands until 31 October 2021. For more information, visit the museum website, rmo.nl The exhibition is a collaboration with Heritage Malta and the National Museum of Archaeology, Malta. For more information on visiting the sites and museums of Malta and Gozo, see heritagemalta.org