April 23, 2017. As promised, the theme for today’s memories of Malta is prehistoric peoples and pagans. Now before you begin yawning on me, I guarantee that the photos and stories of Malta’s catacombs and megalithic temples (think Stonehenge on steroids) will rock your world, bad pun intended. Jaw-dropping is the only way to describe them. And I bet that by the end of this post, you’ll be booking your next vacay to see this stuff with your own eyes.
Malta’s stone temples were a prime motivator in our own vacation plans. As an architect, Matthew loves looking at building designs and construction techniques from just about any era. And I’m an archaeology buff (my degree is in Near Eastern archaeology, meaning ancient Palestine and the people who passed through it, like the Egyptians, Assyrians, Hittites, Romans, etc.)
Despite my original focus on ancient literate cultures, for quite a while now I’ve been fixated on folks who lived before written history. I think my obsession started about ten years ago, while we were in Scotland on the Orkney Isles at the site of Skara Brae.The fact that Stone Age Europeans could create such a surprisingly sophisticated apartment complex — one I’d happily live in today — totally blew my mind. And made me question the idea that Fred Flintstone was merely a fictitious cartoon character.
So for those of you who think prehistoric people all lived in caves and ran around clubbing their dinner dates over the head with giant drumsticks, the Megalithic Temples of Malta will come as quite a shock. These masterpieces of ancient architecture are incredibly refined, with elaborate cloverleaf floor plans and intricate ornamentation, all done with stone and bone tools (no handy-dandy metal chisels), and all on a stupefying scale. Many of the exterior walls alone have blocks that measure over 10 feet tall and weigh more than two tons. Hence, the term megalithic, meaning “great stone.”
Before I dive into the details of each temple complex, I thought you might like some “big-picture” facts to put everything into perspective. First, there are around 30 stone temples located all over Malta. They typically occur in groups, with slight stylistic changes that indicate each was built in different phases over time. (The one human constant: fashion changes.) Due to their architectural uniqueness, age, and what they reveal about early human societies, seven of these complexes are currently listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
You’ll find these cloverleaf temples only on Malta, which is why some archaeologists theorize that the island may have held a special status as a sacred place for folks from mainland Sicily, who began settling there around 5200 B.C. All of the temples date to between 3600 and 2500 B.C. (the Late Neolithic / New Stone Age), and together, they’re considered the oldest free-standing structures in the world. For comparison, the Egyptian pyramids could be considered mid-lifers, dating only to around 2600 B.C., while Stonehenge is virtually a youngster, dating to 2000 B.C.
Ummm, and about that term “temple.” Truthfully, archaeologists don’t know exactly what these buildings were used for. It’s safe to assume that moving such large stones to build such a huge structure required long-term planning and a significant number of people. And spending so much manpower, time, and energy on one edifice likely meant it served the entire community. Yep, it could have acted as the town hall. But the artifacts found inside — such as charred animal bones, altar-like tables, markers for tracking astronomical events, and massive “fat folk” statues — suggest that these buildings also served a ritual or religious purpose.
Okay, so that’s your quickie overview, now lets delve into the individual sites themselves. By the way, should you get sick of my soliloquy on temples, feel free to scroll down to the paragraphs on Malta’s mysterious prehistoric “cart ruts” that run across the islands like Peru’s Nazca lines. Or check out the catacombs at the end of this page. (Catacombs buried at the bottom, get it? Whoa, I’m on a roll with the bad puns today.) One more thing: this is the longest post I’ve written yet, so you might want to take a bathroom break before sitting down to read. What can I say? I love this topic so much that I just can’t shut up about it.
The Ġgantija Temple Complex
With its two buildings having been constructed between 3600 and 3200 B.C., Ġgantija is the oldest of Malta’s temple complexes. The site’s name comes from the Maltese word ġgant, meaning “giant,” because local legend has it that a giantess who ate only broad beans and honey built the oversized edifices. (I’m wondering if the broad-bean-and-honey detail is modern man’s attempt to explain the kidney-bean shape and honeycomb nature of each structure.) Ġgantija’s design seems to have set the tone for Malta’s temple-building tradition, as all the island’s megalithic monuments thereafter share the same basic cloverleaf shapes, general layouts, and construction methods. Click through the gallery below for more fun facts and photos of Ġgantija from our visit….
An aerial shot reveals the construction methods and beehive nature of the Ġgantija Temple Complex. An outer wall surrounds the two temples, their inner walls define their individual, D-shaped lobes or apses, and the space in between the inner and outer walls is filled with rock rubble and dirt. This method of locking the inner and outer walls together with infill strengthens the structure and allows it to be freestanding without the use of mortar. Aerial photo by Joe P. Borg, Heritage Books, Heritage Malta
Taking a closer look at Ġgantija’s actual floor plan, you can see the traits that all Maltese megalithic temples share. Each has a concave façade that faces an elliptical front courtyard. Two central walkways lead into the two temples and form the “stems” of their “five-leafed-clover” shape. Because the temples’ interior rooms are so small, archaeologists speculate that only priests or elites entered these chambers. The front courtyards themselves possibly served as gathering places for big crowds (the congregation) during community rites. Illustration: Heritage Books, Heritage Malta.
Look closely at the back wall of the Ġgantija Temple Complex, and you’ll see another common temple trait: “header-and-stretcher” construction — blocks that lie with their long side stretching out along the ground, alternating with blocks that stand upright (called “orthostats.”) This pattern allows the orthostats to tie in with the rubble behind the wall, strengthening the entire structure without the use of mortar.
The Ġgantija Temples lie in a fertile plain that tells the story of how their builders lived. These folks were farmers and herdsmen (notice all the grains); not just hunters and gatherers. They grew several kinds of cereals, which gave some fiber (and some carbs) to their Stone Age menu. So much for the supposed Paleo diet plan….
We’re standing in the central corridor that links the lobed apses together in the South Temple. In other words, as you pass through the front door, you’ll travel along a walkway that leads directly to an apse at the end of the building, facing the door. But as you travel, you’ll pass two semi-circular apses on your left-hand side and two on your right-hand side. Again, the corridor acts like the stem of a five-leafed clover, or better yet, imagine traveling down the spine of a body with two fat arms and two fat legs topped by a head.
The interior front door, which was probably made of wood, seems to have had some sort of locking system. These holes may have held brackets for wooden beams that could be placed across the door to bar it from being opened. Look closely at the bottom holes, and you’ll also see traces of red ochre paint that originally covered the temple’s plastered walls. Archaeologists think that red was a sacred color in Neolithic art and symbolized death.
The first apse on your right-hand side contains parts of the “torba” floor, which steps up through a series of standing stones. Torba is a kind of plaster floor made from crushed limestone that’s spread over rubble, then wetted and beaten until it forms a shiny, hard surface — ancient linoleum 😉
Look closely at the block to the left of the apse step. It’s marked with spiral, snaky patterns that often decorate parts of these temples. A similar stone, which has now been moved into Malta’s National Museum of Archaeology for protection, shows a beautifully carved snake. Snakes are common motifs in Stone Age sacred spaces and are thought to represent the underworld, death, and rebirth. The association comes from the fact that snakes have a habit of slithering into holes in the earth and shedding their skin.
As you walk through the South Temple, the second apse on your right-hand side holds a circular stone hearth on the floor that shows signs of having been seared and fired over a long time by continuous heat. Perhaps it acted like a kind of “eternal flame?”
Continuing your walk through the South Temple, the second apse on the left holds three typical Maltese Neolithic “altars” made up of trilithons — two vertical stones topped by a horizontal lintel. The shape may have inspired the development of the “dolmen,” a pi-shaped grave marker built by later Bronze Age peoples all across Europe (i.e. Stonehenge). Animal bones found buried under altars like these hint that animal sacrifices may have been part of rituals practiced within the temples.
Notice the central corridor’s flagstone paving and the “libation hole” in the threshold that steps up to the central apse at the head of the South Temple. Archaeologists think that priests or priestesses may have poured water — as well as blood from animal sacrifices — through these holes into the earth during seasonal rituals to ensure a good harvest and an increasing herd.
The Ħaġar Qim Temple Complex Probably the most atmospheric of all the temple complexes, Ħaġar Qim commands an amazing view out over the Mediterranean and is surrounded by a scrubby, wildflower-covered landscape known as garrigue. A nearby nature trail makes it a great place to hike, and the path leads to another awesome temple, so you get two sites for the price of one.
The Ħaġar Qim complex itself is made up of three temples spread out over a campus. The large Main Temple is the most unusual, with a series of “chapels” that were added over time to one side of the original cloverleaf shape. Fantastical elements such as “oracle holes,” porthole doors, fancy freestanding altars, and a solstice-tracking aperture, make Ħaġar Qim well worth a visit, as you’ll see in the photo gallery below.
From this angle, you can see the concave shape of the Main Temple’s façade, as well as the forecourt in front of it. The entire face of the building has been positioned atop a platform that may have helped to level the floor for construction. But notice how this platform creates a bench? Perhaps it also provided seating during town gatherings and seasonal rituals.
Check out the classic “trilithon” (3-stone) doorway, made of two upright “orthostats” crowned by a third horizontal lintel. Look closely at the huge flat stones lying on either side of the doorway, and you’ll see that each has a round hole in it. It’s possible that these holes acted as pivot points for big wooden gates that swung across the opening. Or, the cavities may have been “libation holes” where folks poured liquid offerings during rituals.
All of Malta’s temples are constructed with types of limestones that naturally fracture into blocks, so the builders didn’t have to do a lot of sawing with their simple stone tools. Ħaġar Qim is built of Globigerina limestone carried from nearby. This kind of limestone is softer, which means it’s more susceptible to weathering. That’s why the temple now sports a protective tent over it. Look closely at the bottom of the rock and you’ll see clues as to how the builders moved the stones and then pinned them into place.
This illustration shows you how the builders likely moved the large blocks to construct Malta’s temples. First, the blocks were rolled along the ground using round stones like ball bearings. Eventually, the base of each block was notched to accept the “ball bearings,” which acted as pivot points when levering the block into place and positioning it. Once the blocks were seated, other oddly-shaped stones were stuck into the notches to anchor the blocks and keep them from tipping over. In the previous photo, you can see these notches and their “plugs.” Who says prehistoric people weren’t too bright?
Ħaġar Qim’s Main Temple (center) still has a cloverleaf shape at its entrance, but additional lobes were tacked onto its western side over the years. They may have served as side chapels or shrines.
Many of the apses have raised “porthole” doorways positioned at odd angles from one another, so that someone entering the room can’t peek into the next chamber through another porthole. If you look closely, you’ll see notches on either side of this porthole. These holes probably served as the lashing points for screens or doors made of thatch, hide, or wood. To the left of the porthole is a depression or dimple in the stone, used for holding a round-bottomed libation jar, several of which were found at the site. In the foreground is a fabulous freestanding altar that’s decorated with what looks like a potted plant or tree. (This one’s a reproduction; the original is in the National Museum of Archaeology.)
In one of the Main Temple’s first apses, archaeologists found this “Venus de Malta.” Interestingly, most experts no longer think that fat women always represent pregnancy; these voluptuous ladies likely symbolized abundance and prosperity. (“Fat = health and wealth” is a common theme throughout history.) By the way, the rich modeling of flesh shows that, despite their supposed Paleo diet, these people were intimately familiar with the realities of being overweight; obesity isn’t theoretical to them.
These four “fat folk” figures were found in Apse 2. They may represent a later stage in the design of obese figures because they have no identifiable gender and have been reduced to standard poses and body forms. They could embody gods, goddesses, or leaders, or they might merely be symbols of prosperity. However, the fact that their heads were removable (many heads have been found separately) may imply that they were interchangeable so that individual features of different gods or leaders could be represented. Then again, maybe it was just safer to add the fragile, free-standing head after the heavy body had been moved into place.
Another of the Main Temple’s apses held a trilithon altar (now braced by metal scaffolding) next to two free-standing, anvil-shaped altars, each carved from a single stone. Many charred animal bones were recovered next to these altars. However, no human bones or burials have ever been found within any of the Maltese temples, although cemeteries from later periods have intruded into the ruins. (In other words, no, the people who built these temples did not practice human sacrifice.)
This apse is unbelievably intact, making it easy to see how the walls step in gradually to create a corbeled ceiling. And notice the elliptical hole at the back of the room. During the summer solstice, the rising sun’s rays penetrate this opening from the outside of the temple and illuminate the apse’s interior. The light first appears as a crescent shape that hits the upright slab on the left. Then, as the sunbeam travels down the slab and across the floor, it becomes a full disc. Eventually it slims down to a sliver until it disappears at the base of the wall.
A model of a Maltese megalithic temple, found elsewhere, shows how the roof of these temples were made. The stepped walls created corbels that supported a beamed ceiling of wood, stone, thatch, or brushwood coated with clay.
In this photo of an exterior, open-air chapel or shrine, you can just barely see the “Solstice Hole” visible in the earlier photo. It’s hidden behind the altar pillar on the right side, towards the bottom. Archaeologists think that, in addition to tracking the solstices, the hole may have been used as an “oracle mouthpiece” so that sounds or voices from the interior apse could issue forth mysteriously to the exterior chapel. The triangular altar table you see in the center here is the only one of its kind in all of the Maltese temples.
The Mnajdra Temple Complex
A five-minute walk downhill from Ħaġar Qim will bring you to the Mnajdra Temple Complex — another astronomical observation hotspot. The doorway and altar within the Main Temple work together as a kind of solar calendar by marking solstices and equinoxes, while a nearby smaller temple holds an altar for tracking the movements of stars and constellations. Hey, when you’re a farmer, it’s pretty vital to keep tabs on the change of seasons. Still think Stone Age people were all non-literate idiots? Check out the photo gallery below or my video walkthrough, and I bet you’ll change your mind.
The façade of Mnajdra’s South Temple is concave and opens out onto a paved courtyard, just like the temples at Ħaġar Qim. This South Temple also sits on a similar raised foundation that forms a kind of bench. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun blazes a path through the front door and down the corridor until it hits the altar along the back wall of the rear apse.
Notice the crystalline vein that runs along the stone threshold of the South Temple. This fancy rock was probably purposefully chosen as the gateway to the “Solar Chapel.”
Peering through this classic trilithon doorway, you can see the altar that gets lit up by the sun’s rays on the equinoxes.
The first apse on the left-hand side of the South Temple entry contains another porthole door, which leads to a tiny cloverleaf-shaped room. Check out the incredible pitmark decoration on the stonework — the divots are drilled in horizontal rows, a little like a golfball’s surface. The Mnajdra Temples are made of coralline limestone, which is harder than the Globigerina limestone at Ħaġar Qim. It’s more difficult to carve, but details can be finer and aren’t as susceptible to being worn away by rain and climate changes.
A closer view through the pitted porthole shows you a portion of one of the two unusual double-tiered altars at the back of the next apse.
The first apse on the left-hand side of the South Temple is incredibly intact, making it much easier to see how the walls stepped inward gradually to create a corbeled ceiling. The niches lead to other apses and may have acted as “oracle holes.”
The Center Temple is elevated on a paved platform and can be accessed only through the porthole door behind Matthew — it’s the biggest porthole door found in any of Malta’s megalithic temples.
Look closely at the porthole door on the right to see the holes that were used to lash a screen or covering over the doorway. To the left is an odd opening that combines both a trilithon (3-stone) door and a porthole door, which lead to a tiny niche. This trilithon / porthole door can be seen on the Maltese 5-, 2-, and 1-Euro coins. The metal apparatus on the right tracks changes in temperature, humidity, etc. Back in 1994, heavy rainfall led to the collapse of a wall in this chamber, so Malta’s Heritage Parks monitor the temples’ environments to better protect them.
The tiny East Temple has an entrance that leads to a kind of altar flanked by stones that track other astronomical phenomena.
Look closely, and you can see lines of drilled holes that measure the positions of stars and constellations. Again, Stone Age people were no dummies. Accurately observing and predicting changes in the natural world is pretty important when your livelihood depends upon it.
The Tarxien Temple Complex
Okay, only one more temple complex, I promise. Some might even say I’ve saved the best for last. Tarxien represents the final phase of the temple-building tradition, where the cloverleaf shape gets multiplied into a chain of apses more ornately decorated than any that had come before. The site also gives us a glimpse into what may have happened to the builders. It seems that foreigners, with metal tools and new ways of living, moved into the neighborhood and transformed Tarxien into a cremation cemetery. Whether the temple-builders themselves had already relocated, died off, been killed off, or simply blended in with their new neighbors is unclear. But luckily, these prehistoric people left behind some great edifices to remember them by.
This floor plan shows you the four temples found at Tarxien. As you can see, the layout is quite complex because they were renovated and added onto over the years. The oldest temple (but most poorly preserved) is Tarxien Far East, which dates to the same time as the Ġgantija Temples (3600 – 3200 B.C.) It keeps the classic five-leafed-clover shape. Tarxien South dates from 3000 – 2500 B.C. and began with a four-leafed-clover shape that was altered and expanded over time to create a passageway to the Central Temple, which has a one-of-a-kind layout with six apses rather than the usual four or five. The East Temple dates to 3150 – 2500 B.C. and may also have been altered to connect with Tarxien Central. Illustration: Heritage Books, Heritage Malta.
I had to toss in this photo of all the “ball bearings” that were found at Tarxien. These are the rollers that the builders used to maneuver the giant blocks of stone into place. For more details, check out the illustration provided in the Mnajdra photo gallery.
A panoramic of the first apse in Tarxien South shows you how it oddly mimics the exterior façade of the temple, with a concave shape. You can also see how ornate the carvings became, with double pairings of spirals that look almost like waves on the ocean. (For a closeup, click past the next photo.) Spirals are found in many Maltese temples, but these are the most elaborate and finely etched of all. Clearly, the stone-working technologies of these prehistoric people had improved over the centuries.
Within the same apse shown in the previous image is a block carved with farm animals — rams, a sow, and a bull. Drawings like these, and animal bones found within Tarxien and other temple complexes, tell us that the prehistoric people who originally immigrated from Sicily brought their domesticated farm animals with them in their boats. Sounds a little like a prehistoric ark, doesn’t it?
And speaking of boats, the tall standing stones on the right side are the ones with the ship grafitti that I highlighted earlier in this posting. Some folks say that the image depicts the temple-builder’s original migration from Sicily. But others think it may depict an invasion by Bronze Age people, who moved into the area after the temple-building period. And look closely at the spiral ornamentation — pretty amazing considering it was done only with stone tools.
Across the corridor from the apse decorated with spirals is this ornate room. (To see a full panoramic of it, take a look at the top of this page.) Beneath the trilithon / porthole niche, an altar has had a chunk cutout of it to create a cubbyhole with a plug. When archaeologists pulled out the plug, they found a collection of burnt sheep and ox bones, marine shells, bits of pottery, a long bone spatula, thirteen flint flakes, and a 4.5-inch-long flint knife (11.4 cm). Yep, animal sacrifice seems to have been likely here.
Tarxien South’s central corridor ends at an apse that has a raised platform, almost like a stage. The altar in this photo sits atop that platform, so that any rituals conducted in front of it would be in full view of everyone standing in the central corridor. Small niches in the apse to the left of the platform contained the bones and horns of cattle, sheep, and goats. The apse to the right has a small chamber or shrine with a series of recesses that were also packed with stacked animal bones, stone mortars, and stone weights.
Along the apse that leads from Tarxien South to Tarxien Central, a narrow passage provides entrance into an L-shaped chamber with cruder carvings than found elsewhere in the temple. One megalith holds an image of two bulls facing each other. You can see one here, just above the square opening. Along the floor of this chamber is a round paving stone that can be lifted to access a pit. Maybe a well of some kind?
In the same chamber is my favorite, a carving of a sow with suckling piglets. It’s much easier to see in person, but squint your eyes and I think you can just make out her little porker head and the row of babies attached to her belly.
Just outside another door to the bull-and-sow chamber is a stairway with some beautiful vessels. Interestingly, the stairs imply that there was once a second floor to the temple.
Stepping into the first apse on the left side of Tarxien Central, you’ll find an enormous bowl originally carved from one hunk of rock. Archaeologists think that it may have been used for burned votive offerings, as both it and the wall behind it have turned a deep, pinkish red from prolonged exposure to heat.
Tarxien Central has six apses rather than four or five. After you pass the first two, you must step up and over the spiral stone seen above to get to the other four apses. The spiral here is a reproduction; the original is at the National Museum of Archaeology. Also notice the white base of the megalith on the right. When conservation was done back in the 1950s, concrete was used to repair or replace stones that were crumbling or missing. In the foreground, you can just make out a hearth. With all the fires being lit in this area, archaeologists think that this apse wasn’t roofed over so that the smoke to escape.
The foreigners who launched the Early Bronze Age in Malta (2300-1500 B.C.) brought with them new pottery styles, metal tools (copper first, bronze would come later), new burial practices, and new iconography. These discoid figurines found buried with Bronze-Age cremated bodies at Tarxien reveal that “fat folks” had been supplanted by a more abstract body type. Incidentally, Malta’s Stone Age population appears to have lived peaceful lives, with no signs of warfare. But the Bronze Age newcomers were clearly more warlike, as their weapons and defensive fortresses attest.
Yes, that’s a fancy bunny in the middle of the temple. Someone must’ve gotten sick of their pet rabbit and dropped it off here. Supposedly the park staff are now feeding and caring for it. Forget the “fat folks,” let’s make this bunny the new park mascot. It’s so cute, I just had to stick in this photo.
The temples themselves aren’t the only ancient mysteries on Malta. A surprising number of so-called “cart ruts” lace the islands, giving the landscape a sort of Nazca-line look from the air. But unlike Peru’s glyphs, Malta’s furrows don’t create pretty pictures. They seem to wander fairly randomly, except in places like Misraħ Għar il-Kbir, where the tracks cluster so heavily that the site has been nicknamed “Clapham Junction” after London’s busiest train station.
Questions abound and debates rage over who, what, when, and why the ruts were made. And of course, extraterrestrial activity is always suspect. (You knew that was coming, right? If we don’t understand how humans were capable of achieving something, we blame it on aliens. Sure shows a lot of confidence in us as a species.) So Matthew and I spent some time pondering the probabilities while exploring the site.
An absolutely idyllic spot for a stroll, the place was strewn with wildflowers. Every step we took released the smell of tiny thyme and rosemary plants beneath our feet. Without a doubt one of the most tranquil moments of our trip. We didn’t solve any archaic riddles, but we did run across Punic tombs, ancient stone quarries, and the foundations of old fortresses that littered the landscape (and also provided clues about the site’s history.) For more info, check out our photos below.
Probably the most basic question is: what made the ruts? Sledges, carts, or travois? We might rule out sledges with runners, which couldn’t have made tracks with such a high center lane or a fluctuating distance between the ruts. (All over Malta, two ruts that run parallel together as a single track aren’t always equidistant from each other. The track can become narrower or wider, and not in any predictable way.) Wheeled carts with a central axis might also have a bit of a problem creating and negotiating such a variable track.
An artist has tried to capture the two most likely conveyances used to create the ruts: a wheeled cart and a travois fitted with stone “shoes.” The only problem is that tracks made by animals pulling a vehicle usually show some kind of treaded pathway in the middle, where the animal walked repeatedly. No such treads are found in any of Malta’s tracks. One explanation is that there was more grass and ground cover at the time, or than humans, with their more variable gaits, pulled the load. Illustration: Heritage Books, Heritage Malta.
Why are the ruts in the same track so unevenly worn? (The left one varies in depth, shape, and size from the one on the right.) The difference could be due to the type of vehicle, the weight of the load, the frequency of use, and/or the terrain itself. Studies have shown that when Maltese limestone is wet, it loses 80% of its strength. So wherever storms have left standing water, the rock beneath the topsoil and vegetation weakens in that spot until the area dries. Erosion would occur unevenly, making some portions of the tracks deeper than others. And why so many tracks? Maybe when ruts got too deep and uneven, folks blazed a new trail.
So who made the tracks and how old are they? It’s hard to tell. Some tracks act like service roads, acknowledging ancient building by running right up to or around them. (Some tracks seem to lead to prehistoric villages and caves, Bronze-age fortresses, and Roman villas.) This might mean that the roads and structures are the same age. In other cases, like this Punic Tomb (Phoenician, 7th – 2nd centuries B.C.), a building gets plopped down right on top of a set of tracks, obliterating or interrupting them, so that the path continues on the other side. This might tell us that the track is older than the structure. Truth is, probably many cultures helped create different sets of tracks over time.
Where the tracks lead can tell us more about when they were made, and who used them. Tracks leading to these tombs could mean that the people who built them also made the tracks. Then again, it might be that folks from a much later time period created the tracks in order to access the old tombs as quarries. Also, in many instances, tracks run into the sea or right off of a cliff. This tells us that those tracks were made much earlier, before sea level rose and tectonic events like earthquakes changed the landscape. (Malta sits on a fault line between the Eurasian and African continental plates.)
Lots of archaeologists theorize about what was being transported along the tracks (i.e. water, food, goods, stone, etc.) Most agree that the weight of the load contributed to the depth of the tracks. In the background is a big clue. A modern quarry. Clapham Junction has the largest deposit of Upper Coralline Limestone (the hardest and most durable stone) on the eastern part of the island of Malta. It’s not hard to imagine that over the millennia, many cultures have found this a prime spot for mining their building blocks.
While wandering around, Matthew and I came across several old quarries. A bit of reading up later confirmed that these date from different time periods: Roman, Medieval, etc. The size of the stones excavated here seem to match the size of the blocks used in Neolithic temples. However, coralline limestone fractures naturally at joints of this size. Folks have probably been mining these same rock beds, using these same fracture planes, and reshaping the blocks to meet their architectural preferences for millennia.
Viewing Clapham Junction from the sky, certain patterns aren’t hard to see. Multiple tracks lead from the quarry beds to a main thoroughfare that is worn more deeply. Imagine the place as a depot, where quarried stone was being carried from rows in each bed to a main road that ended at a construction site. Not to kill the mystery, but this to me seems the most likely scenario for the tracks. Especially considering that stone has been the major construction material on Malta since early Neolithic peoples depleted the island of most of its forests. Aerial photo by Daniel Cilia, Heritage Books, Heritage Malta.
Last but not least, we come to Malta’s catacombs. Subterranean cemeteries have been the premier burial preference for many different cultures that have peopled the islands over the years. Why would folks spend so much time and effort excavating these tunnels? Limited territory often forced locals to bury their dead far below ground in order to preserve valuable farmland. And tiny Malta has lots of soft, easy-to-excavate limestone that is often perforated by natural caves, which gave grave diggers a head start. Carving out crypts for the final resting place of your loved ones seems like a no-brainer.
One of Malta’s most spectacular catacombs is the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, which consists of three levels of interconnecting tombs dating from 4000 to 2500 B.C. When archaeologists first discovered the place, the body count here ran pretty high, with an estimated 7,000 people having been interred over the ages. (The skeletons have since been removed from the site.) Interestingly, many of the crypt façades resemble Malta’s megalithic temples, with trilithon openings, porthole doors, and a cloverleaf layout. The theory is that the earliest tombs took advantage of natural honeycomb-like cavities in the limestone for burying the dead, and this pattern later inspired the basic temple floor plan. (Interestingly, only a few Neolithic settlements have been found on Malta so far, but these also favored lobe-shaped wooden houses.)
Now that I’ve psyched you up for Ħal Saflieni, I have to let you down. It was closed for restoration during our trip. Yeah, a big bummer. So we made a beeline for St. Paul’s Catacombs in nearby Rabat. Our first foray into the “city of the dead” was from the basement of St. Cataldus Church (a.k.a. St. Agatha’s). I’d highly recommend going here first, because its crypts are beautifully lit and really capture that creepy-cool feeling that you want for your first catacomb crawl. Plus, you’ll get the “early-Christian” vibe that everyone likes to associate with these places.
St. Cataldus Church stands over the old Roman ditch of Melite (Malta’s capital during Roman times, better known as Mdina today). Beneath the church is the grotto where St. Paul was supposedly kept prisoner during his three-month stay in Malta in 60 A.D. Tunnels branch off of this grotto, leading to pagan Roman and early Christian burials.
The church’s crypts in include St. Paul’s grotto. For centuries, people took home chunks of the grotto wall because it was thought to be an antidote for snake bite. (Reminder: According to the Biblical story, St. Paul survived a snakebite when he first washed up on Malta’s shores.)
Pagan Roman burials feature a triclinium — a dining table — so that the living can celebrate a final meal with the dead. Christians appropriated this same ritual and renamed the triclinium an “agape table” (“love table”). Some think this is where the concept of the Christian Communion ceremony originated. In fact, Communion is a mix of several much older religious practices. In ancient Persia 2,000 years before Christ, worshippers of Mithras practiced ritual purification through baptism and a meal of wine and bread that symbolized the flesh and blood of their god. Worship of this god continued right up through Roman times, when its cult practices got rolled into several Christian rituals. In fact, many of the earliest Christian cathedrals all across Europe are founded upon ancient Mithraeums, places where the followers of Mithras performed their secret rites.
Elaborate tombs called “baldacchinos” were reserved for the wealthy and sported coverings overhead, like canopied beds.
Having made the Christian connection, I now have to pop your bubble once again. Christians didn’t really reinvent the concept of the catacomb to escape Roman persecution. They simply staked out their own burial spaces in these necropolises, which were established by pagans long before Christianity became a thing. (Incidentally, trying to hide in these crowded cemeteries would’ve been a bad idea. It’d be hard to remain incognito with the whole town regularly traipsing in and out for family funerals.)
The earliest tunnels in St. Paul’s Catacombs were dug during the Phoenician-Punic period (7th – 2nd centuries B.C.) Then the Romans came along and expanded the excavation project to its current cavernous proportions. At St. Paul’s, you’ll find pagan Romans, Jews, and Christians from the same time period all buried side by side. And if you’d like to learn a little more about the people who made the site the rabbit warren that it is today, visit the Domvs Romana, right next door. You’ll find a partially-restored Roman town home with some fabulous mosaic floors that are totally worth a visit.
You’re looking at the neoclassical façade of the Domus Romana museum. Inside, you’ll find the ruins of an aristocratic Roman townhome built in the 1st century B.C. and situated on the outskirts of Melite, Malta’s Roman capital. To explain, Rome took Malta from the Carthaginians (Phoenicians) during the Punic Wars in the 2nd century B.C. A Roman official likely lived in the grand home here, which remained in use until the 2nd century A.D.
Notice the tiny “tesserae” — four-sided tiles — that make up this mosaic. The subject? Two crazy maenads surprising a naked satyr who’s sleeping off his liquor. Although it looks pretty violent, it’s supposedly a humorous scene from a satyrical play where the ladies playfully attempt to cut off the poor guy’s hair and beard. The mosaic originally covered the home’s entry vestibule and was intended to impress visitors with the owner’s wealth and style.
Two kinds of tile were used to create this mosaic, found on the floor of a room thought to be a “tablinum” (reception room). Tiny square ones make up the Greek key or “swastika” border, while lozenge-shaped ones create an optical illusion of 3-D cubes, similar to an M.C. Escher painting. The floor in the dining room of our hotel in Valletta had a modern reproduction of this same central pattern. Everything old becomes new again.
But back to St. Paul’s Catacombs. The main monument is just down the street from St. Cataldus, and the huge cemetery dwarfs the church’s crypt in comparison. The site straddles the road, has at least eight entrances to different sections of the complex, and each tunnel extends for what seems like miles. But before you descend into the bowels of the earth, you MUST stop at the Visitor’s Center to learn the super-fascinating basics about ancient Roman, Christian, and Jewish burial customs. To learn more about what you’ll see, click through the photo gallery below:
Each entrance contains a flight of stairs that takes you to a section of the catacombs. In ancient times, people entered via a vertical hole, like a mine shaft. Imagine toting a body over your shoulder in a fireman’s carry while you climbed down a ladder into total darkness.
Within the museum at St. Paul’s Catacombs, you’ll learn all about Roman burial practices. Here, you can see professional mourners weeping for the deceased as they walk along in a huge funeral procession. Early on, Romans cremated their dead, but later, burying the intact body became popular. The corpse was kept at home for nine days so that various rituals could be performed. Glass bottles held perfumes that were poured over the body to mask the smell of death. If the individual was cremated, the bottles would be tossed into the funeral pyre to temper the odor of burning flesh.
Outside the museum, the various entrances into the catacomb are accessed via what look like stone telephone booths. “Hello, hello; it’s Death calling.”
Lots of statues of Mithras (the guy on horseback in the pointy hat) have been found in tombs at St. Paul’s. The Romans adopted the Persian god as their protector of contracts, truth, cattle, the harvest, and water. Mithras became a favorite of soldiers, and the presence of so many Mithras statues in these tombs might indicate a heavy Roman military presence in Malta.
Some of the catacombs contain long, rather dark tunnels. If you’re claustrophobic, you might want to brace yourself for the experience. By the way, during WWII, several of the catacombs were used as bomb shelters, and kids reported sitting next to skeletons for hours, waiting for the shelling to stop.
A variety of nooks along the walls had different purposes. Some were reserved for children, whose bodies were usually cremated. The ashes were then poured into clay jars called amphorae that were tucked into wall niches. Other smaller divots held oil lamps so that families could see well enough to perform last rites. Still other holes acted as “feeding tubes” for the dead. During the “Last Supper” with their loved one, the family would mix together leftover crumbs and wine from the meal and pour it into the hole as a libation/offering to the deceased. Hey, they might get hungry and thirsty on their journey to the Afterlife.
Here’s a baldacchino with an ornate painting of leopard-like red dots and plants. As with Neolithic peoples, the Romans favored red as the color of death.
The only place you’ll see skeletons in St. Paul’s Catacombs is in the museum. A clear floor allows you to look down into one of the tombs to see how the body was laid out. Its head lies on a little “pillow” and its feet face towards the door, which is sealed with a stone.
Row after row of the four-postered “Baldacchino” crypts for the wealthy give the appearance of an infinite number of tombs. The richest people were buried towards the entrance of the catacomb, while the less well-heeled got stuck in the back.
Crypts for entire families or members of a professional guild were sealed with big stones like this one. Inside, the tomb walls were lined with benches to hold the bodies. Each time a family or guild member died, the bones of a previous occupant would be bundled together into a box to make room for a new body on the bench.
Some sections of the catacombs are enormous — check out the columns holding up the roof in here.
This tombstone shows that the crypt’s occupants were members of the dentists’ guild. Look closely, and you can make out tooth extractors and other tools of the trade.
Look closely at the far end of each sarcophagus, and you’ll see a raised platform with a round divot in it — a pillow to hold the head of the dead.
A carving of a menorah tells us that the occupants of this section of the catacombs were Jewish. Unlike Romans, Jewish people buried their dead within three days, and never cremated them. When Christianity came around, its practitioners followed Jewish law by interring a body rather than cremating it. The belief was that if the body were cremated, there would be nothing to resurrect during the Second Coming of Christ. I’m not sure how folks accounted for the many millennia of decay that turns a body to dust — or what would happen to the thousands of people who’s bones got all bundled together, mixed up, and sometimes tossed out to make room for new occupants in a tomb.
Maybe this cartoon will help you visualize the scenario better. The highest-ranking person got to sit on the right side of the triclinium, so that his right arm wouldn’t be impaired by the stone bench as much. Lying down to eat was a sign of luxury. And some think that the Romans really knew their anatomy, because lying on the left side extends the stomach so that you can eat more without feeling discomfort.
Check out the two triclinia right across from each other. Guess you had to accommodate crowds somehow, especially if two people with neighboring family crypts happened to die on the same day. Sounds like it could have been quite a party.
The horseshoe triclinia in Roman tombs were modeled after those found in Roman houses. As you can see, the dining room was lined with three beds to create a U-shaped bench where family and guests would recline to eat.
Romans and Christians (not Jews) typically shared a last meal with the dead. This round platform, called a triclinium, served as the dining table. Folks typically reclined on their left side around the triclinium and used their right hand to eat and drink. Notice the table’s “pour spout” and the big notch at the end, which gives the triclinium a horseshoe shape. The notch allowed the guests at the end of the bench more “elbow room” for eating, while the pour spout allowed the crumbs from the last meal to be swept up and deposited into one of the libation holes for the dead.
And on that note, I’ll end my dissertation about prehistoric and pagan Malta. Tomorrow, a bit about the basics: eating, sleeping, and hiking around the islands.