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The Maltese Islands: Pre-historic sites in Malta & Gozo

Malta is known for its vast collection of history, however, a subdivision is the immense pre-historic sites in Malta and Gozo. You can find some of the oldest structures dating back to 3600 BC. For those who are interested in Maltese historic sites and archaeology, take your pick from Neolithic temples to catacombs and hypogea, there is something for everyone to experience.

All photography in this article belongs to Alex Turnbull.

Megalithic temples

Hagar Qim & Mnajdra

Hagar Qim is translated to Standing/Worshipping Stones from Maltese and it is one of the few megalithic temples found in the Maltese Islands and is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. It dates back between 3700 – 3200 BC and is considered to be an ancient religious site. The temple was built with the use of globigerina limestone, which resulted in severe damage due to weather over the millennia. Globigerina limestone is the second oldest rock in Malta and is found over about 70% of the area of the Maltese Islands. Today, as of 2009, the site is covered with a protective tent.

The façade of Hagar Qim has a trilithon entrance, an outer bench, and orthostats. There is a separate entrance that leads to four independent spaces. The temple contains features that are associated with fertility rituals as well as solar alignments. There is also an altar with a concave top which is suspected to have been used for animal sacrifices. It is also suggested that the doorways at the center of the complex may have been used by oracles.

There were no human remains found inside or in the surroundings of the temple, however, animal remains were found. Decorated pottery was also found on the site and is now at the National Museum of Archaeology. Scientists theorize that the temple was built in three stages, starting with the Old Temple’s northern apses, then the New Temple, and finally the completion of the structure. The layout of Hagar Qim consists of several spaces. There is the main temple which was built between 3600 – 3200 BC and three additional structures by its side. The northern temple is the oldest part of the Hagar Qim.

Some things people have said about Hagar Qim

In the 17th century, Maltese historian Giacomo Abela wrote “indubitable evidence of the fact that the first inhabitants of Malta were of the race of Giants” in 1647 “Discrittione di Malte”. Professor of Prehistoric European Archaeology and director of the Institute of Archaeology in the University of London between 1946 – 1957 V. Gordon Childe said, “I have been visiting the prehistoric ruins all-round the Mediterranean, from Mesopotamia to Egypt, Greece, and Switzerland, but I have nowhere seen a place as old as this one.”

Mnajdra is another megalithic temple which is located about 500 meters from Hagar Qim. Discoveries have shown that it was built between 3600 – 3200 BC and is also considered to be an ancient religious site. Just as Hagar Qim, Mnajdra is also one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. Mnajdra was built using coralline limestone is much harder than globigerina limestone. As of 2009, the site was covered with a protective tent. Mnajdra layout seems more regular in comparison to Hagar Qim. The structure consists of three apsed building and consists of three temples which are conjoined but not directly joined. The upper temple is considered to be the oldest of all three and dates to 3600 – 3200 BC. The middle temple was built or rebuilt, between 3150 – 2500 BC. The lowest temple was built during the early Tarxien phase (3150 – 2500 BC) and is astronomically aligned, due to which researchers think that this temple may have been used as an astronomical observation or calendrical site.

The temple had ceremonial objects found within it such as; sacrificial flint knives, as well as animal, remains, however just like with Hagar Qim, no human remains were found. From the evidence, it is shown that these structures were not used as tombs or for burials. The most prominent theory as to the nature of these temples, from the evidence that was found, is that they were used for some ritualistic or religious reasons, possibly for healing and to promote fertility. There is also a lot of attention that is given to astrology as well as detailed calendric information, which may have been used for forecasting a solstice date, even down to hours with accuracy.

Back in 2001, Mnajdra was vandalized by at least three people who broke approximately 60 megaliths and left graffiti on them. This incident had UNESCO call it “the worst act of vandalism ever committed on the island of Malta”. Luckily, the damage was not as irreparable as it seemed at the moment, and with the use of new techniques restorations were made, making it hard to tell where the megaliths were initially damaged. UNESCO World Heritage Sites committee described Hagar Qim and Mnajdra temples as “unique architectural masterpieces.”

Ggantija temple, Gozo

The Ggantija in Gozo is a UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1980. It is a complex of Neolithic temples which are over 5500 years old. They are considered to be the world’s second-oldest man-made structures. The site revealed to scientists and researchers that the structure was used in fertility rites. There is also local Gozitan folklore that speaks of a giantess who ate nothing except broad beans and honey, bore a child from a common man. She had this child hanging from her shoulder, as she built these temples and used them as her place of worship.

Blog on Life Gozo Ggantija temple megalithic structure UNESCO

The structure is located in Xaghra, and like many other megalithic sites on the Maltese Islands, it faces southeast. It rises to 6 meters in height and contains five apses. There were animal remains found on the site which would suggest animal sacrifices were being performed in this structure. Excavations to this site date back to 1827, after which the ruins fell to decay. The remains that were found had been added to the Antiquities List of 1925. Archaeological works kept going in the years 1933, 1936, 1949, 1956 – 1957, and 1958 – 1959. Today you can enjoy viewing this site for yourself, as well as the museum which is located at the entrance to the site.

Blog on Life Travel Gozo Ggantija structure megalithic temple

Tarxien temples

The Tarxien temples date back to approximately 3150 BC and are one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1992. The structure consists of three separate, yet attached, temples. In 1956 the main entrance was reconstructed, during a restoration. In order to protect these pieces of history, many of the decorated slabs were relocated to the Museum of Archaeology in Valletta. The site was discovered by local farmers in 1914 and Sir Themistocles Zammit began inspecting the site. One of the most interesting things to see at the Tarxien temples is the rich stonework which depicts domestic animals carved in the altars, reliefs, and screens which are decorated in spiral designs and other patterns. Discovery has shown that the site was used for rituals. Evidence of cremation was found, which also suggests that the structure was used during the Bronze Age as a cremation cemetery.

The first temple has been dated around 3100 BC and has the most elaborate decoration from all the temples in Malta. The middle temple is dated to about 3000 BC and has three-apse, unlike the usual two. The third temple is dated to about 3100 BC. There were remains that suggested another, smaller temple and much older (approximately 3250 BC). Today the site is covered by a protective tent shelter.

Borg In-Nadur, Birzebuggia

An archaeological site where a megalithic temple was found dates back to 2500 BC. In the same area, the remains of a Bronze Age village are also located. Borg In-Nadur architecture shows a typical four-apse layout, with the walls being quite low. There is a lack of artistic decoration, which is seen in the Tarxien temples and at Hagar Qim.

The Bronze Age village showed to have had several huts, whose foundations still exist, however cannot be seen by the public as they were reburied after excavation and once studies were conducted. The village was fortified by a D-shaped bastion with the wall facing inland, suggesting the villagers’ concerns were of an attack from land rather than the sea. The wall still stands, as after excavation, it was not reburied as the huts were. It is believed to be the oldest fortification found in Malta and this village is known to be the best-preserved fortified settlement amongst the six in Malta during the Bronze Age.

Tas-Slig, Marsaxlokk

Tas-Slig is located on a hilltop and is a multi-period sanctuary site. It covers years from the Neolithic to 4 AD. There was a temple, with the possibility of a complex of three temples which was built between 3000 – 2500 BC based on the few remains that were found on site. There were several artifacts discovered in the depths of the site, such as; stone tools, pottery, and some sherds. Around 700 BC, when the Phoenicians had taken over Malta, a punic temple to Astarte (Middle Eastern goddess Astoreth who was worshipped during the Bronze Age) was built, using the remains of the temple which stood prior. As the sanctuary’s importance grew, so did the structure. A portico was added, a tower was designed for fortification and a threshold slab, pierced by three libation holes had divided the eastern and western side of the temple. There were also several ashlar wall foundations and a platform which was built, south of the main sanctuary, which still exists. During the Roman era, the punic temple was converted into the sanctuary of Juno (the ancient Roman goddess, protector, and special counselor of the state, which was also the Roman equivalent of Astarte).

Sometime between 4 and 5 AD, the temple remains were used to build a Byzantine monastery. The new structure had a central nave that separated the aisles by two rows of columns. There was also a small baptismal font which was constructed using the megalithic material from the original temple. By 8 AD, defensive walls were also built around the monastery. In 870 AD when the Arabs invaded Malta, the monastery was abandoned and the site was turned into a quarry. During Medieval times, this site was used by farmers and the site was all buried under a meter of soil prior to excavation. Today, this site can only be visited by appointment.

Kordin temples, Paola

On Corradino Heights in Paola, on a plateau overlooking the Grand Harbour, there is a group of megalithic temples that date back to pre-historic times. Evidence shows that this site was inhabited from pre-historic times by Phoenicians, and continued to be inhabited in Greek and Roman times. This site belonged to Giovanni Francesco Abela, in the 17th century. His villa, located in this area, was used as Malta’s first museum by the Order of St. John. On the order of Grandmaster Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, this site was excavated by archaeologist Gio Antonio Barbaro. Sir Themistocles Zammit continued excavations during British rule. Discoveries showed that there were three temple complexes on the site, two of which were destroyed. The remains were included on the Antiquities List of 1925.

Kordin 1 was located on a terrace overlooking Marsa. It had small irregular rooms and was poorly preserved when it was found in the 1880s. The structure suffered grievously from elements and during the World War 2 bombardments. Its final destruction was when an industrial estate was built on the site in the 1960s.

Kordin 2 was 137 meters away from Kordin 1 and was used throughout the temple period, which was evident from the artifacts that were found on site. Part of this temple was destroyed by a royal engineer in 1871 to make room for a ditch of the Corradino Lines before the first excavations began in 1892 by Antonio Annetto Caruana. The structure took on further damage during World War 2, and no remains were seen by the 1950s. The site was then built up as an industrial estate in the 1960s.

Kordin 3, located outside the Corradino Lines, is the only temple whose remains have survived. It consists of two temples, of which the larger one has the standard three-apse layout. The structure has a concave façade, an entrance passage, a central court, which is stone-paved, and a forecourt. Behind the structure are a few small rooms. At least part of this temple is believed to have been built around 3700 BC, however, the structure dates to 3600 – 3200 BC and has shown that it was in use during 3150 – 2500 BC.

Prehistoric sites on the Maltese Islands

Ghar Dalam cave

Ghar Dalam, also known as the Cave of Darkness is a prehistoric cave, 144 meters deep, located in the outskirts of Birzebbugia. It contains bone remains of animals such as; dwarf elephants, hippopotamus, deer, and bear that became extinct during the last glacial maximum. The hippopotamus became extinct about 10,000 years ago, the deer species became extinct about 4,000 years ago, during the Chalcolithic (Eneolithic or Copper Age). Evidence of early human settlement dating back to 7,400 years ago was also discovered.

Scientific investigations took place in 1885 and were included in the Antiquities list in 1925 and opened to the public in 1933. During World War 2 the cave was used as a shelter from the bombing. In 1987, the cave was investigated under the direction of Emmanuel Anati, a professor of paleontology at the University of Salento. A discovery of Palaeolithic cave art depicting human hands, anthropo zoomorphic, and a few animal designs were seen from underneath the stalagmitic formations. Many of these were also destroyed due to vandalism. Today, there is a museum that was set up in 1980 by the then curator of Natural History Joseph Baldacchino. Unfortunately, the most irreplaceable relics, such as the four tusks of the dwarf elephants and a skull of a Neolithic child were stolen.

Xaghra Stone Circle, Gozo

The Xaghra Stone Circle, also known as the Xaghra Hypogeum, as well as the Brochtorff Circle, which dates back to around 3000 to 2400 BC, is a Neolithic funerary complex. The area in which the caves were built, is prone to collapse, and the use of megaliths would explain the attempt to try stabilizing the area. The site was later used for agricultural purposes during the Bronze period.

In the late 18th century, after the site’s discovery, excavations took place and later were stopped. In 1964, major excavations took place, once the site was rediscovered once again. This is the only prehistoric stone-enclosed hypogeum in Europe, which makes this a very important archaeological site in Malta, together with the megalithic temples and the Hal-Saflieni hypogeum. Unlike the Hal-Saflieni hypogeum, which is man-made to today’s records, the Xaqhra Stone Circle hypogeum shows signs on natural caves which were adjusted for burial purposes. Once the body remains which were found buried in the hypogeum were studied, it was discovered that the deceased were dismembered and different body parts were buried in different places. It is believed that this site was the burial ground of the same community which settled in the area at the time of the Ggantija temple. The remains found on the site can be seen at the Ggantija museum found at the entrance to the Ggantija temple.

Hal-Saflieni hypogeum

This Neolithic subterranean structure dates to 4000 BC found in Paola. The Hal-Saflieni hypogeum is found on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The hypogeum is one of the best-preserved prehistoric structures in the world. It is a three-level underground structure that was discovered accidentally, in 1902 by workers who were cutting cisterns for housing development. The structure was first studied by Manuel Magri, who oversaw the excavations. In 1903, during the excavations, the contents of the hypogeum included sculptures of females and over 7000 remains. Manuel Magri’s report of the hypogeum was lost when he had died in Tunisia in 1907. Later, the study and understanding of this structure by Sir Themistocles Zammit.

Archaeologists believed that it may have originally been a natural cave that was cut into with tools to make it what it is today. Although geologist Robert Schoch, cannot explain how it would be possible to cut and carve the limestone back in that time, due to the highly sophisticated and technological technique. Many say that due to its layout as well as the found remains, it may have acted as a burial place. Some archaeologists mention that the layout of the hypogeum resembles the old Maltese temples but inverted, or upside down. It contains several rooms, each having its own purpose. One of the well-known rooms was the Oracle room, in which researchers believe that there was an Oracle, similar to the Oracle of Delphi, Ancient Greece, to whom many travelled to.

The hypogeum is a very complex maze. During excavation and research, scientists and archaeologists had to get through the maze carefully, as there are many subterranean vertical drops which are just one of the many traps found in the structure. Like a labyrinth, it is also very easy to take the wrong turn and end up getting lost. The structure is also referred to as the Temple of Death due to the number of remains that were found on the third level.

Acoustics

Sound is created by the vibration of an object, which then causes the air surrounding it to vibrate and form a wave. In 2014, Linda C. Eneix, an Archaeoacoustic researcher, together with her team studied the acoustic properties of the Oracle room. The team discovered that the entire hypogeum resonates at a frequency of 110Hz. They say that they could feel the vibration with their entire body, as the water in the human body responds to such a frequency which results in the entire body tuning in.

A study by a neuroscientist was done, to see the effects of 110Hz on a person from a medical perspective. The results showed that certain sounds affect regional parts of the brain. Michael D. Mark, a neurophysiologist used an EEG machine to see how to 110Hz frequency would affect a person. A real-life record of what was happening in the test subject’s brain, while being exposed to different frequencies was made. The test subject mentioned that with the final frequency (110Hz) there was a feeling of an out-of-body experience. Scans of the subject’s brain showed that at the 110Hz frequency, the right side of the brain was the most active especially the parietal region which is responsible for touch, visual, spatial, and expression, which explains the out-of-body experience felt.

Ms. C. Lois Jessop

Ms. C. Lois Jessop, who at the time was an employee at the British embassy, later a secretary at NYSIB (New York Saucer Information Bureau), visited the Hal-Saflieni hypogeum in 1940 with her friends. When they came to the end of the tour, the guide said that now they must walk back, she asked what was further on.

The following is directly quoted from an article by C. Lois Jessop found in the Journal of Borderland Research Vol. 17 No. 02:

“What’s down there?” I asked him; for on turning I noticed another opening off one of the walls.
“Go there at your own risk,” he replied, “and you won’t go far.”
I was all for more exploring and talking it over with my friends, three of them decided to go with me and two waited with the guide. I was wearing a long sash around my dress and since I decided to lead the group I asked the next one behind me to hold on to it. Holding our half-burnt candles, the four of us ducked into this passage, which was narrower and lower than the others.
Groping and laughing our way along, I came out first, onto a ledge pathway about two feet wide, with a sheer drop about fifty feet or more on my right and a wall on my left. I took a step forward, close to the rock wall side. The person behind me, still holding on to my sash, had not yet emerged from the passage. Thinking it was quite a drop and perhaps I should go no further without the guide I held up my candle.
There across the cave, from an opening deep below me, emerged twenty persons of giant stature. In single file they walked along a narrow ledge. Their height I judged to be about twenty or twenty-five feet, since their heads came about half way up the opposite wall. They walked very slowly, taking long strides. Then they all stopped, turned and raised their heads in my direction. All simultaneously raised their arms and with their hands beckoned me. The movement was something like snatching or feeling for something, as the palms of their hands were face down. Terror rooted me to the spot.
“Go on, we’re all getting stuck in the passage!” My friend jerked at my sash. “What’s the matter?”
“Well, there’s nothing much to see,” I stammered, taking another step forward.
My candle was in my right hand. I put my left hand on the wall to steady me and stopped again. My hand wasn’t on cold rock but on something soft and wet. As it moved a strong gust of wind came from nowhere and blew out my candle! Now I really was scared in the darkness!
“Go back,” I yelled to the others, “go back and guide me back by my sash. My candle has gone out and I cannot see!”
In utter panic I backed into the narrow little passageway and forced the others back, too, until we had backed into the large room where Joe and my friends were waiting. What a relief that was!
“Well, did you see anything?” asked one of them.
“No,” I quickly replied, “There was a draft in there that blew my candle out.”
“Let’s go,” said Joe, the guide.
I looked up at him. Our eyes met. I knew that at one time he had seen what I had seen. There was an expression of caution in his eyes, adding to my reluctance to tell anyone. I decided not to.
Out in the open again and in the hot Malta sunshine we thanked the guide, and as we tipped him he looked at me.
“If you really are interested in exploring further it would be wise to join a group. There is a schoolteacher who is going to take a party exploring soon,” he said.
I left my address with him and asked him to have the schoolteacher get in touch with me, but I never heard any more about it, until one of my friends called me to read an item from the Valetta paper.

Missing Children at the Hypogeum

A group of 30 fourth-grade children with their two teachers went to the hypogeum for a tour, the group that was mentioned to Ms. C. Lois Jessop. The group got lost in the structure and was never seen again. It is said that several reports of cries from underground were heard by people across the island days after the kids got lost. This was reported in The National Geographic Magazine in the 1940 issue.

It would not be too far-fetched to think that to be true, as Malta has many underground tunnels across the entire tunnel. Some of the old houses even have doors that have a direct entrance to the catacombs. Some even say that the tunnels under Malta go so far as to connect to those catacombs below the hill Vaticanus (Vatican hill) in Rome and were sealed off by the British Government when Malta was under British rule. It is also believed that the structured was closed off after the tragedy with the kids and was only re-opened to the public recently.

Skulls found at Hal-Saflieni hypogeum

Over 7000 remains were discovered in this structure and had unique differences to the remains of humans. Apart from an elongated skull, which many claim to have been a ritualistic head deformation that people in the past practiced. Another interesting fact about the skulls is the absence of the sagittal suture. It is the connecting tissues between two parietal bones of a skull that closes completely 22 to 39 months of age, meaning that the bones of the skull fuse together during the first 2 years after birth. These are sutures that are found on every human being as our skulls are not one whole piece when we are born. The skull is made from several pieces, which, during the birthing process, when an infant passes through the birthing canal, all pieces meet in the center, leaving sutures in our skulls. The skulls which were found with the remains at the hypogeum did not have such sutures.

The official report states that during World War 2, many of the remains disappeared due to vandalism. Although others also state that it is possible that remains were destroyed or hidden intentionally. Only 11 skulls remain today and are currently being studied by specialists to determine the origin of these remains. Similar skulls have been found in several places all over the world.

Theories for conclusion

For the first theory, researchers are inclined to think that it may have been the Iberians who may have carved the spaces in the hypogeum, although they have no explanation as to how. The Iberians had the skills to travel by sea and had several settlements all over Europe. The theory continues that settlers, in order to avoid some sort of disaster, decided to move underground for their survival. They also had to make sure that their new environment would be sufficient for their lives, which touches upon a theory of an inverted pyramid that may act as a source of energy, which was mainly mentioned by researchers looking into the lost continent and ancient civilization of Atlantis which was formally located in today’s the Atlantic Ocean.

To the surface, it would seem like an entire civilization simply disappeared without a trace. This is also not something new in history, as references to such occurrences happened to the Mayans as well as the Eastern Islanders who built the massive Easter Island head statues of about 12 meters tall. But unlike what was happening in Malta, these two civilizations disappeared in our era, unlike the hypogeum which is a prehistoric structure. By this theory, the beings Ms. C. Lois Jessop came to encounter may possibly be those, whose ancestors once escaped for survival.

The second theory is one that the hypogeum may be a gateway between two worlds. This touches on the theory of the Inner Earth. Currently still being researched, it may be a possibility that there is an inner world that is found under the ground we live on. This would make tunnels, such as those in the hypogeum, a gateway between the two worlds. This could possibly explain that Ms. C. Lois Jessop had an encounter with a different civilization that co-exists with ours but lives beneath us.

The third theory is one that focuses on the frequency characteristics of the hypogeum. Extra-terrestrial researchers have not neglected the option that the hypogeum was built in a very specific way and the sound frequency was the main objective for the structure. A megalithic passage tomb (5000 BC) at Down Hall in Co Meath Ireland, Angkor Wat in Cambodia as well as other ancient structures around the world, all resonate at 110Hz. Extra-terrestrial researchers believe that frequency can be used to connect to other beings beyond and that may be the reason behind these structures.

The hypogeum was first opened to the public in 1908. It was closed off between 1990 and 2000 due to a conservation project supported by a grant from Liechtenstein, Iceland, and Norway through the EEA Grants 2009 – 2014. Today you may visit the hypogeum, but only 10 visitors are allowed per visit and visits must be booked in advance.

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