12 January 2010

History From the Bottom Up, Part 1: Maltese Megaliths

First, an addendum: You may be wondering how a couple of broke graduate students afforded a holiday trip like this. The answer is that we didn't. My grandfather Bibo, one of the Official Grandpas of The Educated Burgher, gave us a tremendously generous Christmas cheque and told us to do something valuable to us with it. We asked him if he'd like to be the sponsor of a vacation we otherwise wouldn't have taken, and he said absolutely.

So as they say in Muppet Christmas Carol: to Mr. Batchelder, the Founder of the Feast!

And now back to the history.

Human settlement on Malta dates back at least 5,500 years. This means, as it often does in Europe, that history is stacked on top of history. Justin and I will report back on our Maltese explorations, starting with what remains underground and working our way up.

Maltese Megaliths

Until now, the oldest place I've visited in person was the burial site of the Terracotta Army in Xi'an, China. Dating back to ~210 B.C., it predates the Roman Coliseum by nearly 300 years, although those of you who have been to Greece will be less impressed (the Parthenon, for instance, is 200 years older), as will visitors to the Pyramids, which are a whopping 2,300 years older - the oldest was built around 2600 BC.

Well, Those Of You Who Have Been To Greece And Egypt, hold on to your chairs and prepare to be impressed. The oldest construct on Malta dates back to about 3600 B.C. That's right - as far away from the Pyramids as we are from Charlemagne. I'm referring to the Megaliths of Malta, a collective UNESCO World Heritage Site. These stone temples were built all over the islands, evidently for religious purposes. The oldest temple complex, Ggantija, is often considered the oldest freestanding stone structure in the world.

Not only are they old, they're also huge. Time for a vocabulary teaching moment! Ggantija, as you may have guessed, does incorporate the word "Giant": it means "Giant's Tower. (Although Maltese is a Semitic language, and primarily Arabic in grammatical structure, much of the vocabulary comes from Italian. It's comparable to English's classification as a Germanic language in spite of the bulk of the vocabulary coming from Latin through French). The Maltese temple builders departed inexplicably some time around 2500 BC, and later inhabitants of the island often attributed their temple ruins to a race of giants. Bonus vocabulary: the word "megalith," from the Greek "mega" (large) and "lithos" (stone) also refers to the size of the structures.

A close-up of the sign shows the distinctive trefoil shape of Maltese temples:

and Justin poses inside next to a well-preserved altar:

Ggantija is located on Gozo, one of the three Maltese islands (Malta, Gozo, and Comino). Nobody lives on Comino except hotel staff in the tourist season. The other currently excavated megaliths are located on Malta.

Hagar Qim:


The last picture suggests a solution to the question of how the temples were roofed. Wood has been scarce on Malta since prehistoric times. The temple builders solved this problem by corbelling. This means that when you build a wall, you make each stone layer slightly longer than the one it sat on, gradually closing the walls in. It ends up looking like you're inside a beehive. (I learned about corbels as a kid from What It Feels Like To Be A Building, which for my money is the world's best children's book on architectural engineering.)

What's that you say? I promised to start underground? Hey, they used to be underground. It's not my fault archaeologists got there first. In fact, the excavation in the 19th century of most of these temples has been a bad thing. Scientific methodology at the time was not as stringent, and the exposure of the sites to wind and rain has caused them to deteriorate more in the last hundred years than in the thousands they spend below ground. The scaffolding you saw above on the Ggantija Temples is part of the preservation effort. Hagar Qim and Mnajdra have been placed under tents:

Another means of preservation is removing the original stones and replacing them with replicas. The decorated stones shown here are replicas placed at the Tarxien Temples site. The originals have been moved to the National Museum of Archaeology for preservation.

Carved animal stone; perhaps an altar:

Spiral patterns, a popular design motif in Malta's prehistoric art:

And remains of one of Malta's famous "fat lady" figures, which suggest a mother goddess or fertility cult to modern scholars.

But if you won't buy my excuse-making that previously underground sites qualify as underground, then how about this: tune in next time for the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum!

Overall personal reaction to the temples? Well, it is definitely cool to see them, but for me, it was a struggle to see them as they were, and to remember that they had been buildings. Tarxien in particular is a messy pile of stones. I think kids or students would have serious difficulty envisioning the original form and connecting to the colossal engineering achievement that they represented at the time. After seeing two or three, the temples started to blur with each other, and I was annoyed that the sites themselves did not make a clear distinction between original and replica stonework. The entrance fees also feel steep, possibly due to the expense of preservation, unless you do what we did and get the Heritage Malta pass (it gives you one access each to all their sites, including museums, and is a much better bargain if you are planning on seeing at least four or five sites).

Eddie Izzard has a comedy routine in which he proposes that mass murder is simply too much for the human mind to comprehend. The gist is that one murder earns you the death penalty, serial killing perhaps puts you in an asylum, but twelve million murders leaves you thinking, "Well done! You must get up very early in the morning!" (It is, admittedly, a particularly dark comedy routine). I think I had a similar feeling with the temples. Five thousand five hundred years is simply not an age that I can make meaningful in my mind. This is my problem, though, and not a problem with the sites. As a UNESCO junkie, I'm definitely glad I went, but my experience at the Hypogeum was much stronger.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulation for your very detailed post.

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