15 January 2010

History from the Bottom Up, Part 2: Things To See In Malta When You're Dead

This is Part 2 in a series about Maltese history, as told via the conceit of an archaeological excavation - from the bottom layer up.

The Hypogeum

(Visitor's note: Hypogeum tickets must be booked in advance. Our guidebook suggests at least two weeks; the guide on site said even earlier in the busy season. We certainly only got ours on a week's notice because it was January. You can purchase and print tickets online.)

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum (select it from the "sites" dropdown menu) provides another excellent excuse for a teacher to sneak in a vocabulary exercise. While sitting in the lobby, Justin and I realized we didn't actually know what a hypogeum was. We puzzled it out and came up with "hypo" from "hypodermic needle," which we figured must mean "under-skin needle," and added "geo," meaning "earth," and "-um" as a Greek suffix, a la gymnasium, meaning a place or room. Therefore, a hypogeum must be an underground room.

And guess what? That's precisely what it is. A very, very, very, very old underground room. This room was dug out below ground at roughly the same time the megaliths were being erected on the surface, which is to say, c. 3500 or 3000 BC, five thousand years ago. As I mentioned before, I struggle to contextualize such remote history. It's about the same time as the settlement at Skara Brae, in the Orkneys (on our list to visit when it gets warmer) and is about 1000-1500 years older than when most Biblical historians estimate Abraham to have lived.

Unlike the megaliths, the Hypogeum makes you feel every one of those years.

The Hypogeum is special for many reasons. First, it's tremendously well-preserved for its age. It was discovered in the late 19th century by accident, when houses were built on the site. Justin suggests that the late rise in Maltese population density may be a critical factor in the discovery of so many important Neolithic sites here. China is so large that things get lost. In Egypt, where the space has been continuously densely inhabited, ancient places are often destroyed or looted. Malta, however, is small enough that things are likely to be found, and did not get dense enough to require intensive building-over until the 19th century. The bad news is that much was lost in the first few years, before the site came to the attention of archaeologists and the house-building was stopped. It also was damaged by its own popularity - as with Lascaux Caves, carbon dioxide from visitors' breath damaged the wall paintings. It's since been restored with the help of UNESCO.

But what IS it? That's the second reason it's special. It was a burial site, yes, but there are other ancient burial sites in the world. What's odd about the Hypogeum is that it was both a burial site and place of worship - a graveyard inside a church (something we'll see more of in Malta later on). Today, the bodies are in many places: lost during the early excavations, moved to research facilities, and (to my surprise) in some cases left undisturbed. According to my guide, that's been done so that if future technology surpasses modern technology, they'll still have something original left to inspect. Interesting and farsighted - I haven't heard of it being done anywhere else.

Visitors aren't allowed to take pictures inside the Hypogeum, but even if we could, they wouldn't convey the feeling you get from visiting the site. I think Justin and I were fortunate to visit on a day that the audio guides were experiencing technical difficulties, because that meant we were shown around by a live curator for the site, a man named Joseph. I don't think any prerecorded guide could have done what Joseph did. He made you feel the site so strongly that you expected to come around the corner and see it in use. This room in particular - the main chamber - he really brought to life. If you take a look at that image, I'll try to capture some of the ideas he shared about it. Don't blame him for any leaps of imagination here; any melodramatic interpretation of the space's use is purely my own.

Although the room was likely used for religious purposes, it might help you envision it to compare it to a theatre. The picture is taken from where the tour group stands, and presumably where the ordinary people would have stood in prehistoric times. Your eye is immediately drawn to the doorway in the upper right. Through a clever trick of perspective, this doorway appears human-sized, but is in fact much shorter. A priest entering through this space would have to duck. An impressive way to make an entrance.

The doorways to the left help create that illusion, as they are about large enough for a person to lie down in. You assume the other doorway is the same. Some archaeologists suggest that the spaces were dreaming chambers for priests to receive visions - maybe with a bit of artificial help in the form of hallucinatory libations or smoke. The walls would have been painted in red ochre, with the carved uprights and crosspieces left white.

It is very difficult to argue that the room was not intended for audience and performers of some sort, which in turn indicates a complex and hierarchical society with a division of labor. Someone would also have had the task of standing here, a carved wall niche which, when spoken into, projects the speaker's voice throughout the entire underground complex.

So there you are, a prehistoric inhabitant of sunny island Malta. You come underground for some sort of ceremony, and the temperature shifts: if it's summer, you're strangely cold; if winter, unnaturally hot. The light changes to flickering fire and lamps on red and white walls that maybe even remind you of muscle and bone, like you're inside the body of the earth. Men doze fitfully in carved niches, perhaps crying out at their strange dreams. The air is filled with humidity and smoke. Chanting or singing reverberates through the space, but you can't see the source of the sound.
Could the ground itself be talking to you? Suddenly, a colossal figure, twice the size of a human body, erupts out of a doorway, flinging its arms wide and shouting at you.

I think I would have passed out.

Roman Catacombs

Jumping forward in time from prehistory to the classical period, we come to the Roman layer of Maltese history. Malta was ruled by the Phoenicians via the city of Carthage (of "Carthago delenda est"/Hannibal and the elephants fame) but the conquered by the Romans, who called it Melita. A catacomb is the modern term for an underground cemetery, which I believe the Romans would have called a necropolis ("city of the dead").

Malta has two, quite proximate to each other, in the city of Rabat, which is just outside the old capital of Mdina. This makes sense, because "Rabat" is a Semitic language family word for "suburb" (or settlement outside the city walls) and Roman law stipulated that all necropoli must be situated outside the city walls, presumably for hygiene reasons. The first one we visited was called St. Paul's, and is part of the Heritage Malta pass package.

It comes with a good audio guide, although the locations underground are not always easy to find. Makes you understand why in Roman times, you needed professional catacomb diggers ("fosserii") to help you find your ancestors.

At St. Paul's, you can see a number of interesting carved stone resting places:

- arcosolium - looks a bit like a carved window seat with a canopied arch, except of course no window
- canopied tombs - hard to find a picture; looks just like a canopy bed
- small "loculi" - carved niches in walls; here mostly for babies and children
- floor graves

And more. St. Agatha's is similar, but better preserved - and also not included with the Heritage Malta pass, so it will set you back an additional admission fee. A highlight of St. Agatha's is the surviving Roman fresco, and the more recent church, which I'll get to in a later post on Christian Malta. In the high season, with larger groups, you can't go into the fresco room anymore, but once again Justin and I lucked out by being the only two people on the tour.

Our guide was researcher working on the catacombs and gave us some interesting information about it. The Maltese catacombs, for instance, contain both Christians and Jews, and are not segregated by religion. His current research is into the fact that according to tomb carvings, Jews of the period significantly outlived Christians: Christians made it to their 40s, whereas Jews lived into their 70s. The theory is that this relates to Jewish hygiene laws, which mandated frequent ablutions (washing), such as upon every return from the marketplace.

We also talked about carved agape tables (the one shown in the link is St. Paul's), where Romans would come down into the catacombs for a funeral banquet. People would recline around this table to eat and drink. Take a look at the carved circular part of the table. See the break in the lip? That's for swiping spilled food into a bucket, for which there was a carved niche ready. Eventually, this practice was banned by the Catholic church. St. Paul's's ('s's's) audio guide said discreetly that this was due to immoral practices. The St. Agatha's guide was more direct. Let's just say that by the early middle ages, they were throwing some toga-optional toga parties in the catacombs.

A final comment on the Hypogeum and catacombs: in keeping with archaeological logic (archaologic?) and the theme of my posts, you would probably assume that the lowermost layers of these places would be the oldest. In fact, that's backwards. Think about it: you're digging down from the surface. You can't carve the bottom part without having gone through the top part first. Therefore, underground facilities are a weird and interesting exception to the law of lower=older. In the catacombs and hypogea of the world, the further down you go, the more recent the space is.

Whew! That was a beast of a post. And now my work here is done... time to head toward the light...

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