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...

13 January 2010

Segway Segue

Wow, even I'm a little ashamed of that pun.

Anyway--we interrupt your regularly scheduled program of Maltese prehistory to bring you . . . Nana and Justin riding Segways!

On our last day in Malta, the local Segway dealer (did you know such a thing existed?) descended on a small classic car show with some demo models. (Don't worry, Herr Kessler--we'll post the photos of all the old cars and buses!)

If you know us at all, you know we couldn't resist.

The things are surprisingly fun to ride, and they're so responsive it's almost disorienting. I mean, you barely have to move at all to get it going. But it will always be hard to overlook how silly people look on them. There's just something ludicrous about moving while standing perfectly still.

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.

Justin and Nana Drink Weird Stuff For Your Entertainment, Malta Edition: Kinnie and Prickly Pear

According to their web site, Kinnie was developed in Malta in 1952 as a domestic cola alternative. Nowadays, it's practically their national drink. Made from "bitter oranges and aromatic herbs," it has "a bitter taste which is an excellent thirst quencher."

What did we make of Kinnie?

It's like there's a party in my mouth, and everybody's barfing.

Justin thinks that the opening flavor of Kinnie is all right. It's an orange soda flavor not overwhelmingly dominated by sugar, like Minute Maid or Fanta. Unfortunately, that taste is obliterated by a blast of bitter aftertaste in the upper back of your throat which precisely duplicates the bile-ish sinus flavor of vomit. As local/regional colas go, it's no Kickapoo Joy Juice, that's for sure.

Bajtra (caution; link has music)

Bajtra (pronounced "baytra" or perhaps "baitra," but definitely not "badge-tra") is the brand name for a liqueur made out of the prickly pear cactus. The web site is a little vague on the age of the distillery, but the prickly pear was introduced to Malta from the New World probably sometime in the sixteenth century. I recall reading someplace that prickly pear, although widespread in the islands, was not widely consumed until the food shortages of World War II. Doesn't necessarily mean that the liqueur is modern (prickly pear has been used to make alcohol in Mexico/the US Southwest for centuries) but it could be.

Basically, if you love syrupy sweet drinks, this is for you. Justin described it as tasting "like a melted watermelon Jolly Rancher." If that sounds up your alley, then go ahead and give Bajtra a try - it has limited distribution overseas. You could probably also find something similar in Arizona or New Mexico.

10 January 2010

Home again!

Justin and I are back safe and sound from Malta. This means in addition to irritating everybody who's been living through this winter's Big Freeze with our tales of 65 degree and sunny weather, we will also irritate everybody who got delayed, rerouted, rescheduled, or cancelled in this winter's European airport goatrope. Four flights at Christmas, plus two flights this weekend, and we were never seriously affected.

If it helps - our apartment is only slightly above freezing, and will remain so for the next few days while the radiators struggle to heat the place. Also, at least one radiator is broken. I have to keep rubbing my fingers together to type. I feel like Laura Ingalls Wilder on a laptop.

Hopefully we'll get some fun blog posts up about our trip from a warm location sometime tomorrow and this week. We do go back to classes Monday, which may delay things a bit.