The Stone Age Temples of Malta

By Monsarrat, Ann | UNESCO Courier, January 1994 | Go to article overview

The Stone Age Temples of Malta


Monsarrat, Ann, UNESCO Courier


DURING the first half of the present century European archaeologists, puzzling over the similarities between ancient cultures, came up with the diffusion theory: a steady spread westwards of ideas, skills and inventions from the early civilizations of the Near East. In this way the mud-brick ziggurats of ancient Sumeria (the first temples known to man) had influenced the Egyptian pyramids (the oldest stone monuments in the world) and Malta's megalithic buildings were a mere reflection of the glories of ancient Greece.

There was only one problem. They had no way of confirming exactly when anything had happened. Then came radio-carbon dating, an offshoot of the research that produced the atomic bomb. The first radiocarbon dates did little to disturb the basic fabric of the theory, but when the technique was refined in the mid-1960s it blew holes through the entire edifice. Small communities, previously considered to be talented imitators, were shown to have been ingenious innovators astonishingly advanced for their time.

The Egyptians could no longer be said to have created the oldest free-standing stone monuments in the world because the Stone Age temple builders of Malta had beaten them to it.

The new dating showed that in the tiny cluster of Maltese islands, way out in the middle of the Mediterranean, a people without a written language or knowledge of any kind of metal had raised vast, highly sophisticated structures several hundred years before the Egyptians began work on their own triumphs in stone. They had begun building around 3600 B.C. and continued for over a thousand years.

They built their temples singly and in groups, added to them, embellished and enlarged them. Their richly decorated interiors were previously thought to have been inspired by the great Greek civilizations of Crete and Mycenae, but it is now clear that Malta's temple culture had flourished and died before the Greek civilizations were born.

Today four of the largest temple complexes figure on the tourist trail. At least forty more survive in various stages of disarray. Others have disappeared completely, spirited away into boundary walls and house foundations. They were built on a small archipelago with a total land area of little more than 300 square kilometres: a massive stone construction for every seven square kilometres. As British archaeologist David Trump has written: "there is probably no other area of this size in the world with such a number and variety of antiquities."

The oldest and best preserved of the temples is on Gozo, the second largest and most northerly of the islands. As with all their other temples the builders selected a choice site. Its great, grey mass stands on one of the island's distinctive flat-topped hills above a fertile valley. Its vast megaliths, never completely covered by the silting up of time, led to folk stories of a female giant who, by day, strode the land carrying the great slabs on her head, and built by night. It is still called Ggantija, the Maltese word for giantess.

The builders found on the islands an abundance of two kinds of limestone: a durable grey upper layer and beneath it one that cuts and looks like butter. They put both to good use in nearly all of their temples but nowhere else did they build a surrounding wall quite as astonishing as the one at Ggantija. Massive blocks of hard grey stone, one of them the size of a small cottage, are laid alternately upright and sideways to form a first course eight metres high. Above them smaller blocks teeter upwards for a further two metres.

Two temples, with great lobed chambers, built of smaller stones, share this colossal overcoat. The two entrances stand side by side on the concave facade, flanked by pillars of soft, golden limestone once doubtless capped by lintels of equally impressive dimensions. The oldest temple has a threshold made of one enormous slab of golden stone and beside it lie round rocks, the size of cannon balls, that rolled it into place.

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