The Ancient Temples of Malta

01
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Introduction

Neolithic Temple of Hagar Qim
Neolithic Temple of Hagar Qim. John Haslam

The Malta Temples are ancient stone structures located on Gozo and Malta, two tiny islands in the Mediterranean Sea off the south coast of Sicily. The temples are among the oldest temples in the world, the earliest of which have their initial construction phase over six thousand years ago. In all, there are about 30 temples on Malta and Gozo, and there may have been more. They are low, sprawling stone structures with between five and 20 rooms; and each temple is enclosed within a massive retaining wall and an exterior forecourt for public assembly.

  • Main Temples on Malta: Tarxien (the largest and most elaborate), Skorba, Mnajdra, Hagar Qim, Ta' Hagrat, Kordin, Bugibba, Xrobb I-Ghagin
  • Main Temples on Gozo: Ggantija (the largest and most elaborate on Gozo) Xewkija, and Ta' Marziena
  • Other important structures: Hal Saflieni Hypogeum (below-ground cavern used for burials, on Malta), Broctorff a.k.a. Xhagra Circle (stone circle, on Gozo)

Unlike what people normally think of as temples, the Malta temples are entirely curvilinear, consisting of a series of lobed spaces or apses. The earliest temples were simple, made of two or three oval rooms; they were not unlike other small ritual centers built throughout Sicily, Italy and the central Mediterranean at about the same time. But the completed temples (after a thousand years of reuse and rebuild) are massive and sprawling, with an external open space (for public gatherings?), leading to an internal courtyard and then leading from the courtyard into the private apses, the oldest parts of the temples newly refurbished.

The doorways into the temples are for the most part monumental. Archaeologists think the massive doorways were boundaries marking the interior (private) and exterior (public) parts of the temples. This separation is also marked by raised thresholds and stone paved floors, elaborate screens built to hide the interior from the exterior, and sculptured surfaces, patterns of drilled holes or spiral motifs.

Temple Exteriors

In general the outer walls of the temples form a semi-circular forecourt to the south, sometimes paved with crushed limestone paste. The outer walls are massive, built of enormous limestone blocks. In some cases, the walls are of two layers of limestone blocks filled with a rubble core. Some temples have squared-off limestone entry-ways. Many of the entry ways point to the southeast, perhaps meeting the rising sun. Some astronomical alignments have been suggested; more about that later.

Sources

See the Malta Temples bibliography for more information.

02
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Architecture

Interior Courtyard of the Temple of Mnajdra
Interior Courtyard of the Temple of Mnajdra. Interior Courtyard of Mnajdra Temple on Malta. This room would have been roofed over with organic materials; the small holes in the wall connect the interior rooms to the courtyard. Tony Hisgett

Some archaeologists have commented, looking at the dark interiors of the Malta temples, that the temples may have originated as above-ground replications of rock-cut tombs. Indeed, several of the complex temples are associated with the mega burial sites; but the temples themselves do not contain burials. When the roofs were intact, they were dark, enclosed spaces with red-plastered walls, with labyrinthine, branching, dark passages which had eerie acoustical properties. The buildings are way too massive for the needs of the population, and they are flat low structures with dun-colored local limestone and maybe flat wattle and daub roofing that echoes the environment after the forests had been removed.

The temples have a clear dichotomy, there's a distinct inside and outside, a division between front and rear, and access to the interior is restricted by way of a series of doorways and closed off areas. In some of the temples are "oracle holes", narrow slots in the wall which connect the inner temples with exterior rooms. Researchers have suggested that they were used as communication pathways to transmit knowledge between a small insider group and a larger group outside.

The inner furniture consists of built-in stone tables or "altars", and stone doors coupled with partitions made of organic materials. Artifacts found inside the temples include chert and obsidian tools, polished stone axes and amulets, pottery, and small figurines of females, figures without clearly defined sexual attributes and animals. Architectural details also include small holes drilled into the walls and floors without obvious purpose. Animal sacrifices inside the temples are suggested by finds of domesticated animal bones and flint blades, and feasting has been inferred from the large number of carinated bowls.

Sources

See the Malta Temples bibliography for more information.

03
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Physical Environment

A map of the temples on the islands of Malta and Gozo
A map of the temples on the islands of Malta and Gozo. Black dots are temples; open squares are tombs, subterranean chambers and other associated structures. Kris Hirst. Map base Hamelin de Guettelet, inset Map Master, data from Robb 2001 and Grima 2001.

Malta and Gozo are part of the Maltese archipelago of the Mediterranean, which includes an area of 320 square km, including several uninhabited islets. The islands are 250 km (155 miles) from mainland Europe, 290 km (180 miles) from North Africa, and 96 km (60 miles) from Sicily. Malta and Gozo have a hot, dry climate, and consist of physically gently sloping limestone plateaus, with thin soils. The islands lack useful resources such as high quality cherts, obsidian, ochre, metals and any hard stones for axes. The Maltese temple builders either traded with their neighbors for these materials, or made do without.

The islands were originally forested when people arrived ~6000 BC, but with few large land animals. They were probably rapidly deforested after colonization, with agricultural fields, building events, and the browsing of domestic goats the main culprits. Malta measures 95 square miles (245.7 sq km), and Gozo 27 square miles (67.1 sq km), with a channel of 5 miles between them. Two tiny islands (Comino and Cominotto) lie in the channel and a third, Filfla, lies off the coast of Malta. Maltese sailors say they can sail across from Sicily to Malta in an oar-propelled craft in less than 24 hours, by keeping Mount Etna on Sicily in sight the whole way.

Note: I am told that a recent PhD analysis of sediment cores on Malta by Katrin Fenech recovered pollen suggesting that the islands had never been forested. I haven't seen it yet, but in the meantime, the reference is listed in the sources.

Sources

Robb J. 2001. Island Identities: Ritual, Travel and The Creation of Difference in Neolithic Malta. European Journal of Archaeology 4(2):175-202.

See the Malta Temples bibliography for more information.

04
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Archaeological Investigations

1750 Map of Malta and Gozo
"Particular draughts of some of the chief African Islands in the Mediterranean", drawn by Emanuel Bowen about 1750. Norman B. Leventhal Center, Boston Public Library

Of course, the ruins have long been recognized on the landscape of Malta and Gozo, and the earliest descriptions we have of them date to the 16th century. The Brochtorff Circle (also called the Xhagra Circle) was excavated by Charles de Brochtorff in the early 19th century (1820-1825), and Themistocles Zammit excavated in the early 20th century at Hal Saflieni and Tarxien.

The first systematic work on the temples was conducted by John D. Evans in the 1950s; Colin Renfrew completed work there in the 1970s. The Anglo-Maltese Gozo Project fieldwork project began in 1987 led by A. Bonanno, Caroline Malone and Simon Stoddart.

Only two residential occupations have been excavated to date on Malta and none on Gozo. Although one dates to the Pre-Temple phase (excavated by David Trump in 1966) and one during the Temple Period (Malone et al, in 1988), they are very similar. These excavations showed that the people on Malta and Gozo lived in small oval or round huts built of stone and daub, requiring frequent rebuilding. In comparison, the temples were massive, visually prominent and took lots of labor to build them. The fact that there are so few occupations excavated to date is probably because they were so small and ephemeral that they are hard to find.

Sources

See the Malta Temples bibliography for more information.

05
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Foundations and History

Ta' Hagrat Floorplan
Floorplan of the Maltese temple Ta' Hagrat. The walls (in brown) are built of massive limestone blocks filled with rubble. The courtyard is floored with large stone slabs, while the floors of the raised apses were made of crushed limestone. Kris Hirst, adapted from Reuben Grima (2001) and John Evans (1971)

Note: The Ta' Hagrat floorplan is based on Evans' 1971 plans, and represents the end result of several stages (and several centuries) of construction.

Pre-Temple Period (5500-4500 BC)

Gozo and Malta were first colonized about 5500 BC, most likely by people from the Neolithic Stentinello culture from Sicily, the nearest landmass. The pre-temple economy was based on subsistence horticulture of wheat, barley and pulses, herding sheep, goats, cattle and pigs. The original settlements on Malta and Gozo were small clusters of huts built of wattle and daub. At this point, Gozo and Malta shared symbols and institutions with Sicily and southern Italy, suggesting an on-going trade contact. Stone axes and obsidian were traded to the islands.

Pre-temple burial customs included placement in natural caves and rock-cut tombs with little evidence for social hierarchy.

Skorba Phase (4500-4100 BC)

During the Skorba Phase on Malta and Gozo, the population increased on the islands, marked by the construction of increasingly larger villages of wattle and daub construction. The cultural connections with Italy, Sicily and the rest of the central Mediterranean continued, and a consolidation of agricultural production led to the beginnings of social stratification.

Communal (ritual) structures were first built during the Skorba Phase, but they were small and of general purpose.

Zebbug Phase (4100-3800 BC)

The Zebbug Phase brought new, distinct pottery styles, still similar to those made on Sicily; at the same time, a completely new art style not seen on the mainland is evident in pendants and statuary on Malta. Strong links to the central Mediterranean are still intact, evidenced by the presence of obsidian and other goods that had to have come from Sicily and other Mediterranean islands. Communal tombs were in use by the Zebbug Phase, suggesting that large family groups had a place in the society.

The Zebbug Phase saw a shift from small, general-purpose ritual structures to special purpose buildings. These buildings are oval rooms with two or three lobes; these small buildings were to be added on later, becoming the massive temples seen today. The construction of these buildings probably signals the formation of the first strong social hierarchies on Malta and Gozo. The building of the architecture, whether the result of voluntary labor or not, implies a coordination of efforts. The architecture itself, with restricted interior rooms and blocked lines of site into the temples, implies the beginnings of the segregation between ritual participants and audiences.

Sources

See the Malta Temples bibliography for more information.

06
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Temple Building Periods on Gozo and Malta

Floorplan of the Ggantija Temples
Floorplan of the Ggantija Temples. Adapted from Hamelin de Guettelet

Ggantija Phase (3600-3000 BC)

During the Ggantija phase, the first true large stone temples were built on Gozo and Malta. At the time, the islands became increasingly isolated from the rest of the central Mediterranean, shown by a sharp drop in imported goods and the creation of new pottery styles. One theory has it that the depletion of timber resources on Malta and Gozo made it impossible for the people to build new boats, cutting off both access to the mainland and access to fish and maritime resources. Recent stable isotope studies seem to suggest, however, that fish never were an important role in Neolithic Malta diets.

The earlier small oval rooms were elaborated first to form trefoil structures, than into increasingly complex multi-apsed buildings. John Robb (2001) describes temple construction during the Ggantija and Tarxien periods as "madly fissioning mushrooms". Internal furniture including raised altars, tables, oracle holes and niches became common place. Temple building was clearly locally controlled, with construction methods and architectural styles varying between temples.

Tarxien (3000-2500 BC)

The Tarxien Phase on Malta and Gozo saw increased building and rebuilding, with several elaborate temple complexes created by renovating old temples and adding on to them. Every temple that can be chronologically traced shows extensive multiple remodeling episodes, particularly during the Tarxien period. The isolation of Malta and Gozo from Sicily and the mainland intensified as the temples were elaborated, with imported exotics becoming rare, curated and sacred objects. Social stratification and trouble is suggested as the temple redesign closed off sections to the public.

The Tarxien phase is also exemplified by a decline in agricultural production and an implied over-population. A lack of easily accessible wild foods is apparent. At the same time, artistic images of characteristic "fat ladies" became common.

After ~2500 BC, no more temple building or renovation is recorded at the Malta temples.

Sources

See the Malta Temples bibliography for more information.

07
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Why Were the Malta Temples Built?

Sculpted Figure at Tarxien
Sculpted Figure at Tarxien. aSIMULAtor

There are no documentary records for the temple construction, of course, so we don't really know why the Maltese people built the temples. In fact, archaeologists classify the massive stone structures as temples at all based on the presence of altars and offering bowls, the evidence for animal sacrifice and the ubiquity of 'cult' figurines.

In addition, there is no evidence that anyone actually lived at the monument sites--so they aren't elite residences--and burials are only associated with the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum on Malta and the Xhagra stone circle (also called the Brochtorff circle) near Ggantija on Gozo. Further, those sites are mega-burials: reportedly, over 7,000 burials were discovered in the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. And other small underground tombs are scattered about the island; so it doesn't seem that the temples are monuments honoring the dead.

Why Do Archaeologists Think the Temples were Built?

Among archaeologists, Andrew Turnbull believes that the temples functioned as communal food storage--there was a storage facility called a quern found at Kordin); and that they also served as healing centers and places for the performance of space and knowledge. Colin Renfrew argued that the temples were administrative centers of redistributive chiefdoms-in essence, governmental palaces. Patton, Stoddart and Trump believe that the temples gave symbolic power to a priestly elite. Piggott and Anati (and Marija Gimbutas) argued that the temples were places for "mother goddess worship"; Gimbutas in particular believed that the temples were the center of a pan-European female-centered religion. Alasdair Whittle suggested that the temples reveal an increasing commitment to defined places; and Caroline Malone argued that the temples reflect a Maltese cosmology of life and death. John Robb (who details many of these opinions in his 2001 article) believes the temple construction had to do with creating an identity of isolation, separate from that of the mainland and Sicily.

The 'Uniqueness' of the Maltese Temples

It's important to recognize that, although the concentration of structures on Malta and Gozo are unique, some of the structures are not. There are standing stone circles in Sardinia (and in many other places of the world), and there's a hypogeum at Calaforno in Sicily that has 35 rooms and a smaller one at Malpasso. Neolithic Sardinians used underground room clusters to house the dead, ochre wall decorations and carved stone to mimic architectural elements such as pilasters and lintels. Also, many contemporary groups in Sicily, Italy and Sardinia also made figurines, and they don't look anything like one another.

But there's no doubt that the Malta temples were and are unusual, in their numbers, layout and, potentially, meaning.

Sources

See the Malta Temples bibliography for more information.

08
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The Goddess Movement

Sleeping Lady of Malta
Sleeping Lady of Malta. Glen Bowman

One distinctive characteristic of many of the figurines has resulted in the discussion in the archaeological literature and elsewhere of the possibility of the Maltese being the center of a woman-based religious cult. It is true that many of the figurines recovered from the temples are of lushly obese women, like the so-called "Sleeping Lady of Malta" illustrated above. In addition, many of the temple rooms are demonstrably mammiform--that is, bulbously oval and shaped, if you look at them from the air, like women's breasts. In particular, Marija Gimbutas took this idea and ran with it, envisioning Malta as the center (and founding place) of the pan-European goddess movement.

However, several points argue against this. For one thing, not all, and in fact only a minority, of the figurines are of women; many others are of animals or humans of unidentifiable gender. Secondly, while the single rooms are definitely mammiform, in most cases, the rooms are in groups of three, not two, as one might expect from an idea that's supposed to represent women's breasts.

In addition, a reasonable argument might be made that the fat ladies are a response to famine conditions. By the time of the appearance of the corpulent figurines, and the most elaborate work on the temples, trade with Italy and Sicily had been cut off, agricultural production had been reduced and the population had increased to untenable size. It is possible that being fat was a luxury that few people on Malta and Gozo could achieve, and thus being fat might have been looked upon as a sacred image.

Since we don't have any documents explaining what was going on in Maltese minds, all of this is speculation.

Sources

See the Malta Temples bibliography for more information.

09
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Archaeoastronomy

Entryway to Tarxien Temple
Entryway to Tarxien Temple. aSIMULAtor

Another often-discussed element of the Malta Temples is archaeoastronomy, that is, determining whether the temples were laid out according to some astronomical alignments. The basic problem with trying to nail down an alignment is the shape of the structures. They're round, and as you might imagine, trying to establish a straight alignment from a round building is difficult.

Researchers who have looked into the possible archaeoastronomy include George Agius and Frank Ventura, who looked hard and found what they called an "axis of symmetry" at some of the temples, that is to say, a line that seemed to split, say, Hagar Qim, into two (relatively) symmetrical halves. Giorgia Fodera Serio and colleagues used their lines, and discovered 26 azimuths, 20 of them between 128 and 230 degrees (or roughly between southeast and southwest). But six others, including four from Hagar Qim, showed no similarity whatsoever.

A stone recovered from the small Tal-Qadi temple has straight lines and symbols that probably represent stars and the moon. A number of the temples point toward Alpha and Beta Centauri, but not with enough accuracy to definitively say that was the intended use. Ta' Hagrat's opening might have faced the rising of Alpha Centauri in 3500 BC; and Ggantija faced the Centauri stars, especially after its original construction was rebuilt.

The Gozo Project team, however, points out that alignments which seem to point to Alpha Centauri could be interpreted as pointing to the north, to Sicily and other places, as the Maltese were longing for their central Mediterranean homelands and materials they were unable to get--obsidian and timber.

More simply, Mnajdra's entrance seems to face directly towards sunrise at the equinox, but it's the only one that does that.

Sources

Serio GF, Hoskin M, and Ventura F. 1992. The orientations of the temples of Malta. Journal of the History of Astronomy 23(2):107-119. (main source)

See the Malta Temples bibliography for more information.

10
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Bibliographic Sources and Further Reading

Entrance to Mnajdra Temple
Entrance to Mnajdra Temple. Tony Hisgett

Websites for Further Reading

Bibliography on Malta Temples

Bonanno A, Gouder T, Malone C, and Stoddart S. 1990. Monuments in an Island Society: The Maltese Context. World Archaeology 22(2):190-205.

Evans JD. 1977. Island Archaeology in the Mediterranean: Problems and Opportunities. World Archaeology 9(1):12-26.

Fenech K. 2007. Human-induced changes in the environment and landscape of the Maltese Islands from the Neolithic to the 15th century AD : as inferred from a scientific study of sediments from Marsa, Malta. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Flynn B. 2005. Exploration of Maltese prehistoric temples through the application of multimedia technologies. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 5(2):23-34.

Grima R. 2001. An Iconography of Insularity: A Cosmological Interpretation of some Images and Spaces in the Late Neolithic Temples of Malta. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 12:48-65.

Hughes KJ. 1999. Persistent Features from a Palaeo-Landscape: The Ancient Tracks of the Maltese Islands. The Geographical Journal 165(1):62-78.

Mottershead D, Pearson A, and Schaefer M. 2008. The cart ruts of Malta: An applied geomorphology approach. Antiquity 82(318):1065-1079.

Richards MP, Hedges REM, Walton I, Stoddart S, and Malone C. 2001. Neolithic Diet at the Brochtorff Circle, Malta. European Journal of Archaeology 4(2):253-262.

Robb J. 2001. Island Identities: Ritual, Travel and The Creation of Difference in Neolithic Malta. European Journal of Archaeology 4(2):175-202.

Rountree K. 2001. The Past is a Foreigners’ Country: Goddess Feminists, Archaeologists, and the Appropriation of Prehistory. Journal of Contemporary Religion 16(1).

Sagona C. 2004. Land Use In Prehistoric Malta. A Re-Examination of the Maltese ‘cart Ruts’. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 23(1):45–60. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0092.2004.00201

Serio GF, Hoskin M, and Ventura F. 1992. The orientations of the temples of Malta. Journal of the History of Astronomy 23(2):107-119.

Skeates R. 2008. Making Sense of the Maltese Temple Period: An Archaeology of Sensory Experience and Perception. Time and Mind 1(2):207-238.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Ancient Temples of Malta." ThoughtCo, Aug. 11, 2016, thoughtco.com/the-ancient-temples-of-malta-171872. Hirst, K. Kris. (2016, August 11). The Ancient Temples of Malta. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-ancient-temples-of-malta-171872 Hirst, K. Kris. "The Ancient Temples of Malta." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-ancient-temples-of-malta-171872 (accessed December 16, 2017).