The Death Cults of Prehistoric Malta [Preview]

New archaeological excavations reveal that as the ancient island societies suffered from environmental decline, they developed an extreme religious preoccupation with life and death

Today the dry, rocky, hilly islands of Malta seem inhospitable to farming communities. Little soil or vegetation is present, and obtaining fresh water is a problem. Yet the geologic evidence suggests that between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago, a far more inviting scene greeted the early inhabitants. Those people probably cleared the fragile landscape of its natural vegetation fairly rapidly. Thereafter, severe soil erosion gradually robbed the islands of their productivity. The resulting environmental fragility may have caused agricultural yields to be unpredictable. That stress may well have shaped the strange and often extreme society that one finds portrayed in the archaeological record of ancient Malta.

The prehistoric archaeology of the Maltese islands is famed for its many huge stone temples. The number of them is staggering: some 20 groups of temples dot the islands, most containing two or three individual massive structures. Radiocarbon dating has indicated that they developed over rough-ly a millennium, from approximately 3500 to 2500 B.C.E. Because of their prominence in the landscape of Malta and Gozo, the two largest and most populous of the islands, the temples were always obvious targets for enthusiastic archaeological investigations, particularly during the 19th century. Those early workers cleared the rubble and other deposits from the temples long before scientific archaeology had developed. Little effort was made to specify the exact positions of the unearthed artifacts; in particular, the contexts of the cult idols were rarely recorded. Not much can be done now with that incomplete evidence, other than to appreciate the sculptors high level of skill.

Though mostly stripped of its cult images and other decoration, the architecture of the Maltese temples still survives. The design of the temples is regular: each consists of a curved stone facade overlooking an open forecourt. The facade usually has a formal entrance, marked by enormous carved stones and a capstone, that leads to a central corridor. Lobe-shaped apses open onto this corridor at either side and ahead, as in a cloverleaf. The apses often had stone altars (which were frequently carved with spiral or animal designs), carefully plastered floors and walls, and other decorations painted with red ocher, a pigment probably imported from Sicily. They also feature tie-holes, which in some cases were perhaps for fastening animals to the walls, and holes in the ground that were evidently for draining liquids. In many instances, substantial quantities of animal bones, particularly those of sheep and goats, were found together with drinking vessels and sharp flint knives. All these details suggest that sacrifices and feasting may have played an important part in the rituals performed in the temples.

Some information about the layout of the furnishings survived in the temples of Tarxien, which were excavated between 1915 and 1919. The lower half of an enormous statue of a "fat lady" was found in the temple precinct. Next to it is an altar within which the remains of food were found. The altar faced the carved figures of animals that may have represented sacrifices. Deeper within the recesses of the temple, excavators found the images of people who may have been priests, caches of precious pendants and even architectural models of the temples themselves.

The discovery in 1902 of the hypogeum, or subterranean burial chamber, at Hal Saflieni added another dimension to the cults of early Malta. Construction workers stumbled across this remarkable site while excavating cellars and foundations for new buildings in the surrounding town of Pawla. Before any skilled archaeologist was called to the scene, most of the chambers were emptied without documenting their contents; the rich assemblage of human remains and grave goods they must have contained probably ended up as fertil-izer in nearby fields. A proper study of the hypogeum was finally conducted a few years later by Themistocles Zammit, the curator of the National Museum of Malta and the father of Maltese prehistory. He attempted to salvage what information he could from the near-empty chambers cut in the rock.

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