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

Zammit estimated that a fantastic number of individuals--between 6,000 and 7,000--had been buried in the 32 chambers of the hypogeum complex. They had been interred along with grave gifts of pots, obsidian and flint tools, jewelry consisting of beads and stone pendants, and clay and stone figures of obese people and animals. One of the most striking figures is the Sleeping Lady of the Hypogeum. This statuette shows a rotund female lying on her side on an elaborate woven bed. She is clothed in gathered skirts, and her hair is dressed in a small, neat bun.

The various passages and chambers of the site strongly resembled the temples aboveground, with upright stone blocks spanned by lintels, steps, hinge holes for barriers and perhaps painted decorations. Nevertheless, the primary function of the hypogeum was clearly for burial, as the thousands of bones attest. Yet it may have been more than simply a huge tomb. Its elaborately carved form, so similar in design to the temples, hints that it was also a temple for the dead, central to the rituals of death, burial and the afterlife.

The great number of figurines from both the temples and the ornate burial hypogeum of Hal Saflieni have fueled ideas (some plausible, some fantastic) about the supposed fertility cults and rituals of Malta. Some archaeologists have hypothesized that Maltese society may have been a powerful matriarchy dominated by priestesses, female leaders and mother goddesses. Those theories were always based on an implicit faith in the meaning of the artifacts--a faith as devout, in its way, as the prehistoric religion itself but lacking much scientific foundation.

In recent years, an excavation at the site of the Brochtorff Circle on Gozo has uncovered important evidence about the prehistoric rituals of death. The Brochtorff Circle, a megalithic enclosure on the summit of the Xaghra plateau, was first uncovered in the 1820s by Otto Bayer, the lieutenant governor of Gozo. Vague historical records suggest that a typically haphazard treasure hunt at the site followed, from which no findings or documentation survived. Those efforts obliterated all surface traces of the structure. Fortunately, though, a roving Maltese artist, Charles Brochtorff, made several sketches of the work while it was in progress. His accurate, detailed watercolors and engravings show a site that consists of a stone wall and entrance that encircle a huge rough hole at the center; several megaliths also stand within the enclosure. In one drawing, a man is shown climbing from the hole, holding an object shaped like a human skull.

That series of pictures was the only clue left to suggest that an archaeological site was located on the plateau. It served as a starting point for our team, which set out to rediscover whatever remained underneath the flat field, guided by local archaeologist Jo Attard. Using the most up-to-date scientific techniques, such as ground-penetrating radar, we conducted topographic and geophysical surveys of the area to assess the nature of the buried rock. In 1987 we succeeded in once again locating the Bayer excavation within a circle that had been found 200 years earlier.

Since then, hard reexcavation has been done at the site. Over an area of about a quarter acre, we needed to remove not only the 19th-century backfill but also the rubble from cave collapses that had filled several deep natural cavities to a depth of more than four meters. Ultimately the true nature of the site became clear, and the rich array of recovered artifacts and human remains testified to its importance.

After the previous depredations at the site, we wanted to ensure that it was reexcavated with all the care and precision available to modern science. We therefore recorded and photographed every item at the base level of the caves in situ from several directions for a three-dimensional record of its position and appearance. Samples were taken for dating and also for studies of the local environment and subtle stratigra-phy of the site. Paleoanthropological methods helped us to reconstruct a profile of the buried human population. We kept scrupulous computer records.

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