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

Unlike the great hypogeum of Hal Saflieni on Malta, which consists mainly of artificial carved chambers, the Brochtorff site on Gozo is fundamentally a series of natural caves with numerous interconnecting chambers. Erosion and perhaps earthquakes have cracked the thin, rocky roof of the caves, resulting in several meters of rockfall and jumbled archaeological deposits. The caves were crumbling even 5,000 years ago. The prehistoric community, which by that time had already been using the caves for the burial of the dead for perhaps 1,000 years, began to insert carved stone supports under the cave roof in a vain attempt to control the collapse.

The burial complex at the Brochtorff site was in use for about 1,500 years, a period spanning several stages in the evolution of Maltese religion and society. In the early Zebbug period between 4000 and 3500 B.C.E., burial rituals were simple. The dead were placed in collective chambers that were either in caves or in tombs cut into the rock. Each chamber may have held the members from a single family or lineage group. One such tomb was found inside the circle in 1988. The burial rites evidently included the progressive removal of bones from earlier burials to allow space for later ones; the large removed bones may have been dumped in other parts of the caves.

A variety of gifts were interred with the dead: pottery, bone and stone beads and pendants, stone axes made of metamorphic rocks, flint and obsidian blades, shell pendants, and shell and bead necklaces. The bone pendants often have budlike appendages suggestive of arms and heads. Red ocher was spread lavishly over the grave goods and also over the dry white bones of the dead (perhaps in a symbolic attempt to restore them to life). At the entrance to one of the chambers stood a small upright monolith, a so-called menhir, bearing a crudely carved face that guarded the doorway.

The later burials, which were contemporary with the great Tarxien period of temple building, were different. The emphasis on small family groups appears to have been supplanted by a more ritualized and elaborate cult of the dead. Part of the evidence for that conclusion comes from the megalithic construction of the Brochtorff Circle itself. The builders enclosed the opening to the cave with a wall and oriented its entrance eastward through the massive upright stones. In so doing, they integrated the entire site with the Ggantija temple, 300 meters away and on a lower terrace of the plateau.

Inside the caves the Tarxien builders leveled the earlier burials to provide a fresh (albeit bone-riddled) surface for the installation of stone monuments. The niches and smaller caverns were subdivided with pairs of upright stones and rough walls, which created additional, enclosed places for burials. At the center of the main cavern, the Maltese builders set up megalithic slabs in a semicircle, at the heart of which was a huge carved stone bowl. The stonework surrounding this bowl was elegant, and there is evidence that some of it included animal figures and pitted patterns. The builders did not apply red ocher as liberally as their predecessors did, and they painted only a few of the nearby slabs. Available supplies were made to stretch further.

Bodies were buried in the compartments around this central shrine. One noteworthy burial site was a natural cavity in the cave floor where hundreds of bodies were laid to rest. At first sight, the remains seemed incomplete and in confusion. Our further work has shown, however, that the bones from many bodies had been carefully sorted and stacked by type: skulls in one place, femurs in another and so on. This pattern suggests that as part of the burial ritual, old bodies being removed from compartments were disarticulated.

Some 220,000 human bones, which probably represent more than 800 individuals, have now been studied. The early results paint the ancient Maltese as a typically Mediterranean people--stockily built and of medium height. They show some distinctive characteristics, such as a digastric fossa, a well-formed groove on both sides of the skull that is found in some other populations. Their health was apparently very good, with few dental problems or other detectable illnesses. The same anthropological features are present from the earliest Zebbug people to the late Tarxien population, which evinces little or no change in the genetic makeup of the early Maltese community. The changes in their customs and cults were therefore probably not the result of foreign immigration. Scientific studies of the bones will continue over the next decades, providing one of the first and possibly the biggest samples of research on an early Mediterranean population ever undertaken.

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