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

The only grave goods with these Tarxien people (which have been dated by the radiocarbon method to around 2800 B.C.E.) were small, carefully modeled ceramic statuettes of obese human figures. These figurines are of ambiguous sexuality, even though they have distinctive accumulations of fat on the buttocks. Most show no primary characteristics of sexuality (such as breasts). Their discovery in that location was highly significant: it marked the first secure association of fat ladies with burial sites instead of shrines or temple altars.

On the ground surface, at the mon-umental entrance leading down into the caverns, another pit was also filled with human remains. Among them were many males whose body parts had been rearranged after being taken from some other burial place. Almost no grave gifts accompanied the bones. Small altars at either end of the megalithic pavement beside the burial pit may have been used for preliminary sacrifices and obeisances before the priest and the assembled mourning community ventured down into the foul, reeking caves of the dead.

Striking Sculptures
THE MOST EXCITING discoveries from the Brochtorff site, aside from the human remains themselves, are small stone sculptures that have changed our views about the role of art in the ancient local religion. The prehistoric Maltese of the Tarxien period seem to have invested most of their artisanship and craft into cult objects that were more than mere grave gifts. For example, a ceramic strainer and a unique stone sculpture were unearthed from near the stone bowl in the megalithic shrine. The strainer was probably meant to be used with the bowl, perhaps for straining out unwanted objects or for sprinkling liquids onto bodies.

The sculpture shows a beautifully carved and painted pair of obese figures. They are seated on an intricately carved bed, daubed with red ocher, that shows woven struts on the underside and curvilinear designs on the upper. The fat figures are not explicitly male or female. They wear the familiar pleated skirts, painted black, of the finest Maltese cult figures. The head of one figure sports a haircut that includes a pigtail at the back. The others head is missing. Both figures hold objects on their laps: one a tiny dressed person (who may be a baby), the other a cup.

Aside from the sculpture's fine craftsmanship, it is astonishing because the portrayal of several humans together is almost unknown from that period in Europe: even individual figures, other than the fat ladies, are uncommon. A few artifacts with features that are reminiscent of this sculpture have been found elsewhere in ancient Malta, such as the fragments of carved beds and the terra-cotta Sleeping Lady of the Hypogeum. Nevertheless, this discovery is one of the earliest and most thought-provoking groups of sculpture from European prehistory.

The other major find was a cache of nine carved stone idols, which were also closely associated with the stone bowl in the central shrine. The objects must originally have been wrapped tightly in a bag or box: when they were discovered in 1991, they were all lying one above the other, having fallen from the structures surrounding the bowl. Six of the objects represent human figures: flat, triangular shapes attached to carvings of human heads. The six range from poorly detailed rough-outs to skillfully executed cult idols. Two of the most detailed figures have pleated skirts and belts, and one wears an elaborate crested circlet, suggestive of metal, around its head. The faces of both these figures show eyes and lips and well-defined noses. A third figure is simpler and has no costume other than an exquisitely sculpted cowl headdress. Two more have plain bodies and bobbed hair. The last of the six is a crude rough-out that shows only the lines that the finished sculpture was to follow.

The three other idols of the nine are small and individual. One has a pig's head, the second a well-carved human head on a phallus-shaped pedestal and the third a head supported by two legs. Along with these extraordinary objects was a miniature Tarxien pot filled with ocher, perhaps for smearing on idols.

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