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

Such obsessions are dangerous, and so it proved to be on ancient Malta. By about 2500 B.C.E. the community of the temple builders had ceased to build and perhaps even to use the monumental burial sites prepared by earlier generations. By 2000 B.C.E. the entire culture had disappeared and been replaced by very different religious practices that favored cremation burials. The burial hypogea, the cult of the fat ladies, and the other symbols of the living and the dead were completely abandoned.

The prehistoric religion of Malta might appear to be a failed experiment in the Mediterranean laboratory. Like many failures, however, it tells us more than a success might have. The extreme religious fervor of ancient Malta shows one of the possible results when societies are placed under severe pressures. Further careful excavations and reconstructions on Malta and at other Mediterranean sites should extend our understanding of the complexities and diversity of prehistoric society. Funerary deposits still lie intact at Brochtorff Circle and may one day offer further information.

AFTER THREE MORE YEARS of fieldwork and 10 years of analysis, the major task of analyzing and publishing 220,000 human bones and the accompanying animal bones and figurative art is nearly finished, and publication of the final report is planned for 2005. Further details of figurative art identified in these last two seasons included many more corpulent clay figurines, an intriguing snail figurine, a pair of enigmatic "female torso" pendants, and a broken-up finely carved standing figure, originally almost a meter in height. We have also established the varied ways in which human bodies were displayed and displaced during the funerary rituals.

Since the original article was written, there has been much discussion about the creative context of Maltese religion. Key issues include the construction of prehistoric Maltese identity, the degree of interaction between the Maltese islands and the rest of the Mediterranean, and the fragility of the Maltese environment.

An identity of a people is generally constructed in contrast to another external identity, but when a population resides on an island, a key question is the level of knowledge achieved by the island population of their outside world, in this case some 85 kilometers to the north. In prehistory, that knowledge can be best measured by the analysis of imported material culture and the interpretation of the context wherein these imports are placed.

In prehistoric Malta, most cultural effort went into using the widely available local limestone and clay to create impressive monuments, sculptures and pottery. In the temples and mortuary sites, most imported items (greenstones, ochre and some fragments of pottery) were secreted away in their inner recesses. This suggests that knowledge of the outside world was deliberately restricted to the eyes of a few. But until archaeologists have excavated domestic sites on the Maltese islands, we will not know the relative importance of other imported materials, such as flint and obsidian, for a domestic economy that was essentially based on local agriculture. Without that knowledge of domestic sites, it is also very difficult to measure any demographic change on the islands. Nevertheless, it is now even clearer that the local prehistoric agriculture was practiced in a landscape already cleared of vegetation and therefore potentially vulnerable both to erosion and to shortfalls of water. Studies of land snails from the Brochtorff Circle (as early as 4000 B.C.E.) and pollen from Marsa on Malta near Valletta (as early as 3600 B.C.E.) confirm this relatively treeless landscape, similar to that of today.

The preoccupation with religion on Malta probably had a number of causes. It was clearly a means of projecting an identity for the prehistoric populations, but we suspect that knowledge of alternative (for example, Sicilian) identities was principally a preserve of the priests who controlled knowledge of the outside world. The religion also served, through the ideal images of corpulence, to forge a sense of continuity in the community, the lineage, and the family beyond the short-term cycles of life that govern all humans and more particularly the prehistoric Maltese. These same life cycles of the prehistoric Maltese could have been vulnerable to disruption because of the relatively isolated island location, with its cleared and fragile landscape on which its food supplies depended. The implicit lesson for the modern world remains the same: religious faith should not shield the eyes of the faithful from solving problems whose solutions are made clear by the use of observation, the basis of scientific analysis.

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