WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT MEGALITHIC TEMPLE BUILDERS?

Malta has more megalithic temples than you can name in a pub quiz

Described as the “oldest free standing monuments on Earth”, at 6,000 years old, Malta’s prehistoric sites are older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids. Mystery still enshrouds the cultures that produced them, as little is actually known about who built them, how and why. The prehistoric culture of the megalithic builders mysteriously disappeared from the Maltese Islands around 4,500 years ago and it remains an enigma.

While Ħaġar Qim and Ġgantija stand firmly on the beaten track, there are many more prehistoric sites in Malta. Even Bugibba, famous as a pensioners’ resort, has one. There are no less than twenty-eight known megalithic sites within Malta’s 316 square kilometres. Megalith simply means “very big stone,” and while some sites consist of little more than a few scattered megaliths, several are in better condition and include more than one temple. Two of the sites were built for burial purposes. Some of the sites have not yet been excavated, some have been reburied and others have been destroyed. Some, however, are well documented and each site reveals a unique development in the island’s prehistoric past.

Il-Ġgantija

“Il-Ġgantija” derives its name from the giants it is associated with. Some of the megaliths are over five metres in length – like a standard kitchen – and weigh over fifty tonnes. Findings suggest that eerie rituals including a fire and animal or human sacrifice may have been performed. Ġgantija (3600-3200 BC) is the oldest of megalithic temples in Malta and, therefore, in the world. This UNESCO World Heritage site is located in Xagħra, Gozo.

Ta’ Ħaġrat

Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, the temples at Ta’ Ħaġrat offer an insight into a single settlement over a long period. Pottery found around the site of Ta’ Haġrat suggests that people lived here already 5,800 years ago. They built two well-preserved structures across several centuries and continued to use the area long afterwards. Ta’ Ħaġrat temples are located at Mġarr, just one kilometer from the Skorba temples.

Skorba

It is Skorba, though, that sheds the most light into the prehistoric life and diet in Malta. Dated even before the Temple Period (4100-2500 BC), the dwelling huts found here are technically the oldest known man-made stone structures in the world. The area had supported a village for several centuries, and some of the remains relate to the first human occupation on the island 7,000 years ago. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this complex includes two megalithic temple structures from different periods between ,600 and 2,500 BC.

Kordin

Many of the megalithic temples in Malta were used by several different cultures that inhabited Malta through the ages. Phoenicians, then Greeks and Romans could be seen using the Kordin Temples in Paola. A 2.75-metre-long hard limestone trough with seven deep grooves was likely used for grinding corn during the temple period. Only Kordin III remains, as the other two structures were destroyed by aerial bombardment during WWII.

Borġ in-Nadur

Borġ in-Nadur, in Birżebbuġa, offers more insight into people’s activities during the Bronze age. The 5,000 year old site contains a megalithic temple as well as a village and the earliest fortification in Malta, built to protect the area from inland attack. Scattered sherds of Mycenaean origin indicate contact between the Maltese and Aegean civilisations.

Ħaġar Qim

But how much can we aspire to understand about the temple builders? We can only guess at how and why they built the temples the way they did. They wrote nothing down, but they did carve out decorations and symbols, including several stone and clay statuettes of “the fertility goddess.” A hewn out elliptical hole, through which the rising sun’s rays illuminate a stone slab during the summer solstice, demonstrates that the temple builders of Ħaġar Qim knew about the world they lived in, the changing seasons and astronomy already 5,600 years ago.

Mnajdra

From the same period and just 500 metres down the stark landscape of Mediterranean garigue, Mnajdra, like Ħaġar Qim, keeps a memory of an aspect of human history that no-one will fully learn. Mnajdra is astronomically aligned with the rising sun during all the solstices and equinoxes. This way it effectively serves as a calendar – a rather clever and incredible feat for the technology available 5,600 years ago, at the time when mammoths were still roaming Europe. The first rays of sunlight of the equinox shine straight through the main doorway to the innermost niche, while the summer and winter solstices light up the opposite edges.

Tarxien

More artwork and sculptures appear at the Tarxien temples to provide some clues regarding the interests of the temple builders, what the temples represent and how they were built. Highly decorated stone blocks, reliefs of spirals and domestic animals, the bottom half of a colossal skirted figure, and stone spheres are among the finds. The spheres may have served as rollers for the megaliths, and the temples show evidence of arched roofing. Archeologists have also found a flint knife and animal bones. One of the four megalithic structures features “oracle” holes. Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, the place was used throughout the Temple Period until 1,500 BC.

Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum

Hypogeum is Greek for “underground”. It is hewn in rock three stories below ground and beautifully carved imitating architectural elements found in above-ground temples. It contains paintings in red ochre – they are the oldest and only prehistoric paintings on the Maltese Islands. But the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is also a prehistoric burial site, where bones of more than 7,000 individuals were found. Remains date from 4,000 BC until 2,500 BC. The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, just 400 metres from the Tarxien temples, is described by UNESCO as “a site that bears a unique testimony to a cultural tradition that has disappeared”.

Buġibba

There are several other temple fragments that lie scattered across the islands. Large stone remains were also found off the coast of Malta at a site known as Ġebel ġol-Baħar, but it is not proven to be a megalithic temple. While some structures have survived in reasonably good condition, less is known about them due to lost excavation records or human manipulation before they were investigated. The Bugibba Temple, surviving on the grounds of the New Dolmen hotel in Qawra, serves as evidence that all parts of the island were used by the temple builders.

These massive human-made stone structures defy all present understanding of the technology we assume of those times. Yet the temple builders left a legacy that survives to baffle historians. Piece by piece, we attempt to piece the puzzle together, but if only those stones could speak, what would they tell us about those that walked this land thousands of years ago?

Here’s the full list of 28 Megalithic Sites in Malta and Gozo:
Megalithic Temple Sites in Malta: Għajn Zejtuna, Xemxija, Buġibba, tal-Qadi, ta’ Ħammut, Ta’ Lippija, Ta’ Ħaġrat, Skorba, Pellegrin, Kunċizzjoni, Iklin, Tar-Raddiena, Kordin I, Kordin II, Kordin III, Tarxien, Bir Miftuh, Mnajdra, Ħaġar Qim, Borġ in-Nadur, Ħal Ġinwi, Xrobb l-Għaġin and Tas-Silġ.
Megalithic Temple Sites in Gozo: Santa Verna, Ġgantija, Ta’ Marziena, Xewkija and Borġ l-Imramma.
Megalithic Burial Sites: Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum in Malta and Xagħra Circle in Gozo, and there are other tombs.

Which one is your favourite?