The megalithic temples of Malta and Gozo are some of the world’s oldest free-standing structures. Around 3500 BCE saw the beginning of the construction of these temples, which was a remarkable architectural achievement for the period, especially considering the lack of access to metal equipment and the limited availability of building materials.
The temples these people left behind can tell us a lot about the development of their art style and even begin to paint a picture of their religious rituals, even though we do not know much about how they lived until their disappearance around 2500 BCE.
Initial Stages of The Neolithic Era
On Malta, the Early Neolithic Period can be divided into three separate phases:
- Għar Dalam Phase – 5200-4500 BCE
- Grey Skorba Phase – 4500-4400 BCE
- Red Skorba Phase – 4400-4100 BCE
The Gar Dalam Cave, found during a dig of the Skorba ruins close to Marra on behalf of the National Museum of Malta between 1961 and 1963 CE, inspired the name of the first Phase.
The site was discovered beneath two later temples, one from the Gantija Phase that was reused and altered in the Tarxien Phase and the other constructed in the Tarxien Phase. It contained human and animal remains, ceramic fragments, stone tools, and other artifacts.
The Stentinello impressed ware pottery discovered in Sicily and the Gar Dalam pottery found at the site were strikingly similar, supporting the commonly held theory that the earliest settlers of Malta arrived by water from Sicily.
The Grey Skorba Phase and the Red Skorba Phase were formally recognized because some of the findings were made later than initially believed after radiocarbon dating examination of the pottery fragments was conducted.
The Red Skorba Phase is distinguished by using red slip, a mixture of clay and water, to coat the pottery, though the white particles are still present. The use of dark grey clay and white particles in this pottery characterizes the Grey Skorba Phase.
According to our information, a group of farmers comprised the first settlers in Malta. Farming is implied by the discovery of two sickle blades that date to the Grey Skorba Phase, bones from domesticated animals, and remnants of wheat and barley.
However, carved limestone boulders that would have served as slingshot ammo indicate that this population may have been engaged in hunting.
The remains of a hamlet at Santa Verna on the neighboring island of Gozo provide evidence of similar home settings, as does the pebble and earthen floor of a one-story oval-shaped building. Also discovered were figurines from the Red Skorba Phase that featured female figures.
The Temple Period
Seven megalithic temples may be found in the islands of Malta and Gozo, several of which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Malta’s Temple Period is divided into five stages:
- Żebbuġ Phase (4100-3800 BCE)
- Mġarr Phase (3800-3600 BCE)
- Ġgantija Phase (3600-3200 BCE)
- Saflieni Phase (3300-3000 BCE)
- Tarxien Phase (3000-2500 BCE)
Although the “ebbu” Phase doesn’t begin until, around 3500 BCE, temple construction does. The development of rock-cut tombs, like those discovered at Xemxija by John Davies Evans in the 1950s CE, was a defining feature of the “ebbu” Phase.
The Żebbuġ & Mġarr Phases
The ḥebbu Phase illustrates the transition from rock-cut graves, standing stones, and tiny shrines to the majestic temples of the following phases. The Ta’ Trapna tombs near Şebbu, Malta, were discovered by construction workers in 1947 CE.
These five tombs contained human remains, bone and seashell decorations, ceramic fragments, and masses of red ochre paint. The ḥebbu pottery found at the site was decorated with carved lines, sometimes portraying humans but primarily semicircles, triangles, and other simple designs.
One vessel from these tombs was entire, while others were fragments. These were polished slip-coated grey clay with white chips like Grey Skorba ceramics. Xagrá Stone Circle found similar items.
The M’arr Phase was a brief transitional phase before the ‘Ggantija Phase’s temple construction. The M’arr phase pottery contains curved lines instead of the ḥebbu’ Phase’s incised lines, although red ochre is still used to decorate it.
Most of the pottery from this period was unearthed at the Ta’ a’rat temples in M’arr (Malta), which suggests that a settlement was there before the temples were built. The Saflieni Phase erected the lesser Ta’arat temple, while the Ggantija Phase built the larger one.
The Ġgantija Phase
Malta’s oldest temples are from the Ggantija Phase. The Xagra Plateau’s Xgantija Temples are the most famous from this period. The temples were restored in the 2000s CE and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013. The South Temple, erected c. 3600 BCE, is the larger, older, and better-preserved of the two Ggantija temples.
These megalithic temples had an oval forecourt and a trilithon-lined corridor (two stone slabs supporting a third on top). This passageway opened into a reputed space. A second trilithon passage was erected for several apses. The South Temple has two apses after the first corridor and three after the second.
Altars and animal skeletons suggest animal sacrifice rites at the site. A part of a lovely bowl with a repeated bird motif and beads, pendants, and buttons made of stone, bone, and seashells are pretty impressive.
Malta’s part of content Qim site’s prominent temple is another Gganija temple. This temple includes a paved central courtyard of smooth stone slabs going onto an original four apses.
However, extra rooms were built later. J. G. Vance discovered it in 1839 CE, and Themistocles Zammit excavated it in 1909 CE. According to archaeologist David H. Trump, the right apse was likely utilized as an enclosure for sacrificial animals.
Animal bones found at the site also suggest animal sacrifice. The a’ar Qim temple had altars, including one with a relief plant design near the trilithon entrance. The five-lapsed northern temple of the Āar Qim complex is substantially older than the main temple.
The Saflieni Phase
The largest hypogeum in Malta, the al Saflieni Hypogeum, which consists of three levels dug into a limestone hill, gave its name to the extensive underground burial complexes that make up the Saflieni Phase.
Burial chambers carved into the side of a crater created at the hill’s summit make up the temple’s first level. Over time, the middle and lower classes were eventually constructed into the mountain. The lowest level is now 10.6 meters (35 feet) below ground level.
About 7000 human remains were discovered at this location, some richly decorated with red ochre. This technique makes me think of a funeral rite in which the mourners painted the bones red to represent the life-giving blood.
The deceased was interred with souvenirs and gifts, such as necklaces, painted pottery, figurines of so-called “fat ladies,” and animals.
The red ochre paint used on the bones is also used to decorate the walls of the hypogeum in spiral and honeycomb patterns. Additionally, a tiny crevice in the wall was discovered that produces echos, which would have provided potent and eerie background noise for the burial rites.
The doorways in some of the hypogeum’s chambers are designed to resemble the trilithon entrances seen in the temples above ground, suggesting that the structure may have served a religious purpose.
The Saflieni phase also corresponds to the smaller temple from the Ta’ arat complex. This temple, which measures 6.5 meters (21 feet) in length, was constructed using smaller stones than the one from the Ggantija Phase. The temple has an oracle apse as part of its architecture and may be accessed from the eastern apse of the main temple.
The hypogeum has murals of spirals and honeycombs in red ochre-like bones. Echoes from a little wall nook would have haunted the burial rituals. The hypogeum’s portals resemble temple trilithon entrances, suggesting a religious purpose.
The Ta’ Ħaġrat minor temple is also Saflieni. This 6.5-meter (21-foot) temple uses smaller stones and is smaller than the Ggantija Phase temple. The temple’s eastern apse leads to an oracle apse.
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The Tarxien Phase
The Tarxien Phase is Malta’s golden age of temple building, with complex spiral motifs and well-polished pottery. Tarxien Temples are the best. A local farmer discovered this UNESCO World Heritage Site of four temples in 1913 CE, and Sir Themistocles Zammit excavated them in the following years.
In 1956 CE rehabilitated the place. Three of Tarxien’s four temples are from the Tarxien Phase (3000-2500 BCE), while the fourth, in inferior condition, is from the Agantija Phase.
These temples have the same apse design as the Ggantija temples. However, the Central Tarxien Temple has a six-apse plan with four after the first corridor and two after the second.
The Tarxien temples’ altars and animal carvings show they were used for animal sacrifice, like the Ggantija temple complex. A bull and swine relief between the Central and South Temples is famous.
A giant “mother goddess” figure with a pleated skirt was uncovered outside the South Temple, one of Tarxien’s most stunning artifacts. The third apse has various animal reliefs, including a stone slab showing 22 goats.
The statues, figurines, and replacements are remarkable, but the Tarxien Temples’ information regarding Malta and Gozo’s megalithic temples is most intriguing. Stone spheres unearthed outside the South Temple show that the architects of these temples moved massive limestone slabs by rolling them on these spheres before the wheel was developed.
Stone spheres were also unearthed near the northern temple of the ʿaar Qim complex, showing this technique was used throughout temple construction. The early Tarxien Phase Mnajdra complex’s south temple is another beautiful example of Malta’s archaic technology. J. G. Vance excavated these temples in 1840 CE, and Dr. Thomas Ashby excavated them in 1910 CE.
Astronomically aligned is the two-trilithon south temple. The equinoxes and solstices illuminate the second corridor and the megaliths on either side. Given the absence of documented evidence, Frank Ventura and George Agius conclude that this alignment was deliberate. The south temple of Mnajdra has an oval forecourt with two temples, one from the Ggantija Phase and one from the Tarxien Phase.