The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

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Templehead pt1. Hagar Qim


Easter Monday

Today was to be the most important day of my holiday. I got out of bed early and fortified myself with a couple of toasted doorsteps of beautiful buttered hobz bread washed down with a large mugful of strong Maltese coffee. I walked out of the villa into the beautifully quiet Maltese morning.
Today was my temple day, the whole day was to be given over to my Maltese trinity. Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Tarxien. Just saying the words filled me with excitement.

My plan was to get to Hagar Qim for bang on 9 o'clock and be there when the gates opened. It was a twenty minute drive, I left the villa at quarter past eight 'just to be sure'. The last time I drove to Hagar Qim was three years ago and I found myself driving through a labyrinth of narrow, dusty, potholed lanes that ran between a series of small firework factories, this time I was determined stay focussed and not get lost.
Guess what? I managed to get myself to Qrendi, the nearest town to the temples, and then ended up in the self same maze of farm tracks and firework factories. What the hell, I knew I was only a couple of miles from the temples and travelling in the right direction.

I arrived at the Heritage parks car park at about ten to nine which was just enough time to grab my kit and give the ancient tatty capped car park custodian a 'voluntary contribution' to look after my car.
My plan was simple and selfish. I wanted to be the first person of the morning at either Hagar Qim or Mnajdra or both. I was having a Verruca Salt moment 'I want a temple to myself and I want it now!' As it turned out I ended up having both sites to myself, the first guided tour did not turn up at Hagar Qim until I was walking past it on my way out.
Hagar Qim.
You approach the temple from roughly the south east and the façade is stunning, its asymmetry is puzzling but very appealing.



The beautifully quarried orthostats that surround the entrance seem to degenerate into large irregular rotting monoliths looking for all the world like a gobful of rotten teeth.







It makes you wonder what was going through the architects mind here. These large blocks draw the eye away from the temple entrance and towards the sea where your gaze finally settles on the beautiful rocky isle of Filfla in the distance. The huge irregular orthostats appear almost like temple guardians looking out to sea and protecting the faithful from what? The primitive folk who lived beyond the horizon? As the temple is located on the top of a hill it would be interesting to see it from the sea. Would these megaliths appear like giants looking out over the sea?
Their wild weathered nature also contrasts with the regular smooth blocks of the entrance. Perhaps the architects and stone masons knew that the blocks that faced seaward would eventually become gnarly and weathered and erected them as a gesture to whatever deity controlled the elements. All the winds still have names in Malta.



There are a corresponding set of huge irregular monoliths on the opposite corner of the temple and it is the largest of these that you can see looming over the temple as you approach it, another guardian perhaps.
One of the unusual things about Hagar Qim is its' hilltop location, the large orthostats are visible from all around the monument including the nearby Mnajdra temples.
I have read so much about these temples that walking into Hagar Qiim is a very comfortable feeling for me. I feel warm and happy and I have the place to myself.





The temples are quite confusing in their layout but I'm not here to study the floor plans, I'm here to be happy and spend some time amongst these big old stones and I'm getting that in spades.



Catching a glimpse of Filfla is enough to bring on deep joy.









A few of the carved stones are replicas but don't let this spoil your appreciation of their beauty. I have seen the originals in the Museum in Valletta are there is no difference.

There is some debate as to whether this temple is a four or five apsed structure it's nice to know that there are some things that we still cannot define or label.

A few yards north of the temple is a second five apsed temple which if anywhere else would get a great deal of attention, unfortunately here it is totally eclipsed by it's beautiful exotic neighbour.



I wandered over to this substantial but forgotten neighbour and sat a while within its walls and tried to soak up a little of it's flavour. It almost felt like an act of condolence.
Between this temple and the large temple is another structure which again is quite substantial but formless. No one is quite sure as to what the purpose of this building was. It is sometimes called 'the priests quarters'.
A prehistoric parochial house, that notion really appeals to me.



It was now time to move on. I walked the few yards to the perimeter fence and the path that leads down the hillside and look out upon one of my favourite views in the world, the Mnajdra temples nestled in a hollow in the cliff below.

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Malta. Easter 2006 Part III


Easter Sunday

We had planned a family day out to the beach for today but me and my lad were up early and decided to sneak out to have a look at the nearby Xemxija rock cut tombs. My lads not one for megaliths but loves his wildlife. Over the past few days we had found grasshoppers, geckos, false scorpions, multi coloured beetles and a praying mantis so the prospect of mooch around the Maltese countryside was enough to convince him to come with me.

The tombs at Xemxija are significant for a number of reasons. They were excavated by Evans in the 1950's and yielded a whole host of material. The majority of the finds dated to the Ggantija phase but there were also some sherds of Tarxien pottery and some later Bronze Age burials were also found along with some axe amulets.
Another feature of these tombs is that some of them are lobed which indicates that there is probably a link between the lobed nature of the caves and the similar layout of the temples.

Plan after Trump
There have even been attempts to link this lobed shape to the shape of the 'fat lady ' or goddess figurines that have been found on the islands.
The are some examples here: http://web.infinito.it/utenti/m/malta_mega_temples/TempleFig/%20Pres%20Fragm/index.htm
It has been suggested that the temples could be a reflection of a Neolithic fertility goddess but this is just one theory of many.

Here's a few links. I'll not comment on the content. http://www.infohub.com/Articles/20010219.html
http://www.carnaval.com/goddess/
http://www.goddesstourstomalta.com/sp.html
http://www.sorcerers-apprentice.co.uk/maltamss.htm

Another reason why the tombs are important is that many animal bones were excavated here giving us a good idea of what animals existed on the islands during the Neolithic.
Bones found included sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, horse, dog, cat, deer, rabbit and hedgehog.

The tombs themselves are not too difficult to find and you can drive to within a dozen yards of them. To reach the tombs you need to turn off the main road (route 1) at the roundabout at the top of the hill at Xemxija, there is also a church on this roundabout. Turn into Xemxija and drive past the derelict hotel complex to the top of the village. The tombs are beside Triq bil-Preistorja which is the last road at the top of the hill. Park on this road. The tombs are at the top of the small rise about half way along the road. When we visited we drove to the end of the road and then when mooching around the fields on the hillside until a very nice lady pointed us in the right direction.
A word of warning, You need to keep your wit about you in this area . It seems to be very popular with hunters. I used to drive past this hillside on a daily basis and there were always at least a couple of four by four vehicles parked on the hillside.

The tombs themselves are basically just holes in the ground. I stuck my head into most of them and was greeted by the hum of wasps or bees in three of them which kind of put me off going any further into the tombs. What I did find remarkable was that the tomb builders had picked a horizontal surface to tunnel into.







The limestone here is very hard so excavating the tombs vertically in to the bedrock must have taken a considerable effort. It would have been far easier to cut horizontally into the strata a little lower down in the Mistra valley where there are cliffs and natural caves. Which leads to the question why all the effort? What was the significance of this particular hill?


The hill is not the highest in the area but it does have good view over St Paul's Bay and the coast beyond or at least it would have if the village were not in the way. It is possible to pick out the location of the Buggibba temple in the distant sprawling resort.


There is also a good view over the Mistra valley to Melliha which is situated on top of the next significant hill top.

All in all the Xemxija tombs don't offer much in the way of spectacular remains but if you are wanting to build up a picture of Maltese Prehistory and maybe understand why certain locations were chosen then it's worth coming here, sitting yourself down and having a good look around you. I would never describe Malta as a pretty place then again I would never describe the Maltese landscape as boring. I'll take interesting over pretty any time.
My lad would say that it's worth visiting the site because there are lots of huge ant's nests and you can spend time feeding dead insects to the ants.

A Maltese Proverb
Qabda trab, erba' kaptelli u harja f'wicc kull ma kelli.
A handful of dust, four capitals (of a column) and shit on all I possessed.

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Ggantija - The Giant of Gozo


Easter Saturday

Today's trip was a full family affair, a trip to Gozo. The last time I was in Gozo was when I was six years old so I was really looking forward to this.
We were up bright and early and off to the ferry port at Circewwa. The ferry ride is lovely and by the time you've eaten your delicious Maltese Eccles cake and washed it down with lovely Maltese coffee your there.
We spent the morning in Victoria and had lunch at a lovely café in the middle of the market and then walked it off by and taking a turn around the battlements of the citadel. I'd recommend a trip to the citadel, it's easy to find as it is in the centre of Victoria. If you walk around the battlements you will be rewarded with a 360 degree panorama of this lovely island, you will also gain some understanding of how Gozitan settlements developed from the flat topped limestone Mesas that are the main topographic feature of the island.

When it comes to 'looking at rocks' my family and I have an unspoken agreement, they are happy to tolerate my obsession as long as it doesn't involve me dragging them around a bunch of sites or trying to convince them how wonderful these places are. So I had a choice to make, I knew I could get away with taking them to one prehistoric site on Gozo. Gozo has many prehistoric sites from standing stones to temples to Dolmens, so where would it be? without a doubt it had to be Ggantija.
Ggantija is signposted and quite easy to find. Once you get to Xaghra just look for the large car park and you know you're there.
When walking towards the temple it is worth looking at the surrounding walls. Not far inside of the main gate there are some large orthostats that have been interpreted as possibly another structure associated with the main temple.

Another feature worth looking out for is The North Cave, which is a cave just at the top of the site. The cave has been interpreted as possibly starting out as a rock cut tomb which then became a rubbish pit for the temples.

As for Ggantija itself, the scale of the walls is overwhelming. Mr Cope is spot-on when he refers to the walls as Cyclopean.



I just had to stop and take it all in. This structure is five and a half thousand years old and was build by people who had no knowledge of metal. These stones were cut, erected and had fallen long out of use long before any Eygyptian had even considered building a pyramid.
Of course the Maltese temples were not the first structures in Europe, we on the margins of western Europe had been erecting our megaliths and building tombs even before the Maltese culture had risen and flourished, but what is important about these these Maltese and Gozitan temples where designed and built as public buildings, they had torba floors, the walls were plastered, they contained ornately carved decorative stonework
as well as carved features such as holes for door posts, animal tethers, libation bowls etc.




I could bore you here with a long explanation of the lay-out of the temples but I'll spare you that. In a nutshell you have two temples enclosed by a huge wall, the older, western temple has five apses and the eastern temple has four plus what the guidebooks call a 'niche'.



The Ggantija temples should not be seen in isolation, this part of the island has many prehistoric monuments. The Brochtorff Circle which is now known as the Xaghra circle is just on the other side of town, the Santa Verna temple lie 700 metres west of town and there are various other bits and bobs including Ta Ghejzu, a cave that yielded pottery from the Ggantija phase and has the possible remains of a temple on it's margins.


Ggantija is an extremely important site and is treated as such by the Goitans, it has had the full heritage treatment but is not over the top, this is no 'Stonehenge-site-in-cage' it is a site you can still interact with and come away feeling that you've had a personal experience. As temples go Ggantija is definitely a world class site and my second favourite temple of the islands.
My only regret from my visit to the temples was that I didn't buy some of this fella's capers on my way out.

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Malta. Easter 2006 Part II


14th April Good Friday

I decided to have a run over to the west coast and visit the Dingli cliffs followed by the famous Clapham Junction Cart Ruts.
There isn't a great deal for the prehistoric purist at Dingli, there's a nice church and some other bits and bobs but what drew me here was the height of the place. At 250 metres above sea level Dingli Cliffs are the highest point of the islands. On the landward side there are beautiful vistas of the island and views looking over to Gozo. It is said that on clear autumn days you can see Mount Etna on Sicily from this point. To your west is the sea and the beautiful uninhabited island of Filfla. Beyond the horizon lies the North African coast.



I guess if you want to see prehistoric cart ruts then Misrah Ghar il-Kbir aka Clapham Junction is pretty much the place to go. However cart ruts are not just a Maltese phenomena, they can also be found in Sicily, Spain Sardinia Greece and France but I guess the reason why the Clapham Junction cart ruts have become so famous is that there are so many of them in such a small area.
The site can be a little tricky to find especially if you are coming at it from the Dingli cliffs. Your safest bet is to get on the Rabat to Busket gardens road and look for an area between two large modern quarries.
The cart ruts themselves are pretty remarkable when you consider their age. I should mention something here about the age of the ruts. There is a lot of debate on this subject. There are a number of rock-cut Punic tombs in this area and at least one of the tombs cuts through a set of cart ruts. The tombs have been reliably dated a have been dated to the later centuries BC. This means that at least some of the ruts are older than this date.




Punic Tombs cut into the bedrock

Most of the experts seem to agree that most of the ruts are pre-Punic but opinions differ from this point onwards. Some argue that the ruts are from the temple period whilst others, including Trump favour a Bronze Age date.
The debate around the use of the ruts isn't much clearer than the dating debate, however many experts seem to favour the idea that the ruts were made by some kind of vehicle but after this there seems to be all sorts of opinions. Trump states that 'Wheeled vehicles do seem to attract the least serious objections'.



Ok I can accept that the ruts may have been used for vehicles but why were so many parallel ruts needed? At Clapham Junction there are multiple tracks parallel tracks, all running in the same direction.

As a visitor I guess you could probably spend the best part of an hour following the ruts around this limestone plain, they are fascinating but I'm going to contradict myself here and tell you that I found them to be are pretty unremarkable and felt quite under whelmed. However, what I really did enjoy about Clapham Junction was the Ghar il-Kbir caves and the rock cut Punic graves.
The caves are quite easy to find. Just walk a few couple of dozen yards uphill to the top of the limestone area and you're there. Back in geological time the caves were all underground but then as tends to happen with limestone, the roof of the largest cave or a series of caves collapsed leaving a large cavity in the ground with a number of caves many of which are interlinked, around the margins.

It's well worth scrambling down into the caves, they are lovely and cool and provide a bit of welcome shade from the Maltese sun.



The caves were occupied up until the nineteenth century and when you climb down into them you can see evidence of walls and entrances. No evidence of prehistoric occupation has yet been found in the caves but considering that a set of cart ruts start on the margins of the caves I'm sure this site would not have gone unnoticed by the prehistoric Maltese.

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Malta. Easter 2006


Fitz Family Rule
When it comes to family holidays, we never return to the same place.
The dangers of letting Fitz book a family holiday
"We're going where?
Malta
Malta, why Malta, we were only there a couple of years ago?
Oh you know, it's just a nice place for a holiday and it was cheap.
What you mean is, it's got lots of those old stones and things that you like to look at.
I s'pose it has. I never really thought about it.
Liar."
Fitz Personal Rule.
Rules are for fools.


12th April
Valletta. The National Museum of Archaeology

For a month prior to the leaving for Malta I had exchanged numerous e-mails with the people from Heritage Malta to try and make an appointment to visit the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Unfortunately every date and time I had requested was fully booked and the only appointment they could give me was for three weeks after I had left the islands.
My plan was to go to Valletta and visit the national Museum of Archaeology and see if I could beg an appointment or perhaps pick up a cancellation. Unfortunately my plans came to nothing. There were no appointments left, so that was that. I can't say that I was too deeply disappointed. I have visited the Hypogeum on a number of occasions and what the hell, there was still plenty more to see starting with the museum itself.

The Museum is housed in the beautiful Auberge de Provence on Valetta's Triq Ir-Repubblika, it's a doddle to find with its façade decked with large banners proclaiming it's presence. The Museum is currently being refurbished and when I visited only the bottom and top floors were open. The bottom floor is breathtaking. It is packed full of just about every thing you've read about prehistoric Malta, carved stones, altars, stone balls, Goddess figures, model temples, it's all here.


Non- flash photography is permitted in the museum, unfortunately because I've never really learned how to use my camera so most of my photographs came out blurred.
I would recommend that you check out the museum shop and buy a copy of David Trumps 'Malta Prehistory and Temples', it's a cracking book.

Trump has been involved in the study of Maltese prehistory since 1954, his book is up to date and as a guide book it is just about all you need to guide you around the prehistoric sites of Malta and Gozo.
All in all and in its current state, the museum may be a bit of a disappointment to you with only the two floors open but I'm sure that once the whole building is open it will be an absolutely marvellous place and Valleta is a wonderful city, it's small, friendly and beautiful to look at.
13th April Maundy Thursday
I'd planned an early start today, get out of the house before the family get out of bed and return in time for an early lunch.
Ok, confession time, I'm not a very good driver, there I said it. Blokes are all supposed to be naturally good drivers but I'm not, my brain is wired to look out of the window, I'm a passenger at heart. I'm far more interested in what's going on in the landscape around me than in keeping an eye on other road users. So it was with some trepidation that I drove out onto the Maltese roads.
Maltese drivers have a poor reputation but truth be told are pretty much the same as drivers anywhere else. They beep their horns a lot and like to overtake on both sides of you but apart from that there's not a lot to worry about. The roads are a different matter. Malta has some lovely roads, it also has some terrible roads, many of it's roads are a mixture of both. For example, I drove down one particular road that advertised itself as a by-pass around Mdina and Rabat, this road was a beautiful two-lane pristine blacktop. So there's me tootling along admiring the view when all of a sudden, SHITE! Where's the fucking road gone? In front of me was a row of concrete bollards and a farm track , the road had just….. finished!.
I love stuff like that, it typifies Malta. I wish I'd taken a photograph.
So back to Maundy Thursday.
Buggibba was to be my first temple site. I chose it because this was to be my first solo outing, the site was only a ten to fifteen minute drive from where I was staying and if I crashed the car I figured that I had enough cash for a taxi ride home.
Buggibba/Quara is a typical Mediterranean tourist town. It has developed in a strip along the sea shore overlooking St Pauls Bay. The temple is in the grounds of a hotel called the New Dolmen. I drove up and down the seafront looking for this hotel but was unable to find it. I eventually parked the car and walked along the sea front.
The hotel faces the sea but doesn't open out onto the shoreside road, its quite easy to find, just look for the biggest, ugliest hotel on the strip, and then march on in through the glass, marble and gold foyer, through the bar and out onto a patio area where you'll find all of the usual suspects laying around the pool on their sunbeds oblivious to the Megalithic wonder in their midst.
The temple has been incorporated into the hotel grounds and on the day I visited it was being used as a sanctuary/hangout for teenagers escaping from their over-oiled, overweight, g-string be-decked parents.

The uprights and lintel of the temple entrance are present and give the temple an air of authenticity, but apart from that there are a number of low walls and a few large stones but it is difficult to visualise what the original structure must have looked like from these meagre remains.

It's worth thinking about the closeness of the sea and the role it may have played in the choice of site for the temple builders. The sea is only a couple of dozen yards away from the temple. This part of the bay forms a natural harbour within a harbour. The view to the North West is interesting as it looks over to Saint Paul's island and the coast beyond.

This may be significant to the location of the temple when you consider that the wonderful temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra also overlook an island. However the temple entrance is orientated to face inland (south-south-west). This view is completely obscured by the hotel and town.
Another indicator that the sea may be linked to this temple is the lintel stone, that was discovered during the excavation of the temple, with carved fish along it.

This stone is now in the museum in the Archaeological Museum in Valletta.

The drive to Buggibba had assured me that driving in Malta shouldn't be too much of a problem so I decided to press on.
I'd been to the New Dolmen hotel and found a temple, I now felt the occasion called for a genuine dolmen. It was only recently that I found out that dolmen existed on Malta so I was quite keen to have a look at one.
My dolmen of choice was Ta Hammut unfortunately I couldn't find it. In my defence, Trumps description is rather vague and he describes it as one of the smallest dolmen. The other thing that put me off venturing too far from the path was the almost constant sound of shotgun fire.
However, I was not going to let this put me off finding a dolmen so my next choice was Wied Filep. Trump describes Wied Filep as "the most accessible" and as having "one of the biggest capstones" accessible and biggest, yeh, my kind of words.
Trump doesn't lie when he states that Weid Filep is accessible, it's right beside the road, trouble is you have to find the road. I spent a good part of half an hour driving in and around Mosta before I found the Dolmens. My tip is this, find the wadi on the outskirts of Mosta and head east along the road that parallels the steep valley. Take a look over your left shoulder and you should see a fort on the opposite hillside. Now wind your window down and listen. You should be able to hear the sound of dogs barking. So if you can see the sea, the fort and the wadi and hear the dogs then you are 'in the zone'. Incidentally the noise of the dogs barking is coming from the fort which is the Maltese police dog pound.
The dolmen are situated on the edge of Mosta and can be found on a raised limestone platform beside the road. The monuments have been walled-in presumably to protect them.


There are two dolmen , they are both sat on the same limestone exposure and it is possible to see how the stone has been quarried from behind the dolmen to create the large capstones. Trump states that the largest of the pair is 3.8m from end to end.


As impressive as the dolmen are it's the setting that grabbed me. The dolmen are sat on a hillside overlooking a wadi with the beautiful Mediterranean Sea in the distance. A modern addition to this view is a huge limestone quarry, I guess some people could see this as an abomination but for me it's just another sign of continuity of the use of the beautiful Maltese limestone. Only the scale has changed.

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