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Author Topic: The real prehistoric religion of Malta  (Read 356 times)
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« on: November 24, 2006, 06:28:42 PM »

The real prehistoric religion of Malta
20 November 2006

Forget the goddess theory, which you hear every tourist guide trying to explain the huge statues at the National Museum of Archaeology or while touring Hagar Qim. That may not have been the original religion of Malta. This was the startling starting point in a lecture "Ritual, Space and Structure in Prehistoric Malta and Gozo: New Observations on Old Matters", given by Dr Caroline Malone, co-director, Xaghra Stone Circle excavation during the recent Heritage Malta international conference held at the Grand Hotel in Gozo. Dr Malone is Director of studies in archaeology and anthropology and principal research investigator for the Cambridge Templeton Project "Explorations into the conditions of spiritual creativity in prehistoric Malta" at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. The goddess theory may not have been adequately investigated and structured from the many archaeological remains in Malta and Dr Malone dismissed it summarily as a "faulty" theory.
     Cult places in general are very special places, for the most part man-made, but possibly also using natural locations. They were mostly enclosed spaces, with controlled access. They were directional ? orientated towards the sunrise. The presence of altars and libation holes in the temples in Malta shows this was a highly organised and repetitive religion with ritualistic symbols, participation in offering, with priests and a hierarchy. The Maltese prehistoric society was a relatively stable, agricultural community, an intense and densely populated island, celebrating cyclical cycles of life. The Maltese prehistoric temples contain elements expected of ritual and cult ? a regular layout along axis lines, enclosed spaces and public spaces offering only restricted views from the outside. The axis orientation is linked to a cosmology in an awe-inspiring location. Hagar Qim is surrounded by performance areas to which everybody had access. There are also oracle holes and even shrines in the outside wall focused on fertility and gender. But there are also barriers and thresholds controlling access to the interior. This is evident from the doorjambs and the holes for barriers. There are also thresholds, steps, in a word, exclusion.
     It is also very significant to study the location of various objects. Libation holes, for instance, are always to be found on the left or in the middle, never on the right. The oracle holes in the restricted areas are always on the right. There are still some unresolved issues: Hagar Qim is a monument in the round, interesting inside, but equally so on the outside. It is also somewhat complicated to decipher: it seems to encourage increased audience participation and the pits for ritual rubbish and the fire pits are on the right. Tarxien is the only temple where not only do we know what was there but also its exact location, thanks to Temi Zammit?s notes. Access was more controlled here: you did things in a particular pattern. Hal Saflieni and the Xaghra Stone Circle conform to the left-right general orientation but with some differences. They are both enclosed underground sites, reserved for the (bad) dead spirits who must be controlled and kept safe underground. You enter the Xaghra circle from Ggantija, from east to west. The right has a pit of male ancestors, the left a pit for young women. The purification area is on the left, while the phallic stone is on the right.
     Dr Malone obviously based her observations and conclusions on the recent excavations of the Xaghra Circle. Dr Simon Stoddart, the co-director of the Xaghra Stone Circle excavation, submitted a fuller explanation. The full analysis of the circle?s bones has shown there are 220,000 body parts buried there, mostly small bits of bone. The circle itself was a colossal collection of ancestors. Some 800 skulls were found ? this gives an inkling of the quantity of the bodies originally buried there. Interestingly, and curiously, the bodies seem to have been moved around. Some bodies remained intact ? these were mainly male (thus undermining the goddess theory Dr Stoddart said and concurring with Dr Malone), while other bodies were sectioned off: the skulls collected at the top, the limbs on one side and the other bits on the other side. Some male corpses have older male corpses (ancestors) on top of them. This burial ground thus preserves the memory of male ancestors. In a few cases, where some intact corpses were found, the man seems to have been buried first, followed by a woman.
     Dr Stoddart also propounded a theory for the enigmatic double statue found at Xaghra of two seated persons. He suggested that this could symbolise the cycle of life: the figure on the right symbolises birth and that on the left death. There is one curious unexplained detail: broken toes and limbs are very frequent. The Xaghra Circle is a great resource that requires further study, especially medical study. The broken bones and other evidence of stress could possibly point to a state of crisis in society. The broken statues found at Tarxien further confirm this: these seem to have been broken up deliberately: it was the end of an era.
     Professor Anthony Bonanno also seemed to agree that Malta?s original religion was more an ancestral cult than a mother goddess one. Ancestor memory provided social cohesion in times of stress. Like Prof. Bonanno, Professor David Trump said the closest to the Maltese prehistoric temples seem to be the nuraghi, the massive stone monuments in Sardinia. The location of the prehistoric sites can also shed information about population movements and events in those very distant times.
     In a very interesting presentation, Dr Reuben Grima, Senior Curator of world heritage sites at Heritage Malta, plotted the location of the sites against their known history. The basic feature of the Maltese Islands is that they are a series of river valleys ? widien ? and also that Malta, as opposed to other islands, is an archipelago. For these two reasons there seems to have existed a preference to travel by sea from one point of the coast to another, even though vast parts of the Maltese coastline are inaccessible. There must have been a link between the location of temples and that of people but this is very nuanced and complex. There does not seem, for instance, to have been a preference in the siting of temples for elevation, nor specifically on slopes. It seems there was a preference for access to the sea and a short distance from the plains. Generally speaking, the direction of the slope seems to have been the most favourable for human settlements, natural gateways between the land and the sea. However, there is a further twist, or complication: sites that started being built at around the same time do not seem to have had the same history. For instance, there is a site at Ghadira which dates roughly from the same time as Ggantija. But the Ghadira one remained small while Ggantija flourished. It seems that only those temples with a prosperous hinterland flourished.
     In time, Malta and Gozo came to have one principal site each. Food resources seem to have dwindled and only those communities with an abundance of food grew larger while the other communities died down. If food did not seem to have been shared between the various communities, knowledge and ideas appear to have been shared: there is a homogeneity of cultures evident in the various temples of Malta and Gozo, although there were also some specialised products. One final point: there does not seem to have been any evidence of a centralised hierarchy.

Source: The Malta Independent Online (18 November 2006)
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« Reply #1 on: January 13, 2007, 08:48:24 PM »

'Ancient artefacts brought over by Egyptians, not by traders'

Natalino Fenech

     Two members of the Egyptological Society of Malta are promoting the theory that the many ancient Egyptian artefacts unearthed in Malta were brought over by the Egyptians themselves, and not, as commonly thought, by traders.

     In an article titled Did The Ancient Egyptians Ever Reach Malta?, published in the Egyptian Egyptological journal, Anton Mifsud and Marta Farrugia analysed Egyptian artefacts found here and went through old and recently published material on which to base their conclusions.

      The triad discovered at an abandoned archaeological site in Gozo in 1713

     Dr Mifsud and Ms Farrugia argue that because of their beliefs in afterlife, the ancient Egyptians were extremely reluctant to leave their country to live and possibly die miles away from home. However, war and trade with the Eastern Mediterranean nations and islands lured the Egyptians out of their homeland.

     The authors note that though it has always been assumed that it was the Phoenicians who brought the earliest Egyptian artefacts to Malta, the items found here span a time frame that pre-dates the arrival of the Phoenicians in the eighth century BC.

     The earliest Egyptian artefacts date to the end of the third millennium BC, 400 years before the arrival of the Phoenicians, and one continues to find artefacts from various Egyptian civilisations until after the eighth century BC.

     A statue of an Egyptian triad of gods was found in an abandoned archaeological site in 1713 and has been firmly dated to the 18th Egyptian dynasty, dating back to 1550-1292 BC.

     This period is known as the New Kingdom and is the most famous of all the dynasties of ancient Egypt. Tutankhamun, one of Egypt's most powerful pharaohs, reigned during this time.

     The statue was documented by the renowned East German Egyptologist Carl Lepsius, who stopped in Malta in 1842 en route to Egypt. Similar triads have been found in Cairo and Thebes in Egypt.

     Four funerary Egyptian stone slabs, known as Egyptian steles, were found in 1829 beneath the foundations of a mid-17th century villa on a promontory in Grand Harbour. These funerary slabs were later investigated by renowned Egyptologist Margaret Murray who concluded that they dated from the 12th dynasty (1991-1802 BC) and that the position they had been excavated from showed they must have been brought to the island "at some remote antiquity".

    Dr Murray also mentioned other analogies between ancient Malta and Egypt, such as "the spiral decoration so common in the early temples of Malta that is equally common on scarabs of the 12th dynasty in Egypt".
     Dr Murray also carried out excavations at various sites in Malta, and in her report of 1928, she identified several other Egyptian artefacts that were found in rock tombs in various localities. The most significant find was a ring with a scarab bearing the name of Sebek-hetel, dating to the 13th Dynasty (around 1,700 BC).

     Dr Mifsud and Ms Farrugia state that an array of other Egyptian artefacts were found in Malta: A number of faience beads were excavated in the Tarxien temples and were confirmed as deriving from the 18th Egyptian Dynasty (circa 1550-1295 BC).

     "Just as the Phoenicians were implicated in the importation to Malta of Egyptian artefacts during the late first millennium BC, other intermediaries might have been involved during the 12th and 18th Egyptian Dynasties.

     "At this time the Minoans of Crete and the Mycenaeans of the Greek mainland were well known as active seafarers in the Eastern Mediterranean basin," Dr Mifsud and Ms Farrugia argue.

     There is also evidence of Egyptian vessels making it to Malta in the prehistoric graffiti on two fixed limestone slabs in the Tarxien Neolithic temples.

     "Though it was possible that the Mycenaeans acted as intermediaries in the transfer of ancient Egyptian artefacts to Malta, it is just as probable that the ancient Egyptians themselves were responsible for bringing their own artefacts to the Maltese islands during the Middle and New Kingdoms," Dr Mifsud and Ms Farrugia conclude.


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« Reply #2 on: January 14, 2007, 03:21:24 AM »

I don't believe the thrust of either hypotheses is correct.

The presence of Egyptian artefacts in Malta is not of any particular significance in regards Egyptian traders. The Phoenicians, who settled Malta, traded with Egypt and therefore brought artefacts to Malta from there. I once inspected a large collection of charms brought from Egypt to Malta in the sand ballast of the Phoenician ships. They used to be found in the few beaches of Malta - I suspect that all the beaches of that island are artificial.

For me to be convinced of the idea, I would need evidence from Egypt, and as far as I am aware, there is none.

As regards the religious significance of the statues, I understand that there is a view today that they are not of the Earth Mother goddess. Though I have read the arguments, I do not find them convincing, or even very good.

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« Reply #3 on: April 07, 2007, 09:59:29 PM »

Emergence of a new picture of the Maltese holocene environment          
   A new picture of the Maltese holocene environment is emerging through Katrin Fenech?s recent Ph.D. thesis entitled ?Human-induced changes in the environment and landscape of the Maltese Islands from the Neolithic to the 15th century AD, as inferred from a scientific study of sediments from Marsa, Malta."

   The thesis investigates current theories through scientific analyses of sediment. For this purpose, an 11.2m long sediment core was retrieved from the Marsa Sports Ground, with the help of a mechanical corer, in June 2002, financed by Linda Eneix of the OTS Foundation.

   The core was then split into two halves for chemical, physical and biological analyses, jointly undertaken by Katrin Fenech and Frank Carroll, as part of a larger study on the paleo-environment of the Maltese islands and the role of humans in bringing about environmental change being undertaken by the Department of Classics and Archaeology and the Department of Biology of the University of Malta under the supervision of Prof. Anthony Bonanno, and Prof. Patrick J. Schembri, and Queen?s University, Belfast, under the supervision of Dr Chris O. Hunt.

   This type of inter-disciplinary approach is novel to the study of the Maltese environment. The ?classical? approach to research on past Maltese cultures has been based mainly on the study of material remains such as pottery and architectural features.

   The extent of human interactions, actions and reactions vis-?-vis the environment and landscape needed to be assessed on the basis of scientific data rather than received wisdom. Through the scientific study of sediments and their components, valuable additional information about human interactions with the Maltese environment and their responses to natural and anthropogenic changes could be gained.

   Katrin Fenech?s thesis aimed to reconstruct the holocene environment of the Maltese islands through the scientific study of sediments from Marsa, and highlighted the contributions such an inter-disciplinary study can make to archaeology, while also pointing out any limitations.

   Results from the study indicate, among others, that the Maltese islands were probably never as densely forested as other Mediterranean sites in the early and middle holocene. No evidence was found for any slash-and-burn the prehistoric people are said to have resorted to for the creation of agricultural land.

   Thus, the results suggest that the prehistoric people probably did not cause any irreparable harm to the environment.

   Interestingly, the Phoenician/Punic people appeared to have been agriculturally more efficient in taking advantage of the resources than the subsequent Roman people. Results from sedimentological investigations indicate that the biggest changes in the environment until the 15th century AD were mainly due to natural causes like, for example, significant changes in the rainfall regime and tectonic movements, with anthropogenic ones playing a secondary role.

   It is hoped that the thesis and the data presented together with its interpretation and implications will be considered in future research and open a debate that sparks off further research.    


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