Picture 1 - Ghar Dalam
Literally translated as the 'Cave of Darkness', Ghar Dalam was instrumental in throwing considerable light on the Pleistocene and early Prehistoric period of the Islands.
The origins of Ghar Dalam was an underground solution
tunnel that was breached into in the late
pleistocene by a river flowing along the path of the present day Wied Dalam.
Many of the river deposits entered onto the floor of the
cave, leaving us one of the most complete
stratigraphies of pleistocene deposits in Malta.
After the Pleistocene, Ghar Dalam was in the form we know
it today. At the end of the sixth millennium
BC, man arrived on the islands and made Ghar Dalam one of his first dwelling places. The cave was also
used throughout the Temple Period and probably also during the classical period.
Picture 2 - Zebbug Tomb at Xaghra Stone Circle
In the sixties, Mr. Joe Attard Tabone managed to relocate
the Stone Circle depicted by the Brochtdorff
paintings. Excavations during the years 1987 - 1993 confirmed Tabone's suggestions, and succeeded in
bringing to light a unique prehistoric funerary complex on the island of Gozo.
During 1998, a tomb belonging to the Zebbug phase came
to light and was excavated scientifically. The
bones found in the chambers have been described as belonging to an "unnaturally healthy" community.
On site analysis of the bones, led to the conclusion that the death were probably buried by inhumation.
The bones found, together with remains of pottery and stone implements, also revealed that when the
funerary chambers were full, they were cleared and new burials placed again on the bottom of the
These burial remains at Gozo have also been described
as one of the earliest communal burial places in
The Brochtorff Stone Circle was open to the public on
at least two occasions. The photograph shown was taken during one of these
visits. It shows a shaft leading to two burial chambers which
know their origins to about 6000 years ago( three
openings are visible because the roof of the western tomb is collapsed).
Picture 3 - Tombs at Xemxija
Burial in the Ggantija Phase continues in the shaft and
chamber tomb style established by the Zebbug
Phase culture. A notable difference, however, is the occurrence of a number of pillars found at the side of the chambers. Their role is not difficult to interpret. As tombs became larger, the possibility of roof
collapse was ever more imminent. By keeping a number of pillars projecting from the sides of the chamber, the general stability of the roof was ensured.
The importance of these pillars goes beyond their presence at Xemxija. Their occurrence imparted a lobed appearance to the chamber itself, probably influencing the shape of the early megalithic temples.
The method of burial in this phase was not dissimilar
from that occurring in tombs of the earlier culture.
Finds from the Xemxija tomb included remains of a deer, and if this find was of local origin, it signifies
the persistence of a forested Malta at least until 3600 BC. The human remains gathered from this tombs
were interpreted as belonging to an elite community.
At this phase another change occurs. Tombs were often
accompanied by a number of megalithic above
the tombs themselves, a change which later developed in the megalithic remains found associated with
burial hypogea such as those found at Hal Saflieni and Xaghra.
Picture 4 - Summer Solstice at Mnajdra
Various monuments from the prehistory of several countries have part or whole of their structure, significantly oriented towards a predetermined direction. It would thus be no surprise if the same possibility were proposed for the prehistoric edifices of the Maltese islands. The possibility for an intentional orientation of the Temples is supported by the fact that the alignment of most of the Temples' main axis points towards the south-east, with a number of Temples having a more specific orientation.
Among the various hypothesis to explain for the orientation
of Temples, the astronomical alignment of the Southern Temple at Mnajdra
can claim to embrace one of the most spectacular phenomena of all Maltese
Interest by the local prehistoric folk in the heavens, can be shown by a number of artefacts dating back to the Temple culture. The most outstanding of these, is a slab of globigerina limestone found at the temple of Tal-Qadi. Broken at a number of sides, it still preserves the incised image of a crescent moon with that of a number of stars, within segments formed by lines radiating from a ( now missing ) centre. This is not the only artefact on which stars are represented - a decorated sherd found at Hagar Qim, illustrates a figure that has on more than one occasion been interpreted as a solar wheel. The group of five holes to the eastern end of the Tarxien Temple facade, has been interpreted by Zammit to be the representation of an as yet unknown constellation.
All this evidence coming from the temples themselves,
indicates that the people of the time had a fascination with the skies
to the point that they included a representing symbol of the skies in areas
of cult.This supports the view that specific celestial bodies could have
been used as a reference point on which Temples would be oriented.
The most spectacular suggestion of meaningful orientation of the megalithic remains, arises from the fact that the axis of southern temple at Mnajdra, dated to the early Tarxien phase, is pointing to the East. This means that the Temple's axis is aligned with the position of the sun at the equinox. Determination of the equinoxes is unfeasible unless the Temple people had a means of measuring time. The position of the sun at the equinox, would however be determinable by the bisection of the arc produced by the winter and summer solstices on the horizon.
A number of stones found within and around the Mnajdra Temple could have been used to orientate this monument. Two megaliths in the temple itself could have been used for the initial establishment of the equinox, and later served as yearly indicators of the solstices. Also a megalith to the east of the temple could have been instrumental in establishing the winter solstice.
Determination of the sunís position at the beginning of the seasons is obtained by the interplay between the projection of the sunís rays through the trilithon entrance and the inner aspect of the outer pair of apses of the temple.
A visitor to Mnajdra would note that a pair of pit-decorated megaliths at the eastern side of the passage found between the outer and inner pair of apses.
At the Winter Solstice, the sunís rays are reduced to a narrow beam as they enter the Templeís entrance. These rays on entering the temple produce an image of the solar disc on the outer edge of the northern decorated megalith. On the other hand, at the Summer solstice, the sunís rays come from a different direction (see picture above) and fall on the outer edge, but now, of the southern decorated megalith. In both the Autumn and Spring equinoxes, the sunís rays are parallel to the sides of the entrance and thus the amount of light entering the temple is maximal, bathing the templeís rear altar in sunlight. For the ritualist inside the Temple, the sun appears to stand on the hill slope opposite the main passage.
These observations have turned this Temple into the first
and earliest known calendar in stone.
Picture 5 - The Temples' Facade
In the day to day running of the temples, the facade served
as a monumental backdrop for rituals which
were probably 'public' in purpose. In Temples standing on hills, the facade would have easily been a
reference point in the surrounding landscape
It is for these reasons that during the construction of
the temples, great effort was invested in mobilisation
of megalithic blocks to give the templesí entrance their monumental appearances. To achieve this
purpose, the facade is nearly always built in the durable corralline limestone, ( Hagar Qim is a notable
The early facades were made of coarse megaliths set aside
a clearly identifiable trilithon entrance to the
temple. Above this course of megaliths, smaller stones were placed to achieve the full height of the
temple's facade. A line of worked megaliths might have been placed in front and touching the lower
megaliths of the facade to enhance the general appearance, but convincing evidence for this is
In later Temples, the facade becomes even more refined
- worked rectangular blocks of stone were used
to give the entrance to the temple an elegant, symmetrical appearance. On each side of the entrance,
three vertical megaliths were set, with the outer pair being higher and notched in their upper internal edge,
to receive the ends of a horizontal group of megaliths above the lower course of the facade. More courses
of horizontal megaliths crowned the above mentioned structure, with one course being longer to give a
more aesthetic appearance to the structure. The final appearance of the facade has not been preserved at
any of the temples, but reconstruction is today possible, following the discovery of the sculptured
representation of a Templesí facade at Tarxien.
To the sides of the entrance, stone Ďbenchesí are found.
While providing stability to the facade, in a way
that compliments the whole structure, these horizontal blocks of stone might have also provided a resting
place for the community gathered in front of the temple.
A number of sculptures and relief drawings of Temples
have been found in the various megalithic
monuments. Interpreted as 'models', a cultic role for these artistic objects is more probable. Whatever
their function, they are instrumental in giving us a hint on the external appearance of the Temples
Picture 6 - Wied Moqbol cairns
Known since the beginning of this century, only the best preserved cairn of a group of three was excavated here in the fifties.
This monument (cairn 1) consisted of an oval chamber, from which two lines of stones forming wing-like structures emerged from the eastern and western sides to enclose what could have been a little forecourt. The chamber was filled with large stones, except for a small area to the south west that contained earth and smaller stones.
This little space was cleared and yielded pottery which
was ascribed to the Tarxien Cemetery culture. Pottery found here and at
Taí Hammud Dolmen was essential in dating cairns and dolmens to the Tarxien
Cemetery phase (2500 - 1500 BC).
Picture 7 - Phoenician Tomb at Tal-Wej
The Phoenicians came to Malta around the eighth century
B.C. and settled at some of the strongholds of
the previous Bronze Age cultures.
Their main initial settlements were centred around modern
Mdina and the Gozo Castello but slowly
expanded to a larger number of settlements scattered around the islands. A reconstruction of this
expansion is today possible by a re-examination of the phoenician tombs found in the Maltese Islands.
Phoenician tombs are usually of the shaft and chamber
type. A shaft, usually square but occasionally
round in shape, opens at its base to one or more chambers. When the height of the shaft exceeds 1m a
number of steps or footholds are usually found making the descent easier. The entrance to the chamber is
often worked to receive a closing slab stone.
The cremated or inhumed remains were usually placed on
a raised ledge of rock inside the chamber itself,
a measure taken to prevent destruction of the burial in cases of water seepage to the chamber. The tomb
was subsequently closed and the shaft filled by small stones.
The photograph shows one of a number of Phoenician Tombs
that remains at Tal-Wej (also known as Santa Margherita) in Mosta. A number
of steps descend to the bottom of a square shaft, leading to
two side-chambers. As often occurs with phoenician tombs cart-ruts
are found in the vicinity.
Picture 8 - Remains of a Phoenician Building
The unique monument existing at the Domus Curialis in
Zurrieq, can easily claim to be the highest
free-standing remains dating back to the Phoenician occupation of the Islands.
The remains here were first described by Jean Houel in
1785, and illustrated by a lithograph showing a
building in ashlar masonry more extensive than that visible today. A note on this monument is included in
the descriptions given by Mayr (1909) and Ashby (1915), but it was only in 1939 that the first excavations
were carried out around this monument. The only result obtainable from these excavations was that the
door to the building was constructed in the first phase of the building's construction. No new material that
could contribute to the problem of the monuments date was obtained during these excavations.
It is probable that this building at Zurrieq, did not
exist in isolation, but formed part of a settlement in the
area. This possibility is strengthened by the fact that throughout the last century a number of Punic
tombs have been recorded at Zurrieq:-
Tal-Gharghariet MAR 1911-1912, p. 3
St. Catherine Str. MAR 1929-1930, p. 6
Str. S. Andrea in Tal-Farrat MAR 1935-1936, p. 20
St. Catherine Str. MAR 1956-1957, p. 3,4
Zurrieq MAR 1957-1958, p.5-7
Tad-Danieri, in Tal-Hlewwa Caruana 1898 p.45
Picture 9 - Ghar tal-Iburdan
From St. Paul's Catacomb keep on walking/driving to the
west until you reach the main road. A country
lane marked Santa Katerina takes you to an open space near Ghar Barka. Take the road to the left
towards the hamlet of Santa Katerina, and look for a quarry in the fields to the right. A large Girna (
corbelled hut ) can be noted on a quarry's edge and is reached through the path found near the gate of the
quarry. One of the entrances to l-Ghar tal-Iburdan may be found within 15 metres to the west of this
Excavations in the seventies revealed that the cave was
inhabited during the Roman and Byzantine
periods. Remains of rustic villas dating back from Roman Malta still exist today, the most renowned being
San Pawl Milqi, Taí Kaccatura and the remains in the Zejtun School. Ghar taí l-Iburdan contrasts with
these by providing evidence for a more humble form of dwelling. During excavations of one of the main
rooms of the cave, evidence for trogloditism was provided by the uncovering of a hearth. This was not
the only find; remains of meals and a considerable amount of pottery dating back to at least the third
century was also found. Ghar l-Iburdan is not the only Roman troglodytic dwelling on the islands; Roman
levels in a Gozitan cave were also found during the excavations of the Bristol-Cambridge-Malta project.
The cave was in use again during the second world war
when four families from Rabat adopted it as their
Picture 10 - The Cross in Roman Burial Places
A number of late Roman and Byzantine tombs on the Maltese
Island show definite evidence for the
practice of Christian rituals during burials. This evidence often takes the form of relief decorations
consisting of the Greek Cross Monogram (as in The Salina 5 hypogeum shown in the first photograph) or the chi rho symbol. One of the latter examples, accompanied by the letter alpha and omega inscribed in its upper half , adorns the roof of a Baldacchino tomb at Abbatija tad-Dejr in Rabat (see the second picture). The name of Jesus Christ is surprisingly very rare, being found only at a unique inscription found at the Gzira ta' San Tumas Hypogeum.
Despite this explicit evidence for Christianity and the
reference for St. Paul's Shipwreck at Malta in the
Acts of the Apostles, no archaeological evidence for the presence of christian communities on the islands
predating the second century has ever been found. As a matter of fact the evidence available points otherwise. An altar associated with Phoenician ritual at Tas-Silg could have been in use until the first century AD while the 'Gozitans' still practiced imperial worship until the second century AD.
The evidence for the conversion of the Maltese through
the work of St. Paul, if it exists, has still to be
Picture 11 - Roman Cistern at Ta'
Cisterns are commonly found near buildings dating back to the Roman Period. They have been found
near the Roman 'towers' of Tal-Gawhar and Tal-Bakkari, and exist in the vicinity of the 'tower' at
Tac-Cieda. Cisterns have also been found at Iklin and Qormi.
The largest Roman Cistern on the Islands is found near
the Roman Olive Industry at Ta' Kaccatura at
Birzebbugia. Columns of large blocks of stone, hold a series of stones slabs, slabs which serve as a support for the roof of the cistern.
Picture 12 - Tax-Xarolla Catacombs
Tombs have been documented here in the last century but
it was only in 1994 that the Xarolla Complex
of Tombs came to light.
Work to create a heritage park around the Xarolla Windmill
revealed a number of decorated tombs that
had been mutilated by quarrying activity. After this discovery excavations were extended westwards to
reveal a larger tomb complex, in front and under the windmill. It was also discovered that the laying of the
Zurrieq drainage system and the windmill itself had in the past inflicted extensive damage to the
In the Xarolla complex, the Window tomb is the most common
type of tomb, but examples of loculi are
also present. The Baldacchino, saddle-shaped tomb and floor tombs are absent and no remains of a
funerary triclinium (better known as the agape table ) has been found on the site. Most of the Tombs in
the Xarolla complex probably date back to the Late Roman or Byzantine period of the islands.
The most notable feature remaining in the complex, is
a column decorating the entrance of a window
tomb. Two leaf-shaped motifs arranged in a V-shaped fashion adorn the capital of this column, resting on
a fluted base and a spirally fluted column. Remains in the surrounding area indicate that probably at least
two other similar columns decorated the other window tombs in the immediate vicinity.
Mutilation of the catacomb throughout the last century
provides a unique opportunity to examine the
interior of burial chamber. Details of the head-rests, unguentaria and burial niches can be studied in the
remains of various chambers.
The size of the tomb complex, presence of window tombs
together with the above-mentioned decorative
elements exhibit a high degree of wealth in the local community to which the complex pertained.
Picture 13 - Medieval Chapels
A number of chapels dating back to the medieval period
can be found scattered in the countryside of the
Maltese Islands. They are in their majority composed of a nave only and usually have a roof resting on a
number of pointed arches. The best known chapel is certainly that dedicated to the Annunciation at
Hal-Millieri where a number of wall frescoes (see second photograph ) have been uncovered.
Other chapels dating back to this period include those
of Ta' Ceppuna (Marsa), Ta' Bakkari (Zurrieq),
Santa Cecilia (Ghajnsielem) and Bir Miftuh (Gudja). Not all the chapels dating back to this period were
free-standing. Caves were also adopted as chapels. At Lunzjata in the limits of Rabat, one finds a
troglodytic chapel probably dating back to the beginning of the thirteenth century. Dedicated to St.
Leonard's this cave church has a semi-circular plan and like other cave-churches in the Rabat area shows
evidence for mural paintings. An apse is hewn out of the rock in the eastern part of the cave and contains
a painted statue of St. Leonard. The side-walls of the cave have rock-cut benches, an architectural detail
which was later reproduced in free-standing medieval churches.
Medieval troglodytic churches can be found in various localities around the islands. San Niklaw (Mellieha), Ghar Hanzir (Qormi), and St. Agatha (Rabat) are three of the more interesting cave-churches
which can still be visited.
Picture 14 - Ghar il-Kbir
In the Maltese Islands, caves have been used since antiquity.
Excavations at Ghar Dalam gave pottery
dating back to the Neolithic, while the hypogeum at the Xaghra Stone Circle originated as an underground
cave. Evidence for cave use has been found for the Bronze Age (Il-Qlejgha), the Roman Period (Ghar ta'
l-Iburdan) and has been proposed for the Phoenician Period (Qallilija).
The use of caves as a dwelling place in the medieval period
is a phenomenon of considerable interest,
which is slowly receiving recognition. Various natural recesses on the islands together with a number of
tombs were converted into the abode of medieval troglodytes.
One of the best known sites featuring medieval troglodytism
exists at a number of caves at Misrah Ghar
il-Kbir, known as Ghar il-Kbir. Similar to contemporary sites in Sicily, existing cave space was closed
through the use of rubble walls, while new space was created by digging into the side walls of the caves.
Athanasius Kircher describes vividly the way of life in
this cave during the seventeenth century. The
troglodytes lived in separate units hewn or built out of the cave, and stored water in earthenware jars.
Every family had its hearth and used dried dung as fuel. Bunches of onions and garlic greeted the visitors
and humans lived side by side to animals.
Archive documents show that cave dwelling continued at
this site at least until the beginning of the
Visitors since 26/9/98. Contact author by E-Mail