Category Archives: Sites From Other Places

Sacred Waters

The original article from which this post comes from was first published in June 2014 for The Celtic Guide, a free to download magazine.

Water – it is life giving and for some life changing.  It shows us a reflection of ourselves and without it we and all around us would cease to exist.  It is essential to our being.  Many cultures, past and present, have recognised this simple fact.  For the ancient Egyptians it was from water that all creation began, in ancient Mesopotamia water was regarded as a symbol of absolute wisdom.  In many situations water is given anthropomorphic qualities which are almost always female.  Interpretations of the meaning behind the names for the Rivers Dee and Don in Scotland range from ‘the goddess’ to ‘the mother’.  Identification with the female is common thread across the world’s cultures.

 

Today the most sacred river to Hindus is the river Ganges; it is worshipped as the goddess Ganga who descended from heaven to earth.  To bathe in the waters of the Ganges is to wash away your sins; her waters are seen as both pure and purifying.  It is also believed the Ganges flows in heaven, earth and the netherworld and is regarded as a crossing point of all beings, the living and the dead.  Thus it is very desirable to have the ashes of a loved one scattered on the Ganges.  This belief in the sanctity of the river, and all rivers, began early in Indian culture and has continued uninterrupted for several thousand years.

 

Heading far to the west and much closer to home, we arrive in Britain and ask ourselves was water important to our ancestors?  The answer would be a definitive “Yes”.  In fact, the importance of watery places in Britain’s past is a given for archaeologists and other like-minded individuals.  There have over the years been numerous outstanding excavations and archaeological finds to back this up.

 

The relationship people had with water in both Britain and Irelands past can be seen as far back as the Neolithic.  During this time people were beginning to make their mark on the landscape constructing sizable and (fairly) permanent monuments such as Stonehenge, Ness of Brodgar and New Grange.  Such sites are usually part of a wider ‘sacred’ landscape, often surrounded by many other monuments of varying type and size but what is of interest to us here is their relationship to water.  Thus the Stonehenge sacred landscape is bounded by the River Avon in the south and east, whilst New Grange and associated sites are nestled in what is known as the Bend in the Boyne (the river Boyne).  The Ness of Brodgar, as well as a large number of other sites, in Orkney is situated on thin strip of land with the saltwater Loch of Stenness on one side and the freshwater Loch of Harry on the other.  In this landscape there is very little to differentiate the water from the sky.

 

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The view from Maes Howe in Orkney looking towards the Stones of Stenness and what would later be known as the Ness of Brodgar in the top right corner.  This sacred landscape is bounded by expanses of water. (please excuse quality of the photo – it was taken a long time ago before digital…)

 

The reasons for the placement of such sites near rivers may never be fully understood but it is possible to say the symbolism is inherent but as Francis Pryor says in his book Britain BC (2003) “…it would be very easy to oversimplify our reading of that complex, layered symbolism that contained within it the shared histories of the people who created, nourished and guarded it.  To say, for example, that water symbolised a soul’s journey to the next world is banal.  It may have done – indeed it probably did – but it also marked boundaries in this world, and provided corridors along which people could move without crossing too many tribal frontiers.”

 

The Neolithic would have been a very alien world to our modern minds and trying to assess the symbolism of a natural phenomenon is fraught with numerous pitfalls.  Regardless, it is important to take heed the role of waterways in Neolithic life.  The lifestyle of the Neolithic would have been reasonably mobile, with people moving around the landscape following the seasons. 

 

Where people moved around the land, pathways between places would be emphasised, and monuments placed beside them.  Given the scale of many Neolithic monuments, they may also have been placed at locales where groups were in closer proximity at certain times of the year.” (Barnatt J. ‘Monuments in the Landscape: Thoughts from the Peak’ Prehistoric Ritual and Religion. Eds. A Gibson and D. Simpson).

After the Neolithic we have the Bronze Age, a period heralded, as the name would suggest, by the appearance of metal objects (bronze, copper and gold) within the archaeological record.  We also see an increasing (albeit gradual) degree of sedentary behaviour, with family type groups concentrating their activities at permanently laid out farms and fields.  Many (but not all) of the monuments of the Bronze Age began to reflect this more localised behaviour with smaller monuments being built by these groups for their own use.  The monuments are now found in all manner of landscapes and it would it appear that water is no longer of importance.  However, excavations at sites such as Flag Fen, Lincolnshire and the finds from Duddington Loch, Edinburgh or the Rivers Thames, Trent or Witham to name a few all suggest that watery places were still of great ritual importance.

In the early days of discovery such finds were often attributed to accidental loss however the excavations at Flag Fen have seem to indicate the majority of the items deposited were done intentionally and with no desire to retrieve them.  In 1984 Francis Pryor began excavating a post alignment at Flag Fen.  It was 10m wide and consisted of five roughly parallel rows of posts.  During the 1989 dig season the excavators began to find some unusual artefacts, some three hundred and twenty metal objects, mostly made of bronze and dating from the Bronze Age.  Swords, daggers, jewellery, axe-heads, spearheads and pieces of a metal shield were amongst the artefacts uncovered.  Interestingly every object had been deliberately damaged before being placed carefully into the water.  The deliberate destruction of artefacts prior to deposition at Flag Fen is not an isolated example.

 

At Duddington Loch a number of bronze objects were found, mostly weapons, and once more all had been broken or burnt prior to deposition.  Still in Scotland, Late Bronze Age swords were found in the River Tay and three Late Bronze Age shields were recovered from a bog in Yetholm, Roxburgshire.  Another feature of Bronze Age deposition is its longevity, At Flag Fen and the bog sites of Ireland such as Dowris, Co. Offaly; Mooghaun, Co. Clare and the Bog of Cullen in Co. Tipperary deposition did not occur as a single event rather it was the result of many individual events over a number of years.  In the case of the Irish bogs over two hundred bronze artefacts have been found, deposited over a number of years.

 

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A few of the items recovered from Dunaverney Bog in County Antrim, Ireland.  From ‘A Guide to the Antiquities of the Bronze Age in the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities’ 1904 Charles Hercules – The British Museum.

 

 

The tradition of deposition in watery places continues into the Iron Age. Still the weapons appear in rivers, for example, the Battersea Shield found in the River Thames, a horned helmet from under the Waterloo Bridge and the Witham Shield from the River Witham. An excavation at Fiskerton in Lincolnshire also discovered a causeway that led to Lindsey a significant patch of dry land which is essentially an island bounded by the rivers Humber and Trent to the north and east and the Witham and fens to the south.  Here the archaeologists found swords, spearheads and other artefacts deposited into the wet ground.  Interestingly it has been suggested that the deposits coincided with periods when the causeway was being rebuilt around the time of lunar eclipses.

 

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The Battersea Shield – photo by Babelstone (CC0 commons.wikimedia.org)

 

Similar to the Bronze Age, the bogs and lakes of the west seem to be the place of choice for ritual deposition.  The most well known is Llyn Cerrig Bach (originally a lake) in Anglesey.  From here some one hundred and fifty objects were recovered.  The finds from Lylyn Cerrig Bach are regarded as the most important collection of La Tene style metalwork in Britain to be found.  The artefacts found included two slave chains, swords, spearheads, a bronze trumpet, cauldrons, iron bars, blacksmith tools and animal bones.  Once more all had been deliberately broken and deposited over a long period of time, approximately from 300BC to 100AD.  In fact there may have been a double whammy of sacredness here, as it has been suggested that islands represented sacred spaces because they were bounded by water on all sides.

This connection between water and the deposition of weapons is embodied by the later legends of King Arthur.  In Malory’s version King Arthur instructs Sir Bedivere “…take thou Excalibur, my good sword, and go with it to yonder waterside, and when thou comest there I charge thee throw my sword in that water”.  For some this could be regarded as a cultural memory, a continuation of a ritual performed by our ancestors for many generations.

 

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Sir Bedivere throws Excalibur into a lake – painting by John Garrick 1862.

 

But it is not only lakes and rivers that were important there were also the peat bogs.  Finds from peat bogs are of a relatively common occurrence given the use of peat for fuel.  Of course the most famous of all bog deposits are the human bodies.  Bog bodies are well known in several European contexts for example, Tollund Man found in a Danish bog.  However, there are also examples from Germany, Holland, Norway and Sweden.  The tradition goes right back to the Mesolithic and culminates in the Iron Age and early Roman period.   

 

One of the most dramatic discoveries in Britain was that of ‘Lindow Man’ found in a peat bog at Lindow Moss in Cheshire.  The remains were of a young male (mid 20s) who had been violently killed from a blow to his head, strangled and a cut to his throat.  A detailed examination of the remains suggests he was of a high status.  His teeth were healthy, his nails manicured and his beard and moustache neatly trimmed, in addition there were none of the usual signs on the bones that he had ever done any heavy manual labour.  Radiocarbon dating has his death and deposition at somewhere in the mid first century AD.

 

Many reasons for such a grisly deposition have been put forth, from murder and violent robbery to human sacrifice.  Sacrifice in the Iron Age was well known and took many forms either as the sacrifice of an object, an animal or a person. 

 

“The Celts did not love their deities; they made contracts with them as they did in their own society.  By making offerings into pits, wells, springs, peat bogs and all watery places, no doubt with the solemn attendant ritual, the druids were in fact ‘binding’ the gods into making reciprocal gifts to mankind…” (A Ross ‘Ritual and Druids’ in The Celtic World ed M Green).

 

It would seem that the greater the ‘ask’ the greater the sacrifice.  The Lindow man was deposited at a time of turmoil in Britain, northern England was not properly subjugated by the Romans until well into the first century AD, perhaps he represents a last ditch attempt by the Druids asking for the Gods intervention?  Perhaps his grisly death is a reflection of ‘destroying’ an object before it is deposited into its watery grave?  Throughout Britan and Ireland there have been almost two hundred documented cases of bodies found in bogs.  Not all are dated to the Iron Age and not all can be given a ritual explanation.

 

Any discussion on the sacredness of watery places needs to include springs and wells. Unfortunately, the majority of springs have been tampered with, cleared out and utilised to such a degree in our history the evidence is very sparse indeed.  Some prehistoric sites are associated with springs through proximity such as Swallowhead springs which is near the Neolithic monuments of Silbury Hill and West Kennet long barrow.  However, the best preserved piece of evidence comes from the town of Bath.  Here we have the very famous Roman baths based around the springs dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva.  The impressive complex of baths and temples built by the Romans began some fifteen years after the Boudiccan rebellion.  It does seem this was an attempt to do honour to a local deity – Sulis – by aligning it with one of the more significant Roman deities – Minerva.  It is well recorded by the Romans the importance of this site to the local people.  Thousands of coins of both Roman and Celtic type have been found in or near the hot springs in addition to many curse tablets of a Roman date. 

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This tradition of offerings to a spring or well continues into the modern day.  Throwing a coin into a well to make a wish is a common practice as is the tradition of well dressing.  Every summer throughout the counties of Britain wells are cleaned up and made pretty.  The longevity of this practice is well attested, in 960 a canon was issued that expressly forbade the ‘worship of fountains’ and yet it could not be suppressed, eventually the church turned these pagan sites into Christian holy wells.  In some cases the well or spring has a special tree nearby, a Clootie tree.  The clootie is a piece of cloth that has been dipped in the spring’s water and then tied to the tree, after which a supplication is given to the saint or deity of the spring.  Many of these springs are associated with healing, in some cases the clootie represents the ailment and it is believed that once it has perished then so will the ailment. 

 

Furthermore it is not unusual for a church to be built near a sacred spring or well such as St Oswalds in Cumbria or at Golant in Cornwall.  Some have even embraced the sacred well as is the case for St Winefride’s well in Holywell, Wales.  In fact the overall sanctity continues well into the Christian era, monasteries can be found on islands (St Michael’s Mount or Lindisfarne) and many other Christian religious houses are situated close to rivers. 

 

 

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St Winifreds Well, Holywell, Wales. A renown place of healing, it continues to be popular today. This image is available from the National Libary of Wales.

 

This article merely scratches the surface but from reading and research it soon becomes apparent that water in all its forms has played a major role in the history and prehistory of our world.  It has defined where we live and it has defined how we live, indeed if we live at all.  That our ancestors’ revered water should be of no surprise to us and yet often it is. 

 

“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium.  There is no life without water.” Albert Szent-Gyorgi

 

“Nothing is weaker than water, yet for overcoming what is hard and strong, nothing surpasses it.”  Lao Tzu

A recent interesting blog from the British Museum which talks about the Thames – “Secrets of the Thames”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stonehenge – more than a ring of stones.

Stonehenge – a name that evokes a great many emotions in a great many people.  For some it is a place of pilgrimage, a place to connect with the ancestors and for others it is seen as a tourist trap or something to tick off the bucket list.  For centuries it has captured our imagination; never has a heritage site been so controversial – something which continues to this day.  In this post it is not my intention to give a full on thesis about Stonehenge, there are plenty of books/websites who do this already.  Instead it is simply an overview of what is currently understood about the site, its surrounding landscape and my own personal thoughts.

Stonehenge is situated on the Salisbury Plains, to the south is the busy A303, a main road between the south-west and London, and for many years the equally busy A344 ran alongside the site.  This latter road was removed sometime ago to improve the visitors experience.  Today there are ongoing discussions regarding the upgrading of the A303 and a proposed tunnel.  It is a highly emotive subject, on one hand I understand the need to improve the road situation (ask anyone who is stuck in a traffic jam on the A303) but as an archaeologist I am also aware of the sensitive nature of the surrounding heritage landscape (and yes I am on the fence).  Mike Pitts in his recent post discusses the pros and cons for those of you who are interested.

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For the visitor today the focus is on the large stone circle with its trilithons, they marvel at how it could have been built by ‘primitive man’ often leading to suggestions of alien intervention and lost technologies.  But such thoughts only serve to belittle our ancestors and our past.  Others may ask why did our ancestors build Stonehenge?  Often the answers are unimaginative and simple – sun-worship; display of power; ancient computer; druid temple – once more when we look only for one answer to a what is obviously a complicated site of great longevity we belittle their achievements.  Instead if Stonehenge was understood in terms of the wider landscape and as a site whose history spanned several millenia we might come to some small understanding of how and why.

In today’s world of instant gratification where everything has a beginning and an end,  it is hard to imagine beginning a project knowing you might not see it finished but this was a reality for the builders of Stonehenge.  It has lead some to suggest that it was not the end product which was important but the doing, the act of building which was in fact the purpose.  Suggesting a cyclical thought pattern which can be seen in other aspects of prehistoric life – round houses, stone circles, round barrows.  in addition, time itself was most likely viewed in cycles, the phases of the moon and the movement of the seasons are all cyclical events which would have been of great importance to prehistoric people trying to make sense of their world.

“So was Stonehenge ever ‘finished’?  The answer to that has to be no, because completion was never the intention of the people who created it.” (Pryor F. 2016 ‘Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape).

It is well known that Stonehenge itself had many incarnations, perhaps meaning new and different things with each alteration or rebuild.  To understand Stonehenge it is important to consider it in the wider context of the surrounding landscape (there are literally hundreds of prehistoric monuments around it) in all the different phases.

The Mesolithic Story

The story of the Stonehenge landscape begins back in the Mesolithic, ongoing recent excavations at Blickmead are providing archaeologists with tantalising clues as to why this area was important to our ancestors.  The site is situated near a spring by the River Avon, excavations began in 2005 and almost immediately were fruitful.  Basically, the deposits consisted of an array of Mesolithic settlement debris, mostly flint fragments (tens of thousands) but also a great number of animal bones.  Interestingly, the site also yielded the largest collection of auroch bones ever found on a Mesolithic site in Britain so far.  Other animals which were hunted and consumed included red deer, wild boar and salmon – this has led archaeologists to suggest that feasting was a common occurence around the spring.  The spring itself is quite unusual as it has the tendency to stain flints and other materials a bright magenta pink – the importance of springs in later prehistory is well attested to.

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In 1966 row of four large pit like features were found during upgrades to the old carpark close by Stonehenge.  When excavated one was found to be a the root-hole of a tree and the other three were holes dugs to hold large poles.   Examination of the material from these features gave a date range from between 8500 and 7000BC.  The posts would have been approximately 75cm in diameter and were from pine trees.  Later in 1988 another post-hole was discovered south and east of the original pits but it was contemporary.

So here we have a landscape already well populated by hunter-gatherer communities who revered certain natural features long before Stonehenge makes an appearance.  A landscape which had meaning to the people who inhabit it; who had traditions and memories of place.

At around 3500BC (Neolithic) with the arrival of farming these communities and their traditions had evolved and more permenant features began to make an appearance on the landscape.   Long barrows such as those at East and West Kennet or Winterbourne Stoke were the first to appear and by 3400BC the Stonehenge Cursus and Lesser Cursus was under construction.

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3000BC – The first official phase of construction

In many parts of Britian at this time a new type of monument was being constructed, these were earthwork enclosures which are referred to as henges.  They consist of irregular cut ditches encircling a defined area with corresponding banks.  Stonehenge’s earliest phase was one such earthwork.  Here there were two entrances one faced north-east and the other faced south.  The north-easterly entrance remained in use for much of the sites lifetime and appears to be important to its function.  The entrance is aligned along a line of natural gullies which face towards the midsummer sunrise in one direction and the midwinter sunset in the other.

 

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The bank and ditch of the first phase of construction – often overlooked by the visitor as they focus on the stones.

 

These natural gullies would have been visible to the people of the Mesolithic and may have been why the large pine posts were erected where they were – the midsummer and midwinter solstices were just as important then as they were to the later prehistoric communities.

Inside the earthwork enclosure around the inner edge of the bank were fifty-six regularly spaced pits – these are now known as the Aubrey Holes.  There is some discussion as to what they were or what they contained – small stone uprights or wooden posts?  However, what is known is that eventually they did contain cremated human remains.  Similar deposits have been found in the partly filled ditch and cut into the bank suggesting that at this stage in its history Stonehenge was used as a cemetary, among other things.

 

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These circular markers define the spot where an Abrey Hole can be found.

 

The Building of the Stone Monument

At around 2500BC Stonehenge began to resemble a site we are much more familiar with. It is at this time that the massive sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs were moved to the site and erected.  If that was not all at the same time the smaller but no less cumbersome, blue stones from the Preseli Mountains in Wales were transported and erected at Stonehenge.  The Heel stone was moved to its current position and four smaller sarsen stones (the station stones) were erected  inside the enclosure just inside the bank.

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The first two diagrams above demonstrate one theory of how the trilithon stones were erected.  The third diagram shows the sophistication of the construction, with each lintel fitting neatly into each other – borrowed from the Univeristy of Buckingham’s MOOC “Stonehenge”.

 

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The friendly raven accentuating the knob which would have ensured a lintel that did not move.

 

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Stonehenge in 1917 – taken from a hot air balloon.

 

 

In a mere one hundred years it seems the two main structures of the trilithon horseshoe and the circle was completed. Interestingly it seems that greater care was taken in the shaping and construction of the stones visible from the north-east side and the main entrance.  The bluestones were also erected at this time but not in the form we see today at Stonehenge.  Excavation has shown us that there were two concentric arcs of stone holes, known as the Q and R holes were found on the north and east sides of the central area.  It has been suggested that these were not representative of a complete circle as there is little to no evidence on the southern or western sides of corresponding holes.

 

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The Heel stone – it is thought that unlike the other sarsen stones which come from the Marlborough Downs, the Heel stone was always here and simply raised upright.

 

2200BC – Consolidation and Alterations

From this time on Stonehenge underwent a series of minor alterations although the large sarsen stones remained in their positions although much later in the Bronze Age shallow carvings of axeheads and the occasional dagger were added.  There are some 115 carvings and these have been dated stylistically to between 1750 and 1500BC.

The smaller bluestones however were rearranged and by 2200BC the incomplete circles were dismantled and repositioned to form a circle concentric to and just inside the circle of larger sarsen circle whilst a second oval of bluestones (spotted dolerite) was also formed within the trilithon setting.  Later a number of stones were removed from the oval to form the horseshoe setting which is seen today.

 

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The smaller stones are the remnants of the bluestone circle.

 

At around the same time the ditch was recut and a small bank was constructed and the Avenue was constructed.  This later feature follows the solstice alignment with ditches and banks for part of the way and then veers off to the east ending in a valley of the River Avon.  Recent excavations at the place where the Avenue meets the River Avon have uncovered evidence for a previously unknown henge monument made up of bluestones. These were likely to have been removed to supplement the bluestones already at Stonehenge.

Surrounding the monument are significant numbers of round barrows dating from the Bronze Age, some of which contained rich burials with artefacts made of bronze, gold, jet and amber.  Suggesting a society rather different from the one which was able to come together communally to construct Stonehenge and yet the place, the landscape and the site still had a powerful pull to these people – it is no different today…

Above are two of the many round barrows littering the landscape around Stonehenge.

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A map showing the distribuiton of barrows in the Stonehenge landscape.

The pictures above show a reconstruction of houses found during excavations at Durrington Walls which date to approximately the same time as when the main phase of construction at Stonehenge was underway.  It is interesting to note the layout of the houses with the ‘dresser’ opposite the door and the beds to the right as you enter.  This layout is reminiscent of house layouts at Skara Brae and later similar layouts are seen in Bronze Age roundhouses.

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Stonehenge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain; it evokes a variety of emotions; it is a British icon and yet so many people still only today see the stones.  Yes they are impressive but there is so much more to their story than what you see.  To really understand Stonehenge the curious need to look at the wider landscape and then look further again.  Afterall, not too far away is the equally astounding landscape surrounding Avebury.  What was the relationship between these two sacred landscapes?  What can they tell us about the people who lived at the time?  These landscapes were created by a people who viewed the world very differently to ourselves and carry a language, a dialogue that would have been obvious to those who lived in the Neolithic and even the Bronze Age.  In our modern world where landscapes are viewed as places to use – either to make money or in terms of leisure pursuits – it is often hard for us to step back in time to view the landscape as living breathing entity without which we could not survive.

Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape undoubtedly meant many things to the people who occupied it (and probably those further afield too), the stones themselves were taken from the land and perhaps used to create a space where the natural world could be contained; where a semblance of control was maintained; where perhaps a balance was found between the natural world and the constructed world.

There are a great deal of books and websites which delve into the Stonehenge enigma in far greater detail.  I have listed some of those below (browse Amazon for comprehensive lists).  In particular I would like to recommend the free online course run by Buckingham University via Iversity (click here for more details).

Further Reading

Pryor F (2016) Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape

Parker-Pearson M  et al (2015) Stonehenge: Making Sense of Prehistoric Mystery

Parker Pearson M (2013) Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery

Bowden M et al (2015) The Stonehenge Landscape: Analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.

 

 

 

Some Megaliths From Brittany

There is a bit of a story behind this trip to Brittany…      

It is possible to catch an overnight ferry from Plymouth (Devon, UK) to Roscoff (France).  You arrive in France at about 5am and then you get to spend the day exploring the local environment before catching the ferry back to Plymouth at around 7pm that night.

For my hubby and I this was always a bit of an adventure and a chance to stock up on wine and cheese.  Regardless to say this was in the time before children.

Well it just so happens that on one trip I convinced my hapless other half to drive just a ‘wee’ way down to Brittany to see the stones at Carnac.  Anyway, the drive was longer than expected and I wish we had more time, it was quite literally a flying visit, as there was a very real possibility of us missing the ferry back to the UK.

The sites I visited were the stone alignments at Kerzerho and Le Menec as well as the Giants of Kerzerho.

Le Menec

Probably the most popular of all the stone alignments in this part of France, it is certainly the one everyone thinks of when talking of Carnac.  The alignment consists of 12 lines of some 1100 stones.  The orientation begins southwest – northeast and then about halfway makes a minor adjustment to its direction and ends in the east.  The stones have an average height of one metre although the tallest stones are found at the western end standing at three metres and the shortest stones are at the eastern end measuring 1.5 metres.

The remains of a stone enclosure can be seen at the western end amongst some farm buildings.  There was once a similar enclosure at its western end.

Kerzerho Alignments

These have a similar layout to Le Menec and cover almost two kilometres.  Today there are several hundred stones but it is believed the original number at least 1100.  The alignment  runs east to west and is intersected by a road and a village.

Kerzerho Giants

Two huge standing stones sit nestled in forest, they are six metres high and weigh approximately 40 tonnes between them.  They are aligned north to south and are thus perpendicular to the Kerzerho alignment.

The following are the few photos I managed to take.

 

Useful websites include:

www.megalithes-morbihan.com

Megaliths of Carnac

Megalithic Portal – Guide to Brittany

 

Megalithic Malta

In 1999 I visited the fascinating island of Malta with my then boyfriend (now husband), dragging the poor lad around more archaeology than he had seen in all his life…

Whilst there is a huge amount of archaeology in Malta, from all periods in time, it was the megalithic monuments which caught my attention during this trip.  Not to mention we only had a week on the island and you would probably need a whole lot more time to visit all the archaeological sites Malta has to offer.

Unfortunately at the time of our visit the Hypogeum or Hal Saflieni was closed for some desperately needed love and attention – much to my disappointment.

It is believed the first human inhabitants of Malta came from Sicily in the Neolithic.  This early phase is named for the site that epitomises this time – Ghar Dalam, a cave site in the south of the island.  This early phase begins approximately 5000BC and ends with the first temples being built around 4100BC.  The Temple Period is divided into four phases.

Zebbug – 4100-3700BC

Mgarr – 3800-3600BC

Safliene – 3300-3000BC

Tarxien – 3150-2500BC

The temples for which the first two phases are named have now disappeared either under the urban sprawl of Valetta or as is the case of Mgarr subsumed into the backstreets of the town itself.  The Safliene phase is characterised by Hal Safliene (Hypogeum), a subterranean temple carved out of the limestone bedrock to accommodate 7000 dead.

The final Tarxien phase is the one visitors to Malta will be most aware of.  The temple complexes of Tarxien, Mnajdra, Hagar Qim on Malta and Ggantija on Gozo constitute the climax of the temple building phase.

Although the temples complexes span quite a period of time they do have some common features in terms of the architecture.  To begin each will have a oval forecourt bounded by the temple facade constructed of large stone slabs.  The doorways all consist of two large uprights topped with an equally large lintel.  The passageways are always paved.  Once inside the complex, the visitor finds themselves in an open area which then  gives way to a series of D-shaped chambers or ‘apses’.

The main variation from one site to another is the number of ‘apses’. Often the walls of the temples are decorated with carvings in relief of spirals and naturalistic forms of plants and animals.  Cup marks are also a popular form of decoration.

Here are some of the photos of this trip.

Further sources of information:

Sacred Sites Webpage

The Megalithic European by Julian Cope

Visit Malta Webpage

Megalithic Temples of Malta – Wikipedia