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The Mystery of Maltese Temples

Written by Finlay Cormack. The Maltese islands are home to mysterious ancient temples as far back 3600BCE. What was the purpose of these megalithic structures? Finlay Cormack explores various possible functions and origins, varying from religious to agricultural.

The temples scattered over the Maltese islands are fascinating access point for the islands’ history and archaeology, although there is no clear meaning or reason for their existence. This has led to a variety of theories to explain their use and the context surrounding them. In this article I will weigh these arguments against each other to show what I believe to be the most plausible. 

During the Ggantija period (c. 3600-3000BCE) and through the Tarxien period (c. 3000-2500BCE), Malta went through a phase of isolation from the rest of the Mediterranean, becoming obsessed with ritualization across the Islands. The lack of contact with the outside world meant Malta had less influence from abroad through the centuries. It is in this period that Malta experienced an explosion in the construction of megalithic buildings, known as temples. However, the exact nature and function of these temples are still up to much historical and archaeological debate. Some possible functions are that the temples were used for a cult connected to death, agricultural purposes, or created in a demonstration of power to other islanders. This article will show that the most probable and most important function for the Maltese temples were in relation to a death cult or religion. 

One possible function of the Maltese temples was a religion or cult the islanders had that was associated with death. Excavations of temples have found massive amounts of liturgical artefacts, which suggest a varied religion or cult had existed in Malta. The items ranged from representations of people and animals to an item known as the ‘mother goddess’, which has been seen in other cultures. This shows the religious function the temples served to Malta, as the number of sculptures and their varied nature show the widely held beliefs of the Maltese. Imagery in the temples has led archaeologist Caroline Malone to suggest that a complex system of beliefs connected the dead existing below ground and people living above, illustrating temples were paramount in acting as gateways where people could connect to the dead. Temples functioned as paradigms of these beliefs. Funerary sites were often created to be mirror images of the temples above ground. One such example is the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a burial site which resembled temples in Tarxien. The temples also show a geographical relation to burials and beliefs. On the island of Gozo, Ggantiji temples are close to the funerary site the Brochtorff Circle, while on Malta, Tarxien temples are very close to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. These instances of proximity may indicate a connection between these two ‘gateways’. This shows that temples were integral to the religious beliefs of the Maltese, functioning as holy sites for both the dead and living, emphasizing their function related to death cults through both their relation to funerary sites and the liturgical artefacts they contained. 

Another possible function of the Maltese temples was for agricultural purposes. A land survey which has been conducted in Malta has found that 40 percent of the land on Malta is a slope with a gradient of less than 5 percent, which is ideal for growing crops. As Malta became increasingly isolated, the need to create their own food sources and agricultural means became more prevalent. Through geographical information system analysis, archaeologists have shown that many temples were constructed directly on the boundaries of these slopes across the island. This shows that the temples were heavily connected to the agricultural means on the island as they were built near where crops would have been grown and acted as hubs for the workers in the fields. Temples were also constructed in locations that had easy access to a fresh water supply. This strongly indicates that temples were integral to agricultural efforts needing a constant supply of fresh water keeping the crops healthy and growing. Archaeologist Reuben Grima has described how the temples were built on land which had been inhabited for centuries and was extremely important for prehistoric agricultural settlements. This illustrates that the temples were built for agricultural uses, as people had already been using the same land to work and store crops, temples were an extension of this as they were doing the same but in a megalithic structure. 

Another function for the temples could be for demonstrating a community’s power to other people on the island. During the Ggantija period, rivalries began across the Maltese islands and carried over through the Tarxien period, which was when ritualization on the islands hit their peak. Using geographical information systems, archaeologist Colin Renfrew found that all the temples throughout the Maltese islands appear to be distinctively separated into 6 clusters. This shows that as Malta became more isolated, the islands divided into smaller tribal districts and temple creation was used to emphasize one’s claim to the land. Out of competition, temples were created in a sort of temple race to assert power and prominence. As the Tarxien period began, temples were increasingly expanded and embellished in styles unique to each of the clusters. This temple race resulted in each cluster creating more complex architecture, which is strange considering Malta had very little outside influences during this period. The argument for this purpose of the temple may explain why archaeologists have found variations across the temples that have been excavated. These differences include the temple’s overall design, size, and shape, but also the time it took to build and the evolution of the temple throughout its creation. This again illustrates the differences in the rivalries across Malta and shows that each community was attempting to outdo each other in the building of these megalithic monuments.  

In conclusion, the communities power function. The variation in Maltese temple designs illustrates the different approaches taken to build and decorate temples. This, coupled with Malta splitting into different chiefdoms and clusters, shows temples were created to show dominance and power over other factions. Agriculture became a massive concern to Malta as less imports led to a push for greater agriculture. Temples were built in the purposeful locations to oversee crop growth and act as both a hub for workers and a fresh water supply for farming. However, apart from their location, there is little archaeological evidence to suggest the temples were used in this way and does not explain the presence of religiously associated artefacts or their relation to burials. The most probable function for the Maltese temples was hence that they had been used for rituals for and by a death cult or religion. The death cult function implies that Maltese society between 3500 and 2500 BCE was extremely religious focused. A possible extension further includes that Malta was a type of theocracy where those involved with the temples were the rulers. This religious fervour may have then led to the split across the islands between temple clusters. The sheer scale and number of temples built suggest that these were widely held and important beliefs to the Maltese. This is supported by the numerous religious artefacts discovered and the strong resemblance the Temples have to funerary sites in terms of size and decoration, illustrating the temples’ function for death cults. 

Written by Finlay Cormack 

Bibliography 

Grima, Reuben. “Landscape, territories, and the life histories of monuments in Temple period Malta.” (Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, 21, 2008).

Insoll, Timothy. The Oxford handbook of the Archaeology of ritual and religion (Oxford: Oxford university press, 2011).

Malone, Caroline. Bonanno, Anthony. Gouder, Tancred. Stoddart, Simon. Trump, David. “Cult in an island society: Prehistoric Malta in the Tarxien Period.” (Cambridge Archaeological journal, 3, 2008).

Malone, Caroline. “Metaphor and Maltese art: Explosion in the Temple period.” (Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, 21, 2008).

Malone, Caroline. Bonanno, Anthony. Gouder, Tancred. Stoddart, Simon. “Monuments in an island society: The Maltese” (World Archaeology, 22, 2010).

Malone, Caroline. Bonanno, Anthony. Gouder, Tancred. Stoddart, Simon. Trump, David. “The death cults of prehistoric Malta.” (Scientific American, 269, 1993).

Sagona, Claudia. The Archaeology of Malta: from the Neolithic through the Roman period (Cambridge: Cambridge university press, 2015).

Scarre, Christopher. Exploring Prehistoric Europe (Oxford: Oxford university press, 1998).

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