The megalithic temples of the Maltese Islands are justly claimed to be the most impressive monuments of European prehistory. They are remarkable not only because of their originality, complexity and striking massive proportions, but even more so because of the considerable technical skill required in their construction. These temples are complex structures extended and embellished over a long period of time and were until recently dated to the 3rd millennium B.C. This chronology, based on a number of radiocarbon dates calculated through the conventional method, has now been radically altered following the calibration of radiocarbon dates with growth rings of the world's oldest living tree, the Californian Bristlecone Pine (Pinus Longaevia, formerly Pinus Aristata).
The new chronology considerably pushes back the conventional radiocarbon dates for Maltese prehistory and implies that the megalithic temples are the earliest free-standing stone monuments in the world, much earlier than the pyramids of Egypt and already under construction around the mid-4th millennium B.C.
The creative ability, technical organization, and mobilisation of manpower needed for the planning and erection of these great temples imply that their builders were specialised architects and mastercraftsmen thoroughly familiar with the potential of their raw materials and the skills required in the transportation, dressing and manoeuvring of the huge limestone slabs into position. The monumental structures they bequeathed to the cultural heritage of mankind are extraordinary engineering feats and conceptions of architectural forms, which, in their awe-inspiring grandeur, achieve a rational, balanced and powerful solidity both in plan and elevation.
The earliest megalithic temples were build on a trefoil plan and three component apsidal chambers arranged on three sides of a square central court. The fourth side was laid out as the entrance, the outside of which was extended to right and left to form a concave façade to the whole building. These early temples were enlarged, altered, or rebuilt, involving the addition of further sets of lateral chambers and the reduction of the central terminal chamber to form a shallow recess, or niche, for the main altar. These were the general lines of development which, however, were not necessarily followed in each and every case.
The Ggantija Temples at Xaghra, Gozo, excavated in 1827 by Col. Otto Bayer, are the most imposing and best preserved of the megalithic structures erected during the Copper Age (c. 3,600-2,500 B.C.). They are both internally and externally constructed of rough, undressed superimposed boulders and slabs and in parts the walls still rise to a height of 6m. Some of the huge slabs of coralline limestone are the largest ever used in the construction of the Maltese megalithic temples. The monument consists of two separate temples set side by side in a common concave façade and boundary wall. Both temples have separate trilithon entrances. The southern temple (to the left) with a huge threshold slab is much larger; its overall internal length being 27m. against the other's 19.5m. It is also the earlier of the two (c.3,400 B.C.). The façade is remarkably well preserved at the left-hand corner where it rises, unrestored, almost to its original height.
The plan of the southern temple incorporates five large apsidal chambers; the inner one to the left being the most striking for its area and height - 85 sq. m. within 6m. high walls. These walls are slightly inclined inwards as if intended to form a vaulted roof. It is unlikely, however, that the roughness of the construction could have supported the sheer weight of the upper boulders above a certain height and the structure was probably completed with a flat roof of rafters, wattle and daub. The rough walling of the temple interior was originally smoothed by an application of clay and coated with a thin layer of lime plaster.
The northern temple (to the right), has a typological later (c. 3,000 B.C.) four-apse plan; the central one being reduced to a mere niche. A massive outer curvilinear wall surrounds both temples and the space between the latter and the inner walls is filled with a 'packing' of earth and stones. This perimeter wall, composed of header and stretcher slabs of gargantuan size (up to 5.5m long) is one of the most striking parts of the monument.
Though the Ggantija Temples suffered early and unscientific excavation in the early 19th century, as seen today they reflect the final achievement of the prehistoric communities of the Maltese Islands in the erection of structurally imposing places of worship, where the main divinity seems to have been visualized as a mother goddess of fertility.
(Figures as published by the DOI - 1997)
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