Where does one begin? The Maltese temples are overwhelming in their architectural complexity, beauty and significance. They also pose a challenge for archaeologists. What do we make of them? What do they mean? And how do we go beyond architecture? I hope to explore these themes as my research progresses. Meantime, let’s start with a brief introduction.
A lot of “wisdom” is repeated about temples – firstly that they are temples, whatever that may mean, secondly that they are older than the pyramid of Giza (they are, by nearly a millennium, but don’t think this is the only thing that makes them interesting), third that they are all “megalithic”. Well yes, they’re all built using big stones but no one temple is like the other. The other crucial point is that temples don’t just suddenly appear on the Maltese landscape. There is a long history of settlement and other forms of material culture before temples are built. The first settlers headed over to Malta from Sicily c. 5000 BC, at which point the settlement and ritual patterns are broadly similar to other contemporary sites in the Mediterranean.
It took roughly another 1000 years before the temple phenomenon started and it was a long road. The beauty of temples is that while you can visually identify a site as such, each one is different. So typically, temples are approached across an oval space and have a forecourt, a large open space and a series of chambers to the left and right. Beyond this, we find many variations in structure, plan, contents etc. A good introductory book on temples and their plans is David Trump’s Malta: Prehistory and Temples (here if you are in the US).
More importantly, life in Neolithic Malta was most certainly not just about temples. It’s just that monuments, by virtue of sheer size (and beauty, if I may say so) tend to dominate the landscape and perception, but big buildings are never all there is to a society. Think about it – London, for example, isn’t just made up of Big Ben, Houses of Parliament and all the other landmarks swarming with tourists. There’s a whole rich landscape in between each monument and the same goes for prehistoric Malta. Temples did not exist in a vacuum, suspended in some mysterious and static state. They were part of a landscape full of things and, more importantly, people.