Category Archives: Temple Period

The Mġarr phase

First of all, many apologies for the lack of posts. My faithful laptop decided to go kaboom approximately 10 days before my new one was ready (still waiting… dear Apple, hurry up please!). Fortunately, I had a lot of stuff backed up. Unfortunately, I also lost over a week’s worth of work and have been frantically catching up since. Someone explain to me why it’s taken twice the time to catch up with a week’s worth of work! I wonder if temple builders felt the same when things didn’t go according to plan. Anyway, normal blogging service can now resume (hopefully!).

Speaking of temples. Last time I wrote about the Żebbuġ phase, the next phase is the Mġarr phase – also named after a type site/area. The dates are 3800-3600 BC. Still no temples at this point – it’s described as a transitory phase but it did last 200 years, so that’s quite a few generations of people. In terms of pottery, we do see an evolution from the earlier phase, but I think this just highlights the dangers of seeing people purely in terms of pots. A typical Mġarr phase narrative takes into account the pots (apparently a natural evolution and the pots anticipate those from the subsequent phase). This is true, and we do mostly have pots to go by (and some tombs at Xemxija and a hut at Skorba). The pottery does indeed show all this, but it doesn’t tell us much about the people. Neither does it explain why temples crop up in the next phase.

We are of course hampered by lack of material, especially settlements. What is certain, however, that people did not remain suspended in time for 200 years, evolving pot types and anticipating new trends. Burial remained collective, at least some people continued to live in huts (and villages) and artefacts are still covered with red ochre. Symbolic behaviour is thus very much present, but very hard to define. Just “a transitional phase” neither explains how people lived nor how and why they eventually decided to build temples.


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4000 BC: The times, they are a-changing

Welcome to 4000 BC when things start to change. This is not, initially, a big change which completely changes the landscape (although the landscape of course does change in much subtler ways) but we see a very distinctive change in the material culture. For one thing, we get a completely new pottery repertoire. This doesn’t normally happen for no particular reason. Pottery shapes tend to endure within a particular community, if only because people love the familiar. Conventionally, the appearance of a new repertoire is explained in terms of a new population. There are many reasons why this is a cheeky way out that’s not particularly convincing and I will be writing about this in other posts. It’s one of those conventional bits of wisdom about Maltese prehistory that needs to be debated.

In any case, the first of our new phases is the Żebbuġ phase, named after the type site. Incidentally, I hope the ‘foreign’ characters appear on everyone’s screens. Once again, the pottery has strong links with Sicilian pottery, this time the San Cono-Piano Notaro culture – which begs the question, if we have a wholesale population replacement, did we spit out some Sicilians and get some new ones? Is this a case for Commissario Montalbano? I do not wish to be to flippant, I’m merely highlighting the problems with such cop-outs (and the dangers of seeing people solely in terms of pots).

But for the moment, let’s go back to convention (I do occasionally pretend to go along with convention) and look at the different phases. First up is Żebbuġ (4100-3800 BC), with its all new pottery repertoire. This assemblage is much more diverse in terms of shapes and while it’s definitely got a Sicilian flavour, it’s also got distinctive elements. The whole Sicily-meets-Malta theme seems to be very distinctive of Maltese culture, even in the present! This is not a bad thing, incidentally, I’m personally in love with all things Sicilian. The clay used for making pots is much finer than previously and when fired it is harder and also more prone to breaking.

Zebbug pots (From Anthony Bonanno, Il-Preistorja, PIN, 2001)

Designs consist of either deep thin lines incised before firing or thin lines drawn on the surface of pots. What’s interesting is that sometimes we find these incisions on pots (apologies for appalling photo, I only have my phone cam and that awful Picnik, Daniel is a brilliant photographer and you can see his stunning work in my book [no self promotion, I promise] The Human Form in Neolithic Malta.)


(C) Daniel Cilia

Interestingly, we don’t get the human form again on pots in the ensuing phases. I should also point out that while this falls within the Temple period, no actual temples are known yet. Rather this is the beginning of change. What we do have in this period are tombs. The ones at Ta’ Trapna iż-Żgħira in Żebbuġ point to collective burial over a period of time. We basically have rock cut shaft and chamber tombs. People would move aside bodies when they needed space for a fresh burial, a practice that would come to characterize the temple period. Burials were often accompanied by grave goods, mostly consisting of pots and personal ornaments (e.g. beads, small discs, v-perforated buttons, miniature axes etc). Bones were generally sprinkled with red ochre, a material that is important to people from the earliest phases till the very end of the Neolithic.

Żebbuġ phase remains are also found on Gozo, specifically at the (Brochtorff) Xagħra Circle. Here we have oval chambers cut from the rock at the bottom of a deep vertical shaft. The entrance was closed by stone slabs. Once again we find collective burial. Both Ta’ Trapna iż-Żgħira  and Xagħra shared another feature – a stone with a carved face/head. In Gozo it was placed inside the entrance to one chamber.

The head from Gozo (C) Daniel Cilia

The head from Malta (C) Daniel Cilia


I will leave you with a tongue-in-cheek observation: see, people didn’t see themselves as pots but as bodiless heads. And in all seriousness, that is not as silly as it sounds, but more on that another time. For now, I want to keep providing a background before entering into the more complex debates.

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