Monday, August 13, 2012

The Megalithic Temples of Malta - Saflieni

We covered the earliest period of the temples on Malta with the Ġgantija period earlier today. Now we're going to focus on the middle period, the Saflieni period lasting from 3300 BC - 3000 BC. This period was basically a transitionary period between the Ġgantija and the Tarxien phases. The Salfieni construction was similar to that of the Ġgantija and they produced a number of similar artifacts. But, the Salflieni introduced one spectacular addition. Wait for it...

Biconical Bowls! The Salflieni moved from this to that (up to down) by adding a second rim on the bowl!

It doesn't seem like much, but it's a difference.

The Salflieni stage is named after the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni. The word Hypogeum literally means underground in Greek. The Hypogeum is the only underground prehistoric temple in the world.

When it was discovered in 1902 the workers who discovered it originally tried to hide the temple. I'm not really sure why, I can't seem to find the reason for their wish to hide it, but a whole bunch of mythology seems to surround this site, more on this in a later post.

The site was built primarily during the Salflieni phase and its probably for this reason that the Salflieni phase gets its name. The underground temple itself has three levels.

The top level looks a lot like other Malta structures, especially like the tombs constructed at about the same time in Xemxija, Malta. They're simple cut outs of the rock that are more or less kidney shaped. If you're thinking that you've heard that before think back to our work with Marija Gimbutas. She postulated that much of Old Europe (prior to Indo-European arrival) worshiped and lived in a matriarchal way. These kidney shaped graves were meant to place the dead back in a womb like setting for rebirth. It's a good theory and seems plausible, but not definitive by any means. Anyway that's what the tombs in Xemxija look like and the 1st level of the Hypogeum would at first appear to be very similar to these kidney womb tombs.

Sleeping Lady from the main chamber
But, when you get beneath the tomb like entrances you get down to the main level or second level. In the second level there are a bunch of trilithon entrances (these are 3 stone structures, think what Stonehenge's rocks look like, one flat on top of two upright stones) leading into five distinct rooms. There is the main chamber that houses the trilithon entrances to the other rooms. Also in the main chamber was the sleeping lady and a whole bunch of figurines. When you're in the main chamber you can cross through the trilithon entrances into either the oracle room, the decorated room, the snake pit or the holy of holies.

From this Unesco pic you can see why it's called a labyrinth.
The oracle room is peculiar because when you enter it and speak it produces a strange resonance in sound. It's basically a prehistoric amplifier. Because of the acoustics of the room it's speculated that an oracle would speak from this room as it would have boomed and echoed throughout the whole temple giving a deeper religious quality to any type of ceremony. The decorated room is aptly named. Other than hosting some really old interior design work its pretty blasé. Ok, it's not really blasé but it has to compete with a room called the snake pit. The snake pit is basically a pit where it is possible snakes were kept. Some of the carvings around the Malta Temples often depict snakes. It's plausible that this deep pit was used to keep snakes in. The holy of holies is a porthole that is inside a trilithon which in turn is inside a slightly larger trilithon which in turn is inside a slightly larger trlithon than the other slightly larger trilithon. Because of all this impossibly confusing entryway thingamabobbers the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum has been called a labyrinth.

The third level was probably just storage for grain. It's thought that this temple was originally meant to be that, a temple or maybe just a house for an oracle. But it soon became a prehistoric crypt. Since excavations began the remains of over 7000 individuals have been found in this befittingly confusing maze. All of these remains though were found in levels one and two, which is why most people think that level three was probably just a place for storing grain.

As cool as the Ħal Saflieni is, it was not the only Saflieni era structures. Additions to the Ta'Hagrat Temples and even to the Ġgantija complex on Gozo were added. But, we've already covered Ġgantija well enough and I don't want to give too much away about Ta'Hagrat. So we'll just conclude here. Abruptly.

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