Maltese History in the Negative

The title: History in the Negative [1]

[1] The title of the article refers to the idea of Giulio Magli (2009:56-57; Chapter 3.3 “A Temple in the Negative) that the Hypogeum mirrors a Maltese temple in the negative, as it is underground.

When you would like to tell a story, you usually start from the very beginning. Still I am not quite sure where that “beginning” is. Anyway, for me it starts with a study trip on the island of Malta. It is a relatively small archipelago located in the central Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast, and it is composed of three islands of a different size: the largest Malta, medium Gozo and the smallest Comino. Above all, it is a popular holiday destination stormed by hordes of tourists every year. Most of them finish their adventure on the crowded, many a time rocky beaches, enjoying warm sea and daylong sunbathing. More curious visitors overcome the summer heat and abandon the coast to plunge in Maltese stories from the past. In my case, the latter choice was glaringly obvious. Before I landed on the island, first I took a flight from Ireland to Poland to spend at least one week with my family. It is not so reasonable to choose the month of August for exploring the island but it was because of the summer break at my university and the only available time to take my annual leave.

Welcome to the Island of Giants

When my friend and I landed after two hours on Malta International Airport in the town of Luqa, I felt a very pleasant sensation of butterflies thrilling in my stomach. I had done some research on Maltese history beforehand and I just could not wait to verify all this information in practice, which turned out to be not as simple as I thought. Because of an unpredictable delay (still very typical of the island) and fierce heat of the sun, we reached our air-conditioned hotel in La Valletta completely exhausted and sweaty like after a workout. I dumped the luggage on my bed and walked out on our tiny balcony overlooking the port bathed in navy-blue waters and the dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, looming majestically large on Valletta’s skyline. I was just enchanted with the orange colours of the city, strengthened by the light of the afternoon sunlight.

View on La Valletta from our hotel’s balcony. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Official Version

Our tour itinerary around the archipelago was stuffed to the gills and we got just a few days to realize it. The history of Malta is a long and compelling story dating back as it seems to the dawn of civilization but nobody knows when it actually started. Like in the case of other Mediterranean islands, such as Cyprus, archaeologists enumerate several stages of its timeline: first, there was the Paleolithic, then Neolithic period (traditionally called the New Stone Age) with the remains of mysterious megalithic temples, then the Phoenician, the Carthaginian, the Roman and the Byzantine (Visit Malta 2018). Christianity was brought to Malta in 60 AD by St. Paul himself who was shipwrecked on the island while on his way to Rome (Ibid.). The Moors conquered the islands in 870 A.D. and had ruled over it until 1530 A.D., when Malta got into the hands of Sicily (Ibid.). The Emperor, Charles V handed down the island to the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem, after they were forced to abandon their previous seat on the island of Rhodes, overtaken by the Turks (Ibid.).

Massive fortifications of Malta. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Joannites or Hospitallers, since then also called the Maltese Templars, governed Malta from 1530 to 1798 (Visit Malta 2018). The Knights made it a cultural and artistic hub of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ Europe, and it was marked with the presence of such artists as Caravaggio, Mattia Preti and Favray, commissioned by the Knights to embellish their Baroque churches and palaces (Ibid.). Nowadays, Malta is usually known for its bastioned fortifications of Birgu and Valletta, consisting of towers, batteries, redoubts and entrenchments, which are also characteristic of the Knights’ medieval defences on the Island of Rhodes (Ibid.). In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte took over Malta from the Knights on his way to Egypt (Ibid.). The French presence on the islands was short, as the English, who were requested by the Maltese to help them against the French, blockaded the islands in 1800 (Ibid.). British rule in Malta lasted until 1964, when Malta became independent (Ibid.). Still the Maltese adapted the British system of administration, education, legislation and left-hand driving with a steering wheel on the right-hand side … (Ibid.). Modern Malta became a Republic in 1974 and joined the European Union in May 2004 (Ibid.).

So much official history. Let’s go beyond it and investigate what hides in the legends.

Neolithic Tour

My study focused on the Neolithic Malta and its enigmatic megaliths scattered around the islands of Malta and Gozo that I wanted to explore during my short stay.

Next day, we caught a taxi to Paola, a town in the South Eastern Region of Malta, around seven kilometres away from La Valetta. We were to get there at 10 AM sharp. I had registered online for two entries to one of the most mysterious monuments in Europe, or even in the world. Access to the site is highly regulated (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Magli 2009:56). You are not allowed to take anything with you on a tour, such as bags, mobiles or cameras (Cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016). Before it starts, you need to leave all your stuff in the locker. Instead, you are provided with an audio-lingual guide with headphones. You are not allowed to either take pictures, film anything or even speak, and all the time you are accompanied by a silent guide leading the group (Magli 2009:56; Cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016).

Limestone doorways. Photo by Hamelin de Guettelet (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Visits are limited to six times per day for ten people at once. For those who turn up on site without a pre-booked ticket, it will be impossible to enter, unless somebody else cancels the tour, which is quite unlikely. The site had been closed since June, 2016 and reopened on May 15, 2017 with tickets available online from Heritage Malta’s website and from Fort St. Elmo or the Gozo Museum of Archaeology. As it was advised, we got there 15 minutes in advance. We stood in front of a inconspicuous semi-detached house with walls painted yellow and white, a door, small window and a garage. The only thing informing us it was the right address was the writing above the entry, saying: HYPOGEUM (Ibid.).

Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum

The Hypogeum is a huge and a multi-levelled circular cave, artificially carved into the rock, which today looks from the outside like a part of an ordinary building (Haughton 2009:162). In the Mediterranean, among others in Crete, Sardinia, Sicily and southern France, there are many subterranean worlds, albeit with a slightly different nature than the Malta underground temple, which is truly unique (Ibid.:162). It actually remains one of the most fascinating and mysterious of many megalithic structures not only in Europe, but also on the island itself (Ibid.:162).

Today, the complex is widely referred to as the Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni as the name hypogeum stands for an underground burial chamber (Magli 2009:57). Moreover, it is estimated that the subterranean network of tunnels and chambers covers an area of approximately 1 639 square meters and, as such, it is believed to have been once an important underground tomb and temple complex (Haughton 2009:162).

According to archaeologists, the whole structure comes back to the period around 3300 – 3000 BC., or slightly earlier, which was called after the name of the site, the Saflieni phase in Maltese prehistory (Pace 2004:10-20; “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” 2018).

Positive and Negative of the Temple

In 1902, an intriguing discovery was made. Workers building the foundations of an apartment block accidentally broke through the stone layer and unearthed the underworld construction, which according to some experts should be regarded as the eighth wonder of the world (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Haughton 2009:161-169; Pace 2004:3-9). It displays similar features as other megalithic temples in Malta but in the negative, mirroring the overground architecture of megalithic temples (Magli 2009:56-57).

The Holy of Holies. Photo by –jkb– (own image / eigenes Werk / vlastní dílo; scanned photo) (1985). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The subterranean version of a Maltese megalithic temple has been carved down in the living rock and its shape has been obtained by removing over two thousand tons of limestone out (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Burns 2014; Pace 2004:14; Magli 2009:56; Haughton 2009:162). Strangely enough, it is commonly accepted by archaeologists that the whole process of hewing the stone was done with hammers and horned pikes (Haughton 2009:162). In turn, the surfaces of the hollow rock are believed to have been smoothed by using flint tools, with the entire work being done in dimness! (Ibid.:162). As a result, neolithic builders were to create the whole complex of Ħal Saflieni, composed of a series of chambers, halls and niches arranged on three successive floors or levels (Pace 2004:23-45; Haughton 2009:162; Tajemnice Historii 2016). One of the authors studying the construction has imagined it as three Stonehenge complexes, set one above the other on the successive levels, but hidden deeply in the underground (Tajemnice Historii 2016).

The refurbished visitors’ center will help bust all the myths.

Before we descended to the underground, we did a very entertaining virtual tour of the underground cemetery with a video scenes sliding over the walls of the exhibition area, presenting an alleged history of the site’s construction.

At the same time, the authors of the film obviously try to persuade the visitors that a group of stone age farmers, armed only with primitive tools described above were able to accomplish such an architectural feat (Alberino, Quayle 2016). What is more, there are also some posters on the walls recalling major mysteries on the Hypogeum just to deny them entirely and replace with the mainstream history.

Inside the Giant Bell

When we finally descended underground I was immediately struck by a gloomy atmosphere hovering there (Ancient Code Team 2018; Cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016). It was not only the fault of natural darkness but some kind of irrational anxiety (Ibid.). Architecture critic, Richard Storm says that this strange sensation is because “you [feel] something coming from somewhere else you [cannot] identify, [and so] you are transfixed” (Ancient Code Team 2018). It was like being inside a giant bell with multiple opening leading deeper down in the unknown abyss (Ibid.). According to such researchers as Timothy Alberino and Steve Quayle (2016), it is more like a crypt than a temple. “Inside, […] there is a sequential lighting system so that the light goes on when the guide enters the area and goes off when [they leave it] so the whole group must follow close behind” (Magli 2009:56). Any self-guided tours are forbidden so you cannot explore the site on your own and only two upper levels are accessible for the groups. The lowest part of the Hypogeum mustn’t be visited.

Site map of the Hypogeum made in October 1907. Manuel Magri died in 1907. Uploaded in 2008. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Within the bell like gorge, archaeologists have uncovered tombs and a few rooms of different size and unknown function (Magli 2009:49). The Upper Level is believed to be the oldest, being used between 3600 and 3300 BC. (Pace 2004:24-26; Haughton 2009:162). It is placed three metres below the street level and includes a central corridor and burial chambers cut into natural caves on either side of the corridor (Pace 2004:24-26; Haughton 2009:162). According to archaeologists, the Upper Level resembles other rock-cut tombs found elsewhere on the islands of the Maltese archipelago, such as the rock-hewn Xemxija tombs on the western part of St. Paul’s Bay in the Northern Region of Malta, dating back to around 4000 BC. (Haughton 2009:162; “Xemxija” 2021).

Standing at the highest point of a walkway, I could get a bird’s eye view of the Upper Level (Pace 2004:47). “A [large] monumental trilithon still stands to the north of the main passage” (Ibid.:25-26), as a part of a larger structure that had already disappeared (Ibid.:25-26,47). There are also three roughly cut tomb chambers with low headroom and a group of similar cavities that lead to the so-called cistern reaching a depth of almost eight metres (Ibid.:24,26,47). One of the chambers still contains a deposit of earth and human remains (Ibid.:47). Around the same area, one can also discern some cists, a regular circle and tethering holes cut in the rock, like in the temples on the surface (Ibid.:47).

Going deeper

The Middle Level reaches eight metres below the street and features magnificent builders’ skills in stonework; such features can be especially observed in the masterfully cut trilithons (Pace 2004:24,26-44,47-48; Haughton 2009:162-163). The entire level is said to have been cut into a deep rock between 3300 and 3000 BC., as an extension of the Upper Level of the structure (Haughton 2009:162). The architecture of this level is reminiscent of the overground megalithic structures found elsewhere in Malta and contains the most important elements of the whole hypogeum (Ibid.:163). Accordingly, the Middle Level is further divided into three successive zones (Pace 2004:24,26-44,46). There are several important rooms, such as the Main Room or Chamber, the Holy of Holies, and the Oracle Room or Chamber (Pace 2004:24,26-44,46-48; Haughton 2009:163).

Zone A covered in red

The so-called Zone A contains the Main Chamber, which is roughly circular with a number of entrances in the form of trilithons, some of which are blind, and others lead to another chamber (Pace 2004:27,29-48). Almost the entire space of the Main Chamber is additionally decorated with an arrangement of vertical and horizontal curves, some of which are in the form of a honeycomb, and most of the wall surface has received a red wash of ochre, which is well visible even today (Pace 2004:21,30,36-37,48; Haughton 2009:163). On the other side, particular shapes of the walls create altogether a visual play on a viewer that can be compared to the effect of “fish eye” camera lens (Pace 2004:30,48). The Main Chamber can be also seen from the Upper Level, through the mentioned already circular opening above it (Ibid.:48).

“Sleeping Beauty” found in the Hypogeum. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Zone B and the Sleeping Lady in the Snake-Pit

Zone B located within the same level is characterized by a large elliptical chamber with two cavities or pits of an unidentified purpose (Pace 2004:48). One of them is sometimes referred to as the Snake-Pit and reaches two metres down (Pace 2004:37-39,48; Haughton 2009:163; Bradshaw Foundation 2017). Alongside the same pit, there is a shaft leading to the lowest (known) part of the Hypogeum, carved down over ten metres below the street level (Pace 2004:24,44-45,48; Haughton 2009:164). Inside the Snake-Pit a mysterious statuette of the Sleeping Lady was possibly found, which is today preserved in the Museum of Archaeology of Malta, in La Valletta (Pace 2004:39,48; Haughton 2009:163). Other sources say the figurine may have actually been discovered in the previously described Main Chamber of the Zone A (Haughton 2009:163). Such contradictory and confusing information only shows how chaotic first archaeological reports on the site could be.

Like other clay figurines found on site, the Sleeping Lady probably dates back to 3000 BC. and represents a corpulent woman reclining on a couch (Haughton 2009:163; Pace 2004:22). Possibly due to its outstanding obesity, the figurine is also described as the Sleeping Venus, in reference to similar opulent shapes of the Paleolithic female figurines, collectively called the Venus (Haughton 2009:163-164). As Giulio Magli (2009:47) writes “she sleeps, serene, pleased by her own exaggerated sensuality, exaggerated by our aesthetic canons, of course to the extent that many call her by the rather disrespectful name of the ‘Fat Lady'”.

The Holy of Holies

The ceiling of the Chamber in Zone B is elaborately decorated with a series of spirals, polygons and a plant-like paintings made with red ochre (Pace 2004:48). It is probably the most painted area in the whole complex (Haughton 2009:164). This is why it is usually referred to as the Holy of Holies (Pace 2004:48; Haughton 2009:164). The space comprises a finely carved replica of a temple façade, featuring a partially corbelled ceiling (Ibid.:48). Accordingly, it is distinguished by a trilithic portal carved in the rock, reflecting the architecture of free-standing Maltese Neolithic monuments, and the corbelled ceiling that was also possibly applied in the above-ground temples on the islands of Malta (Haughton 2009:164). The exceptional importance of this place is also evidenced by the lack of any burial there. (Ibid.:164). “Opposite the Holiest of Holies [lies] a monumental entrance [with] seven steps leading to the Lower Level” (Pace 2004:48). The passage, however is closed for the Hypogeum’s visitors (Carabott 2017).

Paintings for the Dead?. Photography by Daniel Cilia. Photo and caption source: Anthony Pace (2004) The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Paola. Malta Insight Heritage Guides, p. 37.

Zone C with the Oracle Room

Zone C features the most mysterious of all, the Oracle Room – unevenly rectangular, long chamber with a ceiling intricately decorated with spirals in red ochre and with circular objects looking like discs (Pace 2004:39-41,48; Haughton 2009:164).

The Oracle Room also include smallest side chambers (Pace 2004:40,48; Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). One of them has the peculiarity of producing a powerful acoustic resonance from only a male vocalization made inside it (Pace 2004:40,48; Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). Namely, any low sounds made by male voice (it is said that there is no such an effect in case of a higher female voice) is carried around the entire complex and even through the walls (Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). Its vibrations can be felt anywhere in the whole complex with the same strength as in the Oracle Chamber (Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). In other words, the words spoken by a male voice in the Oracle Room are heard in exactly the same way within a meter as in any niche, chamber or corridor, situated on any floor of the Hypogeum (Tajemnice Historii 2016). Apart from that, scientists have found that a male voice with a frequency of 110 Hz being emitted from the Oracle Chamber, bouncing off the walls, acquires a vibration that puts listeners in a specific state of trance and affects the brain centers responsible for creative thinking (Ibid.).

Apparently, the Hypogeum’s creators were specialized in acoustics, which amazes mainstream scholars who still call the hollow a primitive amplifier and believe it was once used by an oracle (Alberino, Quayle 2016). For the same reason, the purposefulness of the builders’ achievement of this intriguing acoustic effect is usually questioned (Haughton 2009:164). According to some scholars, such an achievement could be just the matter of mere chance (Ibid.:164). Otherwise, it would have to be considered that the Neolithic civilization was much more advanced than was thought, and the very ability of its members to use acoustics in religious ceremonies should be commonly accepted (Ibid.:164).

Mystery of the Lower Level

The mystery of the Hypogeum also involves the Lower Level that could also be once explored by visitors but now it is not allowed for the public. The lowest part of the complex is ten and a half meters below street level and it is said that it is further forked into a maze of chambers, which were filled with water at the time of their discovery in the early twentieth century (Haughton 2009.:164). According to mainstream academia, it contained no bones or offerings, only water (Haughton 2009:164-165; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). The accumulation of water has been thus considered a legitimate function of this level in the time of the Temple Period, as it was the case in Knossos, Crete, between 2150-2000 BC. (Ibid.:165). Archaeologists also definitely suggest storage, possibly of grain (Haughton 2009:165; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). Water and storage of grain?! Quite unusual …

Entry to the Hypogeum, Hal Saflieni. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Lower Level is said to date back to the period between 3150 and 2000 BC., so it would be the latest of all the levels, as according to archaeologists, the Hypogeum was started to be carved from up down to the Lower Level, where it ends (Pace 2004:23-27; Haughton 2009:164). But what if the Hypogeum does not end there but its corridors lead further underground, as some records tell? As a matter of fact, some alternative scholars suggest rather the opposite direction of cutting the structure out of the rock, starting from a natural cave or subterranean tunnels existing beneath the island. That, in turn, would involve a wide exploitation of the natural cavities by the temples’ builders who would have mastered a very high level of engineering to carry out such works deep underground.

Scholars agree yet that the entrance to the Hypogeum may have originally led through a temple on the surface, that would have once existed above the Hypogeum, and would have been similar to those still existing on the island (Pace 2004:23-27). Such a structure would be then either a threshold to or a final destination on the way up through the underground labyrinth.

Anyway, not without a surprise, the lowest level of the Hypogeum played the key-role in various stories I will come back to in a later article.

A necropolis or a temple … ?

National Geographic
“National Geographic, May, 1920, Back Issue”. In: National Geographic Back Issues. Accessed on 12th of August, 2018.

The purpose of the Hypogeum still remains unknown. An archaeologist, Brian Haughton (2009:165) believes it was primary a cemetery; the number of human remains is much greater than the tombs could contain at any given time during the period of the Hypogeum, indicating, along with the dates of the found human bones, that the complex was used as a cemetery for several centuries (Haughton 2009:165). On the other side, the Hypogeum may have originally been a temple, where some kind of ceremony took place (Pace 2004:22,40; Haughton 2009:165). The fact that no human remains were found in certain rooms of the complex, among others in the the Holy of Holies, supports such a theory (Pace 2004:22,40; Haughton 2009:165). An interesting clue that may point to the original functions of the Hypogeum is the similarity of this place to natural caves (Haughton 2009:165). The darkness of the original underground chambers and corridors is hard to imagine today, in the age of bright glow of artificial light (Ibid.:165). However, long ago, someone who was going into the abyss of the underworld probably had at their disposal only the faint and fluttering light given by animal fat lamps (Ibid.:165). It is easy to imagine that there were some processions or ritual initiations at the Hypogeum that included, for example, passing through the trilithic portal to more restricted and sacred areas, such as the Holy of Holies (Ibid.:165).

It is also possible that both functions of the Hypogeum, as a temple and tomb, were once combined together for funeral ceremonies, involving priests communicating with ancestors, maybe to celebrate the cult of the dead (Pace 2004:22,40; Haughton 2009:165). This theory can be further supported by features of the Oracle Chamber or figurines found in situ (Pace 2004:22,40).

Seven thousand skeletons

Surely, at some point, the complex started to mainly play a role of a huge necropolis and a collective burial chamber, as many rooms discovered to be filled with bones of thousands of people (Haughton 2009:165). The leading archaeologist working on the site, Sir. Themistocles Zammit (1864-1935), estimated there were over seven thousand skeletons in the Hypogeum from the period between 3,600 and 2,500 BC., major number of which was placed just at the original entrance to the underground (Magli 2009:57; Peregin 2017; Tajemnice historii 2016; Haughton 2009:165). It is believed the corpses were left there to undergo the state of decomposition (Tajemnice historii 2016; Magli 2009:57). Only then, the bones were placed in the niches (Pace 2004). In this case, the necropolis stage of the Hypogeum must have followed that of a temple (Haughton 2009:165; Cf. Magli 2009:57). At some stage of archaeological works, the skeletons must have been eventually removed to the Museum’s storage (Alberino, Quayle 2016).

“Long-Skulled” … ?

Among the found human skeletons in the Hypogeum, some show definite anomalies, unlike any ancestor on the evolutionary scale (Steve 2016; cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016; Burns 2014). Namely there were at least six skulls looking strangely abnormal (Burns 2014; Alberino, Quayle 2016). The fact is also reported by an article by Griffith, Malta, Halting Place of Nations, published in a National Geographic magazine from May, 1920 (Roma 2017). In the article, the author describes the ancient inhabitants of Malta as a race of “long-skulled” beings (Ibid.):

From an examination of the skeletons of the polished-stone age, it appears that the early inhabitants of Malta were a race of long-skulled people of lower medium height, akin to the first people of Egypt, who spread westward along the north coast of Africa, whence some went to Malta and Sicily and others to Sardinia and Spain.

Griffiths, William A. (1920). “Malta, Halting Place of Nations”, originally published in a National Geographic magazine from May, 1920, p. 449. Text source: Roma (2017). “Shades of Malta. Folklore on the Fringe”. In: Investigating Malta.

Apart from National Geographic magazine, there were also other publications on the subject as it seemed to be a worldwide known phenomenon. In the process of archaeological preservation starting in 1903, the bones were removed from the Hypogeum and placed in the storage, whereas the elongated skulls were put on a public display in the Museum of Archaeology, in La Valletta (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Burns 2014; Ancient Code Team 2018). From there they suddenly and mysteriously disappeared sometime after 1985 (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Ancient Code Team 2018).

"The Mystery of Malta's Long-Headed Skulls". Source: The Explorer (2017)
Screenshot of the article about the skulls via YouTube: The Editor of HERA. Italy’s Magazine of Ancient Mysteries: “The Mystery of Malta’s Elongated Skulls. Screenshot and caption source: Ancient Code Team (2018). “Elongated alien-like skulls found inside ancient Necropolis in Malta go missing” In: Ancient Code.

Apparently, the same had happened to the seven thousand skeletons which have not been seen again since the World War II finished (Burns 2014; Carabott 2017; Roma 2017; Ancient Code Team 2018). After their disappearance from the public view, mainstream academia has done its best to erase their existence from the records, simultaneously undermining excavation results made by one of the greatest researchers in Malta, Sir. Themistocles Zammit (1864-1935), who has been revered as the father of Maltese archaeology and the first director of the National Museum of Malta (Pace 2004:8-9; Haughton 2009:162). By 1911, he had unearthed an extraordinary collection of archaeological relics at the Hypogeum complex; apart from the huge numbers of human remains, there were also ceramics, including the mentioned refined figurines, beads and amulets (Haughton 2009:162). He also wrote a series of reports about his work, which had been published since 1910 (Ibid.:162). The Hypogeum itself was first opened to the public in 1908, even before the excavations were completed (Ibid.:162).

Manuel Magri and his lost report

Actually, Sir. Themistocles Zammit took over the research in the Hypogeum just after Manuel Magri (1851-1907) (Ancient Code Team 2018). The latter was a pioneer of archaeology and a Jesuit priest (Pace 2004:7). Magri had been in charge of the excavations since 1903 till his death under suspicious circumstances, just before he was about to publish his excavation report in 1907, which has never been found (Ancient Code Team 2018).

Further research on the Hypogeum skulls

As a result of on-going covers-up, “many people remain skeptical about elongated skulls, and every time such remains are found people tend to categorize them as a hoax or result of head binding. Still the elongated skulls in Malta are anything but ordinary” (Ancient Code Team 2018). The skulls were first examined in 1912 by archaeologists and it was recorded they have significantly differed from normal human skulls (Ibid.). In fact, their existence and anomalous characteristics became well documented before they disappeared (Ibid.). There are texts and images of the skulls made by Dr Anton Mifsud, and his colleague Dr Charles Savona Ventura, before their removal from the Museum (Ibid.). They detail the skulls’ “numerous, strange characteristics, such as elongations, drilled and swollen occiputs and strangely developed temporal partitions, which are unlike any known human race on the planet” (Ibid.). Recently, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture “has downplayed the mystery [of the skulls, saying that they] are not even elongated and are frequently made available to researchers” (Peregin 2017).

National Museum of Archaeology in La Valletta, Malta. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Yes a lot of requests have been made in the past 10 years. Most people request to look at them. Since they are not on display, Heritage Malta gets them out of storage and officials from the Agency accompany the visitors during the whole stage.  As a rule, permissions are only granted to researchers” – the spokesperson said (Peregin 2017). “Once [researchers] realize that the skulls are not, in fact, elongated, most people subsequently drop their request” (Ibid.)

Do they, indeed? Well, in answer to one of such a scientific request, an independent researcher, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, has been privileged to see the skulls and he has not left the Museum disappointed (Burns 2014). He was invited by Vanessa Ciantar, the curator at National Museum of Archaeology in Malta, who turned out to be very helpful in explaining all the details connected with the mysterious bones (Ibid.). There have been five skulls on the whole, presented to the researcher, at least one of which was definitely elongated and lacking the Fossa media – the join that runs along the top of the skull in case of regular human skulls (Ibid.). Accordingly, it could not have been artificially elongated but only natural (Ibid.). The Curator, herself, pointed to the fact that the middle suture is completely fused and cannot be seen even when the skull is observed from the inside (Ibid.). Moreover, the eye sockets of some skulls have seemed exceptionally large (Ibid.). So which version is true then? And why are the skulls not on public display? (Ibid.).

‘They are not on display yet’, the curator said (Burns 2014). ‘Because they haven’t been studied yet … The DNA tests have been handled many times but without any result. At some stage the skulls were filled with plaster and it made the bones highly contaminated so the results cannot be reliable’, she explained (Ibid.).

The only thing informing us it was the right address was the writing above the entry, saying: “HYPOGEUM”. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Still they do exist. So why do some authorities deny their existence? Some scholars even speculate that the elongated skulls belonged to a mysterious priest race (Tajemnice historii 2016). A great respect that long-headed people must have once enjoyed in Malta is evidenced by the fact that in Hypogeum there were also found human skulls bearing traces of a cranial deformation, which apparently aimed at elongating the head in order to physically resemble priests, whose knowledge and skills were apparently widely admired (Ibid.).

As much as the Lower Level, not all the Hypogeum corridors are open to the public (Tajemnice historii 2016). There are also some that have not yet been explored (Ibid.). A number of them is so narrow that they can only be crossed on the knees (Ibid.). It is therefore hypothesized that priests’ elongated heads and the associated with them abnormal brain development could have caused their considerable difficulty in walking (Ibid.). So it is possible that the priests did not walk but rather crawled like snakes (Ibid.). Hence the low ceilings of some corridors inside the Hypogeum (Ibid.).

The womb of myths

As a matter of fact, such mysterious underground structures as the Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni can really inspire a creation of strange legends (Haughton 2009:165). Accordingly, there are so many chilling stories about this underworld that it is difficult to believe they are all just a fruit of a human imagination (Ibid.:165). These are, among others, stories about the disappearance of a whole group of school children and about monsters and underground alien bases … (Ibid.:165). Similar stories keep haunting my mind, especially in the darkness of mysterious passages and deep tunnels (see: Inhabitants of the Subterranean Passageways of Malta).

Featured image: Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum © Heiko Gorski. Photo by Heiko Gorski (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0 AU. In: UNESCO.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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Mystery of the Lady From Elche

I left behind one of the most famous museums in Europe, the Prado, together with my colleague intensely studying in front of the Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, and I headed off to the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid. I caught the bus and after twenty minutes I entered the air-conditioned edifice full of ancient artefacts of Egypt, Nubia, the Middle East, Greece, and obviously, Iberian Peninsula of different periods.

Before the Romans Came

Particularly, the pre-Roman epoch was of my special interest. It covers the cultures that developed between the beginnings of the Iron Age and the process of Romanization, that is to say, the First Millennium BC. It was marked by several Mediterranean cultures, namely Iberian, Celtic, Greek, Phoenician, semi-legendary Tartessian, and finally Carthaginian. Many objects in this collection come from archaeological excavations and finds carried out in the Peninsula and its islands since the nineteenth century and even before. The set of Iberian statues are exceptional for their quality and quantity; these are the so-called Ladies of Elche, Baza and Cerro de los Santos. Among them, the most famous is definitely the graceful yet mysterious Lady of Elche – one of Spain’s most famous icons. The statues are usually said to be sculpture made in limestone. However, Adrien Nash (2021) has lately paid my attention to the fact that the Lady of Elche should be actually a hollow casting, and not a sculpture. Such a claim is based on the photos of the head, showing it empty as much as the part in her back (Ibid.).

Lady of Elche. After Max Dashu “[the] sculpture appears to have been cut and may well have originally been a standing figure”.National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Photo source : Max Dashu (2018). “La Dama de Elche”. In: Suppressed Histories 

Treasure Found Without a Map

The enigmatic sculpture was unearthed by chance in 1897. It is believed that a young farm worker found it while he was clearing an area for planting on a private estate at l’Alcúdia in Elche (part of the Spanish province of Alicante, Valencia). Once he overturned one of the stones, he came across an amazing find. To his surprise, he noticed the woman’s head, neck and shoulders, extending down to her chest.

Once he overturned one of the stones, he came across an amazing find. Drawing from the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The place of discovery is now an archaeological site, and the Lady of Elche herself has initiated a popular interest in pre-Roman Iberian culture. Shortly after the discovery, the land owner of the sold it to a French archaeological connoisseur, Pierre Paris, and the artifact became a part of the Louvre collection, where it had remained until the beginning of the 1940s, when it was returned to Spain. Initially the artefact was displayed in the Prado Museum, and in 1971, it was relocated to National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, where it has been preserved up to now. Without doubt, the Lady of Elche is one of the most valuable objects housed in this museum edifice. Its replica, in turn, was produced and exposed in the local Museum of Archaeology and History of Elche. The original bust was sent and displayed in Elche only once, in 2006.

Princess Leia from Iberia

The sculpture features a woman wearing an elaborate headdress, composed of two large coils known as rodetes positioned symmetrically on either side of the head and face. Once considered to be just huge spools of hair, they are actually a massive headgear of some sort, which is installed over the Lady’s head and neck.

Others have also indicated the woman’s uniquely Caucasian facial features. National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A number of researchers interpreted it as a highly advanced technological device linking the sculpture with the civilization of Atlantis. It is also somehow reminiscent of the headdress worn by Princess Leia in Star Wars (makers of the movie may have been actually inspired by its design, while creating the character). Actually, the wheel-like carved adornments look like huge flattened snail shells, and some scholars think that their original model was once probably made of basketry or metal. After one theory, it may have been a ceremonial headdress of a priestess, or even a goddess. Accordingly, some scholars associate the statue’s representation with Tanit, the Punic-Iberian fertility deity of Carthage, while others have proposed the Lady reflects an Atlantean Goddess.

Refined Female Face

Furthermore, the headdress runs across the forehead, with a pattern of raised marble-shaped bumps. Tassel-like long earrings hang in front of the ears down to the shoulders, and elaborate and heavy necklaces adorn the elegant chest. After Bernardo Graiver (1980), similar peaked headdress topped with a veil was worn in Tunisia into modern times. On the other side, the design of jewellry has Phoenician and Carthaginian analogues. Yet, after Bruno Nua (2021), in terms of the style of the statue, there may be a connection even with ancient Anatolia in Turkey.

The female delicate and refined face contains an expressionless gaze of royal dignity, also characteristic of another bust representing the famous Egyptian Queen – Nefertiti. For some the representation has the appearance of a portrait. Others have also indicated the woman’s uniquely Caucasian facial features.

Mystery History (2017). “High-Tech Ancient Queen” Found In Spain?” In: Youtube Channel.

Other Noble Ladies

According to some scholars, the bust of nearly 54 cm high (21 inches) may originally have been the part of a larger, full-body statue, depicted in a seated position (Lady of Baza) or a standing one (Gran Dama Oferente).

Lady of Guardamar
Lady of Guardamar (Dama de Guardamar). The sculpture “was discovered in 1987 at a Phoenician site of the same name in Guardamar del Segura, Alicante, Spain (Dashu 2018). Originally, the photo was attributed to the User Gafotas (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. In: “Lady of Guardamar” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Modified by Max Dashu (2018).Photo source : Max Dashu (2018). “La Dama de Elche”. In: Suppressed Histories

The Lady is carved from limestone with traces of red and blue polychrome, which means it was originally covered in vivid colours. The stone used suggests it was carved not very far from where it was found centuries later. The statue is generally believed to have been created within the Iberian culture, though the artisanship suggests strong Hellenistic influence. The sculpture is unique, however, there are some less known similar examples, dated back to around fourth century BC. One of them is indisputably the Lady of Guardamar, also known as The Lady of Cabezo Lucero.

Lady of Baza. National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As its name signifies itself, the statue represents a female bust as well, 50 cm high, discovered in fragments in the Phoenician archaeological site in Guardamar del Segura in Alicante province, in 1987. The Lady of Guardamar is adorned with similar, though not identical, jewellery and wheel-like rodetes. The latter seem smaller and of less intricate design without earrings but the resemblance between these two objects is striking. The Ladies’ necklaces with their pendants are also similar to those found on the Lady of Baza. Moreover, all the statues have been discovered in the south-eastern Spain, in Alicante region.

Independent Speculations

The most interesting feature of the statue, however, is her unusual anatomy, namely the remarkable protrusion of a large and significantly elongated skull, covered with a conical cap. It cannot be noticed until the bust is viewed from its profile.

Lady of Elche
As Max Dashu underlines “[a] similar peaked headdress topped with a veil was worn in Tunisia into modern times.” It cannot be noticed until the bust is viewed from its profile. “The jewelry, too, has Phoenician and Carthaginian analogues.” Photo source : Max Dashu (2018). “La Dama de Elche”. In: Suppressed Histories

In the same museum, there are many examples of Iberian figures with elongated heads but hidden from view under their headdresses. Does this mean that some Iberian people were longheads? Or it was just a stylisation or a fashionable haute couture headgear. If so, why did they follow such a style in dressing up their heads at all? There is no answer … Still there is a hope this sculpture may create a new wave of speculation in where the other elongated head peoples originated.

An Elaborate Hoax … ?

The origin of the sculpture and its purpose is baffling and has sparked lively, sometimes heated, debate. There are scholars who argue that the statue is, in fact, a forgery. Art historian John F. Moffitt argues that the sculpture of the Lady of Elche is too elaborate to have been carved in pre-Christian Spain. This argument has been dismissed by dating the pigments left on the object back to the fifth century BC. Some independent scholars suggest the work comes from a much earlier period though. The bust might have been a funerary vessel as there is an aperture in the rear of the sculpture, which indicates it may have been used as an urn. On the other hand, the cavity in the Lady’s back could have contained something different from human remains, such as an unknown object or documents revealing her mystery. All at once, it could be a depiction of a goddess, or an Iberian princess. The Lady of Elche’s origin can never be known for sure, which leaves the debate open, especially in case of the correct creation date and its obscure origins. Nevertheless, it is widely believed to be one of the most striking examples of sculpture work found on the planet.

Let Her Speak …

The disputes and theories regarding the Lady of Elche prove the importance of the sculpture itself. As an ancient icon of Spain, the artefact slightly unveils the ancient past, not only of Spain, but of the whole human civilisation. I hope the disputes and theories about the bust will continue in order to resolve its riddle. At the same time, I hope by all that the artefact will remain safely preserved as a culturally significant symbol of ancient and mysterious history.

Photo with an Elche star. Let her speak … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured photo: “The Lady of Elche, once polychrome stone bust discovered by chance in 1897 at L’Alcúdia, believed to be a piece of Iberian sculpture from the 4th century BC, National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid”. Photo by the User Butko (2015).  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.

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