History in the Negative

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 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 sun.

Malta
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 realise it. The history of Malta is a long and compelling story dating back as it seems to the dawn of civilisation 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. Christianity was brought to Malta in 60 AD by St. Paul himself who was shipwrecked on the island while on his way to Rome. 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. 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.

Malta
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. The Knights made it a cultural and artistic hub of 17th and 18th century 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. 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. In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte took over Malta from the Knights on his way to Egypt. 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. British rule in Malta lasted until 1964 when Malta became independent. Still the Maltese adapted the British system of administration, education, legislation and left-hand driving with a steering wheel on the right-hand side … Modern Malta became a Republic in 1974 and joined the European Union in May 2004.

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 7 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 very restricted. You are not allowed to take anything with you on a tour, such as bags, mobiles or cameras. Before it starts, you need to leave all your stuff in the locker. Instead, you are provided with an audiolingual 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.

Hypogeum
A view of the Middle Level showing the transitional lobby space leading to Zone B and C. Source: A. Pace (2004) The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Paola. Malta Insight Heritage Guides, p. 13.

Visits are limited to six times per day for 10 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”.

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

Positive and Negative of the Temple

In 1902, an intriguing discovery was made. Workers building the foundations of an apartment block accidently 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. It displays similar features as other megalithic temples in Malta but in the negative, mirroring the overground architecture of megalithic temples.

Hypogeum
The doorway in the central rock-out screen of the Main Chamber. Source: A. Pace (2004) The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Paola. Malta Insight Heritage Guides, p. 34.

The subterranean version has been carved down in the living rock and its shape has been obtained by removing over 2000 of limestone out. The whole complex is composed of three floors. One of the authors studying the construction has imagined it as three Stonehenge complexes set on the successive levels, one above the other, and underground. The subterranean temple is called Hypogeum Hal-Saflieni, where the name hypogeum relates to an underground burial chamber. According to archaeologists, it dates back to the period around 3800 – 3000 BC, or slightly earlier, which was called after the site, the Saflieni phase in Maltese prehistory.

The refurbished visitors’ centre will help bust these 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.

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

At the same time, the authors of the film ridiculously try to persuade you that a group of stone age primitive farmers using only obsidian tools and deer antlers were able to accomplish such a feat. What is more, there are also some posters on the walls recalling major mysteries on Hypogeum just to deny them entirely and replace them with the mainstream history.

Inside the Giant Bell

When we finally descended underground I was immediately struck by a gloomy atmosphere. It was not only the fault of natural darkness but some kind of irrational anxiety. Architecture critic Richard Storm says this strange sensation is because you feel something coming from somewhere else you can’t identify, and so you are transfixed. It was like being inside a giant bell with multiple opening leading deeper down in the unknown abyss. It is more like a crypt than a temple. Inside, there is a sequential lighting system so that the light goes when the guide enters the area and goes off when they leave it so the whole group must follow close behind. 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.

Hypogeum
A view of the Middle Level showing the Main Chamber’s bell. Source: A. Pace (2004) The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Paola. Malta Insight Heritage Guides, p. 12.

Within the bell like gorge, archaeologists have uncovered tombs and a few rooms of different size and unknown function. Upper floor is believed the oldest and it is placed 3 metres below the street level. Standing at the highest point of a walkway, I could get a bird’s eye view of it. A large monumental trilithon still stands to the north of the main passage, as a part of a larger structure that had already disappeared. 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 8 metres. One of the chambers still contains a deposit of earth and human remains. Around you can also discern some cists, a regular circle and tethering holes cut in the rock, like in the temples over ground. The middle floor reaches 8 metres below the street level and features magnificent skill in stonework. It is divided into three successive zones. There are several important rooms, such as the Main Room, the Holy of Holies, and the Oracle Room. Zone A contains he Main Room, which is roughly circular with a number of trilithon entrances, some of which are blind, and others leading to another chamber. The entire space is decorated with an arrangement of vertical and horizontal curves and most of the wall surface has received a red wash of ochre. The walls’ curves altogether create a visual play on a viewer that can be compared to the effect of “fish eye” camera lens. From the upper level, the Chamber can be seen through the mentioned already circular opening above.

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

Zone B is characterized by a large elliptical chamber with two cavities or pits. In one of them, the mysterious statuette of the Sleeping Lady was found (Museum of Archaeology, in Valletta). As Giulio Magli (1990) 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”. Alongside the same pit, there is a shaft leading to the lowest (known) part of the Hypogeum, carved down 10 metres below the street level. The ceiling of the Chamber is elaborately decorated with a series of spirals, polygons and a plant-like paintings made with red ochre. This is why that area is usually referred as the Holy of Holies. The space comprises a beautifully carved replica of a temple façade, characteristic of a partially corbelled ceiling. Opposite the Holiest of Holies lie a monumental entrance and seven steps leading to the Lower Level. The passage, however is closed. Another interesting characteristic  of an unidentified purpose is the so-called Snake-Pit reaching down 2 metres depth.

Hypogeum
Paintings for the Dead. Source: A. Pace (2004) The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Paola. Malta Insight Heritage Guides, p. 37.

Zone C features the most mysterious of all, the Oracle Room – unevenly rectangular, long chamber with a ceiling decorated with spirals in red ochre with circular blubs or discs. One of the smallest side chambers has the peculiarity of producing a powerful acoustic resonance from only a male vocalization made inside it. Namely, any sound made by male voice (it is said that there is no such an effect in case of a female voice) is carried around the entire complex and through the walls, and it is heard anywhere in the complex with the same strength as in the Chamber. 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. It also concerns the Lower Level that could be once also explored by visitors. According to mainstream academia it contained no bones or offerings, only water. Archaeologists strongly suggest storage, maybe of grain. Water and storage of grain?! Quite unusual …

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

“Long-Skulled” … ?

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

The purpose of the Hypogeum is unknown: it may have originally been a temple, where some kind of ceremony took place, maybe the cult of ancestors. This theory can be supported by features of the Oracle Chamber or figurines found in situ. Surely, at some point, the complex started to play a role of a huge necropolis and a collective burial chamber. Many rooms discovered to be filled with bones of thousands of people. The leading archaeologist working on the site, Sir Zammit, estimated there were over 7 000 skeletons in the Hypogeum, major number of which was placed just at the original entrance to the underground. It is believed the corpses were left there to undergo the state of decomposition. Only then, the bones were placed in the niches. In this case, the necropolis stage of the Hypogeum must have followed that of usage of it as a temple.

Furthermore, among the found skeletons, some show definite anomalies, unlike any ancestor on the evolutionary scale. Namely there were at least 6 skulls which looked strangely elongated, which is also reported by an article by Griffith, Malta, Halting Place of Nations, published in a National Geographic magazine from May, 1920. In the article, the author describes the ancient inhabitants of Malta as a race of “long-skulled” beings:

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.

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 Valletta. From there they suddenly disappeared sometime after 1985.

"The Mystery of Malta's Long-Headed Skulls". Source: The Explorer (2017)

Apparently, the same had happened to the 7 000 skeletons which have not been seen again since the World War II finished. It is known, however, that some of these were removed back to the Museum’s storage for unknown reasons. After their disappearance from human eyes, 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 (died in 1939), who has been revered as the father of Maltese archaeology. Actually he took over the research in the Hypogeum after Manuel Magri. The latter was a pioneer of Archaeology and Jesuit priest. Magri had been in charge of the excavations since 1903 till his death under suspicious circumstances, just before the publication of his excavation report in 1907, which has never been found. As a result of on-going covers-up, many people remain sceptical 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. The skulls were first examined in 1912 by archaeologists and it was recorded they have significantly differed from normal human skulls. In fact, their existence and anomalous characteristics became well documented before they disappeared. 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. They detail the skulls’ numerous characteristics, such as elongations, drilled and swollen occiputs and strangely developed temporal partitions, which are unlike any known human race on earth. 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.

Malta Museum
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. “Once [researchers] realise that the skulls are not, in fact, elongated, most people subsequently drop their request.”

Do they, indeed? Well, in answer to one of such a scientific request, an independent archaeologist has recently been privileged to see the skulls and he has not left the Museum disappointed. He has been invited by Vanessa Ciantar, the curator at National Museum of Archaeology in Malta, who has turned out to be very helpful in explaining all the details connected with the mysterious bones. There have been 5 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. Accordingly, it cannot have been artificially elongated but only natural. 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. Moreover, the eye sockets of some skulls have seemed exceptionally large. So which is the true version then? And why are the skulls not on display?

“They are not on display yet” the curator said. “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”.

Still they do exist. So why do some authorities deny their existence?

Just after the Hypogeum was discovered, it was kept secret so as not to disturb the building schedule on the site and continued work caused irretrievable damage to a large megalithic circle that once stood directly above the subterranean part, giving access to its abyss. It is hence believed that more such underground complexes may exist beneath other overground temples. As a matter of fact, in the eighteenth century in Gozo, another hypogeum carved down in the rock was brought to light. The complex was once depicted in a painting with the famous Ggantija temple in the background. The site is known as Xaghra and was excavated in 1990 by Anthony Bonnano and his group of archaeologists. One of their most famous findings is, also like in the case of Hypogeum Hal Saflieni, a figurine. That one, however, represents two “fat ladies” sitting side by side, probably mirroring the way two parts of the Ggantija temple are situated. After Giulio Magli the relation of Xaghra in relation to Ggantija is analogous to that of the Hypogeum in relation to nearby Tarxien temple. Indeed, the pairing cannot be coincidental as it also happens in other megalithic temples of the archipelago.

National Geographic Once Again …

On the other hand, it is well known that there is an intricate maze of tunnels, caverns and chambers buried deep in the limestone bedrock beneath the islands. During World War II, the island of Malta suffered the most terrible bombing attacks, and people used this underground world as a shelter, storage for ammunition and other vital supplies.

“National Geographic August 1940, Back Issue” In: National Geographic Back Issues. Accessed on 12th of August, 2018.

Many legends and stories tell about strange entities, including giant like creatures who have inhibited the subterranean world, especially the Hypogeum complex. In August, 1940, National Geographic Magazine featured an article entitled Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter. The author detailed the underground world  that honeycomb the bedrock of the archipelago, and stated that the British government blew up ancient tunnels to shut them off permanently after the school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth of the Hypogeum and they had never returned. This article is one of two primary sources for the lost children story. It reports it in two places:

Many subterranean passageways, including ancient catacombs, now are a part of the island’s fortifications and defence system (page 258). Supplies are kept in many tunnels; others are bomb shelters. Beneath Valletta some of the underground areas serve as homes for the poor. Prehistoric man built temples and chambers in these vaults. In a pit beside one sacrificial altar lie thousands of human skeletons. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other. The Government closed the entrances to these tunnels after school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth while on a study tour and never returned (page 272). [Walter, 267].

While we cycled homeward, our friends told us that the island was honeycombed with a network of underground passages, many of them catacombs. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other, but all entrances were closed by the Government because of a tragedy. On a sight-seeing trip, comparable to a nature-study tour in our own schools, a number of elementary school children and their teachers descended into the tunneled maze and did not return. For weeks mothers declared that they had heard wailing and screaming from underground. But numerous excavations and searching parties brought no trace of the lost souls. After three weeks they were finally given up for dead. Sections of this underground network have been used to protect military and naval supplies. Indeed, many of the fortifications themselves are merely caps atop a maze of tunnels (page 267) . Thus is Malta fortified. Her thrifty, religious, and intelligent people love peace. Yet, with war in Europe, they now are in the center of Mediterranean strife. [Walter, 272].

The only thing that can be reliably assumed is that the story itself was in the public sphere. It could have happened but it could also be just an urban myth. If the latter is the case, why did the British government shut off ancient tunnels permanently?

National Geographic August 1940, p. 272. Source: Peter (2018-2020).
National Geographic August 1940, p. 272. Source: Peter (2018-2020).

There is also another record entitled The Reality of the Cavern World, by Riley Crabb, akin Commander X, that not only summarizes the same story from the National Geographic about the missing children but also mentions another important person of the story, Lois Jessup, and the fact there are tunnels beneath Malta that may reach as far as the catacombs beneath the hill of the Vatican. It also refers to the lowest floor of the Hypogeum as an actual place where the dramatic event took place. Accordingly, the so-called Lower Level is not the dead end of the underground temple (or a storage!) but in fact the entrance to the maze of the underground tunnels.

Tradition holds that before the British government sealed up several tunnels, one could walk from one end of Malta to the other underground. One of the labyrinths, discovered by excavators, is the Hypogeum of Sal Saflini, in which excavators discovered the bones of over 33,000 people who had been sacrificed by an ancient pagan neolithic cult. National Geographic, Aug. 1940 issue, told of several school children who had disappeared without a trace in the Hypogeum. British embassy worker Miss Lois Jessup convinced a guide to allow her to explore a 3-ft. square “burial chamber” next to the floor of the lowest room in the last [3rd] sub-level of the catacombs. He reluctantly agreed and she crawled through the passage until emerging on a cavern ledge overlooking a deep chasm. In total shock she saw a procession of TALL humanoids with white hair covering their bodies walking along another ledge about 50 feet down on the opposite wall of the chasm. Sensing her they collectively lifted their palms in her direction at which a strong “wind” began to blow through the cavern and something big, “slippery and wet” moved past her before she left in terror to the lower room, where the guide gave her a “knowing” look. Later she returned after the 30 school children and their teacher[s] had disappeared in the same passage that she had explored, only to find a new guide who denied any knowledge of the former guides’ employment there. She heard reports however that after the last child had passed through the “burial chamber” and out onto the ledge, a “cave-in” collapsed the burial chamber and the rope connecting them to the lower chamber was later found to be “cut clean”. Grieving Mothers of several of the children swore that for a week or more following the disappearance they could hear their children crying and screaming “as if from underground”. Other sources state that an underground connection exists or did exist between Malta and reaches hundreds of miles and intersects the catacombs below the hill Vaticanus in Rome. 

I was really grabbed by these two stories. Even more mysterious is Lois Jessup’s experience she has got on the Hypogeum’s deepest level. On the way to the Hypogeum I asked a driver if he knows anything of the children who got lost in the there before the war. He replied that he has never heard about it but actually it is good I have mentioned that as he would never let his daughter go there …

Hairy Giants …?

Is the story true? Such a horrific happening must have been passed down through the generations. Many people have done research on the lost children to find out more but nobody’s heard anything about it. Lyn Funnell writes that if this accident happened it was a year or two before World War II broke out. Malta was heavily bombed day after day. Houses were reduced to piles of rubble and there were hundreds of casualties. Many of the families who lost their children would have been killed.

Malta Museum
It is well known that there is an intricate maze of tunnels, caverns and chambers buried deep in the limestone bedrock beneath the islands. Here are the steps leading to the underground beneath the Museum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

There was a desperate shortage of food. Day-to-day survival was the main thing on the Maltese minds. As she underlines the facts and the dates seem so clear. And the article’s written about the children as though it assumes that everyone knows what it’s on about!  The National Geographic Magazine is a very reputable publication. Mrs Constance Lois Jessup, also spelled Jessop, was a real person who lived in New York City, in the 1950s and 60s. She might actually have worked for the British government and not for the British embassy as the latter had not been established in Malta before 1964. Her experience in the Hypogeum probably made her join the New York Saucer Investigation Bureau, known as the NYSIB, or she had been already a member of the Institution when she went down there… Her friend, Riley Crabb, known as Commander X, wrote the article cited above about her strange experience. One article written by Miss Lois Jessop herself, entitled Malta, Entrance to the Cavern World also appeared in an old issue of Riley Crabb’s Borderland Science magazine, published by the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation (B.S.R.F.) and was later reprinted in full in the book Enigma Fantastique by Dr Allen. Here is the story told in her own words:

I visited some friends on the Island of Malta in the Mediterranean in the mid-1930s. One afternoon six of us decided to hire a car and visit some of the many historical tourist attractions on the island. One of our party suggested that, since the weather was very hot, our best bet was to visit some of the caves and underground temples. At least there we could keep cool for a few hours.

Hypogeum
Figurines found in the Hypogeum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Some few miles out of Valetta, the capitol of Malta, is the little town of Paula. It has only one main street, Hal Saflini, and on this is the entrance to an underground temple known as the Hypogeum of Hal Saflini. We stopped here and sought out the guide for a tour of the cave or catacombs of the Hypogeum. There was a fairly large cave entrance with ancient mural decorations of whirls and wavy lines, diamond patches here and there, also oval patterns seemingly painted with red ochre. The entrance itself smelt damp and mouldy, but inside the cave there was not a trace of mustiness. Joe, the guide, told us there were three floors of underground rooms and gave each of us a lighted candle.

One by one we bent down low to walk through a narrow passage which led to a step or two, and again we were able to stand up in a fair sized room which had been built out of the Malta sandstone aeons ago in the Stone-Age. Joe told of a powerful oracle (or wishing well) deep down, and how it had worked wonders in the old days for the initiated who knew the correct sound to use. I think the oracle still works today unless it was damaged. Malta was heavily bombarded during World War II.

The oracle was supposed to work only if a male voice called to it but as the guide was saying this I slipped down a small step and gave a yell that was picked up by something and magnified throughout the whole cave.

We followed the guide through some more narrow passages which led down, down, down, then straightened our backs again when we came into another room. In this large opening was a circular stone table or altar in the center of the room. Cut out of the rock walls around were layers of stone beds or resting places of some kind, with hollows scooped out for head, body, and narrowing to the feet. I guess these were places for adults about four feet tall, with smaller scooped out beds. It looked like mother, father and child either slept or were buried here, although we saw no bodies here.

Down, down, down again, stooping and crawling through a narrow passage into another large room, with slits or narrow openings in the stone wall.

“They buried their dead in here,” said the guide.

I peered through a slit and saw skeletons another. Through another slit I peered into a cave where, the guide said, they kept their prisoners. A three foot thick stone door, about four feet high and four feet wide, guarded the entrance.

“What kind of people, and how strong were these pigmies, to be able to carve out these rooms to a definite pattern and to move doors this thick and heavy?” I thought.

“This is the end of the tour,” Joe, the guide, said. “We must now turn and retrace our steps.”

“What’s down there?” I asked him; for on turning I noticed another opening off one of the walls.

“Go there at your own risk,” he replied, “and you won’t go far.”

I was all for more exploring and talking it over with my friends, three of them decided to go with me and two waited with the guide. I was wearing a long sash around my dress and since I decided to lead the group I asked the next one behind me to hold on to it. Holding our half-burnt candles the four of us ducked into this passage, which was narrower and lower than the others.

Hypogeum
You are not allowed to take pictures in the Hypogeum.  Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Groping and laughing our way along, I came out first, onto a ledge pathway about two feet wide, with a sheer drop about fifty feet or more on my right and a wall on my left. I took a step forward, close to the rock wall side. The person behind me, still holding on to my sash, had not yet emerged from the passage. Thinking it was quite a drop and perhaps I should go no further without the guide I held up my candle.

There across the cave, from an opening deep below me, emerged twenty persons of giant stature. In single file they walked along a narrow ledge. Their height I judged to be about twenty or twenty-five feet, since their heads came about half way up the opposite wall. They walked very slowly, taking long strides. Then they all stopped, turned and raised their heads in my direction. All simultaneously raised their arms and with their hands beckoned me. The movement was something like snatching or feeling for something, as the palms of their hands were face down. Terror rooted me to the spot.

“Go on, we’re all getting stuck in the passage!” My friend jerked at my sash. “What’s the matter?”

“Well, there’s nothing much to see,” I stammered, taking another step forward.

My candle was in my right hand. I put my left hand on the wall to steady me, and stopped again. My hand wasn’t on cold rock but on something soft and wet. As it moved a strong gust of wind came from nowhere and blew out my candle! Now I really was scared in the darkness!

“Go back,” I yelled to the others, “go back and guide me back by my sash. My candle has gone out and I cannot see!”

In utter panic I backed into the narrow little passageway and forced the others back, too, until we had backed into the large room where Joe and my friends were waiting. What a relief that was!

“Well, did you see anything?” asked one of them.

“No,” I quickly replied, “There was a draft in there that blew my candle out.”

“Let’s go,” said Joe, the guide.

I looked up at him. Our eyes met. I knew that at one time he had seen what I had seen. There was an expression of caution in his eyes, adding to my reluctance to tell anyone. I decided not to.

Out in the open again and in the hot Malta sunshine we thanked the guide, and as we tipped him he looked at me.

“If you really are interested in exploring further it would be wise to join a group. There is a schoolteacher who is going to take a party exploring soon,” he said.

I left my address with him and asked him to have the schoolteacher get in touch with me, but I never heard any more about it, until one of my friends called me to read an item from the Valetta paper.

“I say, Lois, remember that tunnel you wanted to explore? It says here in the paper that a schoolmaster and thirty students went exploring, and apparently got as far as we did. They were roped together and the end of the rope was tied to the opening of the cave. As the last student turned the corner where your candle blew out the rope was clean cut, and none of the party was found because the walls caved in.”

The shock of this information didn’t change my determination not to say anything about my experience in the Hypogaeum, but several months later my sister visited Malta and insisted on making a tour of the underground temple on Hal Saflini. Reluctantly, I went along, retracing the same route; but there was a different guide this time. When we got down to the lowest level, to the room where I had taken off to explore the tunnel entrance was boarded up!

“Wasn’t it here that the schoolmaster and the thirty students got trapped?” I asked the guide.

“Perhaps,” he replied, with a noncommittal shrug of the shoulders, and refused to say anything more. You cannot get a thing out of the Maltese when they don’t want to talk.

“You are new here, aren’t you?” I asked him. “Where’s Joe, the guide who was here a couple of months ago?”

“I don’t know any Joe.” He shook his head. “I alone have been showing people around this catacomb for years.”

Who was this guide? And why did Joe disappear after we left Hal Saflini that first time? And why is it impossible to get any facts on the disappearing schoolchildren story? In the Summer of 1960, Louise Becker, N.Y.S.I.B.’s treasurer visited Malta during her European trip. She searched old newspaper files and the Museum, trying to get some facts to substantiate my story, but in vain. The Maltese are tight-lipped about the secrets of their island.”

“Primitive” Inhabitants of Malta.

So where is the beginning of the whole story after all? Prehistory of Malta begins (if we stick with the established dates) quite late, namely around 5200 BC. Between 5200 and 4000 BC nothing extraordinary happened: like the cultures of Sicily, with which Malta’s inhabitants had a contact, people of the archipelago made pottery and developed economy based on fishing, hunting and farming. They built their houses in brick and small stones. Then, out of the blue, as if “primitive” inhabitants of Malta had awakened from a long dream, a great explosion of building activity with the use of giant megaliths had started. The so-called Temple Period lasted for over one millennium, from around 3800 to 2500 BC. What is even more interesting, the builders of the temples vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared on the scene. Prof John Evans (1925 – 2011), a leading Maltese temple researcher admitted himself, there has been no explanation for such a fact. After the sudden end of the megalithic culture, the island was apparently not inhabited for a long time but finally everything came back to the “primitive” state of things. It actually does not make any sense …

Giant
Figures representing gigantic and fluffy women have been excavated in great numbers on Malta. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Some independent researchers claim that the Maltase Cyclopean  architecture, including the Hypogeum and other structures, such as enigmatic cart ruts, come actually from the Prediluvian times and were constructed and inhabited by long – headed hybrids, and giants, maybe similar to those encountered and described by Lois Jessup. Successive inhabitants of the archipelago also assigned the construction of the megalithic structures to giants, especially to Cyclops (hence the term Cyclopean architecture coming from the Greek). Similar stories were repeated by the Minoan and Mycenae cultures whose members regarded Malta as the island once inhabited by strange and powerful beings. According to a legend, in the beginning, the island was ruled by the offspring of the Giantess who had emerged from the Atlantic Ocean. Similar stories are also known in other parts of the world. Figures representing gigantic and fluffy women have been excavated in great numbers on Malta. However, Prof John Evans claimed some of them look rather asexual. Who were those giants then? As the legend goes they were the teachers passing on knowledge to people. Dr Anton Mifsud claims that his friend living on Gozo island has dug up a 3 metres long skeleton but he hid it from the authorities. Still, there is no proof for such a discovery …

Up Back in the Sun!

A modern day Malta is a collective blend of ethnic and cultural heritages but the identity of the earliest inhabitants of the archipelago is shrouded in mystery. Today it is difficult to separate the myth from the truth but material evidence left behind cannot be ignored. Like other megalithic builders around the world Cyclopean architects from Malta, whoever they were, vanished almost overnight, without a trace.

I felt strangely liberated when I eventually emerged from the darkness of the Hypogeum and found myself again in the sunshine, under the azure sky of the Mediterranean. The underground world must have been invented to appreciate more the daylight and overground, beautiful world. For many reasons, it was a strange and profound experience that is worth recommending. When my friend joined me, we headed off to other great monuments of Malta – the megalithic temples.

Continue reading History in the Negative

Mystery of the Lady

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 sculpture is exceptional for its quality and quantity, made in stone: 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.

Lady of Elche. National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Source: Dashu (2018)

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.

Lady of Elche
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.

Lady of Elche
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 jewellery has Phoenician and Carthaginian analogues. 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.

“High-Tech Ancient Queen” Found In Spain?” (2017) In: Youtube published by Mystery History. Accessed on 1st of August, 2018.

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). Source: Dashu (2018).

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
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
It cannot be noticed until the bust is viewed from its profile. Source: Dashu (2018).

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.

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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.

Lady of Elche
Let her speak … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

Continue reading Mystery of the Lady