Astronomic Devices in Prehistoric Malta
The megalithic temples of Malta are one of the most recognized UNESCO’s World Heritage sites ranking amongst the earliest free-standing Neolithic constructions in the world. The so-called Maltese temples display unique developmental characteristics, and while comparing to other megalithic structures, they are of the distinctive nature and achievements of Maltese civilization.
On the other hand, similarly to other megaliths, they were undoubtedly designed to accurately detect and mark the winter and summer solstice together with autumn and spring equinoxes, and other celestial movements. Same as the Stonehenge circle in Britain and Newgrange in Ireland, Maltese temples fulfilled astronomical observation and calendric functions. Among their other possible functions, a connection between astronomy and the temples orientations has constantly been provoking an intense debate since the great publicity given in the second half of the twentieth century by Gerald Hawkins on Stonehenge and the surveys by Alexander Thom on different megalithic structures in England and elsewhere. But it was an astronomer, Sir Norman Lockyer who as early as in 1909 evidently stated that Newgrange is oriented to the winter solstice. Accepting that idea turned out to be difficult for archaeology as it was first presented in the form of folklore and legends in the seventeenth century. In spite of negative opinions of the foremost experts on megalithic structures, interdisciplinary research efforts on the subject have been carried out and quickly augmented, mainly in the study of archeoastronomy, cosmology and archaeology.
Maltese Temples and the Sky
The book by Tore Lomsdalen, entitled Sky and Purpose in Prehistoric Malta: Sun, Moon, and Stars at the Temples of Mnajdra (2014) is the latest attempt to resolve the two-century controversy over the unusual connection between the Maltese temples and the sky. At the same time, it successfully elaborates on the first tentative surveys on temple orientations in Malta. This remarkable work charts the major points of debate on astronomical alignments of the prehistoric megaliths of Maltese archipelago with a special focus on the question of the intentionality of the significant orientation of the Mnajdra Lower or South Temple. The overall conclusions found at the end of the book are thoroughly investigated and supported with accurate factual information drawn from both, the previous interdisciplinary studies on the subject, and results of the wide-ranging and detailed fieldwork done by the author on the sites. Simultaneously, the book contributes to the international research done on the astral connections of megalithic constrictions in different parts of the world, underlying their similarities and uniqueness at the same time.
The author of the book, Tore Lomsdalen is an astrologer working internationally. He was born in Norway and lived in Italy. He holds a MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and a certificate from the Faculty of Astrological Studies in London. While working on the mentioned work, he had already been engaged in a PhD research program with University of Malta on Cosmology in Prehistoric Malta. Through a combination of astronomical analyses and insightful interpretation of the enigmatic ancient monuments, he entirely dedicates himself to the studies on cosmological observations related to Maltese prehistoric sites. He understands the need for revisions in the context of interdisciplinary studies, where the discipline of archeoastronomy blends with the study of archaeology, and specifically prehistory. As he frequently points out in his book, archeoastronomy may contribute to archaeological examination, especially in the reconstructions of the building phases in case of the Mnajdra South.
Similar attitude has been already underlined by Martin Brennan, an Irish-American author who, like Tore Lomsdalen, perceives megalithic monuments as sophisticated calendar devices having been designed by contemporary engineers in order to reflect the sky. Martin Brennan majored in visual communication at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and studied prehistoric art in Mexico. As Lomsdalen, he was engaged in a series of fieldwork where he gathered overwhelming evidence for his theory which was at that time quite controversial.
Martin challenges conventional opinions on presumed purposes of megaliths as tombs and proves their high sophisticated orientation in relation to astronomy. In his book, The Stones of Time. Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland, (1980s) Brennan interprets the real function of Newgrange by means of the unified languages of archaeology, archeoastronomy, architecture and art. That interdisciplinary unity of sciences can be deeply felt when the rising or setting sunlight is being caught by inner chambers of passage tombs at critical times of the year, illuminating only particular patterns among many other engraved on the stone. In such a way abstract symbols, which were thought to have appeared haphazardly, suddenly became the key to the enigmatic language of prehistory connecting with the stars.
Although Brennan underlines the importance of megalithic art as a crucial element in relations to astronomical calendar, for Lomsdalen it does not play a vital role. Likewise Brennan, he also points out to architectural areas of the temples illuminated by the sun, such as key thresholds of the side altars and the vertical slabs, yet without elaborated descriptions of artistic decorations of the temples. Lomsdalen realises the significance of the perceivable effect of dichotomy of light and dark created by sunrise illuminations. However, he mostly focuses on his archeoastronomical survey and ably presents the results of his fieldwork juggling with astronomical complex calculations, with particular attention to the alignments of the Mnajdra Temple complex. Lomsdalen also places the Maltese structures in their archaeological context redefining their building sequence, still without clearly stating their purpose in prehistory, as Brennan does while relating to the passage tombs as megalithic observatories. In the matter of fact, Martin Brennan completely rejects the idea that Newgrange and other similar constructions were built as burials and argues that originally they served as astronomical devices.
Undeniably, one of the aims of Lomsdalen’s work is an investigation whether the Mnajdra Temple complex was built as a sacred site in relation to the cosmos, and as a device for celebrating the seasons, but none the less, that research question is a secondary in the conclusions of his book. His major concern is the intentionality behind the astronomical alignments of the Mnajdra Temple complex, which is in turn, the precondition of the hypothesis of religious, sacral and ritual character of the so-called temples. The author’s argument for intentionality is strengthened by the fact that astronomical orientations appeared in the Mnajdra complex throughout successive stages of its construction. In this case, all the claims against his postulate lose substance. The idea of intentionality in prehistoric architecture is also strongly supported by Martin Brennan in case of passage tombs in Ireland. He argues that such precise positioning of stones in an astronomically important context cannot be just coincidental. Both researchers additionally employ similar methodology in their fieldwork. Besides surveying, astronomical observations, and photography, they implement principles of experimental archaeology, or rather archeoastronomy, which involves testing a hypothesis through experiment in order to find evidence of ancient astronomy, apparently practiced by temple builders. Phenomenology, that is to say walking and experiencing the landscape, is another approach to their research.
Final results of Tore Lomsdalen’s report show new evidence about the architecture of Maltese temples and their link with the sky. Namely, the author confirms the hypothesis of a sky-based intentionality behind the construction of the Mnajdra Temple complex. Not only confirms he the known alignments at the Mnajdra South but also discovers new alignments at the Mnajdra Middle. Furthermore, there is a strong preference of the temples being directed between southeast and southwest, with one remarkable exception of the Mnajdra South or Lower facing east allowing the rising sun to cast a beam of light along its central axis at the equinoxes and cross-jamb illuminations at the solstices. The Temple’s sophisticated solar illuminations is explained by an increasing awareness by its creators of horizon-based astronomy and their better understanding of precise divisions of a solar year, including cross-quarter and the eighth days. The so-called oracle holes in the stones and postholes have also been investigated as supposed devises playing a significant role in aligning the temples to celestial bodies. Finally, the author proposes a redefined building sequence based on both archaeological finds and archaeoastronomical components. He strongly claims that the Mnajdra Temple complex was not built at once but in five successive stages: double apses and other architectural features had been added on for one and half millennia.
Mnajdra Temple Complex
Before moving directly to the matter of his studies, in the first chapter the author starts with a description of the temple culture within a sacred, cosmological, and astronomical context and uncovers “perhaps the best-kept secret in Mediterranean archaeology” in relation to the megalithic constructions on Malta. In Chapter 2 and 3 he introduces readers to the rich Maltese prehistory within the context of the Mediterranean, which is a very important background of the Neolithic temples. He also gives some speculative ideas about the origins of the temples and their mysterious creators. At this stage, he provides a detailed description of the Mnajdra Temple Complex. He stresses the importance of Maltese landscape and its influence on the carefully chosen location of the temple sites. Quite significant for the author is also their relations to land and sea, as in the case of the Mnajdra Temple East – the only one in Malta lacking an orientation towards sunrise, but oriented, and so apparently connected to Filfla islet. Next chapter moves smoothly to the core of the subject, from Maltese cosmology and astronomy in the context of the temple culture to methodology used in this work.
In Chapter 5 the author presents the results of his fieldwork in Malta, particularly at the Mnajdra site, and subsequently compare them to other researchers’ findings. After all the results being discussed, Lomsdalen finishes his study with a summary and conclusions of the major findings regarding his hypotheses brought by and cited before. Simultaneously, the author highlights the need for further studies to be conducted, especially in searching for archaeological evidence on the chronological phases of temple construction.
Language of Astronomy
The amount of data gathered, survey measurements and a frequent use of the language of astronomy is impressive from one side, but from the other, it may be confusing to average readers not trained in astronomy. Nevertheless, the author helps a reader to understand a more scientific content by providing an approachable description of some definitions, such as the key difference between “orientation” and “alignment”. Additionally, there is a number of technical drawings and diagrams in order to illustrate the issues being dealt by the author during his studies.
What is more, at the end of the book readers can find a glossary and acronyms of temple orientations in Appendix IV, a detailed bibliography for reference, and very interesting discussions of the author with other researchers in Malta, Frank Ventura and Reuben Grima talking on different aspects of the megalithic temple culture. The book is also beautifully illustrated by series of photographs, including archival black-and-white photos from the nineteenth century and colourful pictures taken by the author himself. In general, it is a really comprehensive, consistent work and a very valuable complement to the study of both, archeoastronomy and archaeology. Additionally, Tore Lomsdalen’s innovative idea of dividing the construction of Mnajdra Temple complex into five sequences according to the temples’ alignments with the sun may be carried out at various megalithic sites scattered all over the world, where archeoastronomy together with archaeology can assist in determining successive phases of prehistoric constructions.
- Lomsdalen, T. (2014) Sky and Purpose in Prehistoric Malta: Sun, Moon, and Stars at the Temples of Mnajdra. The University of Wales Trinity Saint David: Sophia Centre Press.
- Lomsdalen, T. (2014) “Mnajdra was not built in a day” Accessed on 17th of July. Available at <https://bit.ly/2uFrqjZ>.
- Brennan, M., The Stones of Time. Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland, Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont, 1994.
- Ventura, F. University of Malta, Review of the book by Tore Lomsdalen, Sky and Purpose in Prehistoric Malta: Sun, Moon, and Stars at the Temples of Mnajdra, Sophia Centre Press, Sophia Centre Master Monographs, 2014.
- Magli, G., Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy. From Gisa to Easter Island, Praxis Publishing Ltd., 2009.
- “Martin Brennan” in: Knowth.com, 15th Oct., 2017, <https://www.knowth.com/martin_brennan.htm>.