Category Archives: MALTA

Inhabitants of the Subterranean Passageways of Malta

Just after the Hypogeum in Malta was discovered by accident in 1902, it was kept secret so as not to disturb the building schedule on the site and therefore continued work caused irretrievable damage to a large megalithic circle that once stood directly above the subterranean part, giving access to its abyss (Magli 2009:56; Haughton 2009:162). It is hence believed that more such underground complexes may exist beneath other overground temples (Alberino, Quayle 2016). As a matter of fact, in the eighteenth century in Gozo, another hypogeum carved down in the rock was brought into light (Magli 2009:57).

Aquarelle painting of the Xagħra Stone Circle by Charles Frederick de Brocktorff (1825). This media is about Maltese cultural property with inventory number 26. Public domain. Image cropped. Photo and caption source: “Xagħra Stone Circle”(2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The complex was once depicted in a painting with the famous Ggantija temple in the background (Magli 200:57). The site is known as Xaghra and was excavated in 1990 by Anthony Bonnano and his group of archaeologists (Ibid.:57). One of their most famous findings is, also like in the case of Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni, a figurine. That one, however, represents two “fat ladies” sitting side by side, probably mirroring the way two nearby temples of the Ggantija complex are situated.

After Giulio Magli (2009:57) the placement of Xaghra in relation to Ggantija is analogous to that of the Hypogeum in relation to the nearby free-standing Tarxien temple. Indeed, the pairing cannot be coincidental as it also happens in other megalithic free standing temples of the archipelago (Ibid.:57).

Interesting but disturbing article in National Geographic …

I was still in the deep chasm of the earth’s belly, when I realized I found myself in one of the entrance to a huge underground labyrinth (see: Maltese History in the Negative). For it is well known that the Hypogeum constitutes just a part of an intricate maze of tunnels, caverns and chambers buried deep in the limestone bedrock beneath the islands (Alberino, Quayle 2016). 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 (Ibid.).

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

Many legends and folk stories tell about eerie creatures who have inhibited the subterranean world, especially the Hypogeum complex (Alberino, Quayle 2016). In August, 1940, National Geographic Magazine featured an article entitled Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (Roma 2017). In his article from the wartime, the author describes the underground corridors in Malta used once as part of the island’s fortifications and defense system (Haughton 2009:165). Furthermore, Richard Walter 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 (Funnell  2014; Haughton 2009:165). Additionally, it was also said that yet many weeks after the incident, the parents of these children had claimed to hear their children’s crying and voices coming from under the ground in various parts of the island (Haughton 2009:165168; Tajemnice historii 2016).

The article Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (1940) actually reports this misfortune twice, on the following pages, 267 and 272. (Roma 2017):

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, Richard (1940) “Wanderers Awheel in Malta”, p. 267. The National Geographic Magazine, Aug 1940, pp. 253-272. The text source: Roma (2017) “Shades of Malta. Folklore on the Fringe”. In: Investigating Malta.

Tragedy in Malta’s Tunneled Maze

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, Richard (1940) “Wanderers Awheel in Malta”, p. 272. The National Geographic Magazine, Aug 1940, pp. 253-272. The text source: Roma (2017) “Shades of Malta. Folklore on the Fringe”. In: Investigating Malta.

The rat-catcher from Hamelin

Sceptics believe, however, that the story of the lost children is not based on facts, but actually echoes some legends appearing in various areas in Europe (Haughton 2009:168). One of them is a medieval folk tale of the Flutist from Hamelin (Germany), which was written down, among others, by the Brothers Grimm (Haughton 2009:168; “Flecista z Hameln” 2020). Then it was translated into thirty languages of the world, telling about the events that were to happen on June 26, 1284 in the German city of Hamelin (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020).

Flutist (Rat-Catcher) from Hamelin, a copy of the stained glass window from the Marktkirche church in Hamelin (according to Reisechronik Augustin von Moersperg from 1592) – watercolor. Public domain: Photo source: “Flecista z Hameln” (2020). Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

According to the legend, in 1284, the Lower Saxony city of Hamelin in Germany was hit by a plague of rats (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020). The rat-catcher hired by the inhabitants lured the rats out of the city with the help of music produced by a miraculous flute (Ibid.). As a consequence, the animals lured out by the magical instrument drowned in the Weser River (Ibid.). After the work was done, the rat-catcher was, however, refused the promised payment for getting rid of the rodents (Ibid.). Out of revenge, the deceived musician similarly led all the children from Hamelin into the unknown, in some versions, to the underground (Ibid.).

Among the rational explanations for the origin of the legend is the hypothesis related to the plague epidemic, a disease spread by rats (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020). Such an assumption has been made because a mass grave from the mid-fourteenth century was discovered near Hamelin, containing several hundred skeletons of children (Ibid.).

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and the lost children in the Hypogeum

Many scholars also claim the story provided by the article is just a local folk tale, possibly invented to keep children away from the dangerous tunnels (Haughton 2009:168). It also brings to mind the mysterious disappearance of Australian schoolgirls described in the novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) by Joan Lindsay (Ibid.:168). As the story goes, it was a clear summer day in 1900, when a group of schoolgirls from Mrs. Appleyard’s elite girls’ school, along with a few teachers, went on a picnic near a place called the Hanging Rock (Lubimyczytać.pl 2021). After lunch, a few of the older students went for a walk around the neighborhood but only one girl returned, terrified and hysterical (Ibid.). One of the teachers was also missing … (Ibid.)

The novel begins with the author’s brief foreword, which reads (“Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel)” 2021):

Whether “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

Joan Lindsay’s Foreword to the novel “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (2021). In: “Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
At the Hanging Rock by William Ford (1875) was the basis of the novel’s title; in addition to her writing, Lindsay was also a professional painter and influenced by visual art (1875). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

This short excerpt by the author perfectly illustrates and characterizes the tone of the entire book; until the very end of the story it is not even clear what really happened to the missing girls and their teacher or if the story itself is based on facts at all (Sudnik 2018). Joan Lindsay does not say that the events described in her book are just a part of an invented story (Ibid.) On the contrary, the writer suggests that they could have actually happened (Ibid.). Consequently, there is still a persisting belief that it was a real event, as much as in the case of the children lost before World War II in the Maltese Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168).

Is there anything more to the Maltese story?

Archaeologist Brian Haughton (2009:168) believes that in the National Geographic (1940) article you can actually find the source of many modern fascinating stories, mostly being published on the Internet. They are all about mysterious disappearing into secret tunnels below the Hypogeum (Ibid.168). After him, the problem is that the National Geographic (1940) article lacks any reference to the actual sources it has been based on, and more modern reliable descriptions of that alleged tragedy have never been discovered (Ibid.:168). Moreover, although the Hypogeum is mentioned in the article, it is not clearly described as an actual place where the children actually got lost (Ibid.:168). The author only describes the misfortune happened in the network of the underground tunnels on Malta, of which the Hypogeum is an integral part (Ibid.:168). Consequently, it cannot be certain that the said incident occurred just there (Ibid.:168).

The only thing that can be reliably assumed is that the story itself was in the public sphere (Roma 2017). 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? (Roma 2017; Funnell 2014).

National Geographic August 1940, p. 272. Source: Peter (2018-2020).
National Geographic August 1940, p. 272. Photo source: Kelly Peter (2018-2020). In: “This Amazing Reality”. In: Pinterest. Cf. Walter, Richard (1940) “Tragedy in Malta’s Tunneled Maze“. In: “Wanderers Awheel in Malta”, p. 272. The National Geographic Magazine, Aug 1940, pp. 253-272.

Riley Crabb, akin Commander X and his continuation of the story

The article Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (1940) is the primary source for the lost children story (Roma 2017). Yet there is also another record from the sixties of the twentieth century, entitled The Reality of the Cavern World, written by Riley Crabb, akin Commander X, who was a former Director of the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation (Haughton 2009:169; Funnell 2014). It is actually a publication of his own lecture in the book Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen, published in 1966 (Haughton 2009:169). The Crabb’s reprinted article not only summarizes the story known from the National Geographic (1940) 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 (Funnell 2014; Haughton 2009:168-169). It also refers to the Lower Level of the Hypogeum as an actual place where the dramatic event took place (Ibid.). Accordingly, the so-called Lower Level is not the dead end of the underground temple (or a storage! as some scholars suggest) but in fact the entrance to the maze of the underground network.

Hypogeum of Xaghra on Gozo Island, Malta. This media is about Maltese cultural property with inventory number 26. Photo by Hamelin de Guettelet (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Xagħra Stone Circle”(2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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 Hal 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. 

Riley Crabb, akin Commander X (1940). “The Reality of the Cavern World”. Reprinted in: Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen (1966). Text source: Lyn Funnell  (2014) “Malta’s Catacombs, Aliens & The Disappearing Children; True or Urban Myth?” In: B-C-ing-U.

One of numerous cavities on Malta; the Cave of Għar Dalam, Triq Għar Dalam in Birżebbuġa. Photo by Frank Vincentz (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Għar Dalam” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

I was really grabbed by these two stories (Cf. Funnell 2014). Even more mysterious is Lois Jessup’s own experience she had on the Hypogeum’s Lower Level (Cf. Funnell 2014; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Yet on my way to the Hypogeum I asked a driver if he knew anything of the children who had got lost in there before the war. He replied that he had never heard about it but actually it was good I mentioned that as he would have never let his daughter go there …

Anyway, as far as I know one is not allowed to enter the Hypogeum with a child younger than six years old.

Deliberate disinformation or accidental lack of sources?

Mainly due to such publications from the 1960s, as the article by Riley Crabb, the story of the missing children and other mysteries of the Hypogeum were endlessly repeated on the Internet, yet during the first decade of the twenty-first century (Haughton 2009:168). According to these stories, which unfortunately lack actual sources one could follow and verify, thirty children disappeared along with their teachers during a school trip to Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Before they came down deeper, they had been secured with a long rope that was attached at the entrance to the corridor (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Nevertheless, the same rope that was supposed to ensure their safe return was found cut clean (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Moreover, the entrance to the tunnel in which the children disappeared was said to have eventually been boarded up (Jessup 1958-1960).

There are also mentioned new archaeological elements that were not provided either by the author of the National Geographic (1940) article or by earlier archaeological reports from the conducted field works (see: Maltese History in the Negative); accordingly, instead of the 7,000 excavated skeletons, there is a note of the bodies of over 33,000 buried people who had been probably sacrificed to a chthonic deity from the Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168).

Also the novel by Joan Lindsey (1969) was published at the time when the story about the lost children in Malta kept circulating in various publications. Was it then the author herself inspired by the mysterious tale of the Hypogeum and its innocent victims?

In search for the truth

Is the story about the lost children true then? Such a horrific happening must have been passed down through the generations (Funnell 2014). Many people have done research on the lost children to find out more but nobody’s heard anything about it (Ibid.). Lyn Funnell (2014) 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 apparently lost their children would have been killed” (Ibid.).

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” (Funnell 2014). As Lyn Funnell (2014) 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” (Ibid.). Mrs. Constance Lois Jessup, also spelled Jessop, is believed to have been a real person who lived in New York City, in the 1950s and 60s (Ibid.). She might actually have worked for the British government and not for the British embassy as it is suggested in some sources, as the latter had not been yet 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… (Ibid.). Her friend, Riley Crabb, known as the Commander X, wrote the article cited above about her strange experience (Ibid.).

Lois Jessop’s tour and hairy giants in her way …

One article written by Miss Lois Jessop herself, entitled Malta, Entrance to the Cavern World also appeared in an old issue by Riley Crabb’s Borderland Science Magazine, published by the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation (B.S.R.F.) and was also later reprinted in full in the book Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen (Funnell 2014). Here is the story by Lois Jessop 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.

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.

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.”

By C. Lois Jessop, Secretary, New York Saucer Information Bureau (1958-1960) “Malta, Entrance to the Cavern World”. Source of the text: Borderland Sciences Research Foundation. Journal of Borderland Research. Vol. 17. No. 02.

A clay figurine found in the Hypogeum of Xaghra, Gozo, representing two “fat ladies” sitting side by side, probably mirroring the way two nearby temples of the Ggantija complex are situated. Ggantija Museum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The underworld and human psyche

All the mentioned stories that refer to the mysterious world of the Hypogeum, whether real, imaginary or legendary, are certainly also inspired by human curiosity of the unknown, which is always hidden deep in the depths of the earth, to which both natural caves and man-made passages are the gateways. The latter, like the Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni, built either as a temple or necropolis, particularly lures human imagination by its abyss that both, terrifies and delights. It is because it offers an alternative and inexplicable world of mystery. The journey of the school children and that of Lois Jessup ends at the last permitted threshold of the Lower Level. Beside it, the unknown realms, and it explanation fades with the candlelight. Likewise, the mystery of the darkness leads to the unknown of Hanging Rock from the novel by Joan Lindsey. Still it cannot be revealed to the outside world. It disappears together with those whom it devours. In any case, the darkness attracts and absorbs the children’s innocence. Trustful as they are by nature, they follow its path without knowing that they would never return to the sun. What they left behind is just an enigma.

“Primitive” inhabitants of Malta.

So where is the beginning of the whole story of the Hypogeum after all? Prehistory of Malta begins (if we stick with the established dates) quite late, namely around 5200 BC. (Magli 2009:48). 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 (Ibid.:48). They built their houses in brick and small stones and led a very ordinary Neolithic life (Ibid.:48). 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 (Ibid.:48).

The so-called Temple Period lasted for over one millennium, from around 3800 to 2500 BC. (Magli 2009:47). What is even more interesting, the builders of the temples vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared on the scene (Ibid.:48-49). Prof John Evans (1925 – 2011), a leading Maltese temple researcher admitted himself, there has been no explanation for such a fact (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). 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 (Magli 2009:48-49; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). It actually does not make any sense … (Magli 2009:48-49).

More stories about giants

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, actually come 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 (Magli 2009:64-65; Burns 2014; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). 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) (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017; Burns 2014). Similar stories were repeated by the Minoan and Mycenae cultures whose members regarded Malta as the island once inhabited by strange and powerful beings (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). According to a legend, in the beginning, the island was ruled by the offspring of the Giantess who had emerged from the Atlantic Ocean (Ibid.). Similar stories are also known in other parts of the world (Ibid.). Figures representing gigantic and fluffy women have been excavated in great numbers on Malta (Ibid.). Prof. John Evans claimed, however, that some of them look rather asexual (Ibid.). Who were those giants then? As the legend goes they were the teachers passing on knowledge to people (Ibid.). Dr. Anton Mifsud claims that his friend living on Gozo island has dug up a three metres long skeleton but he hid it from the authorities (Ibid.).. Still, there is no other evidence of such a discovery … (Ibid.).

UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Hypogeum was closed for several years, namely in the years 1992-1996, although it was reportedly not related to the mysterious events happening inside the monument (Haughton 2009:169). It was because more serious restoration work had to be carried out due to the progressive destruction of the limestone rock caused by the action of carbon dioxide exhaled by tourists in the limited space (Ibid.:169). In order to protect this valuable archaeological site from further damage, the number of visitors has now been limited to eighty a day, which requires prior reservation of a visit (Ibid.:169). In addition, a micro-climate was created above the underground chambers, artificially regulating temperature and humidity (Ibid.:169). In 1980, the fascinating Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni was eventually declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (Ibid.:169). It has truly deserved it!

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.

The facade of the museum after restoration in 2017. Photo by Continentaleurope (2017). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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 attracts to its mystery but it must have been invented to appreciate more the daylight and outside world, still existing on the surface of its creepy stories. For many reasons, it was a strange and profound experience that is yet worth recommending.

When my friend joined me, we headed off to other great monuments of Malta – the free standing megalithic temples built “in the positive”, on the surface.

Featured image: Photograph of the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni made before 1910. Photo by Richard Ellis. Uploaded in 2008. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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.

Continue reading Inhabitants of the Subterranean Passageways of Malta

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).

Hypogeum
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.

Continue reading Maltese History in the Negative

Studying Prehistoric Archaeoastronomy on the Islands of Malta and Ireland

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.

Mnajdra Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

Loughcrew Megalithic Cairns. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

Newgrange in the distance and in the mist. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

Megalithic Art

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.

Dowth – megalithic art inside the so-called passage tomb in Ireland. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

Malta is “perhaps the best-kept secret in Mediterranean archaeology”. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

Lomsdalen, T. (2014) “Mnajdra was not built in a day.” Accessed on 17th of July, 2018, on Youtube Channel by Tore Lomsdalen.

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.

Loughcrew Cairn: 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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

Continue reading Studying Prehistoric Archaeoastronomy on the Islands of Malta and Ireland