The Mystery of Tarxien Temple

I had an opportunity to go behind the scenes last week at one of Malta’s most important megalithic sites: Tarxien Temple.

It was an after hours members-only visit to examine the most recent archaeological excavations, and to learn a few things that aren’t on the normal tourist itinerary.

The megalithic temples of Malta were built during three distinct phases between around 5,000 BC and 2,500 BC.

They’re often claimed to be the oldest freestanding structures on Earth. They predate Stonehenge by a couple thousand years. And even the earliest pyramids of Egypt date to nearly 1,000 years later.

Unfortunately, the builders of these monuments left very little behind. No cities or writing, and no sign of advanced social stratification or craft specialization.

Besides the massive temples themselves, the only clues we have for understanding this mysterious people is some fragments of pottery, a few small carved statues and the sculptural decoration on the temples themselves.

All that we do know is that the story of the islands differed little from any other Neolithic society around the Mediterranean at that time. And then they experienced a sudden unique flourishing, an extraordinary advance in their art and architecture.

This temple period produced it’s most notable monuments from around 4,100 BC to about 2,500 BC.

And then suddenly, somewhere around 2,500 BC, the temple building stopped. No one knows why. Just that the end of the temple culture appears to have been quite sudden.

There were no signs of warfare, disease or severe agricultural pressures — at least, not enough to eliminate an entire population. All that’s known for sure is that every one of the temples was abandoned for religious purposes.

But that isn’t even the strangest part of the story…

The people who replaced those of the temple culture were completely different. They came later. They brought Bronze Age technology with them. And they bore no cultural continuities with the temple people who were their predecessors on the island.

It seems as if the Maltese islands were abandoned entirely after the fall of the temples, and that they stood empty until these Bronze Age peoples arrived.

We may never know where the temple builders came from, what happened to them, or why they vanished. But ongoing excavations, like those being carried out at the Tarxien temple complex, are slowing trying to fill in pieces of the puzzle.

I’ve posted some pictures here to give you a sense of what these excavations look like.

The Tarxien temples are the most complex of all the temple sites in Malta. They represent the peak of the temple building civilization, and include a 5-apse temple, two 4-apse temples and one 6-apse temple, all crammed together in a bewildering juxtaposition.

Unlike the other temple sites in Malta and Gozo, Tarxien is completely surrounded by modern housing. But that doesn’t take away from its atmosphere, as the evening light dims and twilight washes over the stones.

Looking over the walls of one of Tarxien's temples — try not to let that hideous church in the background distract you...

Looking over the walls of one of Tarxien’s temples — try not to let that hideous church in the background distract you…

The curator of Tarxien temple complex explaining the theory behind their most recent finds...

The curator of Tarxien temple complex explaining the theory behind their most recent finds…

Fragments of prehistoric pot sherds housed in a very modern tupperware container make a nice contrast across the centuries...

Fragments of prehistoric pot sherds housed in a very modern tupperware container make a nice contrast across the centuries…

Great blocks of megalithic stone — the oldest standing structures raised by human hands.... or were they? Bah ha ha ha ha!

Great blocks of megalithic stone — the oldest standing structures raised by human hands…. or were they? Bah ha ha ha ha!

The temple complex is occupied by attention-seeking cats posing for photos.

The temple complex is occupied by attention-seeking cats posing for photos.

"Hellooooo down there!" Or should I say "back there"? Taking a glimpse through layers of time...

“Hellooooo down there!” Or should I say “back there”? Taking a glimpse through layers of time…

An overview of a 4-apse temple, with a diagram to help make sense of all these stones...

An overview of a 4-apse temple, with a diagram to help make sense of all these stones…

 

Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2013

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