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Malta’s Prehistoric Temples and the People Who Built Them

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The Maltese megalithic temples were built over 5,000 years ago. To find out how the people that built the temples saw the world, Dr Tore Lomsdalen conducted his PhD project on the worldview and cosmology of the prehistoric Maltese temple builders. He found that the temples were intentionally positioned to be intervisible and oriented towards certain stars that were significant for these ancient people.

Malta’s megalithic temples are among the oldest free-standing structures in the world. They were built between 3,800 BCE and 2,400 BCE, long before writing came to Malta. Since there are no written records of the people who built the temples, we have to rely on archaeological methods if we want to find out how they saw the world.

Dr Tore Lomsdalen did exactly that in his PhD project with the University of Malta’s Classics and Archaeology Department. He investigated how the temples relate to their surroundings as well as to each other, and what these relationships can tell us about the people that built them.

Malta’s Settlement

The recent FRAGSUS project has shown that Malta was settled by farmers from Sicily about 6,000 years BCE. The island was inhabited for about 1,000 years, but the population may have declined soon after 5,000 BCE. A new influx of settlers, also from Sicily, probably followed in around 3,800 BCE.

This new wave of settlers also marks the beginning of the Temple Period in Malta. ‘The Temple Period is divided into three main phases: the Żebbuġ Phase, followed by the Ġgantija phase, and the final Tarxien phase,’ Lomsdalen explains. ‘At the end of the Tarxien phase, 2,400 BCE, the Temple Culture appears to have collapsed.’ The islands may have been depopulated at this point, but the exact causes remain unclear. 

The Maltese temples date from prehistory, a time when, by definition, there was no writing. Lomsdalen points out that ‘while the temples were being built, the first written language was being invented in Sumer, in modern-day Iraq. In Malta, however, writing came relatively late. The Phoenicians brought their script to Malta sometime before 700 BCE.’ For earlier periods, we have to rely on non-written testimonies to learn something about the culture of the temple builders. The most prominent remains of these people are the megalithic temples, and thus their analysis makes an excellent starting point to learn about their worldview.

Cosmology and Temples

The core question Lomsdalen investigated was what viewscapes and visual relationships can tell us about the cosmology of the temple builders. The term ‘cosmology’ is central to his research. ‘While in astrophysics, “cosmology” refers solely to the material universe, in archaeology, the term also includes other aspects,’ Lomsdalen explains. ‘Ancient cultures had a specific understanding of how the universe worked. On that basis, they built a system of beliefs. The term “cosmology” includes both aspects: what the people thought the material universe was like and the worldview they developed upon that belief.’

Lomsdalen aimed to investigate what was important to the people who built the temples. From his study of what they paid attention to when building the temples, he inferred what was important to them more generally. To find out how the location for the temples was chosen, Lomsdalen followed several research avenues.

The equinox sunrise seen from the back altar of the Mnajdra South Temple.

How to Find the Right Spot to Build a Temple

The first avenue investigated – location. Lomsdalen examined if the temple builders had a preference for specific features in the landscape. Furthermore, he analysed the visibility and intervisibility of the temples, ie if the temples could be seen from different points in the landscape and from each other. Using a computer programme called Geographic Information System (GIS), he found there was a preference to build the temples in places with high visibility but not on top of hills. Instead, there was a preference to build the temples on a slope of 4 to 14 degrees. Another feature that was important in determining a location for the temples was intervisibility. Because most of the 35 temples Lomsdalen examined are in ruins today, it is hard to determine how high they were originally and thus how many temples could be seen from each other. But even taking that into account, there was a significant preference for intervisibility.

When the acuity of human eyesight is taken into consideration, and assuming a minimum building height of 6m, it was found that 80% of temple buildings were intervisible with at least one other temple.

In the second part of his research, Lomsdalen investigated how the horizon could be seen from the respective locations of the temples. ‘The temples were preferably built in locations from which the southern horizon could be seen, but the view to the northern horizon was restricted,’ says Lomsdalen. ‘Interpreting these findings is difficult, but the preference for an open horizon to the south could be due to a cult of certain celestial objects that rise in the southern hemisphere.’

Comparison between onsite observations and astronomical software program Horizon.
The top photograph shoes a 360° panorama of the horizon around Tal-Lippija Temples, limits of Mġarr, Malta. Below it, the same horizon is shown as derived from the Horizon program. Red arrows indicate features of the horizon. Black arrows show the present-day setting positions of the sun on the days of the equinoxes and solstices. Photos by Tore Lomsdalen.

Finally, Lomsdalen also investigated if there were specific celestial objects which could be seen rising through the temple entrance by an observer standing within the temple building. Here, he had to take into account that the paths traced by stars as observed from Earth today have moved since the time the temples were built. ‘I used astronomy software to calculate what people saw in Maltese skies 5,000 years ago,’ Lomsdalen says. ‘The result of this part of the investigation was that several temples were in fact aligned to elements of the night sky. Through the entrance of most of the temples, the rise of Gacrux and Avior (two bright stars in the night sky) could be seen.’ Since both of these stars were visible during the winter, the interest in these stars may have been tied to some form of seasonal ritual or calendar.

The southern winter night sky seen from Malta during the Temple Period.
The left cross formation is the Southern Cross with the bright star Gacrux at the top. The right cross asterism is the so-called False Cross with Avior as its bottom bright star. Both these stars were given great importance by the Temple Builders.

Limitations of the Research

‘This research shows that the temples were not positioned randomly,’ Lomsdalen explains. ‘Positioning the temples in highly visible locations was probably done to permanently remind the people of the dominant belief system – the same as buildings like churches or mosques do today.’  The temples’ alignment with the stars hints to  the cosmology of the prehistoric temple builders; the way they perceived the material universe influenced where the temples were built. The temples, in turn, represented a belief system which was built on how the universe was perceived.

‘We can never be sure what the people actually thought when they built the temples. Since they are from prehistory, we have to rely on interpretation to figure out what they cared for,’ Lomsdalen explains. 

This article was produced in collaboration with the University of Malta’s Doctoral School.

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