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27 December 2014
Temple culture on Malta

Around one and a half millennia before the development of a complex culture of temple building which lasted for just over a millennium, settlers arrived on Malta from Sicily bringing agriculture and domestic animals and quickly deforesting the island.
     The Temple Period civilisation built the oldest free-standing stone structures in the world, covering the islands of Malta and Gozo with over 30 temple complexes during their 1100-year history, and leaving extensive evidence of complex rituals and animal sacrifices. Artwork flourished, and hundreds of statues have been discovered, around 15 percent of which are the famous 'fat ladies' - phallic and especially androgynous symbols are far more common.
     Studies so far suggest the Temple-building culture did not suffer from any obvious disease, lack of food, or invasion. They simply came and left. "We cannot find a successor," says Professor Anthony Bonanno, of the University of Malta Department of Classics and Archaeology.
     At a 1985 conference on Fertility Cults in the Mediterranean, amateur archaeologist Joseph Attard Tabone showed how he thought he had rediscovered the ancient Xaghra Stone circle, immortalised by the early 19th Century watercolour paintings of Charles de Brocktorff. Amazed by the revelation, world-leading archaeologist Colin Renfrew agreed to organise a dig.
     By 1987, the British were back digging alongside a Maltese team. Seven years later, they had revealed a natural underground chamber enhanced by megalithic monuments, that probably lasted around 1500 years, until 2500 BCE - an extensive underground burial complex revealing a civilisation whose complexity was unusual for its age.
     The burial practices changed greatly with time. Early on, the rock-cut or natural caves housed family units, one generation on top of the other. After this, the Temple Period flourished. Caverns were extended and subdivided into rooms with many more enclosed spaces for burials. Grave gifts transformed to the famous 'fat ladies'. At ground level, another grave-pit was found exclusively for male body parts without grave gifts, hinting at a matriarchal society.
     Analysis of the bones shows they were healthy. Trace elements left by eating copious amounts of fish or seafood are absent. Land snails seem to have been a preferred delicacy.
     Accompanying all this was an overflow of art, with three forms of human representation. One is dressed, usually standing, and non-gendered, with elaborate hairstyles, belts, necklaces, and skirts. Another form is the naked fat figures, again mostly non-gendered though some are female. The last form includes phallic symbols, as well as domestic animals, reptiles and fish, birds, and other curious things.

Edited from Malta Today (22 December 2014)

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