12 March 2006
Past, present and future of Tarxien Temples
Unlike the other extensive prehistoric sites in Malta such as Ggantija, Mnajdra or Hagar Qim Temples, Tarxien Temples do not have a monumental bearing on their surrounding landscape; on the contrary, they have been rather dwarfed by the urban development which has, over time, encroached within metres from the site.
The site was discovered in 1913 when local farmers informed Sir Themistocles Zammit, Malta’s first Director of Museums, that they struck large blocks of stone while ploughing their field. This led to the discovery of two large stone blocks and a quantity of pottery sherds. Consequently, Sir Temi Zammit excavated the site between 1915 and 1919, bringing to light an extensive megalithic site and putting our understanding of Maltese prehistory on a solid foundation. Excavations started by exposing the South Temple of the Tarxien complex, excavating the cremation cemetery inserted into the ruins in the Early Bronze Age, then continuing successively with the Central, East and Early Temples.
This site consists in four principal megalithic structures. The small temple at the eastern end of the site was the first to be built some time between 3,600 and 3,200 BCR. The South and East Temples were then built in the Tarxien Phase (ca 3,000-2,500 BCE), while the six-apsed Central Temple was the last to be constructed. The South Temple is renowned for its highly-finished carvings, which include domestic animals carved in relief, and various spiral designs. A striking feature within this building is the remains of a colossal statue. The site seems to have been used extensively for rituals; animal bones and a flint blade were found within a decorated altar in the South Temple, suggesting that animal sacrifice formed part of the activities that took place within the building during the Temple Period. After the end of the Temple Culture the site was put to a different use, becoming the site of a cremation cemetery during the Bronze Age.
The Tarxien Temples have recently been the focus of extensive conservation studies and preparations for improved visitor facilities through an agreement between the Bank of Valletta and Heritage Malta. The BOV Tarxien Temples Project, launched in September 2003, envisages the application of the latest technology for the preservation of this unique prehistoric site, as well as the construction of a visitors’ centre that will enable visitors to understand, enjoy and appreciate the value of this monument. Environmental monitoring equipment has been installed within a number of chambers as well as in the immediate vicinity of the monument. Its data will be analysed by Heritage Malta’s conservation specialists, allowing them to understand better the site’s deterioration and the measures necessary for its preservation.
Progress has also been made with regard to the design of modern visitor facilities. The building has been designed in a sensitive manner both with respect to the archaeological value and potential of the site, as well as the surrounding residential streetscape. The building itself will be completely reversible, having no excavated foundations but simply resting on the ground’s surface. The centre will be supported by a system of steel 'stilts' whose position and location can be adapted according to the results of the preparatory excavations. In this manner, the visitors' centre will not only respect any archaeological remains which may be discovered in the near future, but also safeguards the area of undeveloped natural landscape that has survived in the vicinity of the Tarxien Temples. The visitors’ centre will include an exhibition area, audiovisual facilities, shop, cafeteria and activity centre. Most importantly, the centre aims to be educational as well as fun, preparing visitors for an informative as well as enjoyable experience of the Tarxien Temples.
Sources: Heritage Malta, The Malta Independent (10 March 2006)