Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mnadjra Temple

Mnadjra is a Maltese Megalithic Temple complex located just about 500 meters from Ħaġar Qim temple complex. The temples at Mnadjra are similar to Ħaġar Qim (and other Maltese temples) in that they have a similar shape - the round rooms of the temples. Like most other sites, it was built over a long time and in various periods. The earliest construction took place in the earliest Ggantija phase (3600 - 3200 BC) while the latest buildings were added during the Tarxien phase (3150 - 2500 BC).  From the air, the temple looks sort of like a clover shape.

The construction of Mnadjra and Ħaġar Qim probably happened about the same time. Interestingly though Ħaġar Qim was built of globigerina limestone, while Mnadjra was built of coralline limestone. What difference does that make you ask? Well, one of the problems that has plagued Ħaġar Qim throughout its lifetime is that its limestone tends to flake off bit by bit. This is because globigerina limestone is softer than its cousin coralline limestone. This problem is entirely absent at Mnadjra.

Another similarity that Mnadjra shares with many of the other Maltese Megalithic Temples is that it aligns to certain astronomical features. We haven't covered this much, but many of these megalithic structures throughout Europe seem to line up to certain phenomena that happen in the sky at a specific point in the year. Often these megalithic structures sync up to a solstice or equinox. For this site, the main door is blasted with direct sunlight on the vernal and autumnal equinox while being completely sidestepped on the solstices. Pretty cool astronomical architectural tricks huh?

The temples at Mnadjra were so cool and so Maltese that the Maltese versions of the Euro cents had the Mnadjra Temples on the obverse side.

Castro of Vila Nova de São Pedro

If you've listened to our most recent podcast, episode number The Chalcolithic then you've heard me talk a bit about the Castro of Vila Nova de São Pedro. Castro of Vila Nova de São Pedro is a Portuguese Chalcolithic settlement located near Azambuja that dates back to 2600 BC - 1300 BC. Most of our recent posts have been about prehistoric structures and technically the settlement would qualify as that. But, to make things simpler for me to divide up on the blog I've put a cutoff date of the "prehistoric" at 2800 BC. This figure is pretty arbitrary, but it's helpful for me in my head. In light of this, the Castro of Vila Nova de São Pedro qualifies as an ancient post, rather than a prehistoric one - even though the people of Castro of Vila Nova de São Pedro were prehistoric (not writing history down). So bear with me on that point please.

Castro of Vila Nova de São Pedro is culturally and chronologically linked with the Los Millares settlement in Spain, though not quite as old as their Spanish counterparts. But, they are just as fascinating. They left behind a treasure trove of artifacts for us to understand how they lived including buildings, pottery and arrowheads. Their importance though lies in them being at the forefront of megalithic construction. The people of Castro of Vila Nova de São Pedro started building megalithic structures almost a full thousand years earlier than their contemporaries in other parts of Europe.

There seems to have been a couple of distinct periods for the people at Castro of Vila Nova de São Pedro. VNSP I were the earliest inhabitants and began to construct a fortified settlement sometime around 2700 BC. They built dolmens and menhirs in their spare time and constructed an economy based on agriculture and domesticated animals. The fact that they built walls shows the influence of Los Millares, who we said were a warlike culture. With testy neighbors like the Los Millares, it was probably a pretty good decision to build some walls. During this period the people of Castro of Vila Nova de São Pedro began to establish trade ties and started to shape their megalithic structures in ways that aligned to celestial happenings. Archeo-astronomers (as well as the general public) can marvel at some of these complex works. Going basically on just pure will and a eyesight they were able to build some marvelous wonders that would stand up to even today's architectural prowess.

The Arrowheads of Envy
At around 2200 BC though things started to get really interesting. The Beaker People moved into the Iberian peninsula and the inhabitants of Castro of Vila Nova de São Pedro adopted some of their practices. They adopted Beaker burial traditions and their pottery making skills but kept much of their earlier cultural heritage. Basically the combined Beaker death rites and ceramic making with a growing megalithic culture. This led to prolific megalithic building and pottery making. The influx of the Beaker Culture also seems to have opened up trading ties to further flung regions of Iberia and even into France. At about this time the dominating influence of Los Millares seems to have waned a bit and after about 300 years of cultural mixing all of Iberia seems to have become a bit more decentralized. While this would be bad for someone building an empire, it seems to have been really freaking good for trade. The craftsmen of Castro of Vila Nova de São Pedro produced artifacts that have been found as far east as Bohemia. It was about this time that their copper skills were becoming the envy of Europe. It was the copper arrowheads that made their way all throughout Western and Central Europe. Great as the Castro of Vila Nova de São Pedro were, their cultural dominance couldn't last forever. Even though they retained much of their culture even after the Beaker People moved in, the decentralizing of Iberia would eventually open up the arena for another cultural explosion. This time the culture shift occurred because of the discovery and mastery of bronze. At around 1800 bronze working came into the region and slowly the Atlantic Bronze Age would begin. But the people of Castro of Vila Nova de São Pedro were stubborn and held on to their culture for another 500 years before the Bronze Age finally supplanted them. The Castro of Vila Nova de São Pedro seems to have fallen out of favor with people and the site was abandoned sometime around 1300 BC.

Drombeg Stone Circle

A fitting picture of the Druid's Altar
We're slowly working through all of the Megalithic sites in Europe to round up all of the Prehistoric Europe that we've missed. The Drombeg Stone Circle is a megalithic structure near and dear to my heart. It's located in the Linehan homeland, in the County Cork, Ireland. Dromberg is one of the most visited megalithic sites in all of Europe.

The stone circle was originally seventeen evenly spaced stones to form a circle. Drombeg's stones are aligned to make the most westerly stone have a special place on the winter solstice. The sun sets on the solstice and the stone shines in the light. Very special. Like many of the stone circles in Europe most people think that these astronomical alignments in structures served religious purposes. But, the main center of this particular megalithic site, is the Fulacht fiadh.

For those of you that don't speak Irish, a Fulacht fiadh is a typical archeological site in Ireland (and Wales, Scotland and England). In the other places its typically referred to as a burnt mound. They were used for cooking and other things that the early Irish needed a hearth for. The fulacht fiadh is the most common archeological site in Ireland. There are about 4500 sites throughout Ireland. The fulacht fiadh at the Dromberg Stone Circle is just one of 2000 in the County Cork alone. What can I say, the good people of County Cork love to eat.

The Drombeg Stone Circle itself seems to have been used from 945 - 830 BC, which would imply it was built around that time as well. Interestingly, another name for the Drombeg Stone Circle is the Druid's Altar. You know what? It just might have been used by a Druid or two as well. I mean why not, while the stone circle seems to have only been in use for about a hundred and fifteen years or so the fulacht fiadh was in use until the 5th century AD.

Now there's a helluva lot o'stuff (see what I did there - Irish accent in print) out there about the Druids that are flat out not true. The mythology that surrounds them is overblown and a bit too cartoony. There weren't Druids hiding in every foggy night that southern Ireland produces. But, the kitchen at the Druid's Altar was open for business for some 1500 years. The shear odds of a druid passing by the Drombeg Stone Circle and thinking "why not make a bit of  snack before disappearing into the otherworld?" The unadulterated statistical odds are in favor of this scenario. There's nothing quite as tasty as Druid Mutton Stew with a side of colcannon to celebrate a foggy winter's eve.

Zorats Karer

Stone circles? Bronze Age Graveyard? Refuge from the Romans?
Zorats Karer or Karahunj/Carahunge is a megalithic structure located in Armenia near the city of Sisian, in the southeast of the nation. What it is is a whole bunch of stones placed in a specific pattern. What the stones are though has produced a number of theories.

It could be the "Armenian Stonehenge". Paris Herouni, a late Armenian researcher, would subscribe to this theory. He dated the structure to somewhere in the range of 5600 BC - 2500 BC. This would make the name "Armenian Stonehenge" quite appropriate. Under his theory the stones were set up to mark a map of the celestial sky, specifically the constellation Cygnus. In 2010, an Oxford University professor reexamined the site and confirmed that, in his opinion, the site definitely marks some celestial phenomena. He confirms that the site is most likely a necropolis (as the other theories claim) but that it is linked to the position of the sun, moon and other heavenly bodies.

But, other excavations, like the one carried out by German archeologists disagree with the age and the purpose of Zorats Karer. The German investigation published their thoughts about 12 years ago. They concluded that the structure was more likely a Middle Bronze Age - Iron Age structure. They concluded that the site was a necropolis, something that Herouin and his ilk would not have denied. The Germans did not attach any special interest to the positioning of the stones and celestial movements. They did however speculate that the area became a safe haven for ancient Armenians looking to flee from Roman and/or Persian invasions.

Hole in one of the stones for the purpose of ...? Who knows.
So, at the very least we have a Necropolis dating from some 2000 - 3000 years ago. At best we have the Armenian Stonehenge. To be honest, without much other evidence there isn't a good way of deciding which theory is best. The German expedition doesn't account for the holes in some of the stones that seem to miraculously line up with positions of the sun. Paris and his followers might be guilty of reading a bit too much into the astronomical connection. In all reality though, these theories need not be mutually exclusive. Think of some of the other structures we've covered from the prehistoric times. Later civilizations have come in and incorporated earlier structures into their own use. It's just possible that the Bronze Age Necropolis was fashioned out of an earlier stone circle culture that created some place of worship that corresponded to Cygnus and other constellations over ancient Armenia. And what's to have stopped later Armenians from using the structure as a refuge from invading armies? Nothing. It could be that everyone is right!

The Earliest Maltese

Malta. We've highlighted the Megalithic Temple Builders of Malta an incredible nine times already! It makes me want to visit the island incredibly badly. Someday maybe. But, for now we'll just visit it through research.

Although we've highlighted these Megalithic Temples and structures we haven't said a whole bunch about the culture that built them. So, without further ado, let's dive in and discover as much as we can about these megalithic builders.

The earliest inhabitants of Malta seem to have arrived on the island from Sicily. These early settlers were believed to have been the Sciani, one of the three indigenous peoples of Sicily at the time the Greek's arrived to colonize the island. Thucydides claimed that the Sciani migrated to Sicily from Iberia, which means that the earliest peoples of Malta could have come from prehistoric Spain. Some of the architectural similarities between the Chalcolithic builders on Los Millares and the numerous Mediterranean islands could suggest migration patterns, but the earliest settlers of Malta would have a few thousand years to wait until the discovery of copper techniques. The Sciani or whoever, landed on Malta a little before 5000 BC.

The first settlers of Malta have become known as the Għar Dalam phase (5200 BC - 4500 BC). These guys didn't build any temples, but they did have some sort of fertility cult thing going on for them. They also farmed cereals and raised livestock. When the Għar Dalam phase came to an end they would go through two Skorba phases, the Grey Skorba and the Red Skorba before they decided to build the Megalithic Temples we've highlighted here on the blog. The Skorba phases are based on the type of pottery they made. In the earlier Grey Skorba they didn't paint the pottery with red ochre. During the later Red Skorba phase they painted it with red ochre. Pretty simple stuff.

Ok, so we know that these early settlers set the groundwork for the temple builders. What we're not sure of is whether or not these earliest settlers evolved into the temple builders or a new wave of settlers came and supplanted them to build the temples. Then came the three phases of temple construction that we've already talked about. And that'll bring us up to date on Malta for awhile. Maybe we'll check back in with them in the Bronze Age. We'll see though...

Pentre Ifan & Carreg Coetan Arthur

If one were going to highlight every Neolithic stone in Wales, let alone Europe they would need even less of a social life than we have here at The History of Europe Podcast. But, we have friends and they both would like us to hang out more so we're just going to aim for 30-35% of all the Neolithic Knowledge out there. We figure that batting .300 - .350 will get you into Cooperstown so if we can tag somewhere along those lines we'll be inducted into some sort of Prehistoric Shrine ourselves. In case you're wondering what cap we'll be forever enshrined in bronze in we haven't yet decided. I'm partial to my Brooklyn Dodgers cap though.

Pentre Ifan or Arthur's Quoit.

In our quest to be given a seat of honor at some fictitious Historical Hall of Fame though we'll continue touching on Neolithic Wales and look at a couple of Megalithic constructions, Pentre Ifan & Carreg Coetan Arthur. Pentre Ifan is located in the West of Wales in the county of Pembrokeshire. Pentre Ifan is a the Welsh's largest neolithic dolmen. It's quite stunning to look at. If you remember a dolmen is fancy speech for a portal grave and quite popular in Western Europe among the Megalithic Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Age cultures. This particular dolmen dates from around 3500 BC and was probably a communal burial site. The table slab that sits atop the other stones is roughly 5 meters long and is almost 2.5 meters off the ground. It's estimated to way over 16 tonnes. That's tonnes (2,204.6 lbs) not the measly ton (2000 lbs). These prehistoric Welsh were out to put the Mega in the Megalithic when they built Pentre Ifan.

Carreg Coetan Arthur
Carreg Coetan Arthur is another dolmen located in Pembrokeshire, Wales. It's basically, the little brother of Pentre Ifan. It was constructed sometime around 3300 BC and is a bit smaller. It's table capstone is only about 4 meters long. Like, Pentre Ifan, the Carreg Coetan Arthur was origanally buried under a mound of earth and rock, but time has eroded these barriers away. Now these slabs of Megalithic construction sit in the countryside to remind us that men have been building elaborate graves for thousands upon thousands of years. Another cool little anecdote about these two dolmens is the name Arthur. Arthur is a mainstay of Welsh folklore. The name Arthur is still connected to Carreg Coetan, but Pentre Ifan (meaning the village of Ivan in Welsh) has also been called Arthur's Quoit. (Quoit is just another colloquial name for Dolmen or passage grave). So, while the legend of Arthur might not be Neolithic, his fame casts a shadow that dates back to a time before he was even conceived. Not bad for a shadow, though I'm sure Plato still wouldn't have been impressed...

The Skorba Temples

The Skorba Temples in Malta date from the Ġgantija Phase, the earliest phase of temple construction. Unfortunately, like Borġ in-Nadur located on the South side of the island, the Skorba Temples (also in the southerly part of Malta) the temple is in utter ruins compared to other contemporary temples. Obviously all of the Megalithic temples are in ruins, but Skorba and Borġ in-Nadur are in particularly poor condition. Probably because of this, the Skorba Temples didn't get any real archeological attention until the 1960's. This is by far the last megalithic temple to be excavated by the Maltese.

From excavation though it was shown that the Skorba Temples are typical from the early phase of temple construction. It contained apses and the typical clover shaped rooms. It had a courtyard and was constructed in roughly the same way as all the other temples. What makes Skorba so fascinating in comparison to its brothers and sisters is not necessarily the temple per se but the fact that one of the walls of the temples seems to have been incorporated from a wall built by a village that had been settled for over 12 centuries before the temple was built. Ok, so let's do some rough math. The Ġgantija phase began in 3600 BC and lasted until 3200 BC. Most likely Skorba was on the front end of the Ġgantija phase and not the back which means the village that preexisted the temple was founded right about 4800 BC. That's a very, very long time ago and is just about the time that the islands of Malta and Gozo were being populated.

Excitingly, inside of the temple more fat lady statues were found. However, the fat lady of Skorba was on the skinnier side in comparison to her contemporaries on the islands. But, the statue, which is broken into a few pieces (see picture) indicates that the worshipers of Skorba were in to the fertility cult that was raging across the Maltese archipelago in the fourth millennium BC. Maybe the skinny fat lady in Skorba showed some deviation from the popular and orthodox fat lady adoration. Is it possible that the Skorba idol indicates some sort of schism? Probably not. That's just sensationalism and pure conjecture. I don't know why I've allowed myself to indulge in this. On the other hand, that head looks a whole lot like the heads of the clone droid. Come to think of it, some of the Maltese islands look a lot like the Geonosis... Hmmm...