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...

Borġ in-Nadur

Borġ in-Nadur Ruins today.
Sadly, it seems as if the Borġ in-Nadur temple complex will be the end of our Malta Megalithic Temple round ups on the blog. We've poured a lot of heart and soul into these Maltese posts and are sad to see them end for the time being. Hopefully a new archeological discovery will reignite some topics we've touched on so we can revisit this topic again soon!

Borġ in-Nadur is in ruins compared to many of the other Maltese temples from the prehistoric times. This is because it was abandoned sometime during the Neolithic and then used as scrap pieces by thje Bronze Age Maltese. The shape of the temples though was typical of all the Maltese temples. Borġ in-Nadur was built during the final temple building phase on Malta, the Tarxien Phase. So, the Prehistoric Maltese were pretty set in their ways on how to build temples by then. The Borġ in-Nadur would have overlooked the St. George's Bay in Southwestern Malta in its heyday. (I'm pretty sure that it wasn't named St. George's Bay back then though). What makes the Borġ in-Nadur temple drastically different than all the other temples on Malta is the lack of evidence for human activity. This is probably due to the Bronze Age settlement that came and used the temple's site for their own purposes, but it could have been the giantesses as well. Mystical things seem to happen at Borġ in-Nadur.

Angelik can't personally deliver his message.
In 2005, Angelik Caruana perceived visions of the Virgin Mary at the hilltop of Borġ in-Nadur. Angelik states that the Virgin Mary wished to be called 'Our Lady of Borġ in-Nadur' and extolled the Maltese towards a resurgence of prayer and the conversion to Catholicism for all the nations. Angelik's visions have been dismissed by the Archbishop of Malta. However this has not stopped Angelik from garnering a following. He continues to visit Borġ in-Nadur to receive visions and has actually gone over to the island of Gozo (one of the other populated islands of Malta). In one of his visions he Angelik reported that he got a personal message for Pope Benedict XVI. Angelik decided that he would visit the Vatican and climb over a barrier to deliver his message to the Pope personally. This resulted in him being escorted out of Vatican City.

Something about these megalithic temples in Malta gives them an air of spirituality. I hate that word very passionately. It's vague and overused, often improperly. People often describe any sort of quiet peace as spiritual. That seems to be a bit of a bastardization of the word. However, in the case of giant cathedrals or ancient temples and other ancient religious sites there seems to be a heritage of people seeking something beyond themselves. They are reaching for the spiritual and sometimes they attain it (other times they attain something they think is spiritual). It is this quest for the thing that completes us that is our spiritual journey. The ancient Maltese and the modern Maltese are connected through this straining for that which completed us. Angelik worships the Christian God and is incorporating both fundamental (not a bad word by the way as many have made it out to be) Catholic faith traditions, local customs and personal beliefs. The ancient Maltese that built it likely worshiped a pantheon of gods giving special primacy to a fertility goddess. But, both Angelik and the builders of the temple at Borġ in-Nadur were seeking the spiritual completion to their lives. One of the reasons why Angelik probably feels that special spiritual connection at Borġ in-Nadur is because there is something about that area that gives that aura of spirituality. If it didn't, the early Maltese probably wouldn't have built Borġ in-Nadur Temple there in the first place.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ħaġar Qim

 Ħaġar Qim, another one of the Maltese Megalithic Temples we've been highlighting here on the blog, is absolutely stunning to behold. The temple dates from the Ġgantija phase of temple construction, which is the earliest (3600 - 3200 BC). Vere Gordon Chile, who we've drawn upon for both blog and podcast once visited the site of Ħaġar Qim and commented about it being very old, so old it was the oldest place he'd ever been. That's academic excellence for you.

The great professor is right though, Ħaġar Qim is very old and very amazing to boot. Like many of the Maltese Megalithic Temples Ħaġar Qim uses a whole bunch of trilithons and roundish rooms in their construction. The complex is one main temple, with three adjacent and adjoining buildings. What's unique about the Ħaġar Qim temple is that while its main temple began construction in the Ġgantija phase some of the menhirs and other stone slabs on the northern end of the complex are considerably older dating from a pre-temple period we're going to highlight sometime on the blog. Be ready...

Ħaġar Qim is divided roughly into about six buildings or chambers and a front yard called a forecourt. The forecourt is made up of a bunch of limestone slabs. One slab has a hole in it believed to have served as a fire place. To enter the temple buildings proper you'd pass through a trilithon and then go into a passage that divides each of these buildings and complexes. The northern temple seems the most interesting because of its age, with some construction materials predating the Ġgantija phase. Also there are giant round stones that were found both beneath this room as part of the foundation and next to the chamber. Archeologists figure that these round stones were used to move the giant slabs of limestone into place to build all of the temple. Another feature that I found especially interesting about the Northern temple is that their are three distinct floors built on top of each other. Each of these floors represents a distinct construction period. The bottom two levels show signs of animal sacrifice. The top level does not. This however doesn't indicate that later prehistoric Maltese worshipers stopped making animal sacrifices, only that the animal sacrifice had migrated to other parts of the temple.

Ħaġar Qim is like many of the other Maltese temples in a number of ways. Obviously its roundish chamber shape is familiar to blog readers. It also contained a number of idols depicting fat ladies and the pottery found at the site is similar to other sites. Another interesting facet to Ħaġar Qim and other Maltese temples is their use of construction to aid acoustical nuances. The temple is set up to create acoustical anomalies and echos. There is a chamber area that many believe to be an oracle pit, where presumably an oracle would speak or chant from. This would then echo throughout the whole temple creating a spooky effect. The picture to the right shows an "oracle hole", an architectural technique to help the acoustics in these Maltese Temples to achieve their desired effect.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Bryn Celli Ddu & Barclodiad y Gawres

Bryn Celli Ddu
Bryn Celli Ddu is a prehistoric grave located in Anglesey, an island off the northwest coast of Wales. Like other prehistoric graves of the isles, it's a passage grave. But, it wasn't always that. The passage grave was built sometime during the Bronze Age. Prior to this construction, the site hosted a henge, a lovely henge at that. This henge at Bryn Celli Ddu, which means the mound in the dark grove in Welsh, featured a stone circle (think Stonehenge). The grave dates from around 3000 BC, but post holes for the lovely henge once thought to be contemporaneous with the grave have proved to be much older.

Rendition of the lovely henge before the construction of the grave

Barclodiad y Gawres

Barclodiad y Gawres is another prehistoric grave on the island of Anglesey. Like Bryn Celli Ddu it is a passage grave with a mound on top. Also like Bryn Celli Ddu it's Welsh meaning behind the name is much more easy to pronounce and more fun, Barclodiad y Gawres means 'apronful of the giantess' in Welsh. While Bryn Celli Ddu is fascinating for what's on top of the grave (as well as a serpent carved rock inside), Barclodiad y Gawres is cool for its internal stuff. Inside of this Neolithic grave were six stone carvings, the most recent of which was discovered just in 2001. Amazingly, the designs of these carvings match so many others in much of Neolithic Europe that it just boggles the mind. How did all these Neolithic Europeans think so much alike artistically?

Tas-Silġ Temple

Tas-Silġ Today

There are so many temple sites on Malta. We've covered a few of them here already and will continue to do so throughout the week and maybe coming weeks until I feel we've exhausted the Maltese Megalithic Temples motif quite thoroughly. Today we're going to focus on  Tas-Silġ.  Tas-Silġ is located near Zejtun, Malta on the southeast of the main island.  Tas-Silġ is fascinating because it has an incredible number of layers of history, the earliest of which dates from the Tarxien Phase of temple construction on the Maltese archipelago, which is the final period of temple building and the islands' most glorious.

This lady will never sing again. :(
Sometime around 3000 BC construction of a temple at Tas-Silġ began. In this earliest layer archeologists discovered pottery typical from this period, roundish structural walls (like most of the other temples of Malta from this period) and a typical "fat lady". If you remember from some of the other posts on the Maltese Megalithic Temples you'll know that these early Maltese were probably associated with some fertility cult and the earliest temples were, according to myth, built by a giantess with a suckling babe on her breast. While I haven't found any corresponding myth to Tas-Silġ per se, the discovery of one of these fat lady idols suggests that the Neolithic Maltese that worshiped at this site were part of this fertility cult that venerated a mother goddess.

Above the earliest layer are layers that date right up until the fourth century AD. Since we probably won't cover them by name anywhere else I thought it would be appropriate to touch on them now. Directly above the earliest level is a bronze age refashioning of the temple. Much of the evidence at this level is pottery sherds and stone tools that are more regularly associated with Bronze Age settlements rather than Neolithic ones. But, after the Bronze Age settlement seemed to basically use the site with a bit of sprucing up, the Phoenicians and Carthaginians came to the island and built a temple to Astarte. This temple used some of the remains of the earlier Neolithic Temple to create a horseshoe shaped temple rather than a circular one. The temple at Tas-Silġ dating from the Carthaginians was referenced by Cicero around 70 BC as he was going on about the moral bankruptcy of Gaius Verres. Cicero's speeches about Malta and Verres' mismanagement of the islands thrust Cicero into the Roman political spotlight. At the dawn of the Christianization of the Roman Empire, the site was converted into a early monastery in the 4th century.
Blueprint of the Byzantine Monastery

Unfortunately, the Tas-Silġ area has been eroded by the passage of time. Unlike many of these sites on Malta this one is not open to the public so as to prevent further degradation of the site. That doesn't make it any less fascinating though. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Episode 7 is up!

Episode 7 is up. Check out the Chalcolithic.

The Ta'Hagrat Temples

The Ta'Hagrat Temples are another example of the Megalithic temples built in Malta. The Ta'Hagrat Temples were constructed around 3600 - 3200 BC and date from the Ġgantija period, the earliest period of megalithic temple construction in Malta.

The Ta'Hagrat Temples are among the oldest religious buildings in the world, let alone Europe. The Ta'Hagrat Temples are similar in appearance to the nearby Ta'Skorba Temples, something we'll cover in a bit. It is possible that the Ta'Hagrat Temples are some of the oldest in Malta because they seem to have been less planned than the other temples dating from the Ġgantija period. The main temple was built during this time, but the smaller temple was added during the Saflieni period.

Like most of the Maltese Temples they feature the trilithons prominently. Trilithons are stone doorways, think about what Stonehenge is made up of with two posts and a slab on top. The pottery found in the temple is fascinating in its own right. It dates from what is known as the Mġarr phase, which predates the Ġgantija phase in pottery making. So, as the builders were advancing into the Ġgantija period, the potters were still a bit behind.

Model Temple
For me the most fascinating pieces in the Ta'Hagrat Temples are the temple models they found. These seem to be almost like prehistoric models of temples that were going to be built, showing either sophisticated architectural practices, or an association of religious fascination with these buildings at every stage of construction. It's probably both.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Malta Temples - Tarxien

The third and final phase of the megalithic construction of temples on Malta was the Tarxien phase lasting from 3150 BC - 2500 BC. It followed the initial Ġgantija and the transitional Saflieni phases. The Tarxien phase was the golden age of temple building in Malta.

Like the two preceding periods, the Tarxien phase takes its name from an eponymous type site. The Tarxien temples are three separate, but connected temples. Like the temples at Ġgantija, the Tarxien temples are curved buildings that make use of apses or archways.

Now if you look closely at this photo and the photo in the Ġgantija or Salflieni posts, the temples don't seem to get significantly different. So, why is the Tarxien phase considered the penultimate of the Malta temple construction days? Well, the construction is actually being refined bit by bit throughout the ages, though I have to take an expert's word on the construction advancements because I admit I can't see it. But, the reason for the claim of the Tarxien phase being the best is because of the pottery and sculptures associated with the period. Basically, the artisans of the Tarxien phase had learned to become more intricate and the potters had learned to make harder, thinner and more beautiful jugs and bowls. Much of the artistry though comes in the reliefs that are carved into the walls of temple complexes like the one at Tarxien. My favorite is the picture of this statue. It makes me smile. That's one chunky lady.

The Megalithic Temples of Malta - Saflieni

We covered the earliest period of the temples on Malta with the Ġgantija period earlier today. Now we're going to focus on the middle period, the Saflieni period lasting from 3300 BC - 3000 BC. This period was basically a transitionary period between the Ġgantija and the Tarxien phases. The Salfieni construction was similar to that of the Ġgantija and they produced a number of similar artifacts. But, the Salflieni introduced one spectacular addition. Wait for it...

Biconical Bowls! The Salflieni moved from this to that (up to down) by adding a second rim on the bowl!

It doesn't seem like much, but it's a difference.

The Salflieni stage is named after the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni. The word Hypogeum literally means underground in Greek. The Hypogeum is the only underground prehistoric temple in the world.

When it was discovered in 1902 the workers who discovered it originally tried to hide the temple. I'm not really sure why, I can't seem to find the reason for their wish to hide it, but a whole bunch of mythology seems to surround this site, more on this in a later post.

The site was built primarily during the Salflieni phase and its probably for this reason that the Salflieni phase gets its name. The underground temple itself has three levels.

The top level looks a lot like other Malta structures, especially like the tombs constructed at about the same time in Xemxija, Malta. They're simple cut outs of the rock that are more or less kidney shaped. If you're thinking that you've heard that before think back to our work with Marija Gimbutas. She postulated that much of Old Europe (prior to Indo-European arrival) worshiped and lived in a matriarchal way. These kidney shaped graves were meant to place the dead back in a womb like setting for rebirth. It's a good theory and seems plausible, but not definitive by any means. Anyway that's what the tombs in Xemxija look like and the 1st level of the Hypogeum would at first appear to be very similar to these kidney womb tombs.

Sleeping Lady from the main chamber
But, when you get beneath the tomb like entrances you get down to the main level or second level. In the second level there are a bunch of trilithon entrances (these are 3 stone structures, think what Stonehenge's rocks look like, one flat on top of two upright stones) leading into five distinct rooms. There is the main chamber that houses the trilithon entrances to the other rooms. Also in the main chamber was the sleeping lady and a whole bunch of figurines. When you're in the main chamber you can cross through the trilithon entrances into either the oracle room, the decorated room, the snake pit or the holy of holies.

From this Unesco pic you can see why it's called a labyrinth.
The oracle room is peculiar because when you enter it and speak it produces a strange resonance in sound. It's basically a prehistoric amplifier. Because of the acoustics of the room it's speculated that an oracle would speak from this room as it would have boomed and echoed throughout the whole temple giving a deeper religious quality to any type of ceremony. The decorated room is aptly named. Other than hosting some really old interior design work its pretty blasé. Ok, it's not really blasé but it has to compete with a room called the snake pit. The snake pit is basically a pit where it is possible snakes were kept. Some of the carvings around the Malta Temples often depict snakes. It's plausible that this deep pit was used to keep snakes in. The holy of holies is a porthole that is inside a trilithon which in turn is inside a slightly larger trilithon which in turn is inside a slightly larger trlithon than the other slightly larger trilithon. Because of all this impossibly confusing entryway thingamabobbers the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum has been called a labyrinth.

The third level was probably just storage for grain. It's thought that this temple was originally meant to be that, a temple or maybe just a house for an oracle. But it soon became a prehistoric crypt. Since excavations began the remains of over 7000 individuals have been found in this befittingly confusing maze. All of these remains though were found in levels one and two, which is why most people think that level three was probably just a place for storing grain.

As cool as the Ħal Saflieni is, it was not the only Saflieni era structures. Additions to the Ta'Hagrat Temples and even to the Ġgantija complex on Gozo were added. But, we've already covered Ġgantija well enough and I don't want to give too much away about Ta'Hagrat. So we'll just conclude here. Abruptly.

Sardinian Step Pyramids

The Pyramid of Sardinia

Who doesn't love a pyramid? Seriously, pyramids have been built all over the world. This architectural design is so common amongst ancient civilizations that it's led to crazy theories that aliens built all of them, or at least had their hand in the civilizations that constructed them. But, then again it's just a special triangle. It's a pretty simple shape. But it's beautiful.

On the island of Sardinia, near the town of Porto Torres there is a step pyramid. Porto Torres was built on a Turris Libyssonis, a Roman city of some stature founded during Julius Caesar's reign. But, the region had much older inhabitants, the guys who built the step pyramid at Monte d'Accoddi. The step pyramid dates to around 2700 - 2000 BC and bears a particular similarity to the constructions at Los Millares. The step pyramid was probably some temple at some point. It's base is about 88 foot by 88 foot and stood over 18 foot tall.

The megalithic structure was discovered in 1954 and has been a curious site ever since. In the 1980's a restoration of the structure took place. In this artistic rendition to the right of what the step pyramid probably looked like in its heyday you can see a number of familiar megalithic features. First, it's a giant work of stone. Second, to the left side of the ramp you can see a menhir, a large, upright standing stone. The current photographs show that there is currently nothing located on top of the platform, so the house type thing in the drawing is conjectural. But, since most think that the megalithic structures served some religious function the drawing at least captures that spirit. However, it was open like that it could have been a landing pad for the extraterrestrial architects that HAD to have been behind the familiar structure of the pyramid, because triangular shapes don't appear in nature too often.

p.s. I wrote this post a bit earlier but was unable to initially upload it. I think that strange triangular rock formation we call a mountain was blocking my signal.

The Red Lady of Paviland

The Red Lady's Skull
It sounds like a title to a nursery rhyme, but the Red Lady of Paviland is a major point in European History. In 1823, William Buckland discovered a nearly complete human fossil covered in red ochre  in the south of Wales. Little did he know that he had discovered not only the first human fossil, but he discovered the oldest evidence we have today of ceremonial burial. Buckland however believed he had found the bones of a Roman era female, but recent studies on the fossil have pointed to the fact that the remains are of a young male from around 33,000 years ago.

Actual picture of the burial.

Along with the remains of the young "lady" was the skull of a mammoth. This points a little bit to what type of lifestyle the red lady led. He probably hunted game, which meant he was at least semi-nomadic. Another factor that points to his being part of a semi-nomadic tribe is that a study on his bones revealed that some 15-20% of his diet was fish. This shouldn't be surprising considering that the location he was found at is close to the ocean. However, at the time of his burial the site was some 70 miles from the sea. This meant that either he died on the coast and was carried up 70 miles to bury or that the tribe he was a part of traveled from coast to inland and back again chasing their food.

The ceremonial burial of the red lady marks a time in which human beings were probably blazing new paths in religious life. The use of red ochre would become a common burial practice over much of Europe in later times. In fact though, as old as the Red Lady's burial is it isn't the first time red ochre was used to bury the dead. Neanderthals had used red ochre in burial ceremonies dating back hundreds of thousands of years. So, while the Red Lady might have been a first for anatomically modern humans, he wasn't quite the trendsetter we've made him out to be.

The dominating influence of Los Millares

Los Millares Now

Los Millares is located about 17 kilometers north of Almería in southern part of Spain. It is a Chalcolithic settlement that we talk about it in the Chalcolithic podcast. But, we thought it might be nice to get a few visuals to go along with information on the podcast.

Almería tourist information touts Los Millares as the most important Chalcolithic site in Europe and Europe's first Chalcolithic city. Given that it is tourist information trying to entice you to visit the region a bit of hyperbole can be expected. But, they're not too far off. The contentious point for many justifiably prideful "first claimers" is the designation city. But, that's a can of worms we won't get into.

Pottery from Los Millares, it resembles much of Beaker Culture pottery
Megalithic stones & pottery.
Regardless, Los Millares is one of the, if not the most important Chalcolithic sites in Europe because of its immense size. The five acre site has three sets of walls and fortifications with bastion like structures to defend the settlement. What makes it a Chalcolithic city is one large building within the walls that shows copper smelting activity.

The people who built Los Millares were probably an offshoot of the much larger Neolithic/Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age super archeological grouping called the Beaker Culture. Like many of the various strands of Beaker Culture they were megalithic builders, specializing in tholoi tombs.

Entrance to a tholos.
A tholos tomb (tholoi is the plural of tholos) is more commonly referred to as a Beehive tomb, but in an effort to sound more intelligent than I am I went with the Greek name. I wouldn't have attempted this on the podcast because of my trend to mispronounce words. The reason its called a beehive tomb is because it generally resembles a beehive on the inside. Outside of the walls of Los Millares are 70 or so tholoi that were once covered by port-hole slabs (a megalithic technique to cover the grave entrance with a massive stone) and contained grave goods. However, the grave goods of every tholos were not equal. This inequity has led many to claim that the Los Millares people were stratified, a key point in the evolution of society that most believe happened because of the Kurganization of Europe (the spread of the more patriarchal, hierarchical and war-like society from the eastern part of Europe that occurred around the time of the Chalcolithic).

Furthering the notion of Kurganization are the massive walls around the settlement. Why would you need walls if you're peace loving? The walls seem to have worked though as Los Millares dates from around 3200 BC and lasts until around 2300 BC. During this reign a number of other similar fortified settlements pop up across the Iberian peninsula, that many believe Los Millares began to dominate. These walled settlements like the ones at Cabrera de Mar near Barcelona. A lot of these settlements are in the south and along the eastern coast of Spain. There are two basic thoughts to these walled settlements popping up during the heyday of Los Millares. Either, they built these walls because they were a part of some regional group presumably dominated by the larger Los Millares or, they built the walls because the Los Millares were freaking bullies, using their huge 1000 people population to amass huge raiding forces for the day. Either way, Los Millares seems to have influenced southern and eastern Spain in a huge way.

But, it also had an impact on the rest of the peninsula as another famous Chalcolithic site, the Vila Nova de São Pedro in Portugal displays striking similarities to Los Millares. This is a distance of roughly 900 km. But, that pales in comparison to the similarities between Los Millares and Monte d'Accoddi which are, by way of mapquest, an astounding 1736 km apart. Of course this distance is made all the more difficult by the fact that Monte d'Accoddi is on the island of Sardinia and so the architects inspired by Los Millares would have had to cross the Mediterranean to take the ideas back home with them. And my guess is that the mapquest route back then didn't entail a safe little ferry ride from Marseille.

In this artist rendition of Los Millares you can see the three sets of fortification. At the very top there is a ring of stone protecting the most important people of the settlement (presumably). The middle section would have then housed most of the inhabitants. The outer wall would have initially been a buffer space but as the settlement grew later houses were built in this area. You can see the little cup like things in this drawing. These are the bastions that probably served as lookout points or areas from which they could defend the settlement from.

Grrr. Penmaenmawr. Grr.

Welsh words are improbably long and look difficult to pronounce. Thankfully, they are easy to type.

Penmaenmawr is a little town in the parish of Dwygyfylchi, in Northern Wales. There are a whole bunch of prehistoric sites located in and around this small town of less than 4000 people. This is because the hills around the area provided an ample supply of rock for a prehistoric axe making factory to be built in Cwm Graiglwyd. (The Welsh word Cwm means valley or combe, which is a special valley that's enclosed on all sides but one). The stone axes produced in this cwm were some of the best in prehistoric Britain.  These axe heads, like the one pictured to the right were very similar to the axeheads created in the Langdale axe industry.

The Langdale Axe Industry sprang up around what is now Great Langdale, England. This industry was roughly contemporaneous with the axes being produced in Penmaenmawr. In another similarity between these two areas, both seemed to like to produce megalithic structures, especially passage graves. Some of the axes made in Great Langdale and in Penmaenmawr have been found as far south as Cornwall. While this is merely speculation it would make sense that since all three of these areas are on the Western coast of the United Kingdom, that the interchange between these neolithic stone craftsman would have occurred by boats that dotted up and down the coast to facilitate trade. As is the usual case with trade, ideas and culture travel right along with the goods being transported. This could explain the similar architectural fascinations by people so far apart.

The landscape near Penmaenmawr is dotted with megalithic structures. About a half mile south of the quarry the neolithic Welsh used to make their famous axes they built a Meini Hirion, also known as a Druid's Circle. Right next to this Meini Hirion runs a contemporary road from the area of Conwy to Bwlch-y-ddeufaen, roughly nine miles of track that is only passable by foot nowadays. Back then that would have been silly to say because that was the only way to get around, unless of course all these Stone Circles actually happen to be teleportation devices. This road was likely used to carry goods from one village to another and facilitate some type of communal worship at the various meini hirion structures that are all over Wales. While Penmaenmawr has been relegated to a tiny little town in modern times, it was important enough throughout the ancient world to warrant the construction of one of the largest Iron-Age Hill Forts of Europe. The quarries around Penmaenmawr would once again bring a bit of life back into the area in the 19th century but as the quarrying business declined, the population and significance of the town did as well. Of course, its historical significance can never be diminished and it is for this reason it has received an illustrious blog post by a well renowned historian... me.

The Megalithic Temples of Malta - Ġgantija

I know, I know, I promised a podcast over the weekend. It's written I simply haven't had time to record and post it. My apologies. In the meantime I hope you continue to enjoy the blogging.

A view from up top of the whole complex.
We've discussed the megalithic culture before, both here on the blog and on the podcast. We'll touch on it again when that yet unrecorded podcast goes up as well. But, in all of our mentioning we've barely paid lip service to the Megalithic Temples on Malta. These temples on Malta are the oldest free standing structures built by man on earth, dating as far back as 5000 years ago. The Temples, there are a whole mess of temples all over the island as opposed to just one site, have been identified as having three distinct phases of usage and construction, the Ġgantija phase, the Saflieni phase, and the Tarxien phase.

Step right in and see the Oracle.
The Ġgantija phase is the oldest and dates from 3600 - 3200 BC. This phase is named after the temples at the site called Ġgantija on Gozo. Gozo is one of the small islands of the Malta archipelago and has been inhabited since about 5000 BC when farmers from Sicily hopped on over to start things out. The Ġgantija temples are the second oldest religious buildings in the world behind Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. According to the legends of Gozo the temple was built by a Giantess. In fact the word Ġgantija literally means the Giant's Tower.

Figurehead from the temple.
The temple complex at Ġgantija is two temples built side by side and enclosed by a boundary wall. Each temple has a number of apses or archways in which altars were found. These altars had the remains of burnt animals, suggesting that they were used for animal sacrifice. Another alternative theory is that Ġgantija is not a Temple at all, but a prehistoric Barbecue joint. Unfortunately this newly minted preposterous theory doesn't hold too much value in the scientific & archeological communities.

The Temples (if they aren't barbecue pits) are round shaped that have led some to believe that they were built to represent the mother goddess figure. This would also fit into line with the myth that it was built by a giantesses in a night, while she was nursing her baby. It also fits in with the various mother goddess figurines found around the temple complex.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Kelteminar & Botai Cultures (plus a few bonus ones)

Kazakhstan is another European nation that has received too little attention on both the blog and the podcast. For this reason, we're going to step back into the prehistoric and look at two of the earliest modern human cultures to grace this country which is the largest land-locked country in the world. But, before we get into these cultures we might want to explain why Kazakhstan is European.

Kazakhstan is largely populated by Kazakh people, one of the many Turkic descendants in the Eurasian world. But I've decided to include Kazakhstan in our discussion of Europe over countries like its neighbors Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for more reasons than they happen to be a bit further west. One reasons we've included Kazakhstan is because of its association with the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Of course both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were part of the Soviet Empire, but not nearly as many European ethnic people were forcefully moved east into Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as they were to Kazakhstan. Another reason for the inclusion is their link to the more ancient Turkish nomadic group of Cuman people who we mentioned in our post on Transnistria. Again, Cumania had stretches into the other to -stan countries but not isn't as deeply rooted. The reason for the importance of Cuman people is that they influenced more western places like Bulgaria, Moldova and the Ukraine. But the primary reason we've chosen to include Kazakhstan is because a lot of lists of European countries include them and we're just trying to cover as much European history as possible so we'll throw them in there for good measure.

Other than human ancestors it seems the earliest people to inhabit Kazakhstan was the Kelteminar Culture. Confusingly, in light of the preceding paragraph, the Kelteminar Culture was a sedentary culture of fishermen that settled around the Aral Sea in modern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Eurasia is killing me.

The Kelteminar Culture lasted from roughly 6000 BC - 3000 BC (or before or after, the evidence is scant). What we do know though is they built larger houses, probably to house multi-generational families. They hunted and gathered. But, they were not nomadic. They subsisted primarily on fishing. But unlike the Vinča culture in Serbia, another fishing community they made mother goddess statues rather than fish-man goddesses.

The Kelteminar Culture was primarily a neolithic culture but began to dabble in copper working and thus, became a Chalcolithic culture. As they advanced in metallurgy they became a Bronze Age culture that exported its wares throughout the Caucuses and Eastern and Central Europe (as well as western Asia).

BMAC Bronze Bullhead
The Kelteminar Culture left its legacy in a number of subsequent Bronze Age cultures. The subsequent Zamin-Babis tribes took the Kelteminar Culture, evolved it and moved eastward into Asia. This is sometimes referred to as the Suyargan Culture that came into existence around 2000 BC. The Suyargan Culture was a small part of the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex that stretched into Asia so we won't cover it much. But, the BMAC for short was a pretty technologically advance Bronze Age amalgamation of various cultures in the region. We won't go into it much but the BMAC was a bit of an interlocutor between European civilizations and other eastern civilizations with artifacts traveling through its territory from Europe to the Indus Valley and back the other way. Not our normal sphere of topic but interesting none the less.

Mummified boot dating to 1800 BC

Boot used to ride through Kazakhstan in 2007.
Ancient Kazakhstan is one of the places in the Eurasian region where horsemanship first laid down its roots. One of the earliest cultures to ride horses in the region was the Botai Culture that lasted from around 3700 BC - 3100 BC. The Botai and the Kelteminar are connected through a cultural interchange of sorts, each influencing the other. The Botai were primarily agricultural compared to the Kelteminar's seafood preference. What makes the Botai especially unique is their use of domesticated horses. While they may not have been the first to break the wild horses of the Eurasian steppe, their use of domesticated horses as far back as 3500 BC makes them a prime candidate for 'first' status on this issue. Incredibly, some of the horse riding equipment first developed by the Botai is remarkably similar to the equipment used today, see the pictures of the boots to the left. The Botai domestication of horses marked a huge step in the advancement of human culture. For this reason alone, the Botai, and Kazakhstan in general has had a major impact on the development of Europe.

Neanderthals in Wales

The prehistoric era in Wales is a humongous breadth of years, stretching from the earliest inhabitants of the country by humans and their ancestors more than 200,000 years deep into the Paleolithic up until the Roman invasion of the nation in 48 AD. That span is much too large to cover in a single blog, but since we haven't paid any attention to this little section of the United Kingdom at all in either the podcast or the blog we thought it would be nice to give them a little love.

Neanderthal teeth from the Bontnewydd Palaeolithic site
To begin with let's visit Wales when it was inhabited by modern human's close cousins, the Neanderthals. If you remember, Neanderthals had the run of Europe (and the Middle East) from around 300,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago when they either died out or interbred themselves out of existence with modern humans. In 1981 the oldest Neanderthal remains in Wales were found that date back to around 230,000 years ago. The cave and surrounding area where they were found has since been named the Bontnewydd Palaeolithic site and has yielded a number of Neanderthal artifacts including bones, teeth and tools. This site, though not the only Neanderthal site in Wales, has been acclaimed as important because it marks the farthest northwestern point of early Neanderthal activity in Europe. These deeply entrenched Mousterian Neanderthals would have hunted along the vale of Elwy to survive during one of the many interglacial periods of the paleolithic.

In addition to the Bontnewydd Palaeolithic site a number of caves on the Gower Peninsula have produced some of the richest treasure troves of Aurignacian Neanderthal materials in all of the United Kingdom. Much of these come from the limestone caves in the region, one of which housed the Red Lady of Paviland who we'll cover in another blogpost because the Red Lady was not a Neanderthal (nor was it a lady but that's beside the point). Much of the Aurignacian Culture in fact points more to Modern European Humans, but there is some scant evidence that the Neanderthals occupied these caves at some period before the Aurignacian arrival.

Excavating in Coygan Cave.
Another site that has produced numerous Neanderthal artifacts in Wales centers around Coygan Cave. Coygan Cave seems to have been used by Neanderthals roughly 60,000 - 40,000 years ago towards the end of the Neanderthal reign in Europe. A number of hand axes from the Neanderthal period have been found in this area. As the Neanderthals were dying out for probably an amalgamation of reasons, the cave was occupied by hyenas, who probably were laughing at the Neanderthal's misfortune as we all know that hyenas are generally mean-spirited. It was about this time too that Modern Europeans starting showing up in Wales. To avenge their cousins the modern humans of Wales would eventually drive the hyenas from the isles. Who's laughing now?