Astonishing Megalithic Temples: the Tarxien Complex

Tarxien Temples

A look at history, details and secrets of the complex built at the height of Malta’s late Neolithic period

The Temples
The megalithic temple complex of Tarxien was constructed at the height of Malta’s late Neolithic period, on a site that was used over a span of several millennia.

The value of the Tarxien temples lies in the wealth of relics and traces of the past that have been transmitted down to our generation.

The uniqueness of the Tarxien megaliths has earned them an undisputed place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Building

The Tarxien Temples site consists of a complex of four megalithic structures built between 3600 and 2500 BC and re-used between 2400 and 1500 BC.

The earliest of the four structures, located at the easternmost end of the site.

It is built sometime between 3600 and 3200 BC, survives only to near ground level although its five-apse plan is still clearly visible.

The remains of this building suggest that the structure was originally small in comparison to other temples. The eastern half of this temple has not survived at all.

The South Temple was one of the major temples that were constructed during the Tarxien phase (3000 – 2500 BC).

Originally designed to a four-apse plan, it is the most highly decorated of megalithic buildings with its relief sculpture and the lower part of a colossal statue of a skirted figure.

The extensive restoration works that took place after the excavations of 1915 and 1916 actually highlight some of the important alterations that had been made to the original layout of the temple during prehistory.

The reconstructed gateway now hides most of the interiors of the apses.

Remains of cremation found at the centre of the South temple indicate that the site was re-used as a Bronze Age cremation cemetery, between 2400 and 1500 BC.

The elegant chambers of the temples became part crematorium and part cemetery.

The Central Temple was constructed with its unique six-apse plan and contains evidence of arched roofing.

It also exhibits a more refined use of stone which clearly entailed sophisticated quarrying, refined stone-dressing and highly developed techniques.

The entire Tarxien Temple compound gives the impression that segregation or differentiation may have been a prominent element in the day-to-day business of these imposing buildings.

Alternatively, one can think of this careful partitioning of space as a way of defining the different functions of individual interior space

East Temple, with its well-cut slab walls and ‘oracle’ holes, were built between 3150 and 2500 BC. The craftsmanship seen in the East Temple is very similar to the Central Temple. This temple stands out for its lack of refined interiors such as those of the previous buildings.

Discoveries

The Tarxien temples are the most spectacular of all the Maltese temples in terms of art and internal embellishments. For decades, scholars have been split as to the sources of Maltese prehistoric art.

While links with the eastern Mediterranean, or with Western Europe have been discounted, it would seems that the inspiration for Maltese prehistoric art is a product of the archipelago.

The large stone bowl that stand in the first aose left of the Central Temple was originally carved from a single stone.

A secluded chamber was set aside and decorated with large images of bulls and a sow with suckling pigs. The images were carved on the large megaliths that form the south wall of the chamber.

The colossal statue is remarkable because of its sheer size. The statue appears to be the oldest monumental anthropomorphic representation known from Mediterranean prehistory.

A unique feature of the South Temple was an elaborate decorated altar, consisting of a mensa and a niche that reflected the typical enclosed trilithon structure known from various Maltese temples.

Excavating the Site

Discovered in 1913 by local farmers, the site was extensively excavated between 1915 and 1919, with a number of minor interventions carried out in the 1920s, by Sir Themistocles Zammit, Director of Museums at the time.

The excavation of the Tarxien temples by Zammit was an epoch-making event that put Malta on the world map of archaeology. The publication of these excavations made an impact on the world of scholarship

Overnight, the wonders of Malta’s megalithic architecture and art were placed on the same international level as that traditionally occupied by Stonehenge and Minoan Crete.

An elevated walkway was completed in 2012. This provides visitors with the opportunity to view the prehistoric remains from a unique viewpoint.

The construction of a Shelter, funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) 2007-2013 as part of the Archaeological Heritage Conservation Project, was also finalised in 2015.

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