A look at how animals were represented in Maltese prehistory

Animals were always an important provider to the human being ranging from food to transport to a source of resource. Prehistory provides various ways of how animals are represented. 

From incisions on pieces of pottery to whole carved animal friezes, these artefacts give us an insight of the type of animals that these prehistoric people were familiar with.

The earliest animal representations date to the period associated with the first settlers on the Maltese islands, the Għar Dalam phase (5200 BC), named after the site from where they were excavated.

They bear characteristics of this period as attested by the decorations on them. These are very similar to the ones found on pottery from the same period.

Għar Dalam
Għar Dalam is a natural waterworn cave in the lower coralline limestone, located in the southeast part of Malta about 500 meters from St. George’s Bay, Birzebbuga.

Animal bones from this multi-period site date back to the Pleistocene era, more commonly known as the Ice Age.

Bones of dwarf elephants and mice of large proportions seem to indicate that animals that crossed over physically adapted themselves. Human evidence on the Maltese islands comes at a later stage, around 5200 BC.

Two animal friezes were found at Tarxien temples. Carved with a lot of precision out of the local globigerina limestone, the smaller but broken one shows one row of four horned sheep or goats, one pig and a ram.

The larger of the two, which is complete, shows two rows of horned sheep or goats.

It seems as if the animals are in a procession and there is enough archaeological evidence to indicate that animal sacrifice was taking place inside the temples.

Tarxien 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 ‘sacrificial altar’, from Tarxien temples gives us ample evidence to corroborate the practice of animal sacrifice.

This altar, which was situated close to the colossal statue in situ, is made up of a trilithon flanked by two uprights which resembles the temple’s entrance.

Upon removal of the semi-circular plug in the middle front part, a number of domestic animal bones, pot sherds, shells and a long flint blade were found.

One of the carved stone in the museum stands out for its decoration.

Buġibba Temple
Buġibba Temple is a megalithic temple in Buġibba, limits of St. Paul's Bay, Malta. It is located in the grounds of the Dolmen Resort Hotel.

Whereas most of the decorated stones are covered in spirals, this particular one excavated from the Buġibba temple, a site very close to the sea, has fish carved on it.

When this site was discovered in 1928, parts of it had unfortunately already been destroyed, and only few parts of the temple’s apses survived.

The stone carved with fish was one of the three surviving stone ‘altars’. One of the other two had a spiral decoration.

The remains of this temple are nowadays to be found in a hotel courtyard.

Animals as a food resource
One can safely assume that some of the animals were a source of food supply.

Numerous animal bones were found throughout the prehistoric period.

Such bones give us an insight of the types of animals present on the islands at that time. These include goats, sheep, cows and pigs.

Animals as transportation aides
It is very probable that animals were also used to aid in the movement of the megaliths

The megaliths were transported from the nearby quarries to the actual temple sites.

Given the weight of most of these megaliths we can safely assume that the larger animals would have greatly assisted in the building of these magnificent free standing monuments.

Animal bones
Animal bones are quite abundant in excavations. 

Although most of them are found in their natural state, a number of them were worked into tools.

A number of bone points and sewing needles were found. The bone points were probably used to incise the decoration on pottery and stone. Others could have been used to sew animal skin to make clothing.

Animal Pendants
A number of animal pendants were found within burial contexts, which means that people were being buried with their jewelry. 

A number of them, made out of shell are in the form of birds or ducks.

There is also a small collection of pendants in the form of cattle. These are made out of greenstone and alabaster, materials which are not found locally.

Although very little evidence of fish bones were found in past excavations this could be attributed to a number of reasons.

Their fragile nature makes it easy for them to break and less easy to retrieve during excavations.

In the past, excavations of the temples during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, took more the form of clearance of a site rather than the meticulous scientific excavations carried out nowadays.

Nevertheless there are some Bronze Age necklaces made from fish vertebrae in the collection.

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