Enigmatic statuettes from the Temple period

National Museum of Archaeology, Malta

Who are the persons portrayed by the prehistoric statuettes and what do they represent?

Megalithic temples’ culture 
The megalithic temples’ culture on the Maltese Islands is quite a unique one. Apart from the megalithic structure, these prehistoric buildings have yielded a number of representational human statues.

These statues are closely associated solely with this period. These statues have been the subject of a number of debates for decades.

Since we are dealing with artefacts from a prehistoric period, we can only hypothesise as to what they represented and how they were used.

Nomenclature
These statues have in the past been referred to by a multitude of names

This includes ‘The Fat Ladies’, ‘Mother Goddesses’, ‘Fertility Goddesses’, and ‘Deities’, amongst others.

These names were mainly given due to the physical naked appearance of these statues.

Irrespective of whether they are standing or seated their corpulence is very evident and the main emphasis lies in the lower part of their body, more specifically their thighs.

Their corpulence is what gave rise to the different names attributed to them.

In the past, their stature was immediately associated with fertility, especially since their thighs are more robust than the upper body.

Moreover, due to the fact that these statues were found in a ‘temple’ context, our predecessors thought it opportune to refer to them as Goddesses.

Fertility
For the Neolithic people, who were already practicing farming, fertility must have been a very important factor.

It meant continuation of life, the same life which depended on agriculture and animal husbandry.

These statues could have represented deities to whom sacrifices were carried out in return for good harvests of crops and a healthy life.

Standing Statues
Irrespective of the size and medium used, one is immediately struck by the similarities in the posture.

Thickset from the waist down, their buttocks and thighs are rendered in outsized proportions.

A particular feature is that most of the standing statues have the same arm position; their right arm is lying by their right side whilst the left arm seems to be resting on the folds of their waist.

There are only few exceptions to this posture.

Whether or not all the statues were made by the same artist or group of artists is impossible to tell, as is also very difficult to ascertain whether this arm position had a significant meaning.

Seated Statues
The seated version of these statues places more emphasis on the thighs and buttocks.

These statues are shown with their feet tucked underneath them and their hands resting on their thighs.

Compared to the obese body, the hands seem to be relatively small and dainty. Most of them do not seem to be clothed whereas a few of them seem to be wearing a dress.

The posture of the attired ones is different and they seem to be sitting on something elevated like a bench, as opposed to sitting on the floor with their feet tucked under them.

One striking feature amongst these statues is that they are all headless. Whereas in some cases it could be that the head was broken off, in most of them it is evident that they were purposely made.

In fact in the place of the head one finds a clean hollowed socket with holes at the front and the back. This indicates that heads were placed in the socket and secured in place.

No heads that fit these statues have been found. Could it be that the heads were made of wood, a perishable material? Or were they broken after they fulfilled their purpose?

Purpose
When one considers that these statues were found in the megalithic structures, commonly referred to as ‘temples’, one can only conclude that these statues formed part of some sort of ritual.

Four of the seated statues were found as a group under a step leading to the one-apsed annex of Ħaġar Qim.

Were they placed there as safekeeping or were they used for some type of ritual? The interchangeability of the heads seems to indicate that they were used repeatedly.

Although past nomenclatures always indicated that these statues were female, a possible gender re-evaluation is provoking. Upon closer look, one realizes that they could represent either man or woman.

The fact that some of them are shown with a skirt or a dress, does not automatically make them female. If taken as being asexual, gender could have been attributed to them once the head was placed in the socket.

Two stone fragments from Tarxien Temples represent the lower parts of seated figures.

A closer look shows that where the skirt seems to end, and carved on what could be a sort of bench, there is a row of very fine but smaller human representations.

One can only hypothesize whether they represented children, people needing divine protection or deities of lesser importance.

Temple Monuments
The largest statue in our national collection was discovered in a very prominent position inside Tarxien Temples.

Old excavation photos show the broken statue in close proximity to a number of spiral decorated stone blocks.

In line with it there was a standing menhir which tapered down closer to the ground and which seems to have been given the same importance as the standing statue.

Unfortunately both were found with their upper part broken so we cannot ascertain their original heights.

Most of these statues were carved out of globigerina limestone, a local stone which is relatively easy to carve.

There are only a few other examples of such statues which were carved out of alabaster but these are much smaller in size. There are also a few fragments of clay statues.

Credits: All media
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