The Sleeping Lady: a unique Maltese icon

National Museum of Archaeology, Malta

A look at the emblematic statuette that was unearthed from the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum

Who is this mysterious lady?
The Sleeping lady is an artistic masterpiece created in the Neolithic period. This represents one of those aspects of the islands' prehistoric development denoting the uniqueness and cultural independence limited only to this spot on the planet.

The figurines found in a burial context have some features which are very similar to those which were found in above ground temples.

One particular statuette which draws a lot of attention is ‘The Sleeping lady’ which was unearthed from the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum.

This clay figurine which was discovered in the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, represents a woman in a very natural sleeping position.

Since it was found in a burial place a number of hypotheses surround this statuette, the most common ones being that she personifies death, the eternal

It is very visible that she is lying on her side, naked from the waist upwards.

The lower part of her body is covered in a skirt which has decorations in parts, giving the impression of embroidery.

Whereas the majority of the statues found during the Temple period have a short bob-style hair, the Sleeping Lady’s hairstyle is very distinct.

A close inspection will reveal that the crown seems to have been shaved off and her hair only starts from the back of her head.

The couch on which the Sleeping Lady is lying seems to be sagging under her weight.

Great detail was also given to the decoration of the underside of the couch giving us a clear indication of how beds or couches were made during the Neolithic period.

Neolithic burial custom
During the Neolithic period, throughout the central Mediterranean, the deceased were buried in underground rock-cut tombs.

During the Neolithic period, throughout the central Mediterranean, the deceased were buried in underground rock-cut tombs.

These tombs were made by digging a vertical shaft into the ground and when desired depth was reached, a chamber roughly oval in shape was dug from the foot of the shaft.

The body was placed inside the chamber along with decorated pots, and possibly other goods of which no records were found due to their perishable nature.

The positioning of the body varied but a common one was that of a crouched position usually associated with the foetal position.

Materials used
Resources used were made from material found locally and others which were specifically imported from elsewhere.

Ochre is a natural iron oxide which occurs in yellow or red pigments. Locally the red pigment was used more abundantly.

Apart from being used to decorate pottery, it also used to be sprinkled over the corpse upon burial. In such contexts it probably represented the belief in life after death.

A number of artefacts associated with personal ornaments were found in such burial places. A number of pendants in a trapezoidal form made from jadeite were found in the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum.

Along with these pendants other necklaces and bracelets made of pieces of shell, stones and animal bones were found. Jadeite is not a local resource and would have been imported.

Rock-cut tombs
Small, roughly oval-shaped tombs with particular means of access were cut in rock in order to bury the dead

Single chamber rock cut tombs gradually developed into more complex underground burial sites like the Xemxija tombs, a complex of seven tombs which date to ca 3800-3600 BC.

Xemxija structures
A site of archaeological importance on the eastward slope of the hill overlooking St Paul's Bay on its north side

The later Neolithic phases saw the further enlargement of such tombs to accommodate more people, culminating in impressive examples like the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum or the Xagħra Stone Circle.

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