Different ways humans were depicted in Maltese prehistory

National Museum of Archaeology, Malta

A look at the human representations created by Maltese prehistoric societies

The human figure has always been an interesting subject in world art throughout the ages. Prehistory provides various ways of how the human figure is represented. 

The evidence of Malta’s first inhabitants dates back to circa 5200 BC. This period, the Early Neolithic, along with the successive Temple period, forms part of the Maltese Neolithic period which ends circa 2500BC.

The sophisticated societies living during the Maltese prehistory produced an abundant assortment of remnants ranging from architectural structures such as temples, tools and artistic craftsmanship including pottery and statues.

Some of the most remarkable remains are the ones representing the human form.

Early Neolithic Period
The Early Neolithic period in Malta (5000BC - 4100BC) is characterized by four distinct phases: Għar Dalam phase, Grey Skorba phase, Red Skorba phase and Żebbug phase 

These are the earliest human representations found to date on the Maltese islands. They are all made out of clay except the largest one which is made of stone.

Characteristic of this period are the triangular forms which make up the various body parts.

These can be safely attributed as appertaining to the female sex.

Skorba Temples
Skorba Temple  is found in the Northern part of Malta and was excavated by Dr David Trump and his team in the 1960s. Even though parts of it had been dug up earlier, the site seems to have been intact.

This carved stone is possibly a representation of a human head. This was found in close association of a tomb.

It could have possibly been placed at the entrance of a tomb to ward off evil spirits or to serve as a tombstone to mark such a burial place.

The Żebbug tombs were discovered in 1947.

This group of five early rock tombs were discovered during works on the foundations of a building in a field called ‘ta’ Trapna iż-Żgħira’ in the locality of Żebbug.

The tombs scattered over an area of fifty square metres yielded human remains, pottery and small objects of stone bone and shell.

Temple Period
The Temple Period in Malta is between 3800BC and 2500BC. These are characterized by four phases: Mġarr phase, Ġgantija phase, Saflieni phase and Tarxien phase

The artistic creativity shown via the human representation during this period is remarkable. These statues vary in size from 4mm to 2.7m and also vary in materials used to create them.

They have been called amongst other terms, Mother Goddess, Fat Ladies, Deities and Priests. The fact that most of them are corpulent is in itself an indication of how the Neolithic people perceived their ‘deity’.

Corpulence was up to some decades ago perceived as a sign of good health and fertility.

This is considered to be one of the masterpieces on display at the National Museum of Archaeology.

The proportions of this masterwork are so natural and the attention given to minute details such as the back and shoulder muscles, confirms that the artisan was truly a professional.

The Ħaġar Qim Temples
Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra are found in the garigue landscape along the south-western coast of Malta, 2 kilometers from the village of Qrendi.

Scenic sea and country views welcome anyone visiting this temple complex, just as it welcomed the Neolithic community.

All the megalithic buildings dating to this period were erected using mainly the local Globigerina limestone and at times the Upper globigerina limestone.

The Globigerina limestone is easy to carve, but this also makes it susceptible to weathering.

Two statuettes seem to show expectant figures. One of these statuettes has one hand pointing to her genitals whilst the other head is behind her head.

Small pieces of white shell are stuck in various parts of the body. On its back it has incised lines, which are hypothesised as representing the months of pregnancy. Others attribute them to conditions caused by malnutrition.

Phallic representations were very common in prehistoric communities. They must have been a symbolic portrayal of manliness and fertility.

All of the phallic representations found on the Maltese islands during the Neolithic period come for the temple sites which seem to indicate that they formed part of some sort of ritual.

This statue if complete would have stood at nearly three metres high. It is the largest statue ever found locally and considering its positioning when it was found inside the temples we can hypothesise that this represented a very prominent person.

The rest of the statue was never found and in all probability it was slowly broken to bits by the farmer who ploughed the fields regularly before the temples were excavated.

The Tarxien Temples
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.These are the most complex and elaborately decorated temples.

Carved animal friezes and spiral stone blocks were part of the furniture of this megalithic structure.

There are a few stone and clay heads in the national collection which do not seem to form part of any of the statues.

A distinct feature is the almond shaped eyes which are clearly seen in most of the faces. Another distinct characteristic is a prominent nose.

The epitome of humanity. This very small clay artefact shows two people embracing each other, possibly kissing.

This artefact proves that emotions are an integral part of human relationships, irrespective of the era one is living in.

This statuette is, to date, the only artefact from the Maltese prehistoric period which represents human emotions.

Bronze Age period
The Bronze Age period in Malta (2400BC - 700BC) is characterized by three distinct phases: Tarxien Cemetery phase, Borġ in-Nadur phase and Baħrija phase 

These discoid figurines give a resemblance to schematic human persons in a seated position. Although lacking any facial characteristics they seem to be the only human representation from the Bronze Age period.

Moulded in clay they have a Bronze Age characteristic decoration of hatched triangles which is also found on the pottery of that period. Another two small statues have more human characteristics.

The people inhabiting our islands in this period seem to have disregarded the megalithic structures of the previous temple Period, with the main exception being Tarxien Temples. The centre of the Southern part of the temple was utilised by the Bronze Age people as a cemetery.

A sterile layer of silt divided the two periods and the finds in this layer consisted mainly of cremated remains in urns accompanied by a number of personal ornaments like jewellery and a large number of pottery vessels.

Materials used
Different materials were used in the execution of these human representations.

Clay and stone, a common local resource, are the predominant materials used by the prehistoric inhabitants.

The Maltese Blue Clay varies in colour and is found in various areas of the islands. The inclusion of water to the clay and some ground organic substances, such as stone or sand, increases its resistance to heat.

Animal bones were often used to depict human representations. These bones were normally carved into small statuettes. Moreover, other materials such as alabaster were imported to carve some of the statuettes.

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