Unveiling an underground prehistoric cemetery

Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum

A look inside one of most famous Malta's World Heritage Site

The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, or underground cavity, is an underground prehistoric cemetery used from around 4000BC to 2500BC. It lies on the summit of a hill in Paola, not far from the Grand Harbour and is one of the most extraordinary archaeological sites in the world.
The Site

The hypogeum consists of halls, chambers and passages hewn out of the living globigerina limestone, covering an area of 500 square metres.

The rock-cut chambers are of a great variety of shapes and sizes with different standards of workmanship and finish, consistently improving as one goes down from one level to the next.

The complex is grouped in three levels: the upper level (3600-3300 BC), the middle level (3300-3000 BC), and the lower level (3000-2400 BC).

Initially, around 3600 BC, some natural cavities were adopted as a repository for the bones of the dead.

As the cavities filled up, new chambers were progressively cut deeper into the rock, and parts of it were carved in a clear imitation of the temples built above ground.

It has been calculated that around 7,000 persons were buried there, century after century.

The upper level consists of a large hollow with a central passage and burial chambers cut on each side. One of the chambers still contains original burial deposits.

In an oval pit one metre deep were found two limestone heads and a standing figure.

Some of the smoothly-finished chambers of the middle level, such as the so-called ‘Main Hall’ and ‘Holy of Holies’ are carved to give the impression of built masonry, imitating the interiors of the temples built above ground.

The so-called Oracle Chamber resonates when deep sounds are made at its inner end. The ceiling of this chamber is very beautifully decorated.

The Holy of Holies has a magnificent carved facade. Four uprights support a lintel and form a porthole entrance. This is framed within a larger trilithon, on top of which a course of corbelling supports a flat ceiling.

The workmanship becomes more impressive when one considers that they were meticulously carved with flint and stone tools.

The Lower Level, which was probably created as a place for the burial of the dead, is made up of a maze. The deepest room has four side niches and lies 10.6 metres under road level.

Gifts for the Dead
The dead were buried in dark soil, accompanied by offerings of special objects. These are just a few ...

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 Salfieni phase (3300-3000BC) is characterised by a new decorative motif curved double lines, with vertical lines in between. One of the most outstanding decorations on pottery dates from this period, where a plate is decorated with scratched representations of quadrupeds, of which some are bulls.

This limestone head is one of two that were found in a pit together with a headless statue.

Conservation and Interpretation

The nomination to inscribe the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum on the World Heritage List was submitted by the Maltese Government in 1979, thus taking on the responsibility of protecting the site on behalf of the international community.

Malta received UNESCO assistance, in the form of expert missions to the site, in order to establish a programme for the conservation for Ħal Saflieni.

The site consists of a series of rock-cut chambers set on three different levels.

The Upper Level was the earliest to be created and may have had a monumental structure marking its entrance.

Due to the damage sustained during the building of overlying houses, the extent of this entrance is unknown.

The walls and ceilings of some of the chambers are painted with designs in red ochre.

It is the preservation of these paintings has presented the biggest challenge to the site’s managers over the years and remains the site’s main conservation concern.

In 1990 the Upper Level was then covered by a roof structure, and protected by a glass partition to create a buffer between the Hypogeum’s micro-climate and the ambient conditions of the visitor areas.

An environmental control system was designed and installed to control the micro-climate of the site to the required levels.

Following several problems to control the environment of the site, a new environmental management system has been designed.

On the 28th of April 2017, the new project was inaugurated.This project is an integral part of a project supported by a grant from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA Grants 2009 – 2014 implemented between 2013 and 2017.

The EEA Grant complimented by national funds, has made it possible for Heritage Malta to conduct more studies to assess the current condition of the site and to survey micro-biological activity within it.

Consequently, new means of interpretation was developed making the site more accessible to different audiences.

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