Extraordinary details unveiling the history of Malta

National Museum of Archaeology, Malta

An overview of the different phases in Maltese prehistory and their respective characteristics

Over the last century there were numerous studies outlining the various phases of the Neolithic Period. Most of these phases were established through the analysis of decorations of vessels.

Prior to the time that scientific analysis on materials was used to help with dating the excavated artefacts, archaeologists used pottery as a means of identification.

They relied mainly on the decorations of the vessels, using as the main identification their decoration. Fabric type and texture were also taken into consideration.

The Neolithic Period is made up of a number of phases ranging from 5200BC until 700BC
Għar Dalam Cave
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.

The earliest pottery discovered in Malta dates to the Għar Dalam phase (5200-4500 BC).

The fine ware is grey or dark brown in colour and has incised rows and some chevrons, some of which still have white inlay in the incisions.

The thicker ware has less refined incisions or simple finger pinching marks.

Skorba Temples
The site of Skorba lies in the hamlet of Żebbiegħ, on the outskirts of Mġarr, overlooking the nearby valley and providing a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape.

The pottery from the next phase of Skorba is distinguishable in two varieties.

Grey Skorba (4500-4400 BC) which as the name implies is grey and mainly undecorated and the Red Skorba (4400-4100 BC) which is covered in a brilliant red slip.

The decoration during this phase is generally in the form of C or S incisions.

A number of prehistoric remains were found in a site known as Ta' Trapna iż-Żgħira.

The first schematic anthropomorphic decorations on pottery date to the Żebbuġ phase (4100-3700 BC). These figures are rendered by means of linear incisions.

Other decorations are mostly arc shaped and are either incised in the pottery or else painted in red lines on a cream slip.

Ta’ Ħaġrat Temples
Set in the heart of Mġarr, a village in Northwest Malta, and smaller than most other sites of a similar nature, Ta’ Ħaġrat is home to two well-preserved structures.  The complex contains two adjacent structures.

The Mġarr phase (3800-3600 BC) potter does not seem to have favoured the painted decoration as his predecessor.

The decorations on the pottery are mostly linear with thin scratches giving the impression of fringes.

Some of these incisions are filled with white inlay and sometimes bearing traces of red ochre on top.

Ġgantija Temples
The Ġgantija temple complex is a unique prehistoric monument, situated at the centre of an extraordinary archaeological landscape, the Xagħra plateau on the island of Gozo.

The Ġgantija phase (3600 – 3200 BC) pottery decoration is similar to the Mġarr phase designs.

They are distinctive in their cross-hatching and lightly scratched lines. It is very probable that these lines were made only to provide a base for the red ochre to adhere to.

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 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.

These scratches lines were filled with white paste then covered with red ochre.

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.

The final phase in the Temple period is the Tarxien phase (3150-2500 BC) which extended its decoration onto architectural stone.

The decoration on the pottery seems to be mostly a continuation of the previous phase but in a lighter manner.

Even though found on the same site of Tarxien temples, the Bronze Age artefacts recovered from this site is completely different to the Tarxien phase one.

These Tarxien Cemetery artefacts (2400-1500 BC) are heavily decorated and most of the vessels are covered in parallel zigzag bands and cross hatchings.

The Borg in-Nadur (1500-700 BC) pottery is not as decorated as the ones from Tarxien Cemetery.

One distinctive pattern that emerges during this phase is red or dark brown painted dots in the inner parts of the vessels, usually with a thick band round the rim.

The Bahrija phase (900-700 BC) ware is also very singular.

These are decorated with delicate incised square meanders. Such incisions are very similar to those on artefacts excavated from Calabria, South West Italy.

Throughout the ages, the decorations extended to artefacts other than pottery, namely carved statues and temple architecture. 

Tarxien Temples, being the latest of these megalithic structures, boasts the highest amount and most intricate of thee decorative designs.

The original decorated stone megaliths from this temple were brought in the museum in the 1960s for conservation purposes.

Although nowadays the stones are mainly decorated with spirals, there is enough evidence to show that the stones were originally decorated with pitted holes.

There are instances where one can still see these pitted decorations in parts of the stones. Such holes could have been made with bone points.

The spiral decorations on the stones come in a variety of designs and all are unique. Some of the stone have a border around the spirals that makes the reliefs even more prominent.

It is pertinent to note that all the decorations would have been carved with the primitive non metallic tools available they had at that time, namely bone points, flint, chert or other stone tools.

It seems that the stones were decorated in situ.

As the accompanying image shows, the stone on the left hand side seems to have been put in place against the stone on the right.

The decoration on this latter stone contours the adjoining stone and the rest is undecorated.

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