The Sleeping Lady: a unique Maltese icon

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

By National Museum of Archaeology, Malta

The Sleeping Lady Front closeupNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

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.

Tarxien Colossal StatueNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

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

The Sleeping Lady FrontNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

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

The Sleeping Lady Front sideNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

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

Hpogeum - Trilithon Upper LevelĦal Saflieni Hypogeum

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

The Sleeping Lady BackNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

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 Sleeping Lady Front sideNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

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

The Sleeping Lady Underneath - bed detailNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

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.

The Sleeping Lady Front closeupNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

Neolithic burial custom

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

Hypogeum - Lower LevelĦal Saflieni Hypogeum

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

Hypogeum - Middle levelĦal Saflieni Hypogeum

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.

Model of rock-cut tombNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

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.

Trapezoidal pendantNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

Materials used

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

Hypogeum - Lower LevelĦal Saflieni Hypogeum

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

Red Ochre Spiral DesignĦal Saflieni Hypogeum

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.

Trapezoidal pendantNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

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.

Trapezoidal pendantNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

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.

Xemxija Rock-cut tombs Tomb 5National Museum of Archaeology, Malta

Rock-cut tombs

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

Xemxija Rock-cut tombsNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

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 megalithic structuresNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

Xemxija structures

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

Xemxija Rock-cut tombs Tomb 5National Museum of Archaeology, Malta

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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