Saturday, December 18, 2010

Temple at Tarxien

Sir Themistocles Zammit’s excavations at Tarxien, the most complex of the Maltese temples, produced significant information regarding the cult practices associated with these buildings. At Tarxien it seems that the interior shrines were true altars. In the recess in the base of one of them Sir Themistocles found a flint knife and, together with charred bones of sheep and cattle, some shells and pottery. Large stone basins were found in the temples and traces of burning on the floors suggest that the sacrifices may have been performed there. The divinity of Tarxien is surely represented by an over life-size statue of a woman preserved only in its lower part with oddly bulbous legs. The figure wore a fleece skirt. Smaller figures are preserved in their entirety. Representations of phalloi (male organs) and vegetation, as well as the sheep, cattle and pig already mentioned, show that the cult of the goddess had a definite fertility aspect. There are numerous figurines of women including some asleep on couches.

Some information about the layout of the furnishings survived in the temples of Tarxien, which were excavated between 1915 and 1919. The lower half of an enormous statue of a “fat lady” was found in the temple precinct. Next to it is an altar within which the remains of food were found. The altar faced the carved figures of animals that may have represented sacrifices. Deeper within the recesses of the temple, excavators found the images of people who may have been priests, caches of precious pendants and even architectural models of the temples themselves.

Inside the caves the Tarxien builders leveled the earlier burials to provide a fresh (albeit bone-riddled) surface for the installation of stone monuments. The niches and smaller caverns were subdivided with pairs of upright stones and rough walls, which created additional, enclosed places for burials. At the center of the main cavern, the Maltese builders set up megalithic slabs in a semicircle, at the heart of which was a huge carved stone bowl. The stonework surrounding this bowl was elegant, and there is evidence that some of it included animal figures and pitted patterns. The builders did not apply red ocher as liberally as their predecessors did, and they painted only a few of the nearby slabs. Available supplies were made to stretch further.

Bodies were buried in the compartments around this central shrine. One noteworthy burial site was a natural cavity in the cave floor where hundreds of bodies were laid to rest. At first sight, the remains seemed incomplete and in confusion. Our further work has shown, however, that the bones from many bodies had been carefully sorted and stacked by type: skulls in one place, femurs in another and so on. This pattern suggests that as part of the burial ritual, old bodies being removed from compartments were disarticulated.
The prehistoric Maltese of the Tarxien period seem to have invested most of their artisanship and craft into cult objects that were more than mere grave gifts. For example, a ceramic strainer and a unique stone sculpture were unearthed from near the stone bowl in the megalithic shrine. The strainer was probably meant to be used with the bowl, perhaps for straining out unwanted objects or for sprinkling liquids onto bodies.

The sculpture shows a beautifully carved and painted pair of obese figures. They are seated on an intricately carved bed, daubed with red ocher, that shows woven struts on the underside and curvilinear designs on the upper. The fat figures are not explicitly male or female. They wear the familiar pleated skirts, painted black, of the finest Maltese cult figures. The head of one figure sports a haircut that includes a pigtail at the back. The other’s head is missing. Both figures hold objects on their laps: one a tiny dressed person (who may be a baby), the other a cup.

Aside from the sculpture’s fine craftsmanship, it is astonishing because the portrayal of several humans together is almost unknown from that period in Europe: even individual figures, other than the fat ladies, are uncommon. A few artifacts with features that are reminiscent of this sculpture have been found elsewhere in ancient Malta, such as the fragments of carved beds and the terra-cotta Sleeping Lady of the Hypogeum. Nevertheless, this discovery is one of the earliest and most thought-provoking groups of sculpture from European prehistory.

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