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 Location: Tarxien, Malta.  Grid Reference: 35 52' 05" N, 14 05' 45" E.

 

The Hypogeum, Malta: (Ancient-wisdom.co.uk)      The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni.

Carved from solid rock. When discovered it contained the bodies of over 7,000 people (5). It is at least three storey's deep, and contains rock-cut features such as a 'speaking chamber', trilithons, lintelled-doorways, a large cistern and a 'holy of holies' surrounded by 'embryonic' chambers.

The Hypogeum is one of the greatest remaining structures from prehistory. Its pristine condition allows us to see the past through the eyes of our ancestors.

 (Click here for map of the site)

 

 

   The Hypogeum - An Overview:

Chronology

 At its earliest, the Hypogeum' is dated at around 4,000 BC (1).

 

What was the purpose of the Hypogeum:

The hypogeum offers us a rare glimpse at the prehistoric  synthesis of funerary, solar-worship and shamanic traditions. The central chamber has several small rounded cubicles carved into the walls which it is currently suggested, were originally intended for 'living' people as part of a ritual, in which they would have had to lie inside in a foetal position (out of necessity). It is reported that from within these small cubicles, echoes from the 'speaking' chamber reverberate into a rhythm that is similar to the human heartbeat.

 

The Skeletons:

When it was first discovered, the skeletons of over 7,000 people were found near the inside chambers at the entrance. Today apparently only six skulls survive. They appeared 'elongated' and one lacked the Fossa median (the join that runs along the top of the skull) (2).

Peet (4) says of Hal Saflieni that: 'When the museum authorities took over the Hypogeum practically all the chambers were filled to within a short distance of the roofs with a mass of reddish soil, which proved to contain the remains of thousands of human skeletons. In other words, Hal Saflieni was used as a burial place, though this may not have been its original purpose. The bones lay for the most part in disorder, and so thickly that in the space of about 4 cubic yards lay the remains of no less than 120 individuals. One skeleton, however,  was found intact, lying on the right side in the crouched position, i.e. with arms and knees bent up...The bodies themselves were so damaged with damp that only ten skulls could be saved whole'.

'That the bones at Hal Saflieni were placed there when free from flesh is probable from the closeness with which they were packed together. (4)

The Mysterious Disappearance of the Maltese Skulls.

It was public knowledge that until 1985 a number of skulls, found in pre-historic Maltese temples at Taxien, Ggantja and Hal Saflienti, were exposed in the Archaeological Museum in Valletta. They have since disappeared without a trace, along with the 7,000 from the Hypogeum.

'Only the photographs taken by the Maltese researcher Dr. Anton Mifsud and his colleague, Dr. Charles Savona Ventura, remain to testify the existence of the skulls and prove their abnormality. Books written by the two Maltese doctors, illustrate a collection of skulls that show peculiar abnormalities and/or pathologies. Sometimes inexistent cranial knitting lines, abnormally developed temporal partitions, drilled and swollen occiputs as following recovered traumas, but above all, a strange, lengthened skull, bigger and more peculiar than the others, lacking of the median knitting. The presence of this finding leads to a number of possible hypotheses in consideration of other finds of similar skulls, from Egypt to South America, the particular deformity, unique in the panorama of medical pathology referred to such distant times, (we are talking about approximately 3000 BC) could be an exceptional discovery.

The skulls were all found in the Hal Saflienti hypogeum, where a sacred well was dedicated to the Mother Goddess and where also the small statue of a sleeping goddess was found, associated to a relic with a snake inscription on it. One in particular had a cranium showing a very pronounced dolichocephalous, in other words, a lengthened posterior part of the skullcap, besides the lack of median knitting, technically named "sagitta". This last detail has been considered "impossible" by medics and anatomists, not having analogous pathological cases in international medical literature. It is a characteristic that emphasizes the anomaly of this finding with the result of producing a natural lengthening of the cranium (not due to bandaging or boards as used in pre-Colombian civilizations)'.

It is proposed, on the basis of these findings, that the group of skulls found in the Hypogeum were representative of a group of peoples who were considered of importance (as attested to by the location of their discovery), and who had a natural genetic tendency for elongated skulls, were integrally involved in the activities of the temple builders of the time. Other skulls found in the Brochtorff circle (Hypogeum II), are considered to have had their heads bandaged in order to produce their cranial deformities.

(Extract from Hera Magazine, Italy: 1999)


"From an examination of the skeletons of the polished-stone age, it appears that the early inhabitants of Malta were a race of long-skulled people of lower medium height, akin to the early people of Egypt, who spread westward along the north coast of Africa, whence some went to Malta and Sicily and others to Sardinia and Spain."

From NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE January to June, 1920 VOLUME XXXVII

(More about Elongated Skulls and Cranial Deformation)
 

 

The Structure:

The entrance to the Hypogeum is through an unsuspecting doorway in an unsuspecting street. It was first discovered in 1902, when builders broke through whilst building foundations for a house. At first, the hole was covered over and the event was kept quiet but word of the discovery soon got out and the museum authorities moved in to protect it.

Note from the photo (right), that the Hypogeum, although underground, was built near the top of a natural hill overlooking the Marsa. The nearby Hal Tarxien, temple complex was was built higher still on the same face of the hill.

Although most of the Hypogeum is underground, the entrance to it was built with megaliths, placed in what was presumably the natural entrance of the original cave. Agius (5) mentions that the original entrance consisted of a large square opening in its centre (a porthole slab). This slab was later smashed and disposed of to make way for the new housing estate.

The first excavations in 1902 were performed by Fr. Magri, S.J. but unfortunately shortly after its commencement, he left the island to take a missionary post abroad where he died, leaving no records of his observations. Following this, the work was passed on to Prof. Themi Zammit, who worked on it for the next five years.

 
The 1990-1992 excavations suggested that there may have once been a monumental structure built directly on top. (3)
 
The 'speaking chamber' is a hole in the wall carved with a rounded interior surface. The result is an echo which reverberates throughout the hypogeum. It is speculated that this hole was part of a ceremonial process.
 
A design was painted in red-ochre onto the ceiling of one chamber which starts off on one side with a honeycomb design and transforms into an collection of 'floral' spirals on the other.
 
The hypogeum includes replicas of features from megalithic structures above ground on Malta. It is possible to see both trilithons and 'doorways' in the same style as those found in the numerous temples on the islands. It was also the place where the famous terracotta figure called the 'Sleeping Lady' was found (in a 'cistern' containing numerous offerings).
 

We can assume from the 'sleeping goddess' and the similarity in its design to other temple complexes that the Hypogeum is contemporary with the several large temple structures found on Malta.

Two of these clay figurines were found in the Hypogeum. One (right) in a sleeping position, and the other of similar design, but with the woman lying face down. They were both found in the main chamber .

 

It has been observed that the Maltese temples are often 'paired', which makes the nearby Tarxien temple the most likely candidate as a partner.

 

 

Acoustics in the Hypogeum:

Hypogeum cavities.

The Hypogeum on Malta contains a 'speaking chamber' which is a hole in the wall carved with a rounded interior surface. The result is that anything spoken into it produces an echo which reverberates throughout the hypogeum. It is speculated that this hole was part of a ceremonial process. Several small chambers (right) in the Hypogeum are also suspected of being used for ritual purposes as from within these cubicles, as from within them, echoes from the 'speaking' chamber reverberate into a rhythm that is similar to the human heartbeat.

Research into the archaeoacoustic properties of the Hypogeum have recently been examined by the SBRG, using different study parameters to re-discover forgotten technology which operates on the human emotional sphere. The effect on the psyche of ancient people through the acoustic proprieties suggests the builders of these sites had knowledge of this process and probably used it to enhance their rituals.  (Link to Article)

(More about Archaeo-acoustics)

 

 

Archaeo-astronomy:

The 'Holy of holies' within the heart of the hypogeum was designed so as to be illuminated by the annual winter solstice sunrise (the shortest day of the year), which would have originally shone through the entrance (as was the case with most other Maltese temples), and directly onto the furthest parts of the underground complex.

 

 

Engravings and Graffiti in the Hypogeum:

There are several noticeable examples of red-ochre 'spiral' and 'floral' patterns on the walls and ceilings of the Hypogeum. Variations on this theme can be seen in different chambers.  In the main hall the decorations appear as spirals enclosed in pentagons, whilst the design extends to the roof becoming composed of spirals interwoven with a honeycomb pattern. The five small 'side chambers' were painted with broad bands of red and black pigment. In addition to these designs, there are other less well known images including the following three:

The first noticeable item of ancient 'Graffiti' in the Hypogeum is carved onto a rock wall situated 'directly over the Trilithon that leads into a small cave'. The 'Graffiti' represents an abbreviated image of a 'fat lady' holding an axe: 'the axe is very clearly discerned but, owing to the weary state of the rock the fat lady is less easy to distinguish'.. Agius (5) states that 'Fat ladies' holding axes were found scratched in some ancient tombs in Spain and Portugal. Others are also found Sculptured and painted in Chieftains Chamber tombs in Champagne in France, they represent ladies holding an axe (see Gordon Childe Prehistory of European Society p. 139). Taken in this context, 'The Graffiti under discussion suggests that the chamber above is the resting place of a warrior'.

The second significant item of Graffiti is the sculpted imprint of a hand. It is found on the right sidewall within the entrance of a room under the heading of 'decorated room'. Agius (5) says:

'Similar hands, painted in positive in positive or negative, singles or grouped in a particular spot were found at Gargas and Castillo caves in Spain. Actually engraved hands are found in Montespan cave... It will be remembered that the hands of initiates were laid in or above a cave entrance to let the spirits know, they said, in the case of Churingas (spirit houses)'.

The third rarely mentioned item is a Bull, schematically painted in black pigment. It is situated on the right hand side wall of the Hoy of Holies. The bull has a hunch on its back, with short horns and a tail, resembles the bulls found carved on the stone blocks at the Tarxien Temples, and also is about the same size. (5)

 

 

The Hypogeum II:

A second Hypogeum (The Hypogeum II), has been discovered underneath the Xaghra Circle on Gozo Island.

 

 

Important Notice:

The Hypogeum is open on a Restricted Viewing basis only.

It is generally necessary to book ahead, possible via the following link:

WWW.heritagemalta.org

(During my last visit in April 2009 there was a six week waiting list.)

 

Gallery of Images: The Hypogeum.

The Trilithon Entrance. The Holiest of Holies. The 'Central' chamber. The offering pit or 'cistern'.
Connected chambers. Doorway and steps. to nowhere. Carved ceiling lintels. Side chambers.

 

(Other Prehistoric Underground Structures)

(The Earth-Mother-Earth Goddess)

(Other Maltese sites)

 

 

References:

1). D. Trump and D. Cilia. Malta: Prehistory and Temples. 2004. Midsea Books.
2). G. Hancock. Underworld Flooded Kingdoms of the Ice Age. 2002. Penguin.
3). http://www.landscape-perception.com/archaeoacoustics/
4). Eric. T. Peet.
5). A.J. Agius. The Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum. 1967. Guide Book.
 
Further Research:
 
SB Research Group: Archaeoacoustics analysis and ceremonial customs in an ancient hypogeum
 

 

 
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