Tarxien Temples and the Hypogeum

Clare saved the best for our last day – the Hypogeum. This is an underground tomb (hypogeum is Greek, meaning underground). It was discovered in 1902 while digging a cistern for a house. The workers discovered a huge underground burial site from around 3000 B.C.E.

Before we went to the Hypogeum, we stopped at the nearby Tarxien Temples. These temples were very similar to some of the other temples we saw from the Stone Age, but also had some distinct qualities. I think they were one of the first of the temples to be excavated, and this really shows in the methods they used. Unlike most of the other temples we saw, which were mostly left in the shape they were found, the Tarxien temples had many pieces reconstructed. I can understand why one might want to do this, but unfortunately, it was not always well marked which parts were original and which parts were reconstructed. In some cases, artifacts like clay pots were moved to the archeological museum, and were replaced by replicas onsite. It was really handy that we had gone to the archaeological museum in Valletta earlier.

Treacle ring

One downside of the Tarxien temples was that there were a ton of little mosquitos or bugs of some sort which kept biting us. So after 30 minutes or so, we made our way towards the Hypogeum. It is right in the middle of the city, and actually quite easy to miss. Once we had found it, we then sought out a park to have some lunch, consisting of a variety of fruits, cheeses, crackers, bread, and such. One Maltese treat we really enjoyed were these Treacle Rings, which were a kind of cookie filled with a sweet paste consisting of some combination of honey, dates, and/or treacle, which is sort of like molasses.

Hal Saflieni Museum façade after restoration

Since it is all underground, the climate is very sensitive. By the 1950s, frequent visitors to the hypogeum was causing significant damage, including the growth of algae on the walls. They decided to close it for awhile, and after fixing the damage, they re-opened it, but only allow 10 visitors per hour, which means that you have to book your tour months ahead of time. Fortunately Clare is a great travel planner, so she had done so. They also don’t allow any photography at all, so the pictures here are taken from Wikipedia.

The experience at the hypogeum was definitely very different from the other sites we visited, in a number of ways. For one, we did not have a tour guide with us. Instead we had an audio tour, which started with several videos about Malta and the temple culture in general. The second video was in a square room, and was projected onto all four walls. There was music coming from the speakers in the room, but then the speech was delivered via a handheld audioguide (which was configured to the language of your choice).

Inside the hypogeum, it is quite dark, with minimal lighting, to protect the structure. Since it is underground, it does not have erosion from wind and water like the other temples which are above ground. The wet underground climate did have the effect that most of the bones found there were very decayed. They estimate that over 7000 bones were found there. The walls of the hypogeum are carved to look like many of the temples which were constructed of stone. However, there were also some fairly large stones in the hypogeum to form a doorway. It is not clear if these stones were brought from elsewhere, or were carved out of the cavern in place. There were some spherical stones nearby, similar to stones at many of the temples believed to be used as rollers, like ball bearings, so it suggests that these stones were likely brought from somewhere else.

Researchers believe that the dead were first laid to rest in the upper chamber, likely to allow the smells of decay to escape. The bones were then place en masse in rooms in the lower chambers. In the lowest of the three levels, there would have been almost no light, so all work would need to be done with light from hand-held torches. The temple culture used exclusively stone tools, meaning that the work of creating the hypogeum must have been very slow and tedious.

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