Visiting Prehistory: Malta’s Neolithic Temples
By Jafe Arnold
Traveling for the first time since the plague broke out is like a breath of fresh air…
Several days ago I had the opportunity to visit some of the prehistoric temples of Malta, which have been on my bucket-list for some time. I first heard of and became fascinated by the temples thanks to Richard Rudgley’s books Secrets of the Stone Age and Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age. Although our time window was short and so itinerary limited, the experience was nonetheless unforgettable…
To say that the modern world is utterly and thoroughly “transient” would be a truism bordering on cliché. Things arise, are marketed, and fall out of fashion and disappear with a rapidity that is unprecedented within any conceptualization of history and of “past times.” The impression has been voiced by more than a few thinkers that time itself seems to have sped up, accelerated, becoming evermore caustic, making things evermore fleeting and, from a long-term point of view, meaningless, insignificant. Even those things, gatherings, and phenomena which are deemed culturally “monumental” or “events” appear to be no more than moments which dissipate just as promptly as the disposable decor invested in their spectacle. In the Postmodern world, speaking of any kind of “structure”, of “permanence”, of “continuity” or “heritage” seems out of place and out of time, is treated as valuable or heuristic only insofar as such is to be “deconstructed”, and is, in some domains in the West, even becoming a kind of thought-crime.
In this quagmire of an age (which would like to pass itself off as a “non-age”), to find oneself face-to-face with a prehistoric, megalithic structure still standing upright can be – to the person ready to receive such – an existential experience, an Event, a hierophany in its own right despite having long ago ceased to be actively cultivated as such.
This is the case of the Neolithic temples of Malta and Gozo. Considered by official archaeology to be the most ancient – which is to say no more than the oldest surviving – free-standing monumental structures in the European world, antedated in Eurasia only by the remnants of Göbekli Tepe, these majestic, intricate monuments of Mediterranean prehistory bear an enrapturing aura which can hardly fail to leave a daunting impression.
Between approximately 6,000 and 4,000 years ago, the Maltese archipelago’s colonizers devoted their entire existence to erecting and living by these temples. Without these temples, these ancient islanders would have died silently and anonymously like countless other prehistoric cultures, leaving nothing but fragmentary materials as their testimony. Yet, instead of merely surviving, as so many archaeologists and anthropologists would have us see our prehistoric ancestors as “achieving”, these people mobilized their entire life-force, their whole society, their technology, their resources, and their time and space to build these temples. They lived to build these temples. The fruits of their labor, these centers of their lives, were not, as is the case with so many other surviving monuments, singular or a handful, but numerous: as many as 33 temple complexes have been discovered, and these temples were not the undertakings of one or several regimes, architects, or priests, but of many generations, each one with and after the other committing their being to building and dwelling the very same temples – for nearly two millennia. In many parts of the world, such continuity, such “deep culture”, such tradition in the fullest sense of the word, was already unknown even in antiquity. Like many other peoples of prehistory and antiquity, however, the Neolithic Maltese have revealed themselves to us with a familiar script: their origins and fate are uncertain; they appeared, built their temples, and disappeared. Like a hierophany.
The Neolithic temples of Malta and Gozo are a microcosm of our ability, or rather inability, to see and feel prehistory – that is, to see and feel the true, vast “history” of mankind. The “history” of the temples themselves, like the identity of their builders, has been lost to us. Standing before the surviving relics of these temples in museum exhibitions, we find ourselves gazing at headless figurines, seemingly indecipherable patterns of dots and lines, and the faces of Gods, Goddesses, spirits, priests, and strange beings whose names and stories we do not, and perhaps cannot, know. Their sacred world and all of its forces, beings, and landscapes amidst and for which the prehistoric Maltese built these temples have been lost to us not only to time, but to a whole different quality and range of time which we can only imagine and attempt to comparatively reconstruct with considerable intellectual strain. Those primitive descriptions and attempts at interpretation which are the business of official science are often sources more of disappointment and devaluation than enlightenment. Even remarking on the technological and logistical sophistication of these stone-age builders and their social structures, a point which is seen as a kind of “reform” of the “primitivist”, materialist, positivist, Modernist mentality which has undergirded historical “science”, leaves more to be desired than to be appreciated. This is to say nothing of that “tradition”, faithfully held by some of the “pioneers” of the very excavation of such temples, of being incapable of conceiving antiquity, of integrality beyond “complexity”, and dimensionality, not to mention sacrality, outside of which these temples lose their very meaning of being at all.
The temples of Malta and Gozo overlook the sea. We might also see prehistory in oceanic terms: one can only look into the water to a certain degree, an extremely limited one, before any and all visibility recedes into a vast, overwhelming mass. The prehistoric world, dark and impenetrable to us, is like the ocean floor: we can reach the ocean floor, which is in fact teeming with unknown life, but not in our normal form, and to see anything down there requires knowing where to turn the most powerful light at our disposal. The failing of this metaphor, of course, is that prehistory is not the utterly foreign world of the ocean, but our natural, original (originary!) environment, the air to the gills of the human condition.
The prehistoric Maltese reality of the temples remains (safely?) in the depths, behind that seemingly impenetrable wall separating us, with all of our theoretical, methodological, and technological capacities for “re-discovering” the past, from our fundamental past itself, from ourselves.
It is telling that Maltese folklore refers to the temples as having been built by giants…
Leaving the temples of Malta and Gozo, one is reminded of those words attributed to Picasso upon seeing the Paleolithic cave art of Lascaux: “In tens of thousands of years, we have invented nothing” – and, let us add, we have lost much more. Yet, while we constantly lose, forget, re-discover, try to interpret and remember, monuments like these temples still stand, reminding us of something else… but something which is not at all “other” from us… This, perhaps, is the one reliable hearing of the silence of prehistory. The stones do indeed cry out…
– Jafe Arnold
Valletta, Malta, 20 February 2021