Giving a face to Malta’s Temple builders
Malta’s fascinating prehistory is not only of local but of global significance. This is because this phase in the island’s human development gave rise to the renowned temple culture which is reputed to have given the world its first complex constructions in stone.
The Megalithic Temples of Malta collectively possess a UNESCO World Heritage Status. This status has also been bestowed directly on the unique Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni, a massive underground burial complex which has no equivalent worldwide.
The extent of prehistoric heritage in the Maltese islands is impressively immense. Temples, dolmens, megaliths, tombs, cart-ruts and the foundations of villages dot the landscape. Additional, though less complex, hypogea have been discovered on both Gozo and Malta. The many sites have yielded numerous artifacts to archaeologists, foremost amongst which a variety of representations of the human form. Some of the human statues are easily distinguishable as male or female while others are more difficult to define in terms of gender.
While an entire category of statuettes are headless, the excavations have also yielded a number of statues with heads and stand-alone heads. Heads showing refined faces with neat hairstyles and beardless faces: a far cry from the popular yet mistaken notion that all prehistoric peoples fell within the caveman stereotype popularised by cinema and pulp fiction worldwide over the past couple of hundred years.
Until recently, these small stone faces provided the best available indication of what the prehistoric temple builders who lived in Malta five and a half thousand years ago looked like. Other than that, the only other evidence came from the skulls found in the tombs and hypogea from which until recently only generic observations such as those relating to skull shape could be surmised.
Until recently that is! A Heritage Malta (www.heritagemalta.org) team led by Katya Stroud has just released the findings of some cutting edge research on the skull of a female which was unearthed from the Xaghra Stone Circle on Gozo. Research which has led to the first ever 3D virtual reconstruction of the facial features of a prehistoric Maltese person. Presenting for the first time ever, a scientifically-based representation of what one of the earliest Maltese inhabitants looked like. The work was carried out under the expert guidance and assistance of Professor Caroline Wilkinson (http://www.lifesci.dundee.ac.uk/people/caroline-wilkinson), a Professor of Craniofacial Identification at Dundee University in Scotland.
The resulting facial reconstruction, which I have integrated into the above image of the autumn equinox I took at Mnajdra in the late 1980s, shows a person from our distant past who could very easily mingle with modern-day Maltese and pass unnoticed. A facial reconstruction which is not based on mere supposition, but on the latest technology available in Professor Wilkinson’s laboratory.
I find this development very touching. Our prehistoric ancestors left us their buildings and artifacts and their mortal remains. But no images and no written records. So near and yet so far away. A missing link which relegated them to an unreachable, distant past which was too far away. Very different from say the Knights of Malta who left portraits and a wealth of documents in a language we can understand. A faceless, writing-less people about who we could only speculate by interpreting their artifacts.
And now we can see what they actually looked like!