The Malta Independent 23 February 2020, Sunday

The Xaghra Hypogeum

Malta Independent Sunday, 10 January 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

The name will be new to most people – in fact, it was only coined last week – but it is one of Malta’s greatest archaeological sites, with a significance that ranges further than Malta’s confines, possibly with important connotations for the whole of the Western Mediterranean.

Noel Grima reports

We used to know it as the Xaghra Stone Circle or the Brochtorff Circle.

Twenty-four years of work on the site are now condensed in a book published by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research of the University of Cambridge. The book was edited by Caroline Malone, Simon Stoddart, Anthony Bonanno and David Trump together with (the late) Tancred Gouder and Anthony Pace.

The book, Mortuary customs in prehistoric Malta, was launched at the Ministry for Gozo last Tuesday with very interesting presentations by most of the contributors.

The significance of the Xaghra Hypogeum is easily explained: when the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum was explored early last century, it was cleared of its burials and artefacts without a detailed record being kept.

When, in the late 20th century, excavation at Xaghra rediscovered a second cave cemetery, this provided a unique comparison through the investigation of a substantial portion of the burial site using modern scientific techniques.

The excavation, from 1987 to 1994, revealed one of the largest prehistoric burial assemblages of human remains yet discovered in the Mediterranean, amounting to 220,000 bones, together with a rich collection of animal bone, figurative sculpture, symbolic artefacts and architectural remains.

The detailed factual and interpretative report on this site that is the book, supported by fresh scientific data on raw materials, the environment, isotopes, radiometric dating and statistical analysis, is placed in the broader framework of the domestic and ritual landscape of the Maltese Islands.

The result is one of the most comprehensive studies of the incipient complexity of this mature, agricultural but non-urban, island society published so far.

An encounter with death:


Let us look at how the site must have appeared around 2400 BC. I am using here the vivid description given by Dr Simon Stoddart, a senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge (and a fellow of Magdalene College), whose recently deceased father, Dr Ken Stoddart, also took part in the digs.

A visitor from Sicily would arrive by boat possibly at Marsalforn, the nearest harbour. He would then go up to Xaghra to visit the temple complex (we know mostly of Ggantija, but there are one or possibly two more temples in the area, the Santa Verna and the Ta’ Gesu ones.

In the middle of this big site there was what we can now see as the sacred site of the dead.

For this was not a cemetery as we understand it: there was a powerful ritual performed here. The excavation has shown that the dead bodies were brought to the site and ritually dismembered and the body parts, as dismembered, were then collected in separate sites.

Dr Stoddart called this ritualistic process the ‘deconception’ – i.e. at the other extreme of conception.

There is discussion even among the experts over to how many people those 220,000 bones belonged: Professor Anthony Bonanno spoke of 800 individual skeletons, while Dr Stoddart could only get to 450 bodies, seeing that only 450 offering bowls were traced.

This was therefore a memory monument: the bodies would arrive intact, be dismembered in a ritual context, and the parts redistributed. The skulls were collected together at the top of the pile, while other piles contain other limbs. Some body parts were possibly not included in the collection and may have been disposed of and some were put in separate packages.

Dr Stoddart also gave some clinical details of the dismembered dead: there is a high proportion of pre-adults, people who had not yet reached maturity and who were not killed by a disease.

There is roughly equality between men and women, with a slight predominance of men.

Men are mostly buried at the

bottom, with the women on top.

Most of the bones seem to have been healthy at the moment of death – the young people died too young to have caught a disease – although some traces of arthritis and pitting around the eyes were found.

Obviously, there was no dental care in those days but although the local water has fluoride, lack of proper dental hygiene must have wrought havoc.

There is also evidence that some of the dead were not just farmers but also men of the sea: they seem to have damaged their teeth and their thumbs with frequent holding and cutting of string.

There are also some broken toes but there is very little evidence of death by trauma: these were a very pacific people.

The wider picture

Dr Caroline Malone, senior lecturer at Queen’s University, Belfast, provided the wider context.

What was known as the Xaghra Stone Circle is actually a circle, a walled enclosure surrounding a subterranean cave system.

The wall, along with some other structures inside, seems to have come from much older megalithic structures.

A comparison with the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum indicates that burial places, unlike temples, were carefully enclosed from the everyday world – death and burial were considered to be dangerous things. The dead were carefully contained below ground and behind walls, away from the living.

At the same time, the Xaghra hypogeum is quite different from the one at Hal Saflieni: the latter is a man-made, carved, subterranean structure, while the Xaghra one is a rugged natural cave that was adapted and contains valuable archaeological evidence missing from Hal Saflieni. Which came first is a matter of conjecture.

What makes the Xaghra Hypogeum of supreme importance is that here one could study the bones and the objects and their precise relationship with the structures and the spaces, which can lead to a better understanding of the interpretation of the prehistoric rituals that were practised both here and at Hal Saflieni.

The excavations at Xaghra have uncovered not just bones but also an extraordinary number of man-made objects – the twin figures, the cache of stick figures and the many little figures that have collectively added a third to the already very rich collection of artefacts from prehistoric Malta.

Even more importantly, here, at the Xaghra hypogeum, these objects could be studied in context, in relation to each other, to the buried individuals they accompanied and the structures that enclosed them.

Besides, these relationships show us how and where ritual was practised, how ancient peoples repeated the rituals over and over, as part of a complex religious system. Malta was far ahead of its neighbours, Dr Malone said, and the Xaghra Circle helps us understand not just Malta but the Neolithic world across Europe far better than before.

The future

The site itself is very fragile and exposed to the danger of collapse. The cave system was partly cleared in the 1820s and partly excavated through a collapsed cave roof and assorted rubble.

Dr Malone said: “The future of the site and what is done with it is now the question to consider. It is hardly beautiful in its natural rocky state and will continue to crumble – as is inevitable with a rough coralline limestone with fissures and weaknesses throughout its structure.

“Some questions: Is this a site for the permanent preservation of unexcavated remains – covered over and anonymous? Is it a place that should be displayed as part of the Ggantija landscape, and a monument in its own right, showing the full range of ritual life and death? Is it more interesting as a geological quarry or as the container of archaeological deposits?

“Can the site be displayed without further excavation?

“It is currently covered up in plastic and sandbags and soil to protect the unexcavated levels.

“The unstable megaliths that made up the internal structures are liable to weathering and collapse, since they sit within loose burial deposits, not on rock.

“The whole site needs intervention if it is to be viewed or understood in the future, but it is a dangerous collapsing cave, and not a built monument – so geologists and engineers are needed to advise on what can be done.

“The simplest solution may be to excavate the remaining half excavated areas and lift the structural megaliths before consolidation.

“An alternative is to cover the whole thing over again with soil, and bury it for its own security.

“Both solutions have a cost – one is real money in order to do the work, the other is the cost of losing this information – because covered over, there is no guarantee that the remains will be preserved now that the elements have penetrated the deposits.”

For what has been excavated at Xaghra is only a very small part of the site: around four-fifths of what was excavated was mostly very disturbed because of 19th century work, natural erosion, cave collapse and agricultural activity. It was only at the bottom levels that the studies discovered the main story of the interpretation of the Circle’s funerary rituals. Only up to 25 square metres have been taken to the bedrock.

There are other things that need careful study and again Dr Malone asked: “What is left in the Circle? Possible temple-like buildings as the threshold implies.

“What about the outer walls which still remain largely unstudied and are covered in modern rubble and prickly pear?

“The whole enclosure needs much more study and the area immediately outside still remains little known, as does the connection to the ritual centres east and west, at Ggantija and Santa Verna.

“Now that we have completed this large study, it is clear what we are only just beginning to know, and naturally we want to know more about the site and the Temple People.”

A particular case in point regards what has been called the “Shrine” Screen – a megalithic structure most probably brought from somewhere else that is still standing on some 1.2 metres of crammed bodies.

Other findings sound astounding: the evidence of a threshold and possibly a processional pathway, a huge stone bowl, an essential part of the ritual paraphernalia, a statue that seems to have made its way all the way from the Italian Alps to Gozo …

What’s in a name?

Dr David Trump, emeritus tutor in archaeology at Madingley Hall, Cambridge and long known for his efforts on behalf of Maltese archaeology, was the one who came up with the name ‘The Xaghra Hypogeum’, as this best describes the site.

Up until 1965, the site did not have a name: it was discovered by Jean Houel in 1788 but was described then as an “ancient structure”. Nor did the 1826 excavations give it a name. Charles Brochtorff, who wrote a manuscript, speaks of an enclosure of stones but does not refer to a circle. Yet the site came to be known as the Brochtorff Circle! Even something as late as the Museums Report for 1959 speaks of a megalithic structure. Joe Attard Tabone, who focused attention on the site in an article in The Sunday Times in 1964, spoke of the Gozo Stone Circle.

No one knows who gave the site the name Brochtorff Circle (just as no one seems to know who gave the name Clapham Junction to the cart ruts outside Dingli).

Why not call it Houel’s Circle, or Joe Attard’s Circle? Impishly, Dr Trump said that to call it the Xaghra Circle might be a misnomer for there could be other circles in Xaghra. Equally, to call it the Gozo Circle may be another mistake, for there may be other circles to be found in Gozo. There are other circles in Europe but no other stone-enclosed hypogea.

Earlier, Professor Anthony Bonanno described the seven-year excavations from 1987 to 1994 and said many Maltese students learned archaeology first hand through their participation in the digs.

This excavation also fostered the research relationship between the University of Malta and that of Cambridge. Other studies have discovered a rare settlement site at Ghajnsielem. This was the first full-scale excavation in Gozo for over a 100 years.

Superintendent of Cultural Heritage Dr Anthony Pace also referred to a very recent excavation on a much smaller site in Kercem.

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