Feature Articles –   From the otherworld to another world?
Malta’s Hypogeum is a unique structure of the ancient world. So unique, that we know little about its purpose, which for some was a collective burial site, for others a temple. But the structure comes with a series of intriguing accounts, including one leading all the way to another dimension.
by Philip Coppens

Malta’s Hypogeum is a World Heritage site. It is indeed a unique site, if only because through its strict visitor policy – allowing only ten people per hour into the temple –visitors normally need to book at least a month in advance. But site-wise, why it was built and especially what the difference in function was between its various underground rooms, has long remained a mystery. Finding answers wasn’t helped when the reports of the early excavation work were lost. In some corners, the debate about the purpose and age of the structure is still ongoing, though archaeologists themselves seem to have decided to just let it rest. That, of course, is an inherent problem of unique sites: no comparison with similar structures can occur and hence interpretation is difficult. But in recent years, the Hypogeum is no longer so unique, and new light can be thrown into this ancient enigmatic underground complex.

In short, the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni, a suburb of Paola, near Malta’s capital Valletta, was built in several stages, from 3600 to 2500 BC, meaning it was largely completed before the first stone of the Great Pyramid was still to be laid.

The Hypogeum is a series of rooms that are linked by passages, stairways and subterranean halls, covering ca. 470 square metres. Each is man-hewn, though in origin there may have been a number of small cavities that were then enlarged. The construction went down from the top of a limestone hill, using stone mallets and horn or antler picks, whereby the walls were smoothed with implements made of flint – which must have been imported, as flint is not native to Malta.

The more than thirty rooms are located on three levels, though there are accounts that there are deeper levels that remain unexcavated. Most rooms are on the middle level, which is seen as the centre of the structure, because of the complexity of the rooms on this level. Several are decorated with spiral and other geometrical patterns painted in red ochre, while a number of chambers have walls shaped in imitation of the megalithic architecture of the island – like the Tarxien temple, which is situated only a few hundred metres from the Hypogeum. As is the case in so many underground sanctuaries, the temple’s discovery is relatively recent. The site was chanced upon in 1902 by builders digging water cisterns for a new housing development, built because of the arrival of labourers that were going to work in the new military naval docks nearby. The Maltese place name, Tal-Gherien, “of the caves”, suggests that the area was already known to have cave formations much earlier.

The first scholar to inspect the site was Dr A. A. Caruana, Malta’s chief librarian, who spent December 29, 1902, inside the structure, on request of the British authorities who wanted to gauge its importance. He noted a large numbers of bones were present and stated further exploration was recommended. It resulted in 1903 in an official excavation by Father Emmanuel Magri. The Museum Annual Report for 1906 indicates that Magri’s work had been completed, but he had only been able to work on the lower and middle levels, as the upper level had still not been bought by the government and remained the property of the owners of the houses above.

Magri was never able to publish his report; his religious superiors sent him on missionary work and while abroad in 1907, at Sfax in Tunis, he died. Worse: after his death, his notebooks could not be discovered, which meant that the context in which the artefacts he had unearthed and had removed from the Hypogeum was lost. Hence, the context of these finds was forever lost. In January 1908, the cleared chambers of the middle level were opened to the public and soon, Sir Themistocles Zammit was able to investigate and map the upper level, before it too was opened to the public. In 1910-11, the structure had 250 visitors.

By 1987, that number would rise to 74,000, a quantity that endangered the future of the Hypogeum itself.

In 1912, T.E. Peet and R.N. Bradley analysed the bones Magri and Zammit had recovered and noted that there were hardly or no complete skeletons: “the bones lay in confusion through the soil as in the rest of the Hypogeum”, they wrote. “Animal bones were found mingled with human.” Zammit said that the bones inside the Hypogeum came from 6000 to 7000 different people – though Zammit’s student, W.A. Griffith, later put the figure as high as 33,000 people (most archaeologists opt to go with the more conservative number of 7,000). Only one complete skeleton was recorded. Alas, in recent decades, much of the bones have disappeared; the museum in which the bones were kept at one point also had eleven elongated skulls in 1971; then there were seven; at last count, only six remain. As the losses are unexplained (by default), a number of conspiracy theories are in circulation in Malta that argue that the museum “wants” these bones to disappear – suggesting they somehow are able to provide evidence against the official story about what the Hypogeum is. And that official story, of course, is that the Hypogeum was a normal, collective tomb. Colin Renfrew called it “a great charnel house” and official documentation calls it a “prehistoric rock-cut tomb”.

The skulls that have disappeared are indeed intriguing, as they all have strangely elongated heads. One skull even has the fossa median – the joint along the top of the head where two plates are separated in infancy – lacking. At some level, it does pose the question who these people could be. They were apparently selected from birth, their skull bound so that their head became very elongated – like that of the infamous Tutankhamun in ancient Egypt, though the custom is worldwide. Why this custom was practiced across the world is unknown, and some, of course, have argued that this was purely done so that these people would resemble the gods. In Malta, perhaps we should not look towards aliens from outer space, but perhaps the legendary giants, who are said to have created the Maltese culture. Archaeologist David Trump has claimed that there was a faint but discernable shape of a bison bull in black on one of the walls of the Hypogeum. That drawing has now disappeared, most likely as a result of decay before visitor numbers were controlled and conditions inside the structure were improved. But, again, claims for a conspiracy have been made. Anton Mifsud has claimed that the bison was removed at the express directive of the Director of Museums, F.S. Mallia! As the accusation has never been denied, the non-denial itself is seen by some as proof that he indeed gave the order. And why would he do so? Because what Trump labelled to be a bull, is according to Mifsud a bison bull, a species that was extinct by the period the Hypogeum is said to have been used – suggesting that the structure would be much older than the official line adheres to.

The “official line” that the Hypogeum is a tomb also goes against some other observations. Initially, Zammit argued that the structure was part tomb, part temple, but later, he adjusted that statement, arguing the Hypogeum was a temple, “roughly analogous in function to the stone-built ones above ground, though perhaps also used for special initiation rites, and that only at some later time was it used for the burial of the large number of people whose remains were found in it.” Zammit also called it a place for the “sorceries of a primitive religion” – i.e. magic.

Marija Gimbutas commented on a find that was made inside the Hypogeum: a 12 centimetre long terracotta figure, known as the “Sleeping Lady”, now on display in the National Museum in Valletta. Indeed, the only qualification that suggests she is sleeping, rather than dead, is that she lies on her side, rather than on her back. Gimbutas queried: “Why is she sleeping in the tomb? One explanation is that this represents a rite of initiation or incubation. To sleep within the Goddess’ womb was to die and to come to life anew.”

Zammit also added that the ceiling and walls of the Hypogeum showed no signs that any form of light (like torches) had been used, suggesting it was “never fully illuminated”. Though this might qualify it more as a tomb than a temple, initiations normally involve dark structures. And both Gimbutas and Zammit proposed that the type of initiation that was practiced here, was the so-called “temple sleep”: where the initiate is asked to spend the night in a temple; if he or she is able to fall asleep, the dreams were thought to be influenced by the deities, and might provide insight about the past, the present, or the future. The Hypogeum was long considered to be unique – and many still refer to it as a unique structure. But it is no longer truly unique. There is another hypogeum nearby, that of Santa Lucia, less than a kilometre away. It was excavated in the early 1970s and then sealed up again. It is known to have been a smaller version of the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni, with a megalithic entrance and an internal architecture similar to the temples above ground. Today, it is covered by a modern cemetery. Though on occasion ancient monuments are indeed preserved for future archaeologists – such as the second boat pit at Giza – why this hypogeum was sealed off, and specifically why it was covered by a modern cemetery, has left some question to be answered – and on the island resulted in some more conspiracy theories.

Equally little-known is that since the 1980s, the Hypogeum has a brother site on the nearby island of Gozo – the Xaghra Stone Circle. The name might not suggest it is a hypogeum, but all are in agreement that it is. The Xaghra Stone Circle is close to the Ggantija temple, dated to 3600-3000 BC, which also became the template of all subsequent Maltese temples. On a hill overlooking the Ggantija complex, to the west, is the Xaghra Stone Circle, sometimes known as the Brochtorff Circle. In the 1820s, John Otto Bayer, the Commissioner for Gozo, excavated the complex, revealing a temple-like structure on the floor of a cavity in the rock. However, the excavation was refilled, with two watercolour paintings by Charles Brochdorff becoming the only record of his work – hence the alternative name for the site. Nearly all the stones of the circle were then broken up and removed for building, and even the site’s location was lost, only to be rediscovered in 1964. Finally, between 1987 and 1994, it was re-excavated, confirming Bayer’s findings, or at least what could still be confirmed after the destruction of the 19th century, as well as adding a wealth of new information, so much so that it took another decade before all the work was published.

It is known that this hypogeum had, as late as 1828, two monumental pillars more than four metres high, forming the entrance on the east side, as well as a “Giant’s Tower”, still standing. The circle itself is said to be contemporary with the “Zebug phase”, i.e. 4100-3800 BC. The circle is not typical of other stone circles in Northern Europe, for this one has interlocking standing stones forming a boundary wall built to protect a large underground burial chamber cut out of a series of natural caves – i.e. why it is on par with the Hypogeum. As in the Hypogeum, a stone shaft leads down, this time into two circular chambers, which contained more than sixty individuals buried with some of their personal ornaments. Bone amulets that looked like humans, and axe-shaped stone pendants that had been imported from overseas, some from as far away as the Alps, show that in 4000 BC, this small island community had wide-ranging contacts. So both in Gozo and at the Hypogeum, the entrance was “nothing more than a large hollow that had been quarried into the upper rock layers.”

As in the Hypogeum, red ochre was splashed on the walls of one chamber. As in the Hypogeum, thousands of bone fragments were found, belonging to more than 1000 individuals (some putting the figure as high as 3000). The remains show that they were part of an unusually healthy population with good teeth. However, again, very few – in this case two – articulated skeletons complete with their skulls have been discovered.

Like the Hypogeum, it is assumed that burial rituals occurred in a central area a few steps below the ground. A small statue group of two obese draped figures (one holding a smaller version of herself and the other a hollow cup) was found here, as well as pieces of a broken statue of a similar woman, which was originally one metre high. A dozen terracotta figurines with enormous buttocks and thighs and small torsos and limbs have also been unearthed. Thus, like the Sleeping Lady of the Hypogeum, art was also deposited in the Gozo hypogeum.

Interestingly, some figurines have human heads, supported on triangular bodies, but one is attached to a two-limbed animal body, while another has a pig’s head. Do these suggest certain shamanic practices – temple sleep obviously being a divinatory method too? After the excavations in Gozo, in 1991, the Hypogeum closed and remained closed until 2000, as it was realised that a radically new approach to manage visitors had to be devised. But the time was also used for additional excavation work. In 1990-1992, excavations suggested that the Hypogeum once had a monumental structure on top – meaning that the temple complex was not purely subterranean, but also had a temple on the surface itself.

Details are difficult to acquire, as some stones of this complex are known to sit underneath the modern road, but for Zammit, a group of standing stones, the so-called “monumental trilithon of the Upper level” suggested a possible passageway from the ground level into the subterranean domain. Once past the access ramp, prehistoric visitors would have had to walk over two strategically-located tombs. For some, this was seen as further evidence that a rite of passage might have been a component of the rituals performed inside this complex. The complex is a warren of circular rooms and even the modern tourist, guided as he is, quickly looses awareness of where what is in relation to what. The modern tourist also walks on walkways, rather than the rock floor, but it is accepted that these floors would, when the Hypogeum was in use, have been filled with earth – the level to what height the earth was present can in some rooms still be seen. Hence, the sunken floors, hollows and low dividing walls may have served as a system of earth repositories – perhaps boundary walls for where some people – tribes? – could be buried together in their “own earth”?

The fact that some of the rooms were filled with earth also means that we need to take with caution the notion that the Oracle Room now – with the earth removed – amplifies sound up to a hundred times, especially the lower tones. Musicians have stated that the temple has perfect acoustics, suggesting that the structure was likely used by the living, and not just the dead – who are notoriously silent. The question is therefore whether these perfect acoustics is a coincidence, or not. If not, it is likely that the structure in origin indeed did not have earthen-filled floors, suggesting that Zammit was indeed right, namely that the Hypogeum was an underground temple, and only later became a tomb. The temple complexes of Malta and Gozo are known to incorporate solar alignments, and it is believed that the same applies to the Hypogeum. Hard evidence is difficult to come by, as how the surface level parts of the structure looked like, is now unknown and impossible to find out. It is known that the internal lobby of the middle level gave access to other areas of that level, but also received the first incoming light from the external parts and the upper level. A series of upright megaliths may have been placed to play with the sunlight that could apparently only indirectly enter the structure.

Still, the raised doorway linking the Main Chamber with the so-called Holy of Holies appears to have been carved with a solar orientation intention in mind. Observers have noted that the Hypogeum is situated on the crest of a hill to the western side of the Tarxien temple, and that this position is similar to that of the Xaghra Stone Circle in Gozo. Of course, the west is the position of the setting sun, and is hence “naturally” associated with death. One can therefore argue whether certain alignments to the setting sun were once part of this structure.

Some have noted that the Holy of Holies is orientated towards the winter solstice sunrise, exactly in the same way as the other megalithic temples of Malta. Opposite the doorway to room 27, on the floor of the inside niche, is a circular depression. The feature is believed to be unique, and coupled with a sort of hook carved from the rock face itself, it has been seen as the support for some cult object. Others, however, have argued that it played a role in a solar play, in which the sun “hit” this location during the winter solstice sunrise – putting the Hypogeum on par with e.g. the Irish Newgrange, where an artificial cave was created, so that the sun too could play with the interior of the structure once a year. So, is the Hypogeum a cemetery or a temple? The short answer is: no-one knows. Temple sleep is often labelled as a divinatory method in which the deities would come, but more generally, it was contact with the dead – the ancestors – that was desired, not some abstract deity. Of course, to make contact with the dead, then and now, remains of the dead are deemed to be ideal fetishes that make such a communication far easier than if no remains of the dead were present. And hence sleeping in a structure that is part temple, part tomb, is ideal. The Hypogeum as a temple would also make sense of the red ochre spirals. Spirals are often associated with the visions experienced during hallucinations, and the walls of caves are seen, since at least 20,000 years ago in France, as doorways into other dimensions, out of which the deities – the ancestors – were said to come into this realm. This supposition is enhanced when we know that in the Decorated Room, on the right side wall, there is an impression of a human hand carved into the rock.

That these rocks can lead to other dimensions, seems to have been underlined some decades ago. Miss Lois Jessup, working for the British Embassy in Malta, wrote an account of an experience she had inside the Hypogeum. She described how on her first visit, she convinced the guide to allow her to investigate one of the so-called “burial chambers” near the floor of the last chamber in the lower level. In her own words, she asked “What’s down there”, pointing to a small opening off the walls. To quote from Jessup’s account: “‘Go there at your own risk, and you won’t go far,’ he replied. ‘I was wearing a dress with a long sash that day and as I decided to lead the group I asked the fellow behind me to hold onto it. So, with half-burnt candles in our hands the four of us started through that low, narrow passage, groping and laughing our way through. I came out first, of course, onto a ledge pathway only two feet wide, with a sheer drop of fifty feet or more on my right and the wall on my left. I took a step forward, keeping close to the rock wall side. The person behind me, still holding on to my sash, was still in the tunnel. I held my candle higher and peered down into the abyss, thinking that with this dangerous drop it was better not to go on further without a guide. Then I saw about twenty persons of giant stature emerge from an opening deep below me. They were walking in single file along another narrow ledge down below. Their height I judged to be about twenty to twenty-five feet, since their heads came up about half way on the wall on the opposite side of the cave. They walked very slowly, taking long strides. Then they all stopped, turned and raised their heads in my direction. All simultaneously raised their arms and with their hands beckoned to me. The movement was something like snatching or feeling for something, as the palms of their hands were turned down.”

Her friends then pulled her back into this reality, though a sudden draft of air extinguished her candle, making her panic. A few days later, one of the friends of the excursion called her: “Remember that tunnel you wanted to explore in the Hypogeum? Well, it says here in the local paper that a schoolmaster and thirty students went exploring and apparently got as far as we got. They were roped together, with the end of the rope tied to the opening of the cave. As the last student turned the corner where your candle blew out the rope was clean cut. None of the party was found because the walls caved in.” Apparently, for several weeks, the cries of the children could be heard emanating from the underground, but none were ever recovered alive. Entering the Hypogeum today, one is carefully minded and no visitors are left unaccounted for – though the guides do a headcount at the end of the tour, the significance of which seems to bypass most visitors, unaware as they are with the story of the children that allegedly disappeared during a visit several decades ago. Today, one is only confronted with the exotic names given to the rooms: the Snake Pit, the Oracle Room, while the central chamber is known as the Holy of Holies. This central chamber has carved pillars resembling trilithons, niches, windows and even a corbelled roof. Some of these rooms have clover-leaf lobes, all of this resembling the temples built above ground, showing that “as below, so above” – and vice versa: the Hypogeum is not a rarity, but in line with, and part of, the other Maltese megalithic structures. Alas, as we do not know much about the structures above ground, we know very little about the purpose of the Hypogeum. The “only” observation we can make, is that the Hypogeum is indeed unique, because it was carved from the rocks. But it is not unique, in the sense that there is clear evidence that it was linked with the structures above, and seems to have formed a “sister site” to the Tarxien temple, like the Xaghra Stone Circle was linked with the Ggantija. Hence, whenever the true complexity of the Maltese temples is ever uncovered, the secrets of the Hypogeum will also be unveiled. For the moment – as is perhaps only fitting for a hypogeum where temple sleep was likely to be practiced – it remains dormant…