View inside the prehistoric Tarxien Temples, Tarxien, Malta.

Tarxien Temples: This Megalithic Complex is the Height of Temple Building in Prehistoric Malta

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A group of enormous megalithic structures stand tall in Tarxien, on the southeastern part of the main island of Malta. Called the Tarxien Temples, the huge structures remain as a testament to the architectural, artistic, and technological abilities of the ancient islanders who constructed them.

The Tarxien Temples have been dated to the Temple Period (which lies between the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age). This temple complex is one of six sites that form the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Megalithic Temples of Malta (the other five being Ġgantija, Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Skorba and Ta’ Ħaġrat).

View of the Tarxien Temples megalithic complex.

View of the Tarxien Temples megalithic complex. (Frank Vincentz/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Largest Known Prehistoric Site in Malta

The Tarxien Temples consists of four structures built out of enormous stone blocks. It is the largest known prehistoric site in Malta. These four separate temples are connected by a square court and each of them may be accessed via separate entrances. The construction of these structures has been dated to between 3600 and 2500 BC, with a phase of re-utilization between 2400 and 1500 BC. The temples were then abandoned, only to be re-discovered during the early part of the 20th century.

Entrance to the Tarxien Temple complex in Tarxien, Malta.

Entrance to the Tarxien Temple complex in Tarxien, Malta. (Frank Vincentz/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Whilst little survived of the Tarxien Temples when they were re-discovered, their layouts were still clearly visible. Three of the temples have a five-apse plan, whilst the Central Temple has a six-apse plan. This is unique, as it is the only known example of such a temple layout on the island. It has also been suggested that the Central Temple was the last one to be built and it represents the pinnacle of the evolution of temple architecture in pre-historic Malta.

Possible Purpose for the Megalithic Temples

It has been suggested that the Tarxien Temples were initially used for animal sacrifices. This is supported by the discovery of animal bones, tools (including a flint knife), altars, and reliefs of domestic animals.

A relief showing goats and rams at the Tarxien Temples megalith complex.

A relief showing goats and rams at the Tarxien Temples megalith complex. (Berthold Werner/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Additionally, the presence of fertility goddess figurines indicates that the temples were dedicated to the Earth Mother, a feature shared by many other pre-historic Maltese temples. One of the figurines, dubbed the ‘Fat Lady’, depicts a woman with large hips and thighs. It is the best-known statuette found at the site. During the Bronze Age, the temples were re-used by the islanders. The discovery of human bones in the center of the South Temple, for example, suggests that the site functioned as a burial ground during that time.

The ‘Fat Lady’ statuette in the Tarxien Temple complex in Tarxien, Malta.

The ‘Fat Lady’ statuette in the Tarxien Temple complex in Tarxien, Malta. (Frank Vincentz/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Spirals and Spheres at the Megalithic Site

Apart from the animal reliefs, the Tarxien Temples are also decorated with spirals, which is a common motif in the megalithic art of Malta. It is believed by some that spirals symbolize eternity, and therefore this was a popular motif, not only in pre-historic Malta, but also at other megalithic sites across the globe.

Stone spheres have also been found at the Tarxien Temples. These, however, served neither a ritualistic purpose nor a decorative one. Instead, these objects are believed to shed some light on the way the structures were constructed. The most widely-accepted theory is that the builders of the temples moved the massive blocks of stone by rolling them over these spheres whilst towing them with ropes.

Malta, Tarxien Temples, stone with spiral design.

Malta, Tarxien Temples, stone with spiral design. (Berthold Werner/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Rediscovery and Conservation

The Tarxien Temples were abandoned and only re-discovered during the beginning of the 20th century. In 1913, local farmers came across some huge stone blocks whilst ploughing their fields. Archaeologists were called in, and between 1915 and 1919, the site was excavated under the direction of Sir Temistocles Zammit, the first Director of the National Museum of Archaeology in Valetta, Malta. Apart from excavating the site, Zammit also substantially reconstructed three of the four structures.

Further interventions were carried out during the 1960s, and in 2012, an elevated walkway was completed, allowing visitors to have a view the site from a higher angle. Finally, in 2015, a protective tent was constructed to shelter the site from the elements.

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