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Report 2012: Five Days in Malta

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 22 of 24: Tarxien Temples

photo by MAW

Carved stones

The Tarxien Temples are a short walk from the Hypogeum, where you can pick up a map showing the route, although it is well signed. They are in a small open area surrounded by rather depressing modern housing.

When excavation began on the Hypogeum, locals reported that their ploughs kept hitting lumps of stone. Excavation revealed four temple sites.

The earliest (Tarxien Far East) dates from the first phase of temple building about 3500BC. The South and East Temples are later between 3000-2500BC and the Central Temple was then built between these. The South Temple was reused as a crematorium in the early Bronze Age between 2500-1500BC.

There is a large building containing the ticket desk, basic shop and toilet. We were given an English guide with a map marking points to stop and read guide. There were no information boards round the site and it has a complex layout. The South Temple with its apses is fairly easy to understand but the rest of the site is confusing. You have to follow the set route and the remains often look like a jumble of stones. The notes didn’t help and often seemed to make it more confusing. In the end I relied on the plan in the free leaflet and the plan of the temples from the Bradt Guide.

Once the temples were excavated and the stones exposed it was found that the limestone began to weather fast. There was a major restoration of the site in the 1960s that covered many stones in cement to prevent or slow down erosion. This was a disaster not only visually but also for the stones. No-one seems to know what is the best way to deal with it. On the large entrance trilithon the cement is beginning to break away revealing the very eroded stone underneath.

Many of the carved stones from the site have been removed to the Archaeology Museum in Valletta and replaced by modern copies. These look like modern copies.

The route takes you into the South Temple first which has two side apses on each side and a fifth apse at the end with an ‘altar’. In the first right hand apse is a replica of the fat lady (only the bottom half survives). In the corner is what is described as a ‘cupboard’ altar. This is made up of several trilithons with a hole in the centre. Below is a carved box with a removable stone. A flint knife, ox and sheep bones shells and fragments of pottery were found inside, suggesting it might have been used in animal sacrifice.

In the apse on the left are carved stones, mainly spirals but one with a line of animals on it. This area was reused in the Bronze Age as a cremation cemetery. The second apse on the right has the remains of a small altar. Beyond is the central apse with a larger altar.

The route then takes you into the Central Temple. In the left apse is large bowl, one of the few original structures still left. A central passageway with trilithons, closed off to visitors, leads to the end apse. The route then takes you out of the Central Temple via the right side apse. Between the Central and East Temples is a narrow passageway with what are described as ‘steps’. Their purpose is unknown.

Little is left of the East Temple. On the ground it looks like a jumble of stones and it is difficult to make out structures. There is even less left of the far east temple.

This was a disappointing visit and didn’t repay time invested. The site is difficult to understand and the tacky restoration has a major detrimental effect. If you are wanting to visit temples on Malta, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are much better.

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