First Person

As Malta’s oldest Neolithic temple gets international fame, will we save it from the threat of development?

The documentary series Ancient Apocalypse is still going strong three months after it debuted on Netflix, remaining among Netflix’s ‘popular’ rankings. It has made Malta’s Neolithic temples known much more widely – it has an entire episode (out of eight) dedicated to Malta’s temples – a reminder that there were epochs in the past when Malta took an importance larger than its diminutive size.  

The series is the culmination of the producer Graham Hancock’s life work, a maverick author and documentary maker who has been challenging the mainstream archeological narrative for decades.

Hancock’s grand theory is that an advanced ancient civilisation was wiped out by a cataclysm around 12,000 years ago. The Maltese Neolithic temples fit within this narrative because of their mystique and magnitude – the temples are among the most impressive buildings of the ancient world – making Malta one of the flourish points of this supposed ancient civilization.

Altars at Ggantija Temples (Image Copyright: Victor Paul Borg)

There is no hard evidence for Hancock’s narrative – his detractors have branded him a ‘pseudoarcheologist’ and his narrative a ‘conspiracy theory’ – but there are elements within his Netflix episode on Malta that raise intriguing questions still open to debate.  

The first of these is the obvious: Malta’s neolithic temples were so numerous and so large that the civilizational space seems woefully inadequate. Why would, or how could, around 5,000 people – that’s the estimate for Malta’s population at the time the temples were supposedly built, starting 5,600 years ago – living on small islands built such grand temples and so many of them?

The prevailing theory, put forth most strongly or coherently after the last major archeological dig in Malta (of Xaghra Circle, near Ggantija Temples), is that the Neolithic inhabitants became increasingly fixated on religion, as well as fertility, as the state of the environment around them deteriorated, in part driven by their overexploitation. This eventually led to the demise of the Neolithic civilization in Malta.

Stone figures thought to represent fertility found in Neolithic sites in Malta (Image Copyright: Victor Paul Borg)

Hancock’s theory is that the temples are much older, and that the people who built them moved south from the European landmass during the last Ice Age when the sea level was much lower, and Malta was connected to Sicily via a land bridge. Malta had a benign climate in comparison to the big freeze to the north. This theory pushes back the arrival of humans in Malta by many thousand years.

Hancock’s theory is intriguing, but it lacks evidence. In the mainstream archeological view, Malta’s early human timeline is extrapolated from archeological remains – the artifacts discovered have been compared in style and sophistication to artifacts discovered in other places around the Mediterranean, and in this manner Malta’s human presence (when the first humans arrived on Malta) has been pegged to the prehistoric timeline of those other places. There has also been studies on stratification of material, which leads to extrapolation of time, as well as carbon dating, all of which helped build up the body of data. This leads to the prevailing timeline that Malta’s first inhabitants came to Malta in rafts from Sicily around 7,000 years ago.

Hancock also features Anton Mifsud in the episode about Malta. Anton and his son Simon, both of them pediatricians, conducted research into teeth found in Ghar Dalam.   

Cover of the book published by Mifsud's

In their study or investigative reportage, published in a book called Dossier Malta: Evidence from the Magdalenian, the Mifsud’s wrote that tests done between the 1950s and 1970s on the teeth discovered in Ghar Dalam were flawed. The book documents the mistakes and omissions of the studies at the time, and, after doing fresh tests, goes on to proclaim that there were people on Malta at least 10,000 years ago.

The Mifsud’s work does not prove or disprove anything about the temple builders, who could have well been a different people than those who bore the teeth found in Ghar Dalam.

Yet Hancock latched onto this in his Netflix series, postulating that people walked south to Malta during the last Ice Age.

The Netflix series is well produced, in terms of cinematography and drama and suspense, making it entertaining even if you think Hancock’s take is conspiracy theory. Perhaps that is one of the reasons for its popularity.

Mnajdra Temples is also featured in the Netflix series (Image Copyright: Victor Borg Borg)

If anything, the series is a reminder of what we stand to lose if we are not vigilant. Malta’s oldest temples, Ggantija Temples, is currently threatened by five applications for blocks of flats within its buffer zone, or Area of Archeological Influence. These are proposed in neighbourhoods that have until now survived as neighbourhoods of two-storey townhouses.

These blocks of flats, if approved, would mar one of the qualities that makes Ggantija Temples special, its immediate and wider setting. The two-storey baroque houses and, behind them, Malta’s most popular windmill and the baroque town church, add character and sense of place to the temples.  

Render of some of the planning applications in buffer zone of Ggantija Temples currently being considered by the Planning Authority

In the last hearing of the Planning Commission on one of the cases last week, the Commission has requested a heritage impact study before proceeding.

Yet the Planning Authority has not requested similar heritage impact assessments of the other four proposed developments. In one of those other cases, decision on the application has been deferred after I showed photomontages of the proposal’s impact on Malta’s most popular windmill and pointed out that in another similar case in 2021, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage had opposed the proposal and the Planning Authority had voted against the proposal.  

I am doing this as a part of a special reporting project, called Ggantija Streetscapes, focused on research and reportage, and then presenting the findings of my research in hearings of the Planning Authority and also collaborating with NGOs.

Please consider donating as little as a fiver for this endeavour. A total of €500 is being sought, which is a modest amount for the effort and work I have already put into this, let alone the further work I have yet to do going forward.   

Fresh investigations of the Ggantija Streetscapes series will be published in the next few weeks.

Donate to Ggantija Streetscapes

It takes much resources, time, and effort to do the research and digital renditions to produce the reportage of the Ggantija Streetscapes investigative reporting project published on this website. Sustain this reporting project, which shall serve to reveal and, equally importantly, rally support for efforts to save the streetscapes of the sensitive neighbourhood that forms an integral part of the setting of Ggantija Temples. Donate as little as €5. 

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