An Alignment Not Correlated with Heavenly Bodies

Malta has often been compared to Easter Island. As we shall see in Chapter 12, on Easter Island, a remote islet in the Pacific whose inhabitants had absolutely no prospects of escaping, an apparently crazy building urge led the population to engage in the construction of huge anthropomorphic statues and, it is thought, to the consequent impoverishment of their resources. However, the comparison of Easter Island and Malta holds up only superficially, for various reasons. First, Malta is not at all isolated, and evidence of trade with Pantelleria and Sicily is well documented archeologically. Second, building activities seem to have benefited positively from the demographic and economic resources available, considering that the temples were decorated, enlarged, and renovated over many centuries. Thus, I tend to agree rather with those who make more convincing comparisons with the civilizations of the megalithic builders who flourished in other two Mediterranean islands, Minorca and Sardinia, during the Bronze Age.

Between 1300 and 800 BC, Minorca, a little island in the western Mediterranean, was subject to a megalithic phase comparable to the Temple Period in Malta. In Minorca, and also in the larger island of Majorca, numerous Navetas were built—huge constructions made out of blocks of limestone, resembling military bunkers, which were probably used for burials, and megalithic "sanctuaries," that is, oblong stone enclosures whose function has never been revealed. For some unknown reason, moreover, it is only in Minorca that each sanctuary is centered on an object that archeologists call a Taula. A Taula is basically an enormous T constructed with two painstakingly finished parallelepiped slabs, one balanced on top of the other. Just as with the Maltese temples, we know nothing about the purpose of the sanctuaries in Minorca and Majorca.

In the 1980s, Michael Hoskin of Cambridge University studied the orientation of all the Taulas in good condition, and showed that they were all built in ideal positions for watching the southern horizon, and that all but one are oriented to point in a belt around the south, defined by the rising and setting of the star Alpha Centauri around 1000 BC (Hoskin 2001). Therefore, these monuments point to the stars of the constellations (distinct only in modern times) of the Southern Cross—Centaurus. In my view, it may even be hypothesized that the T-shaped form of the taulas, rather than being inspired by the stylized shape of a bull's skull as has been sometimes proposed, actually resembles the shape of the Southern Cross constellation (the exception to the rule is the Taula of Torralba, which is oriented toward the rising of Sirius).

In Sardinia, between circa 1800 and 1000 BC, a civilization flourished that was obsessed with building massive tower-shaped structures known as Nuraghi. Today we have clear evidence of the existence of at least eight thousand Nuraghi, divided into simple monuments consisting of just one

Figure 3.8: One of the Taulas of Minorca

tower and complex monuments made up of several structural elements arranged around a central tower, as in the famous and splendid Nuraghe of Barumini. Nuraghi were built with great blocks of stone, often employing highly sophisticated techniques, such as the execution of not one, but two concentric towers, one inside the other, with a stairway running up the cavity wall. These structures have been interpreted in various ways: as defensive bastions (though it has never been clear which enemy they were guarding against so vigilantly), rulers' residences (perhaps a bit cramped and dark?), or places of ritual (though we do not know what rituals). Recent research, however, has at least firmly shown that the builders were extremely interested in heavenly phenomena (Zedda and Belmonte 2004). By analyzing a sample of 272 simple Nuraghi and 180 complex Nuraghi, Zedda and Belmonte discovered that the orientation is always toward the south of east, and displays three clear "peaks" (i.e., directions around which most of the monuments' orientations tend to be concentrated), one facing the sunrise at the winter solstice, a second at moonrise at the south major standstill, and a final peak, the most pronounced, even further southeast, in the direction of the rising of the asterism of the Southern Cross-Centaurus. Moreover, the peak moves southward from 43 degrees southeast to 45V2 degrees, if one considers first the simple Nuraghi (probably built first), and then the complex ones. This movement matches fairly well the precessional

Figure 3.9: The effect of precession on the stars of the southern sky in the Mediterranean area, here taken at Malta latitude. In the first image we see a reconstruction of the sky in 3000 BC, with the Southern Cross culminating relatively high in the sky. In the second image we see the same constellation around 500 BC, still visible but at very low altitude. In the third image, we see the same portion of the sky today: the whole constellation "culminates below the horizon" that is, is always invisible. It will come back in the Malta's sky around 12000 AD.

Figure 3.9: The effect of precession on the stars of the southern sky in the Mediterranean area, here taken at Malta latitude. In the first image we see a reconstruction of the sky in 3000 BC, with the Southern Cross culminating relatively high in the sky. In the second image we see the same constellation around 500 BC, still visible but at very low altitude. In the third image, we see the same portion of the sky today: the whole constellation "culminates below the horizon" that is, is always invisible. It will come back in the Malta's sky around 12000 AD.

displacement of the rising point of Alpha Centauri in the period 1500 to 1000 BC; actually, due to precession, the whole asterism became invisible from the Mediterranean latitudes during the end of the last millennium BC.

The discoveries by Hoskin in the Balearics and by Zedda and Belmonte in Sardinia show that megalithic builders on these two islands were extremely fascinated by heavenly phenomena. Naturally one suspects that this might also be the case for Malta. As a matter of fact, if one looks at the plan of the Maltese temples, one realizes that they all have their entrances facing southeast, except Tarxien, which faces southwest, and the second temple of Mnajdra, which is directed due east. This obvious tendency toward southeast orientation prompts the immediate thought that the buildings may have been oriented toward sunrise at the winter solstice or at a lunar standstill. But this is not the case. Both the winter solstice and the south major lunar standstill in Malta are too northern in relation to the orientation of the temples' axis. Hoskin therefore suggested that such temples were aligned with the rising of stars of the southern horizon, particularly the Southern Cross. Although the temple era in Malta terminates around 2500 BC, while the first megalithic monuments in the Balearics can be dated around 1800 BC, it is at least tempting to speculate that their orientations are the reflection of the same ideas, a sort of stellar religion connected with the Cross-Centaurus group, which spread across the Mediterranean and, according to recent findings, arrived also in central Italy (Magli 2007a).

The hypothesis of an astronomical orientation of the Maltese temples, which seems eminently reasonable, has been rejected by many archeologists. For example, Donald H. Trump (2002), one of the most eminent scholars on the prehistory of Malta, has this to say:

The lines are too far south to be linked with the rising or setting of the sun or moon, even at their most southerly. It has been pointed out that the stars of the Southern Cross would have been visible just above the southern horizon at this distant time, but so low, and less brilliant than many others in the heavens, that they are hardly likely to have influenced the temple builders to this extent. This illustrates well the problems of prehistoric religion. Clearly the builders saw some significance in their alignments, though unrelated to the movements of the heavenly bodies. Whatever the reason for their choice, it is quite impossible for us now to discover what that significance was.

Oddly, at least in my view, it is quite the opposite, that is to say, not only were Maltese temples closely correlated with the stars (the objection that the stars of the Cross-Centaurus were "low'' does not make sense, since the height of the horizon is accounted for in any serious archaeoastronomical study, while the statement "they were less brilliant than many others in the heavens'' is patently wrong), but also we have undeniable proof that these buildings were closely connected to the solar cycle (Albrecht 2001).

To understand such links, the ideal starting point is Mnajdra 2, which is directed toward true east, that is, to the equinoxes. Access to Mnajdra 2 is clearly defined; it runs straight across to the opposite wall, where a central altar is to be found. To the left and right there are two identical monolithic slabs, and the upper external corners of the two slabs define two alignments that pass through the access to the temple. One of the two slabs points east of north, the one defined by the slab on the left as you enter, while the other points southeast. The "window" that they span corresponds to the path of the sun on the horizon during the year. Thus, Mnajdra is effectively a stone calendar. The sun rising at the winter solstice makes a flag-like (or ax-

Ta = Traxien

Bugibba BN» Borg in Nadur

Skorta Q • Ggiantija

Tal-Qadi Xrobb il-Ghagin

Figure 3.10: Orientation diagram of the left "altar stone'' in Maltese temples (adapted from Albrecht 2001). Each line reports the azimuth of the front of one such stones; capital numbers refer to various units in the same temple (e.g. Ggantija I and II). Dotted lines refer to the solstices sunrise/sunset.

Ta = Traxien

Bugibba BN» Borg in Nadur

Skorta Q • Ggiantija

Tal-Qadi Xrobb il-Ghagin like) figure on the right slab. In the course of the seasons, one can follow the movement of the sun, which rises on the horizon, observing day by day at which point the light strikes the altar inside the temple. In particular, the equinoctial sun rises in alignment with the axis, while when the ax figure is re-formed on the opposite slab, the sun has reached the midsummer rising point.

The builders of Mnajdra were thus interested in heavenly bodies—very interested indeed. Following the hint from Mnajdra 2, Klaus Albrecht studied the alignments of the altars and discovered that in all the Maltese temples facing southeast, which are the majority, the sun rising at the winter solstice lights up the altar stone set to the left on entry. This allows the direction of the temple's axis itself to be, as we have seen, set further south of the solstice, planning the structure in such a way as to obtain both alignments. It should be noted that Tarxien, which faces southwest, nevertheless obeys the rule perfectly, since the right slab is oriented toward sunset at the winter solstice. The Hypogeum also seems to follow this rule: the facade of the Holy of Holies seems to be oriented in the negative toward the winter solstice.

At Malta there was, then, a bit more than a certain interest in heavenly bodies, especially if we consider that the facade of the Holy of Holies is almost 8 meters below ground and thus cannot be reached by sunlight. We might say that there was the same interest in heavenly bodies as there was in Newgrange, or Maeshowe, or Stonehenge: Maltese temples acted as solstitial indicators exactly as do these other great monuments. Interest in the heavens is also attested to in various other clues, such as a curious carved stone whose significance is difficult to figure out, the Tal Qadi Stone, today at the Museum of Valletta (this is a fragment of a slab showing a radial division into five segments, four of which contain stars and the fifth, a lunar crescent), or marks etched onto monolithic slabs in certain temples, for example at Mnajdra, which may refer to observations of stars rising (Fodero Serio et al. 1992). Of course, the problem of the basic reasons behind this interest in celestial cycles in Malta still remains completely open. It would be quite reasonable to refer the astronomer-priest model (see Chapter 2) to Malta as well, and thus assert that the temples were run by an elite of people who somehow founded their power on the celestial cycles (connections between this hypothesis and the "cult of the Goddess,'' will be discussed in Chapter 15). The other point to understand (though it might seem rather banal) is how the builders contrived to shift and erect such great masses of stones, and with such bewildering ease.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Telescopes Mastery

Telescopes Mastery

Through this ebook, you are going to learn what you will need to know all about the telescopes that can provide a fun and rewarding hobby for you and your family!

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment