Cart Ruts

The problem of how huge quantities of rocks were quarried, transported, dressed, and put in place in Malta and elsewhere has never been solved definitively (see Appendix 2). Yet at Ggantija and Tarxien, numerous balls of rock, the size of a football, can be seen. Some of these balls are scattered around, and others are in the foundations at the bases of blocks making up temples, and it is believed that they were used to facilitate the placing of the stones in position. Malta would appear to be replete with clues as to how the transport of blocks was effected. Yet, like everything dating back to the age of the temples on this extraordinary island, even these clues raise more puzzles than they solve.

On the western coast, near Sliema, a road snakes up to the interior and leads to Naxar. If one looks carefully at the escarpment, one realizes that it is scored by ruts, as if a giant had sliced it, with incisions whose only common denominator is that they always run in parallel pairs, the same distance apart, like railways. These cuts clearly seem to be tracks, laid down, however, by a madman, intersecting and forking off without any apparent logic. At one point a "secondary track'' branches off, like the service line of a station, and after a few hundred meters rejoins the original track, again for no apparently logical reason. Looking down into these furrows, one realizes that they often vary in depth (not just from pair to pair but also between two ruts of the same parallel pair), from 10 centimeters to as much as 50 or 60 centimeters, and that the hump of rock in the center is not smoothed down. Something similar can be seen only in some other Maltese sites, in particular at Dingli, not far from Mnjandra, in a place nicknamed Clapham Junction, due to its resemblance to the chaotic railway hub in London.

These tracks are called cart ruts. They are undoubtedly the work of humans, and extremely old, since tombs dating from the Phoenician period (7th to 6th centuries BC) were cut in the rock, partly destroying many of them. Precise dating is difficult, however; some experts are of the opinion that they date from the Bronze Age, while others would place them at the time of temple builders.

Even though we call them cart ruts, the ruts created by actual wheeled

Figure 3.11: Cart Ruts "crazy" crossings at Clapham Junction.
Figure 3.12: Cart Ruts at S. Pawl. Notice the difference in depth between paired lines.

carts passing constantly on stone are quite different from what we have here. There are many examples from Roman times (those in the Via dell'Abbondanza at Pompeii are very famous, for instance), which consist of two parallel ruts, but have roughly the same depth and show signs of wear in the center, significantly less than that caused by wheels transporting a load, but present nevertheless, on account of the passing of draught animals. We can actually also find cart ruts from the Roman Age in Malta, and there is no question about the difference: the Maltese cart ruts, whatever they are, could not have been created this way.

To have an idea of current knowledge regarding cart ruts, one may again consult Trump (2002), who presents an interesting suggestion as to how they were made. One sees indeed an ox dragging along a sledge without wheels. Two cords, each carrying a boulder, hang from the back end of the sledge. The boulders, as they are dragged along, have the sole aim, apart from the obvious one of breaking the ox's back with fatigue, of gouging out the cart ruts.

Even more unreliable are, however, other suggestions and analogies that have been advanced. For instance, an analogy with the so-called Etruscan Vie Cave has been sometimes made. The problem is that archaeology has never been able to interpret this phenomenon as well, and so the analogy only confuses matters. Indeed, the Vie Cave are spectacular pathways, quite practicable, that amble along with gentle slopes, deeply (very deeply, up to 20 meters) etched into tuff, to be found chiefly in the Etruscan areas of Pitigliano and Sovana, in Tuscany. Datable definitely before the 6th century BC (also because of tombs of that period discovered inside them), they are extremely enigmatic constructions, largely overlooked by archaeologists up to now, most likely endowed with some symbolic, apart from functional, significance.

Finally, it has been recently suggested, based essentially on traces of deliberate carving visible in some of the cart rut furrows, that the Maltese ruts were made as water drainage canals, in order to safeguard the scarce land available on the island and to expand agriculture (Sagona 2004); of course, it is in this case rather difficult to understand why they had to carve them in rigorously parallel pairs.

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