The Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni

Malta - Scott #570 (1980)
Malta – Scott #570 (1980)

The Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni is a Neolithic subterranean structure dating to the Saflieni phase (3300 – 3000 BC) in Maltese prehistory, located in Paola, Malta. It is often simply referred to as the Hypogeum (Ipoġew in Maltese), literally meaning “underground” in Greek. The Hypogeum is thought to have been a sanctuary and necropolis, with the remains of more than 7,000 individuals documented by archeologists, and is among the best preserved examples of the Maltese temple building culture that also produced the Megalithic Temples and Xagħra Stone Circl

The Hypogeum was discovered by accident in 1902 when workers cutting cisterns for a new housing development broke through its roof. The workers tried to hide the temple at first, but eventually it was found. The study of the structure was first conducted by Manuel Magri, who directed the excavations on behalf of the Museums Committee, starting from November 1903. During the excavations, a portion of the contents of the Hypogeum, including grave goods and human remains, were emptied out and discarded without being properly catalogued. To confound things further, Magri died in 1907 while conducting missionary work in Tunisia and his report on the Hypogeum was lost.

Site map of the Hypogeum made in October 1907
Site map of the Hypogeum made in October 1907
The Hypogeum, photograph by Richard Ellis, before 1910
The Hypogeum, photograph by Richard Ellis, before 1910

Excavation continued under Sir Themistocles Zammit, who attempted to salvage what he could. Zammit began publishing a series of reports in 1910 and continued excavating until 1911, depositing his findings at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta. The Hypogeum was first opened to visitors in 1908 while the excavations were ongoing.

Later archeological excavations indicate there was once a surface shrine that marked the entrance to the Hypogeum, with its subsequent destruction likely shielding the lower structure from discovery for thousands of years. The underground structure may have originated from a natural cave, expanded over time by cutting directly into the rock with crude tools including antlers, flint, chert and obsidian. Burial chambers in the upper level of the Hypogeum date from the early phases of the Maltese Temple Period, with lower chambers dating from later. The site may have first been used as early as 4000 BC, and was likely used until around 2500 BC, based on pottery sample analysis and examination of human remains.

The temple structure uses a careful direction of light from the surface to penetrate into the lower chambers, with intricate patterns painted on portions of the ceiling with red ocher, following motifs of spots, spirals and honeycombs. One of the main chambers, called “The Holy of Holies”, appears to be oriented such that light from the winter solstice illuminated its façade from the original opening above. A resonance niche cut in the middle chamber, called the Oracle Room, was possibly designed to project chanting or drumming throughout the rest of the Hypogeum.

This clay figure of a reclining lady was found in one of the pits of the Hypogeum in Hal Saflieni in Malta. It has traces of red ochre paint and is thought to represent a
This clay figure of a reclining lady was found in one of the pits of the Hypogeum in Hal Saflieni in Malta. It has traces of red ochre paint and is thought to represent a “mother goddess”. Temple Period, 4000 – 2500 BC. Photo taken on October 8, 2009.

A broad range of objects were recovered from the site, including intricately decorated pottery vessels, stone and clay beads, shell buttons, amulets, axe-heads, and carved figures depicting humans and animals. The most notable discovery was the Sleeping Lady, a clay figure thought to represent a mother goddess. The figures range from abstract to realistic in style, with major themes thought to be related to veneration of the dead and spiritual transformation. Complex artistic techniques are also represented, as in the case of a single large pottery bowl which utilized both naturalistic and stylized themes, with one side realistically depicting bovines, pigs and goats, and the other side representing hatched animals hidden within complex geometric patterns.

The remains of some 7,000 individuals were found in the Hypogeum, and though many of the bones were lost early in excavation, most of the skulls were deposited at the National Museum. A small percentage of the skulls have an abnormal cranial elongation, similar to priestly skulls from Ancient Egypt, fueling speculation about the people who occupied the Hypogeum, and their practices and beliefs.

Further excavations took place between 1990 and 1993 by Anthony Pace, Nathaniel Cutajar and Reuben Grima. The Hypogeum was then closed to visitors between 1991 and 2000 for restoration works; and since its reopening, Heritage Malta (the government body that looks after historical sites) allows entry to only 80 people per day, while the sites microclimate is strictly regulated. Scientific research on the Hypogeum is ongoing, and in 2014, an international team of scientists visited to study acoustics.

Cross sectional view of Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum, Malta
Cross sectional view of Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum, Malta

The Hypogeum is constructed entirely underground and consists of three superimposed levels hewn into soft globigerina limestone, with its halls and chambers interconnected through a labyrinthine series of steps, lintels and doorways. The upper level is thought to have been occupied first, with the middle and lowers levels expanded and excavated later. Some of the middle chambers appear to share stylistic characteristics with the contemporaneous Megalithic Temples found across Malta.

The first level is only ten meters below the surface, and it is very similar to tombs found in Xemxija, near St. Paul’s Bay. Some rooms are natural caves which were later artificially extended. This level consists of many chambers, some of which were used for burial.

Limestone doorways in the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni, Malta. Photo taken by Hamelin de Guettelet on March 28, 2008.
Limestone doorways in the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni, Malta. Photo taken by Hamelin de Guettelet on March 28, 2008.

The second level is a later expansion, with the rock hoisted up to the surface by Cyclopean rigging. This level features several noted rooms:

  • Main Chamber: This chamber is roughly circular and carved out from rock. A number of trilithon entrances are represented, some blind, and others leading to another chamber. Most of the wall surface has received a red wash of ochre. It was from this room that the Sleeping Lady was recovered.
  • Oracle Room: This is roughly rectangular and one of the smallest side chambers. It has the peculiarity of producing a powerful acoustic resonance from any vocalization made inside it. This room has an elaborately painted ceiling, consisting of spirals in red ochre with circular spots and spirals.
  • Decorated Room: Near the Oracle Room is another spacious hall, circular, with inward slanting smooth walls, richly decorated in a geometrical pattern of spirals. On the right side wall of the entrance is a petrosomatoglyph of a human hand carved into the rock (Agius).
  • Holy of Holies: Perhaps the central structure of the Hypogeum, this room appears to be oriented toward the winter solstice, which would have illuminated its façade from the original surface opening. No bones were recovered from this room during excavations. The focal point is a porthole within a trilithon, or structure consisting of two large vertical stones, which is in turn framed within a larger trilithon and yet another large trilithon. The corbelled ceiling has been taken as a hint that Malta’s surface temples, now uncovered, could have been roofed similarly.
The sanctuary chamber Holy of Holies at Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni, Malta. Photo taken in 1985.
The sanctuary chamber Holy of Holies at Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni, Malta. Photo taken in 1985.

The lower story contained no bones or offerings, only water. It strongly suggests storage, probably of grain.

The Hypogeum and its museum are a popular attraction in Malta. The museum is open at 9am, but queuing for tickets starts around 8am. Some last minute tickets are occasionally available from the National War Museum, located in Valletta. Visitors are recommended to book weeks before, as limited people are allowed per day.

The site closed in September 2016 for a €1.1 million renovation partly financed by a grant from Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein. The renovated museum was inaugurated by Minister for Culture Owen Bonnici on April 28, 2017, and includes a new climate control system for the Hypogeum as well as an expanded visitor center. The site reopened to visitors on May 15, 2017.

Malta - Scott #570-573 (1980) first day cover
Malta – Scott #570-573 (1980) first day cover

Scott #570 is the lowest — 2.50 Maltese cents — denomination of a set of four stamps released by Malta on February 15, 1980, to promote the International Restoration of Maltese Monuments Campaign spearheaded by UNESCO. The stamps were printed using offset lithography and perforated 14½. There were 2,049,035 copies of Scott #570 printed. The Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site during the 4th session in 1980 under Criteria III which requires that a site must “bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.” According to UNESCO,

The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is a unique monument of exceptional value. It is the only known European example of a subterranean ‘labyrinth’ from about 4,000 B.C. to 2,500 B.C. The quality of its architecture and its remarkable state of preservation make it an essential prehistoric monumentThe Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is one of the best preserved and most extensive environments that have survived from the Neolithic. With the exception of the fragmentary remains of the above-ground entrance, all the key attributes of the property, including the architectural details and painted wall decorations, have remained intact within the boundaries. The main threats to the preservation of the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum are the fluctuating temperature and relative humidity levels within the site, as well as water infiltration and biological infestations.

Ħal-Saflieni Museum façade after restoration. Photo taken on March 25, 2017.
Ħal-Saflieni Museum façade after restoration. Photo taken on March 25, 2017.
Entry into the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni, Malta.
Entry into the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni, Malta.

The principal legal instrument for the protection of cultural heritage resources in Malta is the Cultural Heritage Act (2002), which provides for and regulates national bodies for the protection and management of cultural heritage resources. Building development and land use is regulated by the Environment and Development Planning Act (2010 and subsequent amendments), which provides for and regulates the Malta Environment and Planning Authority. The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is protected by a buffer zone, and both the Hypogeum and its buffer zone are formally designated by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority as a Grade A archaeological site, which means they are subject to wide-ranging restrictions of building development.

A program of monitoring and research, launched in order to understand the microclimate of the Hypogeum, was followed by a project for the conservation of the property, designed and implemented in the 1990s. Houses directly above the site were acquired and dismantled; light levels within the property are strictly controlled; and visitor numbers limited. These measures have helped to maintain stable temperature and humidity levels, which continue to be monitored closely.

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