Hal Saflieni Hypogeum (1982)
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In 1902, when builders were digging a well on a site for new houses in Paola, they broke into the roof of the upper floor of a huge complex of underground chambers. Instead of reporting their discovery to the authorities, the builders used the cavity for the disposal of rubble. It was nearly three years before the existence of this vast and remarkable labyrinth of chambers became common knowledge.
The excavations that subsequently took place were led by the eminent Maltese archaeologist, Sir Themistocles Zammit. On the lower level, the remains of 6000 to 7000 human bodies were discovered together with personal ornaments and pottery. The precise purpose of the Hypogeum remains a mystery, partially because of the primitive methods then available to the archaeologists. It is generally thought that the temple complex was used as a burial site and as a sanctuary.
Archaeologists meanwhile dream of the discovery of another similar
structure so that modern methods might throw light on the function of its
The Hypogeum (catacombs) is an enormous subterranean structure excavated c. 2500 B.C., using cyclopean rigging to lift huge blocks of coralline limestone. The Hypogeum is part of the megalithic temples in Hal Saflieni, Paola, the island of Malta.
Perhaps originally a sanctuary, it became a necropolis in prehistoric times.
The chamber known as the "Holy of Holies" reveals traces of red ochre on the walls, red being the colour of blood, sacrifice and death, suggesting that this was both a burial place and a shrine. The Oracle Chamber, where a square niche is cut into the wall, has remarkable acoustics. Deep, usually male, voices reverberate and carry to the far end of the chamber while high pitched female voices seem to have no effect at all. This is believed to be the cavity where the priest-oracle interpreted dreams. It was in these mid-level chambers that the so-called "Sleeping Priestess" was discovered - small statuette of a female with tiny head and fat body lying on a couch. This and other obese female figures, which can be seen in the archaeological museum in Valletta, suggest some sort of fertility cult.
Other items found in the Hypogeum include pots with abstract decoration, and personal ornaments - such as a necklace, which has been reconstructed, made out of pierced shells and beads.
From the middle level, an ancient and uneven staircase leads down to the lowest set of chambers. It was here, among the pits and tombs, that the remains of thousands of bodies were unearthed, along with their grave goods.
Many thanks to Mr. Tony Vella (Canada) for all help and research.
Other World Heritage sites on Malta (on this website). Please refer to the UNESCO-listing, Malta-section, for further information about the individual properties.
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Revised 21 jul 2006