August 8, 2014

Cultural Heritage Protection: The Ġgantija Temples, Xhagra, Malta (Gozo)

Susan Douglas reports on the Ġgantija Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980

Fig. 1: The entrance to the museum at
 the Ġgantija Temples heritage site.
Possibly the oldest surviving freestanding structures in the world, the Ġgantija Temples in XaghraGozo, Malta were inscribed by UNESCO in 1980 with several other Megalithic Temple Sites on the Maltese archipelago. Dating from the Neolithic period onwards, perhaps as early as c.3600-3200 BC (Trump 1980; Renwick 2007), they predate both Stonehenge (c.2000 BC) and the pyramids at Giza (c.2500BC).

Fig. 2 – The clay figurines including
 the snail with the human head
 from the
 Xaghra Circle.
The architecture of temple site of Ġgantija is not a simple trefoil plan like the earliest structures seen at MnajdraSkorbaTarxien and Kordin, or a single cell such as found at Mgarr, but a rather more developed plan consisting of a passage with a pair of transepts branching off it to either side. The temples and related sites (such as the Hal Safleini Hypogeum) all share elements in common such as uprights and lintels and decorative spiral, dot, and line designs. These well-known features are present at Ġgantija, where the designs are carved into the standing stones or megaliths.

Interpretation Center and Museum
When I visited the Ġgantija Temples it was scorching hot. July is the worst time to tramp around the Mediterranean doing cultural tourism, but somehow I didn’t know this before I arrived on the island. Also, I had no car. Which is how, with help from the Hop-on-and-Off bus, Gozo, I spent a leisurely 45 minutes enjoying the heritage park, comprising a museum and the temples.

A short uphill walk took me from the car and coach park opposite to where the bus stops to the entrance of the complex. Happily, the museum area is air-conditioned during the summer months. I found out there is a dress code in effect when the woman ahead of me in line was politely asked to put on a T-shirt. Only after she’d done so was the party (which now include me) allowed to enter the museum. The museum / interpretation center, like the prehistoric site itself, is managed by Heritage Malta, the national agency responsible for the preservation and conservation of archeological sites, historic buildings and all Gozo museums.

As fig. 1 (above) illustrates, from outside the museum somewhat resembles a concrete bunker, but one articulated by perforated metal screens that allow the light in and is designed to protect what’s inside. The design of the museum and the entire architectural project carried out at the Ġgantija Temples heritage site won the 2014 Din l-ArtĦelwa Prix d’Honneur in recognition of its excellence. One of the project’s key features is that the museum is detached, physically and visually, from the temple site itself so that visitors may enjoy the monument in its natural context. [1]

Fig. 3 – Graffiti on the megalithic stones
 at the
 Ġgantija Temples, Gozo.
The interpretation center was inaugurated in 2013. It is given over to promoting conservation and educating the public as to the historical and aesthetic value of the temples as well as making learning about Gozo’s prehistory and our prehistoric ancestors an entertaining experience. The exhibits inside include narratives that relate the archeological remains found at Xaghra to the Maltese nation as well as displays encouraging the public to identify with the cultural past.

Sleeping Lady
I was fascinated to discover figurines similar to the “sleeping lady” on display at the National Museum of Archeology in Valletta, Malta, along with other material found in the Xaghra Circle (fig.2). It turns out that figurines and statues were found at several temple sites and the Hypogeum. They range in size from over-life size to miniature and may confirm that the temples were sites for the worship of deities. Some clay figurines and a clay representation of a snail with a human head caught my eye my along with stylized human heads and animal figurines carved in limestone.

According to Sarah Rich, interest in the sculptures is connected to the Earth mother/ Great goddess cult in New Age religions making them emblematic of the desire for an “imagined” heritage or myths. Some of the figures are evidently female in form while others are androgynous, abstract or anthropomorphic. Rich argues that worship by Neolithic people of the female body or the goddess mother in the Maltese islands has never been conclusively proved. [2]

Fig. 4 – The path leading around Ġgantija allows access to
 two  temples  that stand at the end of the Xagħra plateau.
This is a partial view of the façade.
But can we talk about tactile memory in this context? The little figures movingly symbolize for me an affective connection across time. They obviously communicate on a human level, that is to say intimately and expressively, by virtue of texture, color and shape. And, there are plenty of examples of rounded smooth surfaces inviting touch in art, from the Blarney Stones in Ireland to the right breast of the bronze statute of Juliet in Verona that brings luck in love to those who touch it. [3]

Apart from the story of the relics, the museum has other tales to offer. In the modern period interest in archaeology led to a confusing situation. It is a fact that, by circulating illustrations of the temples from various points of view, European aristocrats and others succeeded in stimulating scientific interest in the temples and brought tourists into the area. I sat down to watch a video relating how watercolor paintings give an impression of what tourism looked like in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and to prove that the decorative elements of the temples existed and what they looked like. It is believed that decorative plaster may have once covered the irregular walls at Ġgantija. For a while it may have been accessible to the public. However, in 1827, “rubble” was systematically removed from the site in an effort to control access to the area and this material is now irretrievably lost.

Fig. 5 – Detail of the temple structure (niches) compared
 to earlier artistic renderings through photographs.
Figure 3 shows a different consequence of tourism as an unconsidered process. In the park, the names, initials, dates and emblems inscribed on the surfaces of the megaliths are an indication of the site’s growing popularity during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The act of leaving one’s name on the prehistoric monument once confirmed that one had indeed been at the site. Any act of vandalism today would likely be caught by security cameras and dealt with immediately; the security guard I saw patrolling the grounds was alert, as he should be. [4]

The Temples, Gozo
There is plenty to look at in the heritage park: the rugged landscape, the bounded temple complex, architectural details ancient and modern. But today, instead of clambering over the ruins as the visiting public once did, a raised path leads down to the temples, offering panoramic vistas of the countryside in the process. The ground is high and slopes downwards. At one time these temples may have prominently marked territorial division or been the central feature of a settlement -- a place that Christians churches, usually Catholic, have taken up more recently. Here are some pictures:

Fig. 6 – Detail of a chamber in one of the
 clover-leaf shaped temples showing
 the site restored according to evidence
 found  during archeological digs
 in 1827 and subsequently.
The path winds around the outside protective wall until reaches the megalithic monuments where it leads up each of two transepts (fig. 4). 

Text and visual panels relay information as to the efforts being made to preserve the Ġgantija Temples and Gozian culture for future generations (fig. 5).

The overall outline of the ground plan has survived, and the upright megaliths. Walls, blocks of stone, niches, and the original stone paving are notably restored. Sadly, however, most of the stylized ornamentation on the megaliths is today very faded. This makes it difficult to imagine what the temples originally looked like or what they did, and therefore how past societies were integrated into the design, culturally and socially.

Mute Monuments
How did the Ġgantija Temples perform the sacred in their time? How does the museum complex perform cultural heritage today? We speak of architecture as active agent in shaping the world. We see the built environment as acting on the beholder and hence capable of transforming perceived reality. But usually, these rather abstract ideas aren’t grounded in a reality such as this one, grandiose yet mute.

[1] For more, see AndSeg, Communications Office at Ggantija Megalithic Temples, response to “horrendously ugly concrete walls surround the site,” published on Accessed July 28, 2014.

[2] S. Rich, “Ggantija and ta’MarzienaPreservation and presentation of Gozo’s Neolithic Heritage,” 2007, Omertaa, Journal for Applied Anthropology,

[3] Interestingly, the curators in charge of exhibiting similar objects at the National Museum of Archeology in Valletta have put a replica on display near the sleeping lady so visitors may in fact touch it if they choose to.

[4] For more on world heritage site management in Malta, see Esther Renwick, “World Heritage Site Management: protecting a site in its landscape, a Maltese case-study” (Paper Presented at the Forum UNESCO University and Heritage 10th International Seminar) available at Accessed August 5, 2014

Photo credits, all images: © Susan Douglas, 2014

Dr. Susan Douglas, professor at the University of Guelph (Canada) and the ARCA Writer-in-Residence in 2013, is a writer and curator in Toronto and the founding editor of the Glossary of Modern Latin American Art (Wordpress). Http://