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Temple and Tomb: Prehistoric Malta, 3600-2500 BCE

The art, architecture and culture of an astonishingly forward-thinking people who lived in Malta, an island group in the Southern Mediterranean, more than five thousand years ago, are examined in Temple and Tomb: Prehistoric Malta: 3600-2500 BCE, on view from Thursday, March 21 through July 7, 2013 at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University.

Temple and Tomb: Prehistoric Malta, 3600-2500 BCE
Shaman’s Cache Schematic Figure. Globigerina Limestone. H. 17.2, W. 5.1, D. 1.9 cm. Xaghra Circle (Gozo), Temple Period, 3600–2500 BCE. Heritage Malta–Gozo Museum of Archaeology: 32193 [Credit: © Daniel Cilia/Heritage Malta]
The first major exhibition in the U.S. to be devoted to the art and artifacts of prehistoric Malta and featuring many objects never before seen outside the Maltese islands, Temple and Tomb provides insights into Malta’s famous temple sites, which were built from stones weighing up to 20 tons each and quarried using only stone and wooden tools. Older than the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge, they are believed to be the oldest freestanding stone buildings in the world.

The “Venus of Malta,” an amply proportioned clay figurine of a woman, so small that it fits in the palm of the hand, is the exhibition centerpiece. The standing figure is as remarkable for the refined handling of anatomical details, such as shoulder blades and buttocks, as for the fully sculptural nature of its conception: its sides and back are as fully realized as its front. Although this famous figure was shaped from clay as one piece, the exhibition also features carved stone figures with a detachable heads. Many of these strange, two-part figurines have been uncovered in Maltese tomb sites. Like “Seated Figure with Socket for Separately Worked-Head,” the example on view here, their surfaces are often worn smooth, perhaps from being held and turned by many hands.

These monumental structures are examined here alongside more than 60 archeological finds, including incredibly detailed and varied representations of the human figure, decorative architectural reliefs, refined clay vessels, imported stone amulets and other objects found in temple and tomb contexts that tell about the life and death concerns of these people from the dawn of human history. Providing further context are historic drawings, watercolors and photographs, as well as two video installations.

“The megalithic structures created by the prehistoric Maltese to house cultic and funerary rituals are among the greatest architectural achievements of all time,” says Jennifer Y. Chi, ISAW Exhibitions Director and Chief Curator. “Yet we still do not exactly understand their purpose, nor why the prehistoric Maltese culture came to an end at the peak of its aesthetic achievement: some experts suggest climate change, others foreign invasions or civil war, and still others the over-exploitation of natural resources.”

The featured art and artifacts have been drawn from the collections of Heritage Malta held at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta (Malta) and the Gozo Museum of Archaeology in Victoria (Gozo). Dr. Chi has led the curatorial team, which also includes Sharon Sultana, Senior Curator at the National Museum of Archaeology, and Dr. Peter De Staebler, Assistant Curator at ISAW.

Figurines of Prehistoric Malta

These representations of early human life may surprise visitors by the very familiarity of their detail and variety: there are nude figures and clothed ones, figures depicted with crossed arms, others shown reclining and still others seated. Many of the heads are astonishingly individualized and may indeed have been intended to portray actual persons. In a very rare depiction of two figures seated together, known as the “Xaghra Twin Seated Figure,” even with the loss of one of the heads, the visitor will see the remnant of a ponytail, still visible from the back.

Dominating this section with its expressiveness as well as size is a large clay statue of a figure wearing a skirt, which once would have stood nearly two feet tall. Now missing its torso, the “Priest” or “Priestess” offers the main evidence we have today that once, long ago, a character like this—whether a living person, ancestor, or deity—was highly regarded in the Tarxien temple precinct, one of 14 temple sites throughout the islands.

Particularly intriguing is the sexual ambiguity of many of the figures. Some, like the “Venus of Malta,” are distinctly female, and others, including a group of four plank-like schematic figures, appear to represent males. These are distinguished from a larger number of corpulent figures that are deliberately androgynous and whose proportions are luxuriously enormous, with large hips, thighs, and buttocks but smaller legs and arms, and incongruously delicate feet and hands.

Megalithic Temple Architecture

The smallest artifact in Temple and Tomb—an acorn-sized model of a temple—may hold the key to current debates about whether or not the megalithic Maltese temples were fully roofed. Carved out of Globigerina limestone and found in 1923 at Ta’ Hagrat, in the northern part of the island of Malta, the model clearly shows a roof made of seven individual stone slabs, suggesting that these buildings were indeed covered.

The tiny carved stone also has a trilithon (door comprised of post and lintel forms) carved into the center of one long side and mirrors the basic structure of the buildings excavated on the islands, where door surrounds built of massive stones lead into a straight central pathways, from which a number of roundish chambers, or “apses,” are arranged like petals.

Twenty historic drawings, watercolors and photographs depict the plans, section, and interiors of several temples, and suggest the density of the different sites. The question of celestial orientation, perhaps related to the importance of seasons to this agricultural people, is raised as well. The main axis of the Mnajdra South Temple, at Malta’s southernmost tip, is seen to be perfectly aligned with the position of the sun during the equinoxes; twice a year, the sun must have risen directly through the center of the doorway. Other temples appear to be oriented in order to have a clear view of the night sky, and at the Mnajdra East Temple markings are understood to record the number of days between the rising of different bright stars and star clusters.

Source: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University [March 26, 2013]

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