The dig 

Temi Zammit

The Hypogeum Ħal-Saflieni was discovered in 1902 when builders, working on a new housing development, fell through its roof. The huge underground structure is carved out of the soft rock that lies beneath the town of Paola, on the outskirts of Valetta on Malta. Despite initial attempts to deny the discovery, so as not to hinder building work, the find was finally reported and exploration of the Hypogeum began in 1903 under the direction of Father Emanuel Magri. Father Magri died suddenly in 1907, and any fieldnotes he may have taken were lost. However, subsequent excavations from 1907-1911, led by Themistocles (‘Temi’) Zammit, were well published, and detail the importance of this unique site that gives its name to the ‘Saflieni’ phase of Malta’s prehistory, stretching from 3000 to 2500 BC. 

The Hypogeum was dug during prehistoric times on three subterranean levels, carved from the soft limestone rock using tools of stone and bone. It contains a number of labyrinthine corridors and caves of sophisticated
architectural design, and houses the bones of more than 7,000 individuals. The most notable discovery was the megalith architecture of the main chamber. Its design reflects contemporary prehistoric temples above ground, and it remains the only prehistoric underground temple yet discovered. 

The discoveries 

The ‘sleeping lady’ figurine

The oldest level of the Hypogeum was carved into what was once the top of a hill overlooking today’s Great Harbour. A building would have stood above ground at its entrance, though little evidence remains of this structure’s size or nature. The chambers dug out of the first level were probably natural caves that were extended and added to over the years. Large slabs of stone, used as standing pillars, were discovered in situ, along with pottery, beads, stone pendants, and human bones.

As the Hypogeum was extended in the 3rd millennium BC, more caves were dug at a second, lower level. The main circular chamber here is surrounded by megalith trilithon arches – some leading into other caves, some cut blind into the rock. Many chambers on this level were smoothed and decorated with red-ochre spiral and honeycomb designs. One, the Oracle Room, contains a small opening that magnifies the human voice, letting it echo throughout the Hypogeum. These unusual acoustics are likely to have been used in ceremonies. Large quantities of prehistoric artefacts were recovered, including pottery shards, shell buttons, clay beads, carved stone animals – and the famous ‘Sleeping Lady’, a characteristic ‘fat lady’ figurine.

A staircase leads down to the third level, which did not contain any significant artefacts and was possibly a storage area for grain.

The deductions 

The megalith architecture at Hal Saflieni Hypogeum

As there is no evidence of human habitation in the Hypogeum, it was most probably a house of the dead. However, the bone assemblages do not suggest any uniform burial practice: instead, the bones were heaped together in a haphazard manner. Zammit suggested in his 1910 excavation report that this could be part of a Neolithic burial custom whereby the soft tissue is removed and the bones deposited together in a type of ossuary.

The architecture varies in complexity, reaching its zenith in the chambers of the second level, where the megalithic structures share significant similarities with Maltese sites above ground, such as Mnajdra and Ħag˙ ar Qim,
that date to the same era. The paintings on walls are the only examples of prehistoric cave art yet discovered on the Maltese islands. The distinctive nature of the Hypogeum, and the huge number of well-preserved artefacts
found there, confirm its outstanding value to our understanding of the temple culture and sophisticated civilisation of prehistoric Malta.