|Fig. 1 - Hagar Qim|
|Fig. 2 - Stonehenge|
When the ice receded from Europe around 9000 BCE (Kleiner, 29), one would suppose there must have been an eventual shift from hunting and gathering towards farming and the domestication of animals, which in turn led to the founding of human settlements (Malone, 15), as early as 7000 BCE in Southern Europe and 4500 BCE in Northern Europe (Biagi, 36). Two Neolithic monuments, Hagar Qim and Stonehenge, serve as testaments to the evolving customs of geotemporally distinct yet architecturally and cosmologically-related cultures. In this paper we will seek to examine the similarities and differences between Hagar Qim and Stonehenge, with respect to materials and design, theorized uses and significance of the monuments.
Hagar Qim (Fig.1), found on the Mediterranean island of Malta, is a complex of Neolithic buildings (one of several in the area), dating back to around 3200 -2500 BCE (Kleiner, 28). The stones found in the buildings were cut and arranged in stages from limestone, which is abundant on Malta (Robb, 177). It has been suggested that Hagar Qim is the oldest example of dressed stone architecture in the world (Turnbull, 126). The complex is built using both horizontal courses and the post-and-lintel system (Kleiner, 28).
The curvilinear forms of Hagar Qim are based on a modified trefoil (three-leaf/lobed) and are unique, perhaps owing to the insularity of island culture (Turnbull, 127-8). While they may reflect the shape of nearby rock-cut tombs (Ibid, 133), the rounded walls of these ancient temples have also been likened by some to the fava bean, a local staple, which in turn is slang for female genitalia (Biagi, 36).
The association with a goddess cult is not inconsistent with the discovery of the Venus of Malta at Hagar Qim. In the semicircular recesses, or apses, of Hagar Qim, implements of worship have also been found, including sacrificial altars, bowls and figurines, which have led to the designation “temple”, although one might posit a multifunctionality of uses over time, including the storage and preparation of foods, among others (Turnbull, 130).
Hagar Qim, like other megalithic monuments, displays stark evidence of an advanced scientific culture. First, there is the obvious engineering feat of quarrying and moving stones weighing up to several tonnes without sophisticated tools. Arranging these into oval chambers, with horizontal arches, corbelled vaulting and eventually domed arches (found in the later temples, e.g. Tarxien) was an extraordinary feat for its time (Ellul, Malta's Prehistoric Genius).
Hagar Qim was also designed with defenses in mind – a massive retaining wall and the elevated location may have served to protect from animals and invaders (Childress, 205). A forecourt and façade reinforce the idea that this was a public place with ceremonial usage.
The Hagar Qim complex is a marvel of astronomical knowledge. With the advent of agriculture in the Neolithic, people's sense of time would have expanded and awareness of seasonality and cycles become apparent. In several places of Hagar Qim, celestial alignments inform the building pattern. Doorways are built to face the major standstills of the moon, as well as solstices and equinoxes of the sun (Ellul, Neolithic Temple Alignments).
Of note is the skill with which the builders provided for amplification of sound between the chambers. By creating an “acoustic hole” in a corner of the main chamber, architects ensured that an audience in the adjacent “Women's Chapel” would be able to participate in ongoing ceremonies (Ellul, Shape of Temple). The segregation of audiences is suggested to have been related to the gore of ritual animal sacrifices, thought to have been unsavory to some (Ibid).
Turning next to Stonehenge, we will consider again the materials, design and theorized uses of this Neolithic monument, located several hundred miles, and possibly centuries away, in Britain. We will attempt to delineate both what is common and unique to each of the two sites.
Stonehenge (Fig. 2) may have begun with a simple circular earthmound (henge) and ditch before 3000 BCE (Malone, 14). One might suppose this was a suitable arrangement for penning animals, with the mound and ditch serving as barriers; a ditch full of water would have been useful for watering, also, perhaps explaining the later reversal to the ditch being contained inside the mound. Later refinements were made in stages between 2500 and 1600 BCE (Ibid).
Evidence for multiple building stages at Stonehenge can be found in the types and arrangements of stone used over time.1 It is thought that the volcanic bluestones were the first to have been moved to the site – these were smaller and stood alone, up to seven or eight feet and weighing up to four tonnes (Ibid, 23). The larger sarsen stones, made of hardy sandstone, were moved to the site later and fitted together into trilithons using mortise-and-tenon joints (Ibid, 31). The largest sarsen measures approximately 30 feet in height (8 of which rest in the ground) and weighs 45 tonnes (Ibid, 21).
There are various theories about how these were moved with the primitive tools of the time. Some posit the bluestones were quarried in Wales, over 100 miles away, although this has not been reproducible, while others suppose glacial tow may have deposited the stones nearer the henge. Still others invoke antediluvian giants (Ellul, Introduction).2 What is of note is the belief that stones had special meaning, even powers: “...the different types of stone were not inanimate in the Neolithic, but part of a broader animistic understanding of the world” (Cummings, 33).
The people of Stonehenge must have been of full of wonder, although their beliefs did not oppose but rather informed their lifestyle. They were keenly aware of the passage of time, of cycles of life and death. Like the builders of Hagar Qim, the architects of Stonehenge, being tied to the land through agriculture, were expert at expressing and anticipating astronomical events, key to seedtime and harvest. The looming trilithons, built with post-and-lintel construction like their Maltese counterparts, formed calendric portals to mark the passage of time. Circles within circles suggest not only continuous refinement of uses for the henge but also sophistication of astronomical knowledge. Standing in the central horseshoe and facing the heelstone at dawn on a summer's solstice day, one sees the sun rising (Malone, 29).
While human bones have not generally been associated with Hagar Qim, this is not the case with Stonehenge, which, with its profundity of cremated (Pearson, 37) and skeletal remains, suggests a variety of cultural practices ranging from burial, to healing3 to sacrifice (Robb, 184). Some theorize Stonehenge to hold ritualistic value in conjunction with nearby Darrington Hills, with the former representing the realm of the dead and the latter the living and newly deceased; a precession symbolizing the journey was to have taken place along the River Avon and down the Avenue (Pollard 337-8).
Now, if the Neolithic people of Hagar Qim were associated in some way with goddess-worship,4 then the question arises, what or whom did the Neolithic builders of Stonehenge revere? The monument itself suggests an intimate connection with ancestors, with trilithons representing perhaps the union of two adults. Bluestones may then represent children, as they stand alone and are found in greater number, too. Their place eventually in the centre of the trilithons mirrors the picture of a small village protecting its most precious resource. Intersected with this is the clear association with sun and moon – circles marking their positions throughout the year and perhaps even over several years. With all of these primitive energies working together, one might sum with, “...the architecture of the monument in some way acted as an index of the supernatural world” (Pollard, 347). Death, life, seasons, all find expression here.
We have attempted to present a brief but accurate understanding of two Neolithic monuments, Hagar Qim, from Malta, and Stonehenge, in the United Kingdom. The movement of peoples following the last ice age in Europe ca. 9000 BCE from forests, hills and hunting towards plains, valleys and agriculture set the scene for a revolution in architectural design. We have seen how the enormous materials and the elaborate designs wrought with astronomical meaning speak of ancient cultures steeped in knowledge which predates the record of any written language. We have seen that the builders of these structures expressed, over various stages in the lives of the monuments, diverse cultural traditions, from the burial of ancestors, to the herding of animals, to grand ceremonious precessions involving entire communities with a unified vision.
That much more could be said about these wonders of an ancient age, with regards to dimensions, dates, the various phases over centuries, as well as newer theories based on the latest archeological findings is clear from the profusion of papers, texts, and other materials already written. That we, like the builders of Neolithic monuments, look backwards to find meaning in these histories, speaks to the commonality of the human condition.
Biaggi, Cristina. "Myths of the Goddess in Neolithic Island Cultures of Northwest Europe and the Mediterranean." ReVision 21.3 (1999): 36.
Childress, D. H. Lost Cities of Atlantis, Ancient Europe & the Mediterranean. Adventures Unlimited Press, 1996.
Cummings, Vicki. "What Lies Beneath: Thinking about the Qualities and Essences of Stone and Wood in the Chambered Tomb Architecture of Neolithic Britain and Ireland." Journal of Social Archaeology 12.1 (2012): 29-50.
Ellul, J. Malta's Prediluvian Culture at the Stone Age Temples with Special Reference to H̳aġar Qim, Gh̳ar Dalam, Cart Ruts, Il-Misqa, Il-Maqluba & Creation., 1988.
Kleiner, F. S. Gardner's Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective. Vol. 2. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2009.
Malone, Caroline, and Nancy S. Bernard. Stonehenge. Ed. Caroline Malone and Nancy Stone Bernard. Oxford [England] ;New York : Oxford University Press, c2002, 2002. . RefWorks Tagged Format.
Parker, Mike, et al. "Who was Buried at Stonehenge?" Antiquity 83.319 (2009): 23-39.
Pollard, Joshua. "The Materialization of Religious Structures in the Time of Stonehenge." Material Religion 5.3 (2009): 332-53.
Robb, John. "Island Identities: Ritual, Travel and the Creation of Difference in Neolithic Malta." European Journal of Archaeology 4.2 (2001): 175-202.
Turnbull, David. "Performance and Narrative, Bodies and Movement in the Construction of Places and Objects, Spaces and Knowledges." Theory, Culture & Society 19.5-6 (2002): 125-43.
1Stages were also apparent in the building of Hagar Qim – three layers of different pavement stone can be found.
2While the more pragmatic theorists have struggled to reproduce the herculean task of moving a bluestone by boat from Wales to Wiltshire, others have sought meaning in the paranormal. One theory suggests extraterrestrial assistance, while others believe giants walked the earth before the flood, consistent with the ages considered here.
3Whether Neolithic monuments were in fact places of healing is somewhat speculative, with evidence being limited to the presence of deformed body parts (Childress, 209).
4The overall shape of the main temple at Hagar Qim mirrors that of the two sets of seven statuettes found onsite, although there is ambiguity with respect to the gender-representation as the figures lack breasts or obvious genitalia (Ellul, Statuettes).