The tiny islands of Malta and Gozo, lying south of Sicily in the western Mediterranean, were first colonized by early Neolithic farmers sometime around 4000 bc. In the late Neolithic period these people developed the remarkable great stone temples of Malta, which are unique in Neolithic archaeology. From around 3000 bc until the arrival of metal technology around 2000 bc more than twenty of these magnificent religious monuments were built.
The temples of Malta were religious shrines, but did not function as burial places. The Neolithic inhabitants of Malta placed their dead in tombs that were cut into the actual rock, and the shape of the temples might be based on the shapes of these rock-cut tombs, which were often one or two irregularly shaped chambers linked by short corridors and entered through a 'porthole' from above. One rock-cut tomb stands out amongst the rest. At Hal Saflieni (pictured above), a series of interlinked chambers, known as a hypogeum, has been cut out of the solid rock. Even so, its twenty chambers are carved with roof beams, lintels and other features of buildings above ground, and the walls are painted with pictures of cattle. In this hypogeum the remains of perhaps 7000 people were found, so it is likely that it was used for a considerable time.
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