What would your reaction be if you were in a prehistoric underground network of rooms and niches and your voice echoed for 40 seconds after the utterance?

This is what happened to percussionist Renzo Spiteri when he was recording sounds for a musical score at the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum in Tarxien. The music will accompany new audio guides being installed by Heritage Malta at the Hypogeum.

This is how Mr Spiteri recalls the spine chilling moment in the sepulchral chamber, that archaeologists have dubbed the Oracle chamber. Mr Spiteri was testing certain acoustic properties of this chamber.

"At one point, I instinctively uttered a guttural sound and thought what a beautiful effect this had. But I froze when the sound returned after 40 seconds in exactly the same resonance."

Heritage Malta, the national agency in charge of historic sites, has commissioned Mr Spiteri to come up with a modern contemporary score that complements the narrative on the audio guides for the Hypogeum.

Reuben Grima, Heritage Malta senior curator of historic sites, said the agency had decided to switch to audio guides in five languages and will add more languages progressively.

"After Audio Guides Malta won the contract to install audio guides at the Hypogeum, we started having an intense debate on whether music should have a role in the audio guides. We are not saying this is the music one would have heard at the Hypogeum although it is more than likely that music would have formed part of the lives of the people then," Dr Grima said.

He recalled a performance by Mr Spiteri a couple of years ago during the opening of a Daniel Cilia exhibition of representations of the human form in Neolithic Malta, which coincided with the launch of a book by Isabelle Vella Gregory on the same theme.

"We at Heritage Malta were totally impressed by the whole spectrum of sound Mr Spiteri had put together that we never imagined was possible, using only improvised stone and pottery instruments."

The first thing Mr Spiteri did was to assimilate the space through total immersion in the site. He spent whole nights recording the sounds in the intense, eerie silence, getting the equipment down there to capture the feel of the environment.

"There were nights when I did not produce a single note. I wanted to see what the place was telling me."

The "instruments" used were stones, pottery pots and a frame drum.

As he went along, Mr Spiteri found that the enthusiasm was overtaking him, being unable to sleep even after hours of recording and experimentation.

"As I moved a couple of steps to the left or right to where I was standing and hit two stones against each other, I started getting different sound dynamics."

Mr Spiteri orchestrated the sounds he produced, overlaying tracks, taking care of cross fades as the audio guides direct the visitor from one part of the underground temple to the other.

The music had to be adapted to each language because of the different duration of the sentences and pauses.

Mr Spiteri spent three weeks going to the Hypogeum at night, working in absolute silence.

"I wanted to include all the sounds the site produced like the dripping droplets of water."

These recordings are expected to become part of the visitor's experience by March. An information panel at the Hypogeum will tell visitors how the whole process was created.

Depending on visitor demand, another possibility would be that the music composed and recorded will be available on CD.

Mr Spiteri said his task was an enormous challenge because one has to be faithful to theories by archaeologists that are intrinsically suggestive.

"I filtered the ideas until I was working on the barest instrumentation. The response to every sound I produced was unique. Every time I moved about with the materials I was using, the sounds changed and I was often surprised the day after when listening to the recordings.

"I was using music to give a certain colouring to the site, creating a capsule of narrative and sound."

The Hypogeum

The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is cut in the soft rock of the hilltop overlooking Marsa close to the Kordin and the Tarxien temple ruins.

Discovered in 1902, it was full of rubbish and the lower rooms contained water that had found its way from the surface.

The Hypogeum consists of four sets of caves and galleries cut at different levels.

Numerous flint instruments and polished stone objects but no bronze or other metal were discovered. This fact, combined with the marks left by flint tools on the rock surface, and with the personal ornaments and pottery collected, leads one to believe that the monument was dug out in Neolithic times.

The site was probably intended for a sanctuary. The niches and additional rooms were added later. Later still, the people, wishing to have the bones of their dead buried in the holy ground, deposited them in the various rooms about the shrine.

From the volume of the bone deposit found, it would appear the remains of about 7,000 bodies were interred. The objects found include stone implements, flint tools, alabaster, clay and stone statuettes and a great variety of personal ornaments.

No refuse heaps, hearths, cinders or domestic utensils that would point to the site being used as a dwelling were met with.

(This extract is taken from Temi Zammit's book The Maltese Islands And Their History. The third edition of the book was published in 1952 by A.C. Aquilina & Co.)

The Hypogeum enjoys a unique listing on the Unesco World Heritage list. The other megalithic sites are listed by Unesco collectively. The site is open to a maximum of 80 visitors a day, Monday to Sunday. To book a visit log into www.heritagemaltashop.com.

www.heritagemalta.org