Malta’s prehistoric temple builders were an advanced civilisation, paying careful attention to align the Mnajdra complex with celestial activity right from its very inception, according to Norwegian academic Tore Lomsdalen.
In a book titled Sky and Purpose in Prehistoric Malta: sun, moon and stars at the temples of Mnajdra, Mr Lomsdalen introduces new evidence and insights into the temple architecture and its relationships with the sky.
The notion that megalithic monuments were deliberately constructed to align with the sun, moon and stars has been well documented. Mr Lomsdalen presents evidence based on archaeoastronomical observations, a field of study which bridges archaeology with astronomy.
At the equinoxes (March 20/21 and September 22/23) the rising sun perfectly illuminates the central corridor of the south temple.
During the solstices (June 21 and December 21/22) the sun rises in line with corners of the door jambs.
The light never extends beyond the altar-like arrangements towards the back of the temples.
They knew exactly which parts they wanted to light up
“The temple builders knew exactly which parts of the temples they wanted to light up and which parts they wanted to remain in the dark. The very specific orientation seems to be connected to ritual ceremonies during the solstices and equinoxes.
“It has been suggested that Malta had a chiefdom society, that it might have been a priestly class. They might have held ritual feasts, with animal sacrifices around those particular times of the year.
“The arrangement is just too precise to be arbitrary.”
The Mnajdra complex was built in different stages, spanning from the early Ġgantija phase (c.3,600-3,000 BC) to the later Tarxien phase (c.3,000-2,500 BC).
Mr Lomsdalen suggests that the lower left chamber is the oldest part of the south temple.
The chamber is a temple in itself, with a proper entrance and three altars.
This was followed by Rooms 2 and 4 in the middle Ġgantija phase.
The eastern buildings of Mnajdra were also constructed in the early Ġgantija phase (c.3,600-3,000 BC), while the northern buildings were built in the later Tarxien phase
Each extension to the temple meant that the light’s penetration was closed off, causing the temple builders to build new altars or introduce orthostats (large stones set upright) to ensure that the specific features of the temple were illuminated. The very specific alignment of the stones increased in complexity and sophistication through time.
“They had a very keen knowledge – as they extended the temples, they constantly made modifications to ensure that the light always struck at a particular point.”
The sun’s movement throughout the year casts vertical slits of light on the orthostats. Mr Lomsdalen suggests the temple builders used it as a sort of calendar device, to keep track of the seasons.
To find the exact orientation of Mnajdra, the temple builders might have used the open star cluster known as the Pleiades. This could possibly mean that some of the building was done at night.