Tag Archives: archaeology

Dwejra Bay, Cart Ruts, Phoenician Temple

I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was little, so much. I used to check out books on the Hittites and the Phoenicians, Ancient Egypt and the Sumerians, lug around these hard cover ancient library books probably already out of date when I read them, not understanding the half of it but they were so full of magic in the names I could not pronounce and places I longed to go and puzzles I longed to solve about ancient peoples. Many of them came from Tucson’s beautiful old Central Library before it moved to the new building. They came from the lower level where enormous electric fans kept the air moving and sent a great humming through the metal book shelves. One of my favourite places in the whole world. This is also where I found books on the Amazon rain forest, ornithologies of macaws and botanies of orchids and mythologies of exploration. This was while all of it still filled with innocence, before I knew how colonialism had twisted eager curiosity to understand the world into a way to better control and exploit it. ‘Phoenician’ still remains a word of wonder, lessened slightly by being reduced to the mere ‘Punic’ to signify the loss of Lebanon and the new centre in Carthage. Still, a word of wonder.

To be in a Phoenician Temple. In Ras Il-Wardija, Mark and I, on a high cliff looking out into the Mediterranean where they had built their fortune, the sun just beginning to sink and surrounded by the smell of smoke from farmers burning off the dead remains of old crops. The farmers shared the hilltop with us, staring out over the sea. But not the temple, we were alone there. It sits carved out of the golden globigerina limestone, niches still remaining there in the back of the cliffside. In front of it a deep square cistern, the limestone here strangely twisted and knotted like veins across skin, so sharply cut I felt it through my shoes.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Dwejra Bay Walk

Dwejra Bay Walk

Inside of it the ceiling has been carved into fantastic patterns, I imagine strange winds, the creep of water from above.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Everywhere shells — mussels half emerged from the smooth walls, remains of barnacles clustered in hollows, sand dollars and scallops adding to the strange layerings of limestone here.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Dwejra Bay Walk

Another cistern to the right as you stand staring at it.

Dwejra Bay Walk

This place — a high point. In every sense of the term.

We had started the walk in San Lawrenz.

San Lawrenz

San Lawrenz

We passed quarries that show the courses of stone removed.

 Dwejra Bay walk

Climbed out onto the cliffs above Dwejra Bay to find a bronze age dwelling and cart ruts — these have no mystique of childhood attached, but their mysterious nature makes them almost as wondrous as the temple.

Dwejra Bay walk

Leading up to the dwelling (though likely older? It is only a small pile of rocks now, megaliths having fallen over the edge, fallen apart)

Dwejra Bay walk

But once the people living here enjoyed such a view — Dwejra Bay, Fungus Rock

Dwejra Bay walk

We climbed down, looked over the inland sea

Dewjra Bay Walk

Had a drink, well deserved. Began the climb back up to the Knight’s tower, a clearer view of it here from above (pre-drink, forgive the temporal slip):

Dwejra Bay walk

It guarded the bay and fungus rock both, source of a rare parasitic plant — Cynomorium coccineum which flowers occasionally in the form of what looks like a phallic mushroom they believed to be an aphrodisiac and which they carefully controlled. They built a cable car (ie, a basket on a rope) to run from the rock to the promontory. I found an incredibly, brilliantly detailed article by Guido G. Lanfranco on all of its occurrences in written records, and this drawing which I liked better than that of the article:

I hadn’t realised you could still see the stairs both on the promontory and the rock itself, we did not go out there. Instead we made the steep climb back up the cliffs.

Reaching the top, to our left, the caves of Għajn Abdul, had it been less hot, earlier in the day, we would have climbed up to see these places whose deposits show them to have been occupied 7000 years ago, one of the earliest places settled here.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Looking back towards Dwejra Bay:

Dwejra Bay Walk

We went a bit wrong along teh cliffs, ended on the path closest to the edge. I had a moment of panic, being afraid of heights to some degree, but it was conquered.

Dwejra Bay Walk

And then we reached the temple.

The sun setting, we walked back, again along the path closest to the edge, not knowing we needed to head back up right away to get on the higher one. Poor me.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Finally we came to Ta’Sarraflu Pool, believed to have been built by the Romans, still full of ducks. We saw no frogs or turtles, but it was lovely all the same.

Dwejra Bay Walk

We walked back along the roads in the fading sunlight, racing to Santa Lucija in time to catch the bus.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Dwejra Bay Walk

We made it with three minutes to spare, no time to think about how to adequately capture the beauty of the citadel lit up and rather glorious in the night or the similar glowing of the great church at Xewkija.

I write this as Mark once more sits diligently at the kitchen table working on proof edits.

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The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum and the Tarxien Temples, Malta

The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum — an incredible underground temple built to receive the dead, an estimated seven thousand of them here filling its curved chambers. Entered through the megaliths of a stone circle, probably once monumental in itself, a descent is made through darkness with red ochre spirals writhing in the torchlight, it is thought in places one had to set out across carpets of human remains. Caves made into the images of the great corbelled temples, megaliths cut out of the limestone, one on each side of the entrance, a lintel above. In the depths there is a hole that when spoken into at the right depth of frequency sends the sound reverberating throughout the cave in a great overpowering drone. Its reverberations probably muted in the past, due to the bones piled up to fill the stone wells now empty and resounding.

Easy to imagine this place pooling with religious awe as well as the dead.

It transforms how you see the temples that stand massive and worn above ground.

A map.

The earliest remains found here were from 4000 BC, it was used until about 2500 BC, all of this carved over that period delving ever deeper into the stone. All this carved with antelope horn, used to bore holes to weaken the rock so it could be sheared away. The holes can still be seen in places, but it is hard to believe.

We were in a tour of ten, only two of the eight understood they were sharing a wonder of the world and should allow others the ability to see things too. We held small handsets that spoke to us in our own language (unless we spoke Czech or Polish) about where we were with an astonishing number of adjectives and suppositions. We were not allowed to take pictures. Our feet never touched the earth, I wonder why that matters to me but it does. There is something about standing with your feet on the earth, not some raised walkway.

Still incredible this place.

We left, had lunch so as not to follow the other members of our group straight to the temples of Tarxien. They lingered in the ruins when we got there in spite of all of our efforts.

A plan of the three temples to be found here.

These stones mark the earliest temple, the east temple built between 3600 and 3000 BC on the highest point of the site, they suffered must under the constant ploughing of this field.

Tarxien

The south Temple came next with its four apses, later modified to provide an entrance to the Central temple.

Tarxien

The middle temple, the only one known with six apses, we could not enter most of these, could only wonder at the presence of what looks like a bookshelf, at the smooth megaliths

Tarxien Temples

But it is full of wonders, formed of enormous megaliths that fit so perfectly together, the central walkway paved with enormous slabs of stone.

Tarxien

Tarxien

Tarxien

The spaces between the apses held pottery.

Tarxien

But it is near the entrance that the most beautiful things sit — though here, concrete reconstructions have raised their ugly heads, alongside modern reproductions–in golden limestone–of pieces now sitting in the museum for their protection. These I don’t mind so much, they show what it must have once been like. In the beginning. Here we stare down over a fireplace still showing the mark of ancient ritual.

Tarxien

Tarxien

It is full of niches and specked stone.

Tarxien

Tarxien

Tarxien

This altar from the South Temple

Tarxien

Back to the centre for this wondrous sculptured half of a being:

Tarxien

Niches reminiscent of the hypogeum, beautifully carved swirls.

Tarxien

Tarxien

Tarxien

We walked back through the village to catch the bus, I never tire of these streets and buildings of stone.

Tarxien

Tarxien

Tarxien

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The Ġgantija Temples and down to Ramla Bay, Gozo

The Ġgantija Temples are the oldest freestanding temples in the world, built between 3600 and 3200 BCE, they are older than Stonehenge, older than the pyramids…it’s what the guidebooks all say, undeniably it’s partly what invests these enormous stones with what is left of their fascination. Their name comes from Maltese ġgant, or giant.

I like to think they were built by giants. But also that it was just us.

Perhaps here I shall copy UNESCO’s description, it is hard to see this really from within the ruins themselves, but describes Ġgantija (and also Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Skorba, Ta’ Ħaġrat and Tarxien).

Each monument is different in plan, articulation and construction technique. They are usually approached from an elliptical forecourt in front of a concave façade. The façade and internal walls consist of upright stone slabs, known as orthostats, surmounted by horizontal blocks. The surviving horizontal masonry courses indicate that the monuments had corbelled roofs, probably capped by horizontal beams. This method of construction was a remarkably sophisticated solution for its time. The external walls are usually constructed in larger blocks set alternately face out and edge out, tying the wall securely into the rest of the building. The space between the external wall and the walls of the inner chambers is filled with stones and earth, binding the whole structure together.

Typically, the entrance to the building is found in the centre of the façade, leading through a monumental passageway onto a paved court. The interiors of the buildings are formed of semi-circular chambers usually referred to as apses, symmetrically arranged on either side of the main axis. The number of apses varies from building to building; some have three apses opening off the central court, whilst others have successive courts with four, five, and in one case even six apses.

A map of the ruins here:

Ġgantija Temple Complex

There are two caves related to the temples, both full of pottery shards from this period. There is the Xagħra stone circle, one of the most important archaeological finds of the 1980s, sitting between Ġgantija and Santa Verna Temple, of which little is left now where it sits about 1 km away. Like what is now known as the hypogeum (more on that later), this was a roofed-over stone circle sitting above a cave system full of bones. A spontaneous visit to this place is impossible, and there is little now to see. We pretty much only do spontaneous. We did not go. But in the museum are some of the figures that were uncovered during excavations, these figures from what is referred to as a possible shaman’s bag… it bothers me, that words use. As though cultures that still have what we call shamans are somehow the same as these ancient cultures of the stone age, as if they’ve been held in time just like some insect in amber.

These figures are awesome though:

Ġgantija Temple Complex

These seated women holding a child, showing us what furniture was once like. So splendid.

Ġgantija Temple Complex

More of these incredible figures from Ġgantija itself:

Ġgantija Temple Complex

A human-headed snail:

Ġgantija Temple Complex

These wonderful birds, scratched into this post post-firing:

Ġgantija Temple Complex

From here we braved the blazing heat, made worse by great iron structures shading the path whose purpose was unclear apart from creating a kind of oven effect to counteract the shade they provided. And then the structure itself.

Ġgantija Temple Complex

The flat-topped hill behind it is in-Nuffara, a settlement site during this same period.

It is hard to get a sense over-all of the thing. They have built walkways, it is covered with scaffolding. The uneasy lean of the corbelled roof made this feel potentially necessary, but atmosphere can’t really survive scaffolding really. Or wooden walkways. It is found in the small views, the holes drilled through rock (with no metal, with only antler and perhaps harder bits of stone, and why? To screen the inner sanctums perhaps).

Ġgantija Temple Complex

Monoliths with the graffiti of visitors from earlier centuries:

Ġgantija Temple Complex

Ġgantija Temple Complex

The remains of what are probably altars, and more wandering through:

Ġgantija Temple Complex

Ġgantija Temple Complex

Ġgantija

Ġgantija

Ġgantija

The size of these great slabs of rock though, amazing.

Ġgantija

Gganija Temples

This town was the only place reached by the plague in 1831, and held in quarantine.  Here too, in Xagħra,  is the Ta’ Kola windmill:

Xagħra

Xagħra

Built by the Knights of St John it is very impressive, though we weren’t allowed in — we had carefully gotten there just before 4:30 to see it, but tickets were only available at the temple complex, so we rejoined the annoying people who had filled our bus.

Xagħra was gearing up for its festival celebrating Marija Bambina, there are street decorations up and down the streets, pedestals set up here and there, everyday streetlamps and fountains cloaked in fake marble.

Xagħra

Xagħra

We sat in the main square, accidentally ending up in an English-owned pub full of other English people.

Xagħra

We watched a group of men fighting to set up a stage, and watching two youths ring bells in the church towers by standing beside the bell itself to pull the ropes.

Xagħra

I recorded it for posterity — they make me miss English bells.

When the drinks were done we walked through the town.

 Xagħra

Xagħra

Xagħra

Xagħra

Past this mad empty house

Xagħra

and down the hills towards Ramla Bay as the sun set, still circling in a way this enormous church of Xewkija.

Xagħra to Ramla Bay

Xagħra to Ramla Bay

Xagħra to Ramla Bay

Xagħra to Ramla Bay

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St Paul’s Catacombs, Rabat

More catacombs, the largest of them here in Rabat, constructed just outside the ditch surrounding the Roman city of Melita. They are believed to have begun as simple Punic hypogea, tombs dug straight down into the earth but later further dug out, added to, connected in the late Roman period to form catacombs, in medieval times to have become the site of a church.

First you enter the main section, then emerging you plunge back down into multiple small subsections to see a Menorah here, a ship there, endless stibadium that still fascinate, just as the darkness does and the vistas across tombs and through small arched windows carved into walls — Bonnano is right, there is so little obvious Christian iconography to be found anywhere.

Some myths on display — the pig that fell into a hole here, and emerged in a village 4 km away. The class of children that entered, never to be seen again. The giants who delved here.

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The Rabat Domvs Romanus

Rabat’s Domvs Romanus was discovered in 1881 by gardeners planting trees in Howard Garden. Excavated by Dr A. A. Caruana in 1881. They found a number of Islamic graves and some of the mosaics — the mosaics are extraordinary and allow the fairly precise dating of their placement with a span of 50 years at the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 1st century BC. Sadly the British went ahead and destroyed a big chunk of it, cutting the road to Mtarfa railway through the north end in 1899. It was excavated anew by Temmi Zammit in 1922. Which, well, it was early days in archaeology, so loads of interesting things have been lost. We both remember a reference to the cartloads of pottery that were catalogued and then destroyed — but can’t remember where we read this. It wasn’t here. Ah well.

There is a little museum here, containing finds both from the site as well as a few donated from elsewhere. They had these amazing figurines from between the 1st and 3rd Century AD, the middle one is, of course, my favourite. The accompanying notice describes the figure as Eegemone (il cadottiero) — though I imagine this may be Egemone, il condottiero — and the one on the right Ermanio (il vecchio recalvostro). This is the only one for whom provenance is known, found in St Paul’s Square, Mdina. There is nothing about the significance of the names.

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Then there is this wonderful glass drinking vessel known as a Rython, with this amazing snail’s head, found in a tomb (but which? no one knows) in Rabat, c 1st Century AD. The glass chalice to the right is also lovely:

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Bonnano in Malta: Phoenician, Punic, and Roman gives two wonderful maps. One is of the site as a whole, with a look at the system of cisterns providing water to the house.

The second shows just the villa itself, with the areas where the mosaics were found:

There was the Triclinium, where dining happened, where the pater familias conducted all of his business — where once there were amazing mosaics, mostly gone but what remains of them are so beautiful with their tiny pieces and fine shadings:

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Such extraordinary mosaics. They were later repaired with coarse tiles.

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

I am rather in awe of these floors. There is a display about the cocciopesto floor — believed to have originated in Carthage (those Phoenicians again) around the 4th Century BC, sometimes referred to as Pavimentum Punicum. Crushed pottery was mixed with lime to form a cheap, resistant material — their red colour came from from crushed pottery. This was often combined with white marble tesserae to create simple designs, then called opus signinum. Opus sculatum is the lozenge shaped tiles, put together to form a perspective cube. Such floors were found in almost all Roman sites in Malta, and still found today in fact. Those found here are considered some of the finest in the Mediterranean. No question why (I am just sad glass had to come between us):

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Masks lined these floors. Signage states they probably drew on Greek New Comedy — they almost certainly represent a story but no way to know now what that may have been. I find them very eerie with their open mouths, can’t quite imagine wanting them to gape at me from the floors of my home. .

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

The floors were built over buried amphora, to control the damp…

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

There are quotations from Vitruvius here from his book on architecture, which has re-entered my list of things to read.

The mosaics, surely, would be enough to demonstrate this was the villa of someone very high status, but in addition very fine Imperial sculptures were also found here — of Claudius and his family probably. A rare thing to have the emperor and his family in your home. Like the masks, I don’t think I would have much appreciated that either.

The museum also holds this statue, found elsewhere in Mdina, which gets much more mention in the books. A goddess, unknown, with an ‘Isis knot’ under her breast, a ‘Lybian’ style to her hair, an eastern necklace.

Rabat - Domus Romana

Outside, staring at the ruins of other poorer homes aligned along a long-buried street

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

A jumble of bits and pieces here

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

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St Agatha’s Catacombs and Museum, Rabat

St Agatha’s Catacombs in Rabat are locked away behind a great iron door down the bottom of a flight of steps, available to see on a guided tour only. I was somehow first down the steps and first into a tall arching space with frescoes all around it. An extraordinary, evocative space that deserved more time, more darkness, no reminders of modern tours. We needed time to piece together ancient faces. We were not so lucky. This is the picture I might have taken had there been photography allowed, but it was darker.

There is a battle of interpretations being waged here, from the leaflet produced by the Missionary Society of St Paul:

Strong tradition holds that the young virgin, Agatha, sought refuge on the island of Malta, so as to escape the persecution of the Emperor Decius (249-251 AD) and the Governor of Sicily, Quintinius, who had fallen in love with her.

Agatha is said to have lived in the city [Melita], but used to come to pray at this place. A few months later, she returned to her native country, where she was tortured and killed because of her faith on 5th February 251 AD.

These dates ever so exact. The story from the guide and from elsewhere was that she had hidden in the crypt itself. One place describes how she taught children here. The leaflet says the crypt was maintained thereafter as sacred to her honour. One set of frescoes was painted in 1200, and the second set in 1480, attributed to Salvatore D’Antonio from Messina. Anthony Bonanno dates the catacombs to late 3rd and 4th Centuries, gives a wider range of dates for the frescoes and names no names. And across the road, a set of boards in the St Paul catacombs ‘debunking’ some quite fabulous myths (more on them later) has the following entry:

Christians did not hide in catacombs not least because they were terrible hiding places, and there is no evidence for Christianity until the 4th Century AD.

I gather up all interpretations of the past to enjoy the catacombs, they are beautiful, if slightly back-breaking. Many of the tombs are decorated, many of them carved so people could lie side by side, some of them still contain bones. You come at the end to the ‘Holy of Holies’, ‘believed to be the earliest rock-cut church in Malta.’ The leaflet states there was once an agape table set here, which was later destroyed when the church outlawed their use — of all the interpretations swirling about this place, this is the one I buy the least:

Distinctions between the rich and the poorer members of the congregation during these banquets became customary, and so they were stopped.

The whole catacomb distinguishes between rich and poor — those with central tombs custom-cut into rock, surrounded by four pillars and passageways to be freestanding. The poor left to shelves in passageways, pits in floors, graves used over and over.

But the fresco here is lovely, one of the best preserved.

Definitely Christian with the Chi Rho and the vases and the doves — unlike the mutilated stibadium (Bonanno’s preferred term, he mentions mensae and triclinia), which have been found more widely in Libya and Petra and probably tie back to a longer lineage of pagan worship. Many of those here in Malta are not associated with Christian iconography at all (though that doesn’t mean necessarily that they weren’t Christian), and several come with with carved menorahs making them fairly necessarily Jewish. Bonanno does not mention this as an early rock-cut church, nor this as the niche above an altar, either. But these spaces are still very full of an awe closely related to religious feeling, even in modern-day electric lighting rather than flickering oil lamps. How to differentiate between church and religious space holding believers? A map here, from Bonanno.

cof

There is a museum here also, which reminds me of Victorian days of glory, full of finds from the catacombs but also multiple donations, unprovenanced, uncertain.

Rabat - St Agatha's

They range from pottery to fragments of scupture, Egyptian shabtis, bits of glass and beads. The connection to a Hellenized Egypt feels quite strong here.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

My favourite things were the votive slabs taken from the old church built here in 1504, some of them found in the walls of the church rebuilt in 1670. I love these scenes of everyday life:

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Animals — including the legend of the pelican who causes her own breast to bleed to feed her young. This is everywhere in Medieval English carvings as well as in one of the frescoes decorating a grave in the catacombs below.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Two architectural/ city scenes, at the very end of the row:

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Though of course, the most amazing thing had to be the 4000 year-old mummified crocodile identified with Sobek, Lord of the Nile.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

A graffitied cherub

Rabat -- St Agatha's

There was also some truly extraordinary Catholic kitsch, which I also loved. I think I am going to collect all of that together for one glorious post of sacred hearts and severed heads…

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From Hope to Roman Navio to Mam Tor, Black Tor, Lose Hill

Back in the Peak District! A few weekends ago, before Aberystwyth even, before the anthropocene decided that summer would be cut short. I am writing an editorial for City in my own blood at the minute, so thought I would take a break to vicariously breathe the wind, taste the air and freedom, regain perspective on deadlines, cross this little thing off the to-do list. We were following the walk as signposted by Ali Cooper in Archaeology Walks in the Peak District, but started at Hope train station as all those without cars must do. It was beautiful.

In this field, the Roman fort of Navio once stood, occupied between AD 75-120 and from about AD 160-360.

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

A town full of civilians also once stood here — all that is left still visible are some stones of the wall embedded in the ground and a collection of masonry in the field’s middle. They found lead ingots here, so the Romans were definitely mining these hills. We walked up towards Castleton

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

Skipped Peveril’s castle as we’d already been.

On towards Odin Mine:

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

Through a field with two lost lambs who didn’t understand the concept of lateral movement.

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

Mined for lead since the 13th Century, legend has Odin mined by the Romans and the Danes as well (hence the name). This mine comes complete with ore-crushing circle, where a horse once pulled a gritstone to crush the rock! Now I know what those are.

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

And then up to Mam Tor starting along the old road fractured through subsidence in a fairly apocalyptic way

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

We climbed up, really really far up and then up some more. The tor is surrounded by an immense ditch from the Iron Age, once home to a large settlement over a long span of years — though it is hard to tell now how regularly it was occupied. This is what archaeologists think it might have looked like once.

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

It is looking back you can get a better sense of the scale of the ditch marked along the hillside though you have to look closely at the photograph which doesn’t do justice (of course) to how marked it was as we stood there.

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

It is beautiful, windy, wild, from here we walked along the ridge towards Black Tor and Lose Hill.Artifacts have been found on Black Tor as well, though it is unknown if this was a residential or burial site.

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

We continued on

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

Chased by the rain

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

And down, passing a horde of London youth mourning the lack of escalators. We laughed, marveled at the foxgloves.

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

Found a pint.

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

It is hard to remember the moors exist on a day like today in front of the computer filled with frustrations. I have to remember that the road goes ever ever on. Just like in this cool display from the Hobbit.

Peak District: Hope to Mam Tor

Of course, Mark wanted me to call this post ‘Circling the Cement Factory’, which we did. I quite loved the cement factory I must confess.

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But I loved most the wild, misty windswept hills with as few people on them as possible. I am far too domesticated.

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The Urban and non-Urban Delights of Aberystwyth

Aberystwyth is quite wonderful in terms of the interesting, the beautiful, the strange. Its cult 60s upper floor brutalist diner.

Aberystwyth

Its interior decoration.

Aberystwyth

Its basement of books.

Aberystwyth

Its splendour of shop windows.

Aberystwyth

Its rumble of bikers on sunny days.

Aberystwyth

Its gangsters or the sweeney or the owners of the funicular railway?

Aberystwyth

The view over Aberystwyth in the UKs largest camera obscura

Aberystwyth

The view heading back down on the funicular railway:

Aberystwyth

A genuine welsh choir

Aberystwyth

A site of the first protest for the survival and revival  of the Welsh language.

Aberystwyth

The city itself charms, it is amazing the difference paint makes to pebbledash, which I can never find other than utterly grim when left unpainted. I care not how it weathers rain. The streets wind, open up on new vistas. There are a scattering of large stone buildings, some old beamed things. This old pub still has this small area in front of it expanding the public space of the street — once common here, or so the plaque says. Such a brilliant space.

Aberystwyth

And again I am reminded the importance of paint, but also the bow windows and the variegated surface, the light and shadow and interest this creates.

Aberystwyth

Aberystwyth

Beyond the castle rises Pen Dinas Hill Fort, built around 400 BC. Every town should have one of these. As we climbed, we were also able to look down on preparations for a day of horse racing. And we met the loveliest dog.

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Oweynagat: Ireland’s cave of the cats

Oweynagat, or the cave of the cats. This may not look like much, but is in fact a gateway to the underworld — it is more terrifying that it is small and hidden I suppose. From this portal have emerged herds of fiendish swine, the ancient goddess of battle Morrigan, malevolent birds, and a monstrous triple-headed creature. Also cats, who battled Cuchulainn and two other warriors. Later it was just known as a cave entrance to hell. Now it sits in a field to be entered perilously by the informed adventurer.

Oweynagat

Oweynagat from a fiend’s eye view, my partner’s legs, if not his very soul, here at risk:

Oweynagat

As St Patrick’s day is not only my dad’s birthday and a day for St Patrick himself, but also St Gertrude’s day, the patron saint of cats, it seemed fitting to share a few more photos of the great Ireland tour of ought thirteen. The cave is part of a larger complex, from the Rathcroghan website:

the royal complex of Cruachan, the oldest and largest unexcavated Royal Complex in Europe….Rathcroghan boasts a multitude of monument types, from the majestic and enigmatic Rathcroghan Mound, which in the Iron Age was impressively topped by wooden ramparts and ceremonial henges, and whose secret heart remains an untouched mystery. … Kings were inaugurated at the ceremonial heart of Rathcroghan and the site is witness to the rise and fall of great tribes, wealthy chieftains and dynastic families. Some of these went on to rule the whole island as High Kings, ensuring the continuing legacy of this unique complex well into the modern era.

This was the home of the

great Iron Age Warrior Queen Medb, who ruled all of Connacht from her home here in Rathcroghan, the origin point for our National Epic ‘an Táin Bó Cuailnge’ – the Cattle Raid of Cooley, which features a whole host of legendary heroes including Medb herself, the mighty Battle Goddess Morrigan, the Connacht Champion Fraech and the boy hero Cúchulainn, whose names and deeds are inextricably linked to the landscape that surrounds us here. Witness the site where the ferocious white horned bull Finnbennach, battled the legendary Donn Cuailnge, the brown bull of Cooley.

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Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra, Malta’s Ancient Temples

Ħaġar Qim… there is beauty just in the letters, these unique Maltese forms that I love. The temple sits on cliffs just above the temple of Mnajdra, unique and ancient I had never heard of them until I knew I was coming to Valletta. I had never read of the civilization that existed here. 5,500 years ago. Older than Stonehenge, than the great pyramid, I read so much and yet I never stumbled across these wonders. Ħaġar Qim before the covering was built over it:

530-hagar-qim-temple-aerial-3100-bcI missed this sense of the whole and the way that it fits into the landscape, the natural light on stone, but I am glad it is being protected.  In the visitor’s centre I had my first experience of 4D, with a 3D screening and scents and watery mist being pumped into the theatre, along with lightening flashes and wind. Noisily. But I rather loved it. This is what it looks like now:

Ħaġar Qim

The carvings have been removed to be kept safe in the museum in Valletta — it occupies the old Auberge of the langue of Provence, quite beautiful in itself:

Museum of Archaeology

I had seen it the day before in the company of new friend from the conference who had written part of his thesis on this figure, found in one of the first apses of the main building — I was jealous he had come across it before:

29888b928a471511b15ffb7dee2fbeb1The back of it is so lovely. More intriguing, though, are the enormous figures also found there, which I did not take a picture of. This lapse astonishes me. This more official one is undoubtedly better however.

museoarcheologico_04_bigThese too are from the first apse, they left me without words. I could never have imagined them and I love coming across such things. They are strangely beautiful, impossible for me to understand. They are massive, an immense presence. The heads were almost certainly carved separately from the bodies, we can only guess why.

Perhaps my favourite is the ‘sleeping lady’, she was found in the Hypogeum (underground prehistoric temple carved into the stone, my god, everything I love in one place) — words cannot convey my sadness at this being closed during my visit, but it ensures my return.

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But the temples I did manage to see — this is the first apse, a strange doorway

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Replicas of some of the carvings, these pitted stones, and more curves

Ħaġar Qim

On the opposing side more stonework — everywhere on this island beautiful stonework:

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Ħaġar Qim stands highly visible and highly exposed, unlike all of the others. It has the largest piece of rock I have ever seen as part of a building, much less an ancient one like this. It has multiple entrances, an openness that is also unique, like this outside niche:

Ħaġar Qim

A carved hole in one of the apses marks the summer solstice. It was built on and added to over time, a sprawling, slightly untidy nature that you can feel walking through it, as though it were always open to possibility, even as the wind and rain were melting the limestone slowly away.

Mnajdra has a more satisfying perfection, indeed an almost perfect form. A complement to openness I think. This is the walk down to it from Ħaġar Qim alongside fields of beautiful soil.

Ħaġar Qim

The museum’s model gives a sense of its completeness:

mnajdraplanPerhaps even more beautiful stonework, these wonderful square doorways and pitted decorations:

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Everywhere these doorways. They reminded me strangely of the Chaco culture in New Mexico with its unique T-shaped doorways, it makes me think how important doorways always are as you step from one place to another, one world to another, and how much meaning lies encoded in these. They are all amazing given the levels of technology — though their tools were also beautiful, look at this two-person hammer:

Museum of Archaeology

And this people’s own architectural model

Museum of Archaeology

Their graceful carvings and decorations:

Museum of Archaeology

The museum holds great round stones as well, and one theory is that these were used to transport the great slabs of limestone.

From the trail connecting the temples you can branch off along a nature trail — I was alone while there in choosing to explore the longer one that took me uphill. Happiness, yet also a certain disappointment in people really. Because they couldn’t be bothered to see more of this place.

To be out in the countryside — joy. Nopales flourish:

Ħaġar Qim

Grapes — though these are struggling:

Ħaġar Qim

Figs, this one alongside one of the small stone huts scattering the hillside, built as hides for the trapping of birds:

Ħaġar Qim

Another of them, the most picturesque:

Ħaġar Qim

Unexpectedly here (I must have blinked at some point in the museum) I found the Misqa water tanks — carved by the temple builders into the limestone to collect fresh water, and still used to irrigate nearby fields.

Ħaġar Qim

There are curious remains carved deeply here into the rock

Ħaġar Qim

Ħaġar Qim

The island of Filfla in the distance — probably sacred to the temple builders, the British used it for target practice, and now it has returned to being a bird sanctuary.

They are deeper than I thought, like the one here on the left:

Ħaġar Qim

I admired so much the curves of the beautiful wall there in the background, and as I backtracked down the path a head popped up, scaring me it is true, but thus I met Tony. For many years he had lived part of the year in the Bay area and part of it there alongside the temples, growing figs, olives, and grapes. We talked about nopales, how we cook them along the border. His favourite way to eat them is to pick the young leaves (late July and August) and peel them, then put them in the fridge and eat them very cold. I might try it. We talked about Trump, of course. Trump is bad for everyone. I continue to have those conversations. I love these chance meetings, I hate that it should be shaped by such a man in any way. We ended as friends though, and I continued on my way.

The path curves down alongside an old quarry, on the other side of the road, somewhere hidden in that canyon — part of a large fault system — are the Tal-Maghlaq catacombs. I think perhaps I saw the overgrown entrances, but I am far from sure.

img_5245Walking back, the sound of the sea, and the limestone cliffs grooved from the quarrying of stone:

Blue Grotto

More views of the narrow stone-walled fields terraced across the hillsides

Ħaġar Qim

Ħaġar Qim

I walked a little of the way down towards the Blue Grotto but the afternoon was lengthening so headed back for the bus. My final views

Ħaġar Qim

Ħaġar Qim

There is a wonderful fragrance here also, more of herbs than of flowers though I could be wrong about its source.

If I were to do it again I would have more time, have started at the blue grotto and walked up, and then walked into Qrendi I think, I longed to spend a little time in these villages. They are tightly defined, ending where the fields begin. They all have large beautiful churches with a square in front, long rows of terraced houses, they are beautiful and sit well upon the land. Many have oranges and other citrus and figs growing in front of them.

To end with a mystery which I was not able to see, but which I discovered in the museum — that of Clapham Junction (! – but oh yes, this was a British colony and they named some things) and of the deep ruts in the limestone whose causes are mysterious and as yet unknown — variants of them are found all over the island…

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I don’t know that I have been anywhere in a landscape that felt so ‘natural’ as it were, but also carried so deeply the craft and mark of human beings. I haven’t even gotten started on the Phoenicians, the Romans…newcomers. Though interestingly, they believe that the temple builders left and there was a period when no one lived here… Still, there is thousands of years of history scored into the limestone, the same limestone that has been built in a myriad of different configurations across five thousand years, that unifies it all in a way I haven’t seen before. England feels a crazed jumble of materials in comparison. Malta is an incredible place, and I haven’t even started on the door handles. I have shared a little about the cats, so really now to end, the great hunter of Ħaġar Qim:

Ħaġar Qim