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With an area of just 122 square miles, the Republic of Malta represents little more than a series of specks upon the Earth. Yet despite its small size, the archipelago actually has an incredibly rich history. In fact, it’s a story that stretches back many thousands of years. There’s even evidence of ancient peoples having lived on the islands – and we’re not just talking about Homo sapiens

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Back in 1917, you see, a paleontologist named Giuseppe Despott was conducting works in Malta. And as Despott carried out a dig inside a cave, the expert made a significant discovery: some teeth. But these fossilized chompers hadn’t actually belonged to a modern human at all. In fact, they’d come from a species that roamed the Earth some 40,000 years ago.

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And a similar find from J. G. Baldacchino in 1936 was further confirmation of Malta’s compelling past. Yes, Baldacchino discovered another tooth that appeared to have come from the same species as the one suggested by Despott’s find. You might expect, then, that more efforts were subsequently made to pore through Malta’s astonishing history. But that’s not quite what happened.

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Archaeological investigations of Malta are said to have been shelved with the onset of World War II in 1939. This is hardly surprising, of course, given the vital part that the tiny country played throughout the conflict. Because although Malta was then part of the British Empire, it was located near to the Axis power of Italy. The islands were therefore forced to endure many hardships.

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Even after the war ended, however, the true tale of Malta’s long and rich history remained generally untold. That’s according to Lenie Reedijk – a Dutch expert who’s written a number of books on the area’s past. Interestingly, too, Reedijk has implied that a downright inaccurate account of the islands’ past has been propagated instead.

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What is this falsehood? Well, for context, it’s worth understanding a bit more about Malta and its past. The Republic of Malta lies in the south of Europe, within the Mediterranean Sea, situated close to Italy, Libya and Tunisia. Today, it’s considered to be one of the ten smallest countries on Earth – but it nonetheless holds close to half a million inhabitants. So the nation has an extremely concentrated population that’s among the most dense anywhere in the world.

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Malta’s positioning between Europe and Africa has also seen it fall under the influence of various civilizations over the centuries. At one point or another, for instance, Malta has been controlled by the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, French and Brits – to name but a few. These days, though, Malta is an independent nation within the European Union.

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When Malta was under the control of Britain in the 1930s, however, it had apparently been celebrated by historians around the globe who’d appreciated its archaeological wonders. After all, the area is home not only to centuries-old remains but also to age-old temples. When World War II reached the islands, though, the historical significance of the region was largely pushed aside.

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Malta was dragged into the conflict very abruptly, in fact. And within hours of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini making it known that his country was at war with Britain and France, his forces bombed the Maltese capital of Valletta. The country ultimately ended up suffering through some of the worst aerial assaults in the whole conflict as well.

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There was a particular reason why Malta was targeted so ruthlessly by Italian – and also German – aircraft. You see, the archipelago’s position in the Mediterranean made it crucial to Allied offensives in nearby North Africa. And it was also clear that Malta could be used for a future offensive against the heartland of Italy.

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By the time the war concluded, then, the islands of Malta were essentially left in ruins. Many military personnel and civilians had been killed there, in fact, and a huge number of buildings had also been impaired or totally demolished. And its economy took decades to recover from the ravages of the conflict, too.

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But the inhabitants of Malta were nonetheless recognized for their inspiring courage during the Siege of Malta. Yes, after enduring the most intense, lasting bombardment of the conflict – more than 150 full days and nights of bombing – the people of the islands were given an award. The entire Maltese populace in fact received the George Cross – the uppermost civilian accolade bestowed by Britain.

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Of course, all of this chaos and destruction ensured that archaeological investigation on Malta wasn’t exactly a priority. But things apparently didn’t improve all that much after the war had come to a close, either. The aforementioned Lenie Reedijk has even claimed that an inaccurate story of Malta’s prehistory was spread at the expense of the truth.

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Reedijk believes that this false narrative came about because some historians removed mention of humans having inhabited the islands during the last Ice Age – a period beginning around 2.5 million years in the past and ending a little less than 12,000 years ago. So instead, Reedijk said, an alternative account in which Neolithic peoples settled on Malta about 7,000 years ago was put forward.

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In her 2018 book, Sirius: The Star of the Maltese Temple, Reedijk pondered how such a story could have been so widely popularized. “How it has been possible that this version of history has been accepted in Malta for so long is, seen in retrospect, a mystery,” she wrote. “Nor is it easy to understand why any broader view, no matter how carefully researched, has been received with such implacable resistance ever since.”

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One possible explanation may have its roots in politics. You see, one the most significant archaeologists ever to work in Malta before World War II was Luigi Maria Ugolini. A native of Italy, Ugolini and his investigations were essential in painting a picture of Malta’s distant past. The man was, however, a fascist.

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In 1924, in fact, Ugolini joined up with the Italian Fascist Party. And his work in Malta throughout 1931 was explicitly financed by the Italian state, which was then led by Mussolini. So even though Ugolini’s studies were particularly important, they were seemingly largely forgotten after the war came to an end.

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Ugolini passed away in 1936 while still in his early 40s. Yet despite his premature death, he left behind an immense body of information regarding Malta’s past. These records were left in Rome’s Luigi Pigorini National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography. And, perhaps owing to the man’s links to fascism, they remained there until their rediscovery in the year 2000.

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So, according to Reedijk, there’s evidence of human presence on Malta that dates back further than the dates that had been widely accepted in the second half of the 20th century. Reedijk also points towards skeletons discovered in Malta as representing direct proof of this. And she further mentioned, in her book, that a number of items used by humans had been found on the islands.

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Less explicit clues indicating an early human presence on the Maltese islands apparently also include the remains of animals that had been left in piles. Some of these bones, Reedijk states, were discovered in places where the creatures themselves wouldn’t typically have been seen. So this would suggest that people were hunting and later consuming them.

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According to Reedijk, discoveries such as these were made at a time when archaeological investigation was still valued in Malta. Yet it might also be said that animal remains and smaller artifacts are somewhat modest discoveries. Especially when one considers some of the prehistoric artworks and ancient temples located throughout the islands.

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For example, Reedijk has written about paintings that adorn the walls of a Maltese cave system. Known as Għar Ħasan, this network is found in the southern portion of the main island. It has a sizable entryway that faces out to the Mediterranean Sea.

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And if you were to go inside Għar Ħasan, you’d find yourself having to pass through a tunnel. And while this seemingly starts out as being quite roomy, the tunnel becomes increasingly tight the deeper inside you go. A number of other tunnels will also present themselves – but the majority of these lead to nowhere.

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If you manage to weave through the maze of tunnels, then, you eventually come to an opening. Defined by a long bench that has been carved into the rock, this room had clearly been created by human beings. And as Reedijk writes, there are tales that it once housed a runaway Muslim slave.

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Elsewhere within Għar Ħasan, paintings have been discovered upon the walls. These were found by a celebrated specialist in rock art named Professor Emmanuel Anati, who came across them during the 1980s. The artworks were said to be quite difficult to see, but they were nonetheless intriguing – and included hand prints as well as some depictions of animals.

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Photographs were subsequently taken of the works, with Anati later giving them to Valletta’s Archaeological Museum. And he also recorded his thoughts on the paintings. “Many of the images are not very clear,” he wrote, according to the Ancient Origins website. “However, it was possible to establish that stylistic, associative, graphic and conceptual models reflect a layer dating to the hunters period, before the Neolithic, never before reported in Malta.”

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Sadly, though, at some point towards the end of the 20th century, the cave artworks were apparently lost. The passage of time, it seems, had managed to wipe away the prehistoric sketches. The photographs of the works that were taken of the paintings in the 1980s now represent the only known evidence of their presence.

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This isn’t the only example of age-old art having disappeared within Malta in recent times, either. A further instance relates to a painting of a bull that had been found inside an ancient Maltese temple. Known as the Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni, this place of worship had been constructed beneath the earth.

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Fittingly, too, the name of the Hypogeum derives from the Greek word for “underground.” The structure itself is thought to date back to the Neolithic period, around 5,000 years ago. It’s suspected that it used to serve as both a safe haven and somewhere to entomb the dead. Some 7,000 human remains have been found there to date, after all.

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The Hypogeum was accidentally stumbled upon by laborers in 1902. They’d been busy developing local residences when they ended up cutting through the top of the temple. Apparently, the workers initially sought to conceal the ancient construction – but their efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful. And so the year after its rediscovery, the Hypogeum was properly excavated.

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These works, however, weren’t especially stringent; many of the items found inside the Hypogeum were subsequently lost. Artifacts and skeletons taken from graves were removed without being appropriately documented, for instance. And when the head of the excavation passed away in 1907, his notes on the works disappeared with him.

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After that, a man named Sir Themistocles Zammit took over as the leader of excavations inside the Hypogeum. Around this time, too, the temple was made open to the public. In 1910 Zammit started to publish papers about the temple – and many of the artifacts he recovered there were subsequently delivered to Valletta’s National Museum of Archaeology.

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Items retrieved from the Hypogeum during this period included pots, beads and the tops of axes. There were also some carvings in the shape of people and other creatures. On top of this, a clay figurine that’s been dubbed the Sleeping Lady was also found. Seeming to depict a goddess, this figure is actually considered by some to be the site’s most important artifact.

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The Hypogeum was also home to other examples of ancient artwork, including a painting that depicted a bull. This was found during the 1950s, though, and a number of photos from that era survive. The bull was then mentioned in a book – written by an archaeologist named David Trump – from the early 1970s.

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So it seems that the artwork was created with manganese oxide – a substance that’s been found in other Stone Age works. In fact, the general manner of the painting suggested that it derived from a date before the Neolithic period. And this was finally confirmed by UNESCO testing towards the end of the 1980s.

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Sadly, though, the bull painting can no longer be seen inside of the Hypogeum. And Reedijk has claimed that she spoke with a person who’d worked at the site back in the 1990s. This employee allegedly informed her that he’d been tasked with washing the wall where the painting had once been.

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Reedijk further claimed that mentions of the bull painting have all but vanished from recent publications about Malta’s past. Based on her research, in fact, she said its only appearance within a book came in a reissue of one of David Trump’s 1970s publications. The researcher also claimed that Trump himself had been questioned about why his own more recent output omitted any allusions to the work. He reportedly responded, “It was very faint.”

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Elsewhere, underwater searches for artifacts and constructions have been taking place in the seas surrounding Malta. These projects, Reedijk explained, have been undertaken by a number of eager, self-funded divers. But despite the lack of external financing that these people receive, some of their investigations have still proven to be fruitful.

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For instance, a number of trenches have been found on the seafloor near the Maltese coast. Given their precise positioning, these trenches could once have been manmade canals. And based on the evidence, it appears that they were created no less than 8,000 years ago.

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All in all, then, the islands and waters of Malta are home to a vast array of archaeological treasures. Sadly, though, many investigations of these sites have seemingly been conducted unprofessionally – meaning that much important evidence of the area’s past may have been lost. Yet Malta is still a historical marvel. And perhaps it still has more light to shine on what life had been like in prehistoric times.

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