The Neolithic of the Maltese islands is above all famous for its exceptional megalithic architecture and for the so-called ‘mother goddess’ statues. Yet alongside these above-ground ritual structures, there is a parallel story of underground burial chambers. Beginning with the Żebbuġ phase (c. 4100–3800 cal BC), simple, one- or two-chambered rock-cut tombs were used throughout the sequence and may be the burial places of lineage groups. Individuals were interred one after the other, with older burials pushed aside to make room for new ones.

Reconstruction of the underground chambers at the Xaghra Circle (drawing by Caroline Malone)

Reconstruction of the underground chambers at the Xaghra Circle (drawing by Caroline Malone)

However, in some locations increasingly complex networks of underground chambers, megalithic constructions and display areas also emerge, dating (as do the later phases of most temples) to the Tarxien phase (c. 3000–2400 BC). Here, the remains of some of the dead were left articulated in perpetuity whereas others, after an initial period of display, were then moved around or re-deposited elsewhere. These elaborate sites may have served a wider community or a restricted descent group, in both cases without restriction of age or sex. The most famous is the UNESCO World Heritage site at Ħal Saflieni, the Hypogeum, with its painted walls and carved architectural detail. Our project focuses on a similar site on the island of Gozo, excavated between 1989–1994 and published as the Brochtorff Circle at Xaghra, although sometimes more popularly known as the Xaghra Stone Circle. This site itself is within the curtilage of the Ggantija temple, another part of the UNESCO World Heritage listing. The material from the excavations is currently held at the National Museum of Archaeology, Valetta, Malta.

The Circle
The Circle consists of many different chambers, niches and display areas, separated by walls and megalithic screens. The remains of at least 450 individuals were recovered from its various parts, but current radiocarbon dates are not enough to establish whether these accumulated over just a few decades (potentially making this the main burial place for the local community), or over many centuries (implying for example that a small élite theatrically displayed their dead here). There is also a small, separate earlier Żebbuġ phase tomb with the remains of around 60 people.

Working closely with colleagues, our aims are threefold: to understand the sequence of the different areas of the site; to estimate its overall period and periodicity of use; and to help in better defining the duration of the Tarxien phase as a whole, since very few radiocarbon dates as yet exist from Malta.

Local Partners: Sharon Sultana and Vanessa Ciantar (National Museum of Archaeology), Bernardette Mercieca Spiteri (Superintendence of Cultural Heritage in Malta), Caroline Malone (Queen’s University, Belfast) and Simon Stoddart (University of Cambridge)
UK Team: Frances Healy, Dani Hofmann, Seren Griffiths, Alex Bayliss, and Alasdair Whittle