130 Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum – 1980

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The Hypogeum is an enormous subterranean structure excavated c. 2500 B.C., using cyclopean rigging to lift huge blocks of coralline limestone. Perhaps originally a sanctuary, it became a necropolis in prehistoric times.

Brief synthesis

The (underground cemetery) was discovered in 1902 on a hill overlooking the innermost part of the Grand Harbour of Valletta, in the town of Paola. It is a unique prehistoric monument, which seems to have been conceived as an underground cemetery, originally containing the remains of about 7,000 individuals. The cemetery was in use throughout the Żebbuġ, Ġgantija and Tarxien Phases of Maltese Prehistory, spanning from around 4000 B.C. to 2500 B.C.

Originally, one entered the through a structure at ground level. Only a few blocks of this entrance building have been discovered, and its form and dimensions remain uncertain. The plan of the Hypogeum itself is a series of three superimposed levels of chambers cut into soft globigerina limestone, using only chert, flint and obsidian tools and antlers. The earliest of the three levels is the uppermost, scooped out of the brow of a hill. A number of openings and chambers for the burial of the dead were then cut into the sides of the cavity.

The two lower levels were also hewn entirely out of the natural rock. Some natural daylight reached the middle level through a small opening from the upper level, but artificial lighting must have been used to navigate through some of the middle level chambers and the lowest level, which is 10.60 m below the present ground level.

One of the most striking characteristics of the is that some of the chambers appear to have been cut in imitation of the architecture of the contemporary, above-ground megalithic temples. Features include false bays, inspired by trilithon doorways, and windows. Most importantly, some of the chambers have ceilings with one ring of carved stone overhanging the one below to imitate a roof of corbelled masonry. This form echoes the way in which some of the masonry walls of the contemporary above-ground temple chambers are corbelled inwards, suggesting that they too were originally roofed over.

Some of the walls and ceilings of the chambers were decorated with spiral and honey-comb designs in red ochre, a mineral pigment. These decorations are the only prehistoric wall paintings found on the Maltese Islands. In one of these decorated chambers, there is a small niche which echoes when someone speaks into it. While this effect may not have been created intentionally, it may well have been exploited as part of the rituals that took place within the chambers.

Excavation of the produced a wealth of archaeological material, including numerous human bones, which suggests that the burial ritual had more than one stage. It appears that bodies were probably left exposed until the flesh had decomposed and fallen off. The remaining bones and what appear to be some of the personal belongings were then gathered and buried within the chambers together with copious amounts of red ochre. The use of ochre seems to have been a part of the ritual, perhaps to infuse the bones with the colour of blood and life. Individuals were not buried separately, but piled onto each other.

Artefacts recovered from the site include pottery vessels decorated in intricate designs, shell buttons, stone and clay beads and amulets, as well as little stone carved animals and birds that may have originally been worn as pendants. The most striking finds are stone and clay figurines depicting human figures. The most impressive of these figures is that showing a woman lying on a bed or ‘couch', popularly known as the ‘Sleeping Lady'. This figure is a work of art in itself, demonstrating a keen eye for detail.

Criterion (iii):

The is a unique monument of exceptional value. It is the only known European example of a subterranean ‘labyrinth' from about 4,000 B.C. to 2,500 B.C. The quality of its architecture and its remarkable state of preservation make it an essential prehistoric monument.


The is one of the best preserved and most extensive environments that have survived from the Neolithic. With the exception of the fragmentary remains of the above-ground entrance, all the key attributes of the property, including the architectural details and painted wall decorations, have remained intact within the boundaries.

The main threats to the preservation of the are the fluctuating temperature and relative humidity levels within the site, as well as water infiltration and biological infestations.


The is one of the two most important prehistoric burial sites in the Maltese islands and is very well preserved, unlike the fragmentary remains that usually survive from the above-ground structures of this period.

The unusual preservation of the rock-cut chambers allows the study of a system of interconnecting spaces very much as they were conceived and experienced by a Neolithic mind. The imitation of the interior of a megalithic temple built above ground not only provides evidence on the corbelling system that was used to roof the temples, but is also important in terms of the development of human processes of cognition and representation.

The has also yielded several important artefacts of great artistic significance. Foremost amongst these is the so-called ‘Sleeping Lady', a miniature ceramic figurine that is widely held to be one of the great masterpieces of prehistoric anthropomorphic representation.

Protection and management requirements

The principal legal instrument for the protection of cultural heritage resources in Malta is the Cultural Heritage Act (2002), which provides for and regulates national bodies for the protection and management of cultural heritage resources. Building development and land use is regulated by the Environment and Development Planning Act (2010 and subsequent amendments), which provides for and regulates the Malta Environment and Planning Authority. The is protected by a buffer zone, and both the and its buffer zone are formally designated by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority as a Grade A archaeological site, which means they are subject to wide-ranging restrictions of building development.

A programme of monitoring and research, launched in order to understand the microclimate of the Hypogeum, was followed by a project for the conservation of the property, designed and implemented in the 1990s. Houses directly above the site were acquired and dismantled; light levels within the property are strictly controlled; and visitor numbers limited. These measures have helped to maintain stable temperature and humidity levels, which continue to be monitored closely.

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