Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni: The grand underground ‘temple’ with acoustic effects

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Often claimed as being the world’s only known prehistoric underground temple, the branching subterranean complex of Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni in Paola, Malta, is more than 5,000 years old (which makes it older than the Great Pyramid at Giza). Discovered quite unintentionally in 1902, by workers who were digging for a building site, the expanse of the temple was found to be entirely carved from solid limestone. As a matter of fact, the very term hypogeum translates to ‘underground’ in Greek, and as such Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni goes down to a depth of more than 30 ft below ground. And the surprising part is – this herculean task was painstakingly achieved by only the rudimentary technology available to Stone Age people.

1. A subterranean mega-complex with three levels –

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In terms of its sheer scope, the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni comprises a labyrinth of cavities (both natural and man-made) that are structurally complemented by architectural elements like pillars, lintels (above door openings) and niches. All of these spatial zones are distributed over three levels, with the upper level being the earliest excavation project achieved by the Stone Age dwellers of Malta. To that end, this level was burrowed out from the brow of a hill, and can be accessed from a structure at the ground level. On the other hand, the two lower levels are ‘cut’ from natural rock (of the ‘soft’ globigerina limestone variety).

The extraordinary part is – these levels were entirely hewn and the excavated by using pretty rudimentary equipment, including chert, flint and obsidian tools and antlers. And moreover, in spite of the massive nature of their underground project, the Stone Age engineers didn’t forget to use practical elements, like strategic opening along the upper-level for induction of natural light into the middle chambers. However, beyond such natural lighting ‘windows’, the occupants surely also had measures for artificial lighting in the lower spatial zones of the subterranean Neolithic temple.

2. An underground temple imitating ground-based megalithic temples –

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One of the most unique features of the giant Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni relates to how its architectural elements tend to mimic the compositions of contemporary, above-ground megalithic temples. Such fascinating aspects include false bays and passages seemingly influenced by trilithon doorways and windows. Even the ceilings of some chambers have carved stone overhanging arrangements that tend to imitate the corbelled masonry (where the masonry work protrudes inwards in a step-wise manner along the top portion of various entrances and walls) found in the roof section of contemporary above-ground temples.

Quite intriguingly, the prevalence of such corbelled works in megalithic temples situated above ground also hints at the fact that many of these buildings were originally roofed over. As for the Hypogeum itself, its bevy of structural modifications are accompanied by artistic designs on the walls. These include recognizable patterns like honeycombs and spirals that are etched on the wall surfaces with the aid of red ochre, a type of mineral pigment. And surprisingly, these wall murals are the only prehistoric specimens found in the whole island of Malta.

3. The Oracle Chamber and its acoustic property –

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The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni has its fair share of chambers and rooms spread over three levels – so much so that the labyrinth nature of the subterranean temple has dissuaded many an expert from actually measuring the total area of the ‘hypogeum’. However beyond extensive structural engineering, the most incredible feature of this Neolithic complex arguably pertains to its incorporation of special acoustic properties. To that end, one of the chambers and its niche are carved out from limestone (and adorned with red ochre patterns), and the space seemingly demonstrates an acoustic magnification scope. According to some, these properties take mysterious, enchanting and even random routes with surprising sounds booming through the dark caverns and the convoluted passages. Such terrifying yet impressive effects have led to the terming of the room as the Oracle Chamber, where the hidden oracles might have communicated to the visitors via their mystical yet daunting voices aided by the auditory flair.

Now, a number of research projects have studied and analyzed this seemingly intentional feat of acoustic engineering. Some researchers (like Maltese composer Ruben Zahra and a research team from Italy) have noted how the sound within the chamber resonates at a frequency of 110 Hz, which is similar to effects of other ancient-made compartments, including the Newgrange in Ireland. Interestingly, a study published by Dr. Ian Cook of UCLA and his team showcased how this particular frequency had its ’emotional’ effect on a number of volunteers. This was measured by EEG, and the frequency resonance at 110 Hz was found to affect the activity patterns over the prefrontal cortex. These patterns tended to oddly shift from left to right-sided dominance, thus alluding to the processing of the emotional quotient.

Another project undertaken by the Archaeoacoustics Conference revealed how male voices emanating at two frequencies (114 Hz and 68-70 Hz) can reverberate throughout the whole complex. The same effect was not achieved by female voices, while the continuous utterance of ‘oooh’ by male voices did the resonant trick. Now, considering all these results, historians and researchers are still not sure if such phenomenons were directly related to some form of sound engineering achieved by the ancient creators of the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni. However, the possibility still lies with the hypothesis that the underground complex was used for ceremonious ritual chanting.

4. A temple and a tomb?

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While we have been harping about the innovative side of the subterranean Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni, there is also a ‘darker’ side to the mystery beyond fascinating acoustic effects. In that regard, archaeologists have unearthed a wealth of objects over the years from the sanctuary, including a flurry of human bones. As a matter of fact, it is estimated that the underground temple keeps the remains of more than 6,000 people, all stacked in a bizarre manner along the entrance way. Some experts speculate that the ancient people in the proximate lands followed a ritual where they left the body of the dead inside the sanctuary until the flesh decomposed and then completely fell off the bones. These remaining bones were then collected and stacked within the chambers, oddly accompanied by volumes of red ochre. This probably had to with some kind of ritualistic protocol where the living imbued the bones of the dead with the hue of ‘blood and life’.

Other archaeological findings include pottery vessels (with intricate artworks), beads, amulets, shell buttons and stone-carved pendants shaped like animals and birds. But the refined sense of workmanship arguably relates to the clay figurines that represent human figures in various poses. The ‘Sleeping Lady’ (pictured below) aptly demonstrates the high level of workmanship cultivated by the Stone Age sculptors of Malta.

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Sources: UNESCO / HeritageMalta / OTSF

Book Reference: The World’s Most Mysterious Places (Reader’s Digest)

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