The eccentric engineer

E&T suggests an itinerary for an engineers' pilgrimage - to Malta, where the world's oldest engineering structures can still be found.

There's a tendency to see engineering as something purely modern or at least recent. Ask people what image swims into view when you whisper 'engineering' in their ear, and they'll probably say something about Brunel, bridges or jet engines.

But engineering is, of course, part of the bedrock of civilisation and has hence been with us as long as civilisation itself. So, it's back to those beginnings and into that bedrock that I thought I'd venture.

Everybody knows that the first engineers were Egyptians - or Sumerians, or Chinese. Or were they perhaps Maltese? It was in 1902 that a group of builders digging a well for a new housing development at Paola in the Hal Saflieni region of Malta fell into what they assumed was one of the natural caves that riddle the limestone foundations of the island. On closer inspection, however, the cave showed clear signs of human presence, which was a shade inconvenient, so the builders decided to keep quiet and just use the hole as a useful dump for building rubble.

For two years the builders valiantly kept their naughty secret but eventually news leaked out to Father Manuel Magri, a local priest with an interest in Maltese archaeology, who was asked to investigate on behalf of the Museums Committee. What he uncovered, having removed the building rubble, was one of the most remarkable prehistoric sites in the world - the hypogeum - consisting of a complex of 20 rock-cut chambers, each connected to the next by sinuous passageways, descending in three levels and filled with human remains.

Malta and its neighbouring island of Gozo were already well known for their above-ground prehistoric temples but here was process in reverse - a temple created by removing material, being cut into the soft limestone bedrock, initially modifying the shape of natural caves and then cutting whole new rooms from the living rock itself.

The site covers over 500 square metres and descends into the ground in three distinct levels. At the highest level, the remains of over 7,000 people were found suggesting this was originally a communal burial place. The level below is more complex and seems to have been constructed from scratch. The main chamber here is almost circular in shape and was originally painted red. Its entrance ways, some of which are real and some false, were carved to mimic the trilithons (two upright stones with a third across the top), which form the doorways of the surface temples on the island. In this room lay a remarkable figure, known today as the Sleeping Lady - a statuette of a woman with a tiny head and very large body, reclining on a couch. What she represents, however, is a mystery.

From this main chamber other rooms lead off. Their names are, of course, not original but were given by the archaeologists who excavated them. The Oracle Room, with its strange acoustic, the Decorated Room with its carved stone 'handprint', the two-metre hole known as the Snake Pit and the 'Holy of Holies', a small room with a coffered ceiling containing a window or 'porthole' in a trilithon framed by two larger trilithons. A third level exists below this but no human remains have been found there. Archaeologists have suggested that it may have provided a storage area for food.

Yet the greatest mystery about the hypogeum was its date. Carbon dating, which was invented nearly 50 years after the discovery of the site, finally answered the question and in the process changed both the history of Malta and the world beyond. Dates taken from organic remains (in the form of bones) and some ancient wood samples from the above-ground temples of the same style as the hypogeum revealed that these structures were not Bronze Age or Iron Age, as might be expected if the technology to make them had diffused there from the Near East, but Neolithic, the earliest dates coming from a thousand years before the Egyptian Great Pyramid was even begun. In fact, one of the temple sites, at Ggantija, proved to be the oldest free-standing stone building known anywhere on Earth.

The discovery of the enormous antiquity of the hypogeum, which was begun between 3600 BC and 3300 BC (for the upper levels), finally being finished around 2500 BC for the lowest level, also had startling implications as to the sophistication of those early engineers who made it. Coming from the Stone Age, these beautifully caved caverns must have been cut without the help of metals using just stone, bone and antler tools. Furthermore, as the flint and greenstone used in these tools cannot be found on the island, an extensive foreign trading system must already have existed to provide them.

Before the Egyptian Old Kingdom had even begun, here was a culture with a sophisticated architectural knowledge whose influence spread beyond its own shores. So perhaps any engineer thinking of going on a pilgrimage should cancel that ticket to the Near East and head for Malta instead.

Winner of our last caption competition is Mike Sparks, with the topical: "Getting their local MP to adopt the bridge as a second home and then claim refurbishment expenses was a masterstroke".

Win!

What would these Neolithic people have to say about the Maltese hypogeum?

Best suggestion sent to jherbert@theiet.org by 26 June 2009 wins an IET goodie bag.

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