Maev Kennedy Arts and heritage correspondent
The mystery of a prehistoric site cited as, variously, a launch pad for little green men or the tracks leading to Atlantis, could be finally solved.
Known as the Maltese Clapham Junction, the expanse of scrubby fields and barren rock is a bewilder ing complex of tracks believed to be up to 6,000 years old, gouged into solid limestone of the island whose megalithic temples are the oldest stone buildings in the world.
Now an Australian archaeologist, inspired by the evidence of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, has demolished both the myths and the con ventional explanations. Claudia Sagona, from Birmingham University, suggests the site may be simply a relic of stone age agricultural enterprise.
Like Stonehenge and Avebury, the Maltese temples are magnets for alternative theories and new age believers, who see the island as a centre of goddess worship, and the builders as creators of solar, lunar or star observatories or giant stone calenders.
The tracks which can be seen all over the island, forming a traffic jam at Clapham Junction, have been called «cart ruts». Failing any expert agreement, alternative theories have rushed in to fill the void. The wildest include the tracks of outer space landing craft, or coded messages to the gods scrawled in runes across the landscape. Because in places the tracks plunge into the sea they have also been embraced as evidence that Malta was the lost Atlantis.
One of the most distinguished archaeologists in the field, David Trump, who has been excavating on the island since 1954, has called the cart ruts «one of the most intriguing problems in Maltese archaeology».
The conventional explanation has been that the ruts were worn by heavy carts or sledges, moving tons of stone miles across the landscape. However, there are problems with this theory: the tracks continue up steep slopes, across deep fissures and chasms, and to sheer cliff faces.
At an international conference in Malta, Dr Sagona offered a more prosaic explanation. She suggested that as thunderstorms and torrential rain washed away up to a metre of soil from exposed sites, the farmers 6,000 years ago were struggling to feed a growing population from the scarce poor soil of islands which are basically solid rock.
Her clue came from the Aran Islands, where generations of farmers created fertile fields out of sand and rotted seaweed, protected by dry stone walls, through generations of backbreaking work.
Dr Sagona suggested the Maltese farmers built up similar fields, and also scored channels into the rock to channel away and save rain water, and protect the precious soil.
Her theory could also explain the greatest mystery on Malta, what happened to the temple builders. They appeared 7,000 years ago, and over the next 3,000 years manipulated slabs of limestone into temples decorated with elegant carvings of animals, spirals, and the statues rudely described as «fat ladies».
The three storeys underground Hypogeum mortuary temple, needed an estimated 22,000 tonnes of rock to be picked away with antler and bone tools.
Having created what one architect speaker called «mankind’s first great architecture», the temple builders apparently downed tools, stopped work, and vanished from the face of the earth around 4,500 years ago.
Dr Sagona believes the farmers had pushed agriculture to its limits, so that minor climate change could have caused catastrophic crop failures.
Recent floods left suggestive stripes in modern fields on the island. «It may be that where we see cart ruts we are seeing failed and abandoned fields.»
The Guardian Final Edition October 4, 2003