Ħal Saflieni skulls to be studied in interdisciplinary collaboration under international research grant

At last, the world will be introduced to the people of the prehistoric island of Malta, and through them, the culture that created this globally unique monument.

Heritage Malta, in conjunction with the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, Malta and Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, are pleased to announce the commencement of an international interdisciplinary project to study the surviving human skulls from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum. This project will be funded by the Union Académique Internationale.

In 1926, Temi Zammit’s brief description of the few skulls found at Ħal Saflieni as being “of the long variety (dolichocephalic)” led to a net of conspiracy theories which are still resonant today. Some have interpreted his words to be referring to a culture which deliberately modificated and elongated skulls, similar to the bound Peruvian skulls. Others have gone so far as to claim that these skulls are being hidden by the authorities in order to conceal Malta’s ancestral origins. Some extremists even insist that these skulls pertain to aliens.

The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is indisputably a place of global significance for understanding the evolution of intellect, creativity, technology and culture at the key stage when human groups across the region were making the critical transition to agricultural subsistence strategies. Despite the lauding of Ħal Saflieni’s innovations in technology, art and architecture, an enormous component of the site’s story remains shrouded in silence, mystery and mythology.

The project entitled ‘The Sentinels of Ħal Saflieni, Malta: Science Facts versus Science Fiction’ will be finally giving the deserved attention to these skulls and will set the record straight on their condition and origins. The project will see the combination of traditional archaeological, historical and archival research with cutting-edge scientific analyses to investigate all the aspects of the lived experiences of the people of Ħal Saflieni, including their health, disease, lifestyle, diet and ancestry profiles.

The funding of €6,000 by the Union Académique Internationale is part of the celebration of the Union’s Centenary this year, and was awarded to Associate Professor Ronika Power of Maquarie University, Sydney who qualified as an Early Career Researcher in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Ms Power will be working in close collaboration with curators of the National Museum of Archaeology and the Prehistoric Sites Department of Heritage Malta, the osteologist of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, Malta, and colleagues from various international institutions.

The project will carry out the first-ever interdisciplinary analyses of the remains of the only surviving individuals (less than 20 out of a prospective 7,000 people) excavated from the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum which is a multi-level subterranean Neolithic (c. 4,000–2,500 BC) burial ritual complex located in Paola.