Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of August 25th - August 31st, 2006

Spiraling Down

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  Having just returned from a honeymoon amongst some of the oldest temples in the Mediterranean,
Malta spirals

Malta dual spiral

I was struck by a distinctive and eye catching logo found in several locations on the island of Malta, where they claim to have the oldest free standing temples in the world, older than even the pyramids.

  This logo was the spiral, and the Maltese sites have been determined to have been in use between 4,000 and 2,600 BC. The pyramids were built about the end of this same period in Egypt, in the 27th century BC.

  It was a image I had seen before, and here off the coast of north Africa can be found one of the most popular and distinctive designs in Maltese megalithic art, the spiral and its derivatives. It is both eye catching and memorable. Its presence in temple decoration, ceramic design and other work suggests that the image had special meaning for those who called forth its curl in various ways.

  One of the intriguing aspects of this design is that it can also be found in Ireland, and is associated with a contemporary site there. Newgrange has been radio-carbon dated from 3700 to 3100 BC, and so the timings seems to overlap. We know the Newgrange complex built an entire artificial hill to narrow, train and capture the sunlight onto a carved rock face on a single day of the year. Other mounds at the site measure other days in the year.

Malta spirals

Malta spirals

  At the Mnajdra site in Malta, there's also a temple which narrows, focuses, and captures the sunlight onto the back wall of their altar, with other alignments of light and shadow built to signal the start of summer and winter, the solstices.

  It makes sense that we would find an interest in the stars among the islands. Islands provide level horizons, consistent frames of reference while on the go. Maritime cultures focus on the stars. They not only provide seasonal information, together with varying weather patterns, but also cardinal orientations on a consistent basis. Travel and the stars went hand in hand, together beckoning to distant horizons. They were also instrumental in the development of geometry, using triangulation to help figure both distances and direction. Together with astronomy and geometry, study of the stars later paved the way for mathematics.

  The more you know about the motions of the stars, the more honed your navigational skills. These early temples were built to study and further their awareness of the skies and how to use them.

Newgrange spirals

Newgrange (Ireland) spirals

  We know maritime cultures reached out along Greek and Phoenician trade routes, through the islands and along the coasts. The routes existed, but how far back do they go? When did we first start to travel down river to trade our goods? These temples, together with their spirals, may have been a part of a single cosmopolitan culture which shared this umbrella of knowledge. They may also be a clue about a culture we know little about.

  In two different island locations, separated by a huge number of sea miles, during times which overlap, the spiral is found. Earthen temples of rock and stone were designed to use the sun to frame heaven. Is it a coincidence or a correspondence that they both evoked the spiral, or was this independently observed or shared information?

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