Frank L Scicluna - Principal - Maltese Language School of Adelaide
During my recent journey to Malta I visited the island's most puzzling archaeological phenomena the cart-ruts or tracks. They are a challenge to the imagination of archaeologists, historians and geographers alike. On the Maltese archipelago there are the remains of a number of Neolithic temples of great historical importance: Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, Hal Saflieni and Ggantija. We do not know where the race that built these temples came from or why they disappeared so suddenly leaving such magnificent temples as evidence of their existence.
The ruts in Malta and Gozo are unique in scale and nature and are matched nowhere else in the world. Closely by the Neolithic temples are the prehistoric cart-tracks that run for kilometres on the hard rocks ledges on the highlands, sometimes dropping sheer into the sea. The era when the cart ruts were made is more or less known. It coincides with the building of the temples and took place well before Punic times.
Proof of this is the small number of Punic graves laying right across cart tracks. This substantiates the theory that the ruts had by then lost their usefulness. Although some ruts appear near some of the temples (eg: at Hal Far where there are several dolmens and trilithon) but they are absent from others sites where the building task was clearly greater.
The temple builders were more than capable of building the cart ruts when during the same period we credit them with having in more difficult circumstances produced an infinitely more complex design and excavated a Hypogeurn with its three underground levels of meticulous planning. A temple that was literally built from the inside out and it has a sound system and a form of air-conditioning. It was built by a relatively small group of people as it has a restricted area and not a sprawling one such as the cart ruts.
The mysterious cartruts appear one kilometre West of Sliema, and they appear again at Naxxar Gap, right on a section of the Victoria lines. They can be seen at Bingemma Gap, near the Buskett (Rabat), the cave dwelling of Ghar il-Kbir, near the coast of Birzebbugia and near the cliff village of Mtahleb. Some of them were obliterated by road making and when modern buildings appeared near these sites.
One of the most complicated networks of cart-ruts is found at "Misrah Ghar, il-Kbir"' limits of Rabat. The site was nicknamed as "Clapham Junction" by David Trump after the complex railway tracks of a London station. The cart-ruts seem to be present everywhere and run in all different directions, covering an area of about 8 hectares or more.
The exact number of cartruts in Malta and Gozo is difficult to determine but must run into the two hundred figure. Their aggregate length totals well over ten kilometres, some end abruptly at cliff edges, others lead to the sea and some even run, for a considerable distance, along the sea-bed at St, George's Bay, Birzebbuga.
What are they, these cart-tracks of Malta?
Prehistoric of course, inexplicable lengths of parallel tracks that criss-cross certain areas of the globigerina limestone on the island's plateaux, deeply incised, and terminating as mysteriously as they commence, sometimes after only a few metres, at other times perhaps after a kilometre.
Sir Temi Zammit, a famous Maltese scholar and archaeologist, found that the cartruts range, at the surface, from 20 cm to as much as 45 cm. He noted that they are of Neolithic origin and that they were formed by the continuos' passage of heavy weights deliberately transported along regular routes, or the ruts would not have been so deep.
Undoubtedly, these are the remains of some sort of communications (roads) or rock hewn railways. We must accept the fact that the cart ruts primitive roads built with the intention of moving loads from one place to another or they were perhaps worn in the stone by sledgecarts.
Expert's opinions are divided on the subject of the origin and purpose of these curious and haunting features.These tracks provide evidence of the theory that Malta was once a part of the mainland of Europe. It seems likely that at one time a great earthquake ravaged the central Mediterranean, splitting the rock so that the sea gushed between Sicily and Malta separating the two lands forever, and perhaps also breaking a land link with North African coast.
Strange as they are these unique prehistoric cartruts are an important part of the Maltese open-air museum. Let us take care of our heritage, our unique treasure. Let us preserve what we have inherited from previous generations and pass it on to those who come after us in at least the same condition as it was received.
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