LEY HUNTING IN GOZO - David Olmen
For any ley hunter who has experienced the rigours of the British moorlands in sub-zero temperatures and near-zero visibility, Gozo's Mediterranean climate and rural calm have obvious attractions. Having recently visited the sites and undertaken some basic research, I believe there are also some more substantive reasons for going to this island: some major alignments of sites are detectable by even basic field research. Yet I know of no attempt to investigate and record them.
Indeed, there does not seem to be much documentation of the island's monuments available locally at all - with the notable exception of the Ggantija temple complex. This monument's age, size and sophistication of design and construction (making even Stonehenge look like a Legoset are truly remarkable, and much information is available to guide the visitor. For the other monuments, numerous if less spectacular, there is precious little published and that which exists is fairly basic, concentrating on strict archaeological descriptions of sites. Since Gozo, like its larger neighbour Malta ten years ago, is currently in the throes of a rapacious real estate boom, there is also need to revise existing instructions on how to find the various sites and to investigate them before some are destroyed.
There are more than 20 megalithic sites which can be visited easily on Gozo. They are described in a useful little booklet by Anthony Bonanno, An Illustrated Guide, to prehistoric Gozo. This article deals with five of the sites and the apparent links between them.
The Selected Sites
Ta'Cenc Dolmen. This is, in fact, a complex of megalithic structures. For the purposes of the study presented here, I took a neat, modest sized dolmen (three feet high with capstone still in place) as the focal point. The reason for this is the situation of the dolmen. Ta'Cenc is really a rocky plateau with sea cliffs on one side and a ridge overlooking a steep escarpment which leads into a large, flattish valley or plain covering much of the centre and southeast of the island. The dolmen is within a few feet of the edge of the ridge with commanding and impressive views over the whole northern half of the island. Within a few feet are many stones, mostly fallen, aligned north-west to southeast following the ridge over a distance of perhaps 25 yards. Also very close are two shorter rows of stones next to some pits which have been compared to megalithic gallery graves in Sardinia and southeast Italy.
Only slightly farther afield, but in towards the plateau, can be found the remains of two more dolmen a suspected ruined 'temple (L-Imramma) and some of the strange cart ruts in the solid rock which are unique to Gozo and Malta (the origin of the ruts is mysterious but they may date from the more recent Punic era, c.800-150 BC).
Xewkija Church. From the dolmen at Ta'Cenc, the view over the valley plain is dominated by this splendidly huge church to the northeast. Gozo is a deeply Christian - religious island but, even so, to look down on the third largest dome in Christendom in amongst a village of perhaps only 5000 people surrounded by tomato fields, is an exciting surprise. The church, which has been built on traditional lines in the last 20 years and is still not quite finished, can be seen from virtually all of Gozo and also from the main island of Malta 10 miles away.
Although the present church is new, it is built on the same site as previous churches in the centre of the village, which is claimed in the local guide book by Mgr. Dr. Anthony Gauci, Gozo - A Historical and Tourist Guide to the Island (1969), to be the first to be inhabited in Gozo. The book also reveals that up to the seventeenth century a large dolmen was visible on the site of the present church. It had a 15 foot square capstone and four uprights about five and a half feet high, and was used as part of the church's foundations, along with a 25 foot menhir and assorted other stones.
Ggantija Temple. This complex dates from around 3800 BC, and is one of the oldest collection of stones known. They are far from primitive, however, and must have formed a crowning achievement for the people who assembled them. There are two 'temples' within a common outer wall. There is a huge number of stones, come natural in the cyclopean style, some worked, with some up to 18 feet high and weighing up to 50 tons.
A guide book is on sale at the complex and it provides all the details of the monuments. One aspect of the temples is well worth noting: both are built in the same shape of a central passage with two large 'apses' or chambers on either side and one at the end of the passage. This produces a plan design (see figure) which has been likened to a squatting or pregnant goddess, suggesting notions of fertility and 'Mother Earth'. Similar shaped structures are also to be found on Malta, and statues of 'fat ladies' have been uncovered at the sites lending credence to the theory that they were part of an Earth Goddess Tradition.
Qala Menhir. The local name of this standing stone is "Il-Hagra Il-Wieqfa". It is a pock marked stone, rectangular in plan, about five and half feet on its longest sides and 13 feet tall, forming a 'needle' shape if viewed from a distance which, unfortunately is no longer possible as it is hemmed in on all sides by modern houses. (These have been built since Mgr. Gauci wrote his Guide, so be prepared from some modestly imaginative searching if following his directions).
There are no other stones in the vicinity but there is much evidence of Neolithic habitation in the area (eg. Pot sherds and jewellry). These are shown in a small exhibition inside the parish church of St. Joseph in the village of Qala.
Tal-Qighan (Borg Il-Gharib).
This site is on the floor of the valley plain east of Xewkija on the road to Qala. There are two groups of megaliths on either side of the road. They are in a poor state of preservation, compared to Ggantija at least, but are so close together that they may have formed part of the same structure, perhaps a 'temple' or major observation centre. They are apparently unexcavated and little is known about them. One group of stones forms a rough circle whilst the other is a horseshoe with the open end looking towards Qala.
Originally there was no particular reason for choosing these five sites. Their study emerged in the course of a holiday which, out of deference to a long-suffering spouse, has the usual focus on sun, sea and sand, which I tolerated heroically. The sites happen to be fairly easily discovered in exploring and taking in the 'Gozo experience', They are therefore in effect a random sample.
Whilst visiting them, simple compass bearings (using a Silva liquid-filled compass) were taken on major landmarks (eg. Xewkija Church) and the other sites. On reviewing the bearings and field notes over a glass of local wine, it became clear that there were certain alignments which linked the sites. As a result, all were revisited to check the bearings, although still with the same basic equipment. The accompanying sketch map shows the resulting relationships of the sites. (NB> Since some of the sites are not visible from others, either due to distance or the intervention of a hill, some bearings used to produce the sketch were taken on Nadur Tower - a very prominent landmark.)
There are two very clear alignments:
I) from Ta'Cenc, through Xewkija Church to Ggantija (15/193 degrees)
ii) from Ta'Cenc, through Tal Qighan to the Qala Menhir (790/250 degrees).
Furthermore, roughly in the middle of the triangle formed by Ggantija, Xewkija and Tal Qighan is a beautiful example of a table top mountain or mesa, with evidence of Neo-lithic and Bronze Age habitation (a 'holy' hill or the 'omphalos' of Gozo?)
An attempt has been made to obtain a 1.25 000 ordnance survey class map of the island to check the alignments independantly (access to contour information would also allow some investigation of possible astronomical events related to the alignments). Unfortunately, it is not possible to obtain such a map at present as it is out of print. The only map currently available is at 1:50 000 scale which does not have contours. Nevertheless, the bearings collected on site have been checked against the ones given by the map and the correspondence in all cases is reasonably close in view of the imprecision of the large-scale map. (ED: the lines do 'work on the 1:50 000 scale, allowing for the area actually covered at the Ta'Cenc complex.)
One exciting feature should be pointed out. Mention was made above of the modern buildings which now surround the Qala menhir. These obscure it from any distant view. Patient work with a telephoto lens from Tal Qighan, however suggests strongly that with the horseshoe-shaped stones configuration as a backsight, the Menhir would have appeared on the horizon as a 'needle on a bearing of 70 degrees (magnetic), that is, ENE.
A reading of the local guide books also reveals several legendary links between the five sites. Mgr. Gauci is a good source for these, as also is a more modern, and much more romanticised booklet, Realms of Fantasy - Folk Tales from Gozo, by George Camilleri. The map shows that Ta'Cenc is common to both major alignments, and so it is for the legends. The stones for the dolmen at Ta'Cenc originate from there but were placed in their particular spot by a 'giant woman'. The same giant woman, who was of great strength, brought the stone for the Qala Menhir from Ta'Cenc to Qala. She is said to have used the stone to sit on and watch over her crops whilst resting from her work in the fields. She ate large quantities of beans while sitting thus, and sang songs of love and war. The legend says that one year a drought came, causing the bean crop to fail and the giant woman to lose her strength. She crept off to vanish in a cave beneath the hills of Gozo. This seems to be a very direct parable connecting the Earth Goddess of agricultural fertility to the megaliths. It also implies that Ta' Cenc was a significant power centre of some kind.
At Ggantija, meaning 'giant's bower', the stones from Ta' Cenc were brought by the same bean eating giant woman. This time, in an even more direct allusion to fertility, she also had a giant baby. As she carried the stones she is said to have eaten more beans and nursed the baby.
The legend for Tal Qighan does not provide such a direct link as for the last three sites, but it is interesting in another way. The story is told of a mysterious horse rider going daily at dusk through Tal Qighan in the direction of Qala to light a lamp burning at the shrine of Our lady. This shrine is at the very old church of the Immaculate Conception in Qala which, according to Gauci, is on the site of a Neolithic temple. (The shrine is somewhat to the southeast of the Qala Menhir but it is said that the stones for the church were brought by a 'white lady'.)
One night an Arab, or 'foreigner' tried to catch the rider but died in the attempt and was buried under the stones at Tal Qighan; the other name for the site, "Borg il-Gharib", translates as 'the heap of stones (or mound) of the foreigner'.
The two sources mentioned above have no legends specifically about the Xewkija Church. However, in view of the earlier dolmen on the site and its location in the shadow (at sunset at least) of Ta'Cenc, it is hard for anyone who has visited Gozo not to believe that they were related on some way. There are some legends, according to Camilleri, for locations around and close to Xewkija. Gauci has been taken in this article as the more reliable guide to folklore as his book is older and less romanticised. But he, it seems, is more taken with the building of the present massive churches than with any legends from Xewkija and, in any case, the megalithic and legendary aspects of his book are incidental rather than the main theme.
Even so, the riches of folklore hinted at by Gauci indicate that there would be handsome rewards awaiting a searching investigation. If such an investigation is to be undertaken it would need to be started soon, as the pace of 'modernistion' is accelerating rapidly and, under its influence, the traditional way of life and the legends will probably soon disappear. It seems nothing is sacred - forever.