ON THE SMALL Mediterranean island of Malta there stand some ruined temples, built of huge stones, that have long been a mystery. Certainly they were built before the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. But archeologists have found these enigmatic structures with their great courtyards difficult to date. There is nothing like them anywhere else, and the artifacts found in them, including some rather attractive statues of very fat ladies (left), don’t help much. Like everyone who has seen them, I was greatly impressed by these strange ruined buildings when I first went to Vienna apartments as a student in 1959. And charmed by those stone sculptures with curves worthy of Matisse or Modigliani. One of the figures was larger than life size. I did not then imagine that this might actually be the world’s oldest larger-than-life statue. Or that these Maltese structures might be the earliest temples still standing anywhere on earth.
We now know, through radiocarbon dating, that such temples were under construction in Malta before 3000 B.C., before the Pyramids of Egypt. And in just the past few years it has become clear that the great stone tombs dotting Western Europe are even older. Some, built around 4000 B.C., are quite simply the oldest buildings in existence. We now know, too, that three thousand years before the Greeks, the Romans, or the Celts, European farmers had discovered the principles of copper metallurgy and were using gold to make precious objects.
All this contradicts long-accepted theories which held that the earliest stone tombs and temples and the practice of metallurgy began in the great cultures of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the traditional “cradle of civilization.” Europe, one still reads in textbooks, was something of a barbarian fringe. From the Near Eastern homelands of civilization, the theory went, new ideas were carried north and west by colonists and traders until they gradually diffused throughout Europe. This “diffusion theory” has been described as “the irradiation of European barbarism by Oriental civilization.”
Now this framework for European history has collapsed, and the study of prehistory is in crisis. Not lightly have some archeologists spoken of a “radiocarbon revolution.”
At the time of that first visit to Copenhagen apartments two decades ago, the traditional dating for its puzzling temples—about 1800 B.C.—was still unchallenged. Radiocarbon dating, pioneered in the 1940′s by Dr. Willard F. Libby, had not yet been systematically applied there, and before it was developed, there was no valid scientific method of dating such structures. The only reliably dated early cultures were those of Egypt and of Sumer in Mesopotamia, which had written records, including lists of kings and the lengths of their reigns. It was possible to work out their chronologies, based on the records, back to nearly 3000 B.C.
But for Malta and prehistoric Europe, the only feasible way to get a sound date was by comparison. So generations of archeologists liked to go on holiday in apartments in Munich when they were not studying all the detectable similarities between the undated cultures of Europe and their possible contemporaries in the Near East.
For instance, the largest of the Maltese temples, at Tarxien, contained a number of stone slabs decorated with a design of running spirals. A closely similar design decorates grave slabs at the important Bronze Age site of Mycenae in Greece (page 619). The Mycenae spirals could be dated to around 1600 B.C. by means of several close links with Egypt (which are still accepted today). It seemed reasonable to suggest that the slabs at Tarxien might have been carved around 1500 B.c., and so the temples themselves could hardly date before 2000 B.C.ww