MALTA: The Limestone Experience

This article originally appeared in 2 parts in the Spring and Summer 2008 editions of "Waller & Dyker"

Part 1

Malta is basically a lump of limestone in the Mediterranean and only covers just over 300 square kilometres (including the outlying islands of Gozo and Comino). Being a rocky lump it has stone absolutely everywhere. It boasts what is reputedly the world's oldest free-standing dry stone temple, Ggantija on Gozo; dry stone walls everywhere; and a plethora of active and disused quarries, dating back to Roman times. Most of the quarries (including more modern ones) are little more than rectangular holes (deep, but small coverage) carved out of the rock, and the number has to be seen to be believed.

Malta has two types of limestone, globerigina and coralline. The globerigina (mostly to the south) often found as large flaky slabs, is a softer rock, relatively easy to work and has formed the bulk of Malta's building material over the years. The harder, more crystalline, coralline stone found more to the North and on Gozo has been used on the more important buildings.

Many quarries are now disused, and in one of these - in the sleepy town of Siggiewi, can be found "The Limestone Heritage". This eighth of an acre `pit` has been transformed into a "living monument to the arts and crafts undertaken in the limestone of the Maltese islands" (Mission Statement) by husband and wife Emmanuel (Manuel) and Anne-Marie Baldacchino. The site is a defunct globerigina quarry, originally only operational for 5 years before reaching a depth where the stone was riddled with fossils (having been sea-bed about 20 million years ago), making it unsuitable for use in building.

Manuel's family have been quarry operators for generations, his father having been one time President of the Quarry Owners Association of Malta. Anne Marie's heritage is on the building side, those that actually use the quarried stone. Speaking to them it becomes obvious that they have a love and appreciation of the stone and its usage across the islands, and they have very much instilled this in their creation at Siggiewi.

Starting with a multi-lingual audio-visual presentation, giving a brief on the use and quarrying of limestone on the islands history from prehistoric times to present, you then proceed on a walk through tour of the quarry bed guided by audio via a tape walkman. The commentary explains the various methods of stone extraction over the years, from hand extraction and splitting, to more modern and mechanised methods complete with some impressive salvaged/restored machinery and saws. There is also a section illustrating the use of the quarried stone through a reconstructed demonstration farmhouse (razzett) complete with stone water channels, troughs, tether stones, spiral stone staircase, stone ceiling and a host of other stone features (photo left). On Malta many of the older buildings were built from stone quarried on the site of the house itself, often giving the added benefit of a basement or cellar.

Part of the quarry is now a citrus grove, a traditional use for defunct quarries as by their very nature - with towering white walls - they are ideal sun traps.

[Stone axe]
Within the main building of the centre there is a small museum containing a large variety of masonry tools, with some particularly impressive saws and `axes`. The "stone-cutters double hatchet" particularly took my fancy, and would be a marvellous addition to my own (working) collection!

This axe (shown right)is a hefty 10 kilograms (22 lbs.) with the head around 21 cm. long, 12 cm. deep and 5 cm. thick.

One of the exhibits is a reconstructed Girna, the traditional Maltese Corbelled Stone hut. These are dry stone huts built as herdsmen's shelters and are found mostly in the west of Malta itself (more about them in the next issue).

In 2002 Manuel instigated Limestone Heritage Week following a chance meeting with a member of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) who had an interest in walling. The President of Malta inaugurated the week, and there was television coverage in both Malta and the UK. About 90 m. of rubble wall was rebuilt by the volunteers (working alongside two "government wallers") around the site of Lafarla Cross, Siggiewi, a religious heritage site and the second highest point on the island (650 ft.).

In 2003 the members of BTCV also gave live demonstrations on building of rubble walls at The Limestone Heritage Centre building a short section of "British" wall - including a "squeeze stile" and sheep "lunky". As reported by Andrew Brown Jackson, leader of the initial BTCV project in the Spring 2004 edition of "Waller & Dyker"

The BTCV gave other demonstrations to schoolchildren, with the children participating in experiencing the building of rubble walls. About 400 students attended for these "hands-on" sessions and during the week, with around a further 100m of wall rebuilt at Lafarla Cross. The Maltese Government itself now runs courses on the site.

The success of the public participation events in 2003 has spurred on the development of the "Hands on Experience". After the tour visitors have the opportunity (albeit at an extra cost) to carve a souvenir out of a piece of smoothly stencilled limestone under the tutelage of the centre's resident craftsman (photo left).

Perhaps the only disappointing aspect of our visit to the limestone heritage was that beyond a small, easily missed model, and references in the audio-visual, the `ancient heritage` was not really dealt with. In this area Malta can boast some particularly impressive structures. Fortunately this is an area which the Baldacchinos have subsequently at least partially addressed, having created a Neolithic zone within the walk through exhibit. Here you pass through a dolmen made out from natural limestone, and you can see also how they used to move large stone and see re-constructions of some of the tools they used. More on the actual temples in the next "Waller & Dyker"

The Limestone Heritage is, from a perhaps biased stone lovers viewpoint, one of the most enjoyable exhibits of its `kind` I have seen. It continues to develop with added greenery and landscaping, the recent/current addition of two further auditoriums, (as well as the already mentioned new the Neolithic zone), and an excellent dedicated "Limestone Heritage" guidebook to supplement the audio tour. This 34-page book is very informative with a noteworthy section on the history of quarrying and stone use on the Island, and lots of excellent photos. The Baldacchinos deserve praise, and - if you are ever on the Island - a visit.

Failing a corporeal visit you will be able to experience some of the Limestone Heritage at

Part 2

However the "real thing" cannot be improved upon, and despite its small size Malta has a considerable amount of ancient architecture. The temple of Ggantija on Gozo, and the temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra (a few hundred yards apart on on the coastal cliff top not far south of Siggiewi, and Tarxien (in the suburbs of the capital Valetta) are all well worth a visit.

None of these temples is that extensive, but they are all interesting (especially to those with a touch of stone madness) if a little spoilt by the restrictions on access placed to prevent serious erosion from visitors. Each has interesting stone altars and some notable stonework, particularly of a megalithic nature.

Ggantija is reputedly the oldest free-standing stone structure in the world being over 5000 years old. The name is said to relate to the gigantic slabs (with many over 3x3m.) used in its construction (photo left).

Mnajdra (built of hard coralline limestone) has been extensively repaired following vandalism in the late `90s, and is somehow "Flinstone-esque" in some of its construction.

It is a feature of a number of Malta`s temples that doorways, rather than being constructed out of lintels and jambs are hewn from a single slab then stood on end. Although as can be seen (photo right) this has been combined with the more `normal` trilithon of lintel and jambs.

Of particular interest at Mnajdra is the extensive decoration of entranceway stones with "drilled" pitting.

[Tarxien Stone Altars]
Hagar Qim (only 500m from Mnajdra but built of the softer globigerina limestone) is similarly flintstone-esque. The façade has been impressively reconstructed (photo left), and some of the original megaliths leave even Ggantija in the shade with one 0.6m thick, 2.7m high and 7m. long weighing in at around 25 tonnes.

Tarxien is famed for its carved altar stones. Those on site are badly eroded modern reproductions, the originals are impressive and can be seen in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valetta (photo right).

Perhaps the most extensive, of the temples much is no longer accessible. Situated within the capital it is the most visited of the temples and has consequently suffered from some serious erosion. There are however many interesting features.

[Stone Rollers]
In one area rounded limestone balls have been gathered. Not a natural shape for limestone these man-made spheres were used like ball bearings for manoeuvring large slabs (photo left). Tarxien has large stone slabbed floors in places, and in one exposed part one of the stone rollers can be seen as it was left in situ when the slab was originally positioned.

We didn't get to see too many field walls close up, and only a few roadside walls, which were occasionally built from regular sawn limestone. More normal were those built of rubble and some of those we did see were about as random as any I gave seen anywhere, with little discernible pattern and no real coping.

I cannot really comment on the overall state of walls on the island, having seen so few, but it seems, as is the case everywhere modern neglect means that there is much to do. It does however appear that neglect is not the only problem., as previously reported by Andrew Brown-Jackson ("W&D" Spring 2004) the field walls are he home to a large number of large snails which may well be responsible for the poor condition of many of the walls. No, it is not the snails themselves demolishing the walls, rather the snails provided a much needed source of protein during the periods of near starvation that have littered the Island's history, and hence the walls have been damaged by those scavenging for the snails.

In the last issue I mentioned that the "Limestone Heritage" has a reconstructed "Girna" the traditional Maltese Corbelled Stone hut. These are dry stone huts built as herdsmen's shelters and are found mostly in the west of Malta itself. Internally most are 6 to 9 feet across although some are over 12 feet, and there are a few examples of 4 feet or less. Whilst most are round, with square not uncommon (presumably more reliant on the presence of suitable quoins in the vicinity), they come in all sizes, with many subtle variations. Perhaps the major design variation between them are their doorways, usually singular and east facing. Some have simple flat lintels, occasionally with relieving triangles or arches above the lintel. Others have triangular lintels, or maybe arched. Other interesting variations include ramps or staircases leading onto the roof, which is generally a relatively flat, loose, collection of smaller rubble covering the internal, domed corbelling. There are even a couple built on top of each other where adjacent field levels vary.

They look fascinating, unfortunately I must admit we only saw the reconstructed one at the Limestone Heritage and another outside the airport (photo left).

Beyond that the nearest we got were postcards and a poster from a museum, they are by their nature off the beaten track and consequently elusive. Frustratingly I later discovered that we had been close to one despite the dumbfounded looks of the locals when we were enquiring about them. Local appreciation for dry stone heritage is much the same the world over - I suspect! Anyway spurred on by the re-constructions and pictures, I subsequently discovered a fascinating and informative book by Michael Fsadni entitled "The Girna - The Maltese Corbelled Stone Hut". Around £10 inc p&p for 120 pages packed full of photos and information (see

For all things limestone Malta was certainly an amazing experience.