Cave of Darkness: Ghar Dalam

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I only have a couple more posts on Malta to do now and this one, along with the one following it, are about two sites we visited on the Thursday of our week’s holiday in September. To travel out to these sites we used the ‘hop on-hop off’ buses that are so well used on both Malta and Gozo:

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Ghar Dalam – which means ‘Cave of Darkness’ in Maltese – is a naturally water worn, limestone cave on the outskirts of Birżebbuġa in the south east of Malta. It is one of the island’s most important monuments and the only cave on Malta where the Pleistocene (Ice Age) can be seen in an uninterrupted sequence, dating back 180,000 years. The earliest evidence of human presence on Malta has also been found in the cave, with artefacts dating back 7,400 years to the Neolithic Period.

On leaving the building where the reception and museum are housed we headed down the steps and through a small garden of exotic and indigenous trees. From here there are excellent views across the Dalam Valley, in which the cave is located.

Then it was off to the cave . . .

The scientific importance of Ghar Dalam wasn’t realised until 1865 when a Genoese geologist, Arturu Issel, came to Malta in search of Palaeolithic Man and found the remains of various animals as well as many pottery sherds in the cave. Other scientists soon followed but, unfortunately, so did poachers raiding the bone deposits. These thefts were eventually stopped by the installation of a gate at the cave’s mouth, as can be seen in my first/header photo above.

On entering the cave, it becomes obvious why it was given the name, Cave of Darkness. Without the many lights, it would have been very dark within feet of moving away from the entrance – and it’s 144 metres (472 feet) long, although only the first 50m are open to the public for security reasons. This photo is looking into the cave from just behind the gate:

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Like all limestone caves there are stalactites and stalagmites along its length, and there are labels at intervals to explain which types of remains were found at those spots and at what depth. Here are a few photos:

Ghar Dalam’s scientific importance revolves around the effects of the Ice Age on the Maltese Islands. During the time that ice sheets covered most of Central Europe and the northern hemisphere, Malta experienced a Rain, or Pluvial, Age instead. Torrential rains swept animals away and carved out valleys, including the Wied Galam. Falling sea levels created a land bridge, joining Malta to Sicily – across which many animals travelled to Malta, pushed south by the harsh conditions of glaciation to the north. These included elephant, hippopotamus, bear, wolf and fox.

Over the thousands of years these large animals underwent evolutionary change to ensure their survival: a small island could not possibly provide enough food for herds of large animals. The type of adaptation these species underwent on the island is called NANISM -i.e. they became smaller. Sometimes it is referred to as ‘dwarfing’ or ‘dwarfism’. 

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There are also examples of gigantism – the opposite of dwarfism – on Malta. This generally occurs in species that breed continuously, so only the biggest and strongest will find enough food to survive. The giant dormouse grew to be the size of a modern guinea pig and the giant lizard reached a length of 70cm (27-28 inches). The giant Maltese tortoise grew to the size of today’s Galapagos Island tortoises.

Malta is not the only one of the Mediterranean islands to exhibit nanism and gigantism, as this (not very clear and in-need-of-editing) map shows:

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In the Ghar Dalam Cave there are six distinct layers of deposits, each labelled according to the main species or characteristic material found in it. Animal remains have been found in layers 2, 4 and 6 – where 6 is the uppermost layer. Layer 2 is known as the hippopotamus layer, layer 4 is the deer layer. Layer 6 is the cultural/domestic layer, covering the last 7,000 years since humans arrived on Malta – as well as containing animal remains and pottery.

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The Victorian-style museum was opened in the 1930s. Showcases contain bones of similar size and origin mounted on boards in rows, and teeth are held in jars or stacked in rows. Everything was designed to impress through sheer quantity – with little attention given to the exhibit’s scientific or educational value. The mounted skeletons all belong to present-day animals and are not from the cave. 

A second room was opened to the public in 2002 covering different aspects of the cave’s formation and animal and human finds, as well as information on the fossil fauna that were present on the Maltese Islands during the Ice Age.

Ghar Dalam Cave has served as shelter for humans and animals since prehistoric times. The remains of Early Man have been found as well as pottery. Middens (ancient rubbish pits) have revealed animal bones and the cave served as a cattle pen until the excavations of the mid-nineteenth century. During the Second World War (August and September of 1940), 200 people lived in the cave, leaving it when the Royal Air Force wanted to use it for the storage of aviation fuel.

All in all, the Ghar Dalam Cave well deserves to be listed as one of Malta’s most important sites.

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About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
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24 Responses to Cave of Darkness: Ghar Dalam

  1. Imran Ali says:

    Ghaar means Cave &
    Dhalam means darkness in Arabic language …do u know that ?

  2. Joy Pixley says:

    What wonderful photos inside the cave! I haven’t toured a cave in ages, but your photos immediately reminded me of the deep cold and the peculiar smells. Even with all those electric lights and being surrounded by other people, caves always feel so mysterious and magical. And what a fascinating and varied history this cave has had, so many different uses over time.

    It sounds like the museum was not that informative, however; that’s disappointing. They could put a real natural science museum there, explaining more about the evidence for nanism and gigantism, and the explanations for why different animals got bigger or smaller (or stayed the same). So interesting, thanks for sharing!

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Joy. The display room at the museum wasn’t wonderful – just rows of different bones, as I put on the post. It all needs serious updating. The other room gave lots of information on boards, which was interesting, but not something to photograph for my post. But you’re right, the cave has that certain ‘feel’. This was our second visit here, so we knew what to expect, but we still enjoyed it. Imagine how far back that cave goes, too!

      • Joy Pixley says:

        I noticed that – how far back it goes, just amazing. It’s so weird to thing about how long this cave (and others like it) were simply places that were used, without anyone thinking of them as being of historic value. Then one day, someone “discovers” the cave and realizes what treasures in contains in terms of knowledge of the past. It must have been so exciting for that person who made that realization, looking deeper and deeper into that dark cave, and only touching the top layer of the mysteries!

  3. That’s very fascinating, especially the nanism and gigantism bit. I always learn something new when I read one of your posts! 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      That’s the thing I found the most interesting about this cave, too. The evolutionary processes at work at that time are fascinating. Adaptation is an awesome and powerful mechanism. 🙂

      • Evolution in itself is really fascinating when you start to think about it

      • milliethom says:

        it is fascinating – yet it’s something that many people still don’t accept. I did a whole section of my geology degree studying it. It was a joint paleontology and biology (genetics) course and was totally engrossing. Now that needless piece of information has probably sent you to sleep. 😀

      • Not at all! 🙂 I wish I had studied something like that. I read articles about early humans, dna research, discoveries, etc. every now and then but it’s not the same and some of it requires lots of previous knowledge. Studying geology never even crossed my mind when I was younger but for this version of myself right now, it would have sounded very interesting. Oh well. No point crying over spilled milk 🙂

  4. Wow, interesting again. To think that these caves preserved valuable information and examples of centuries ago! Well explained and told!

  5. I have never been to any caves before, but I always find it fascinating. Cave of Darkness is definitely a place where I would like to visit in the future. It seems adventurous and mysterious to visit such a place. 😉 I would have thought animals only grow smaller to adjust with the evolution without this post. Thank you very much for this informative post Millie! You did a great job as always ❤ 🙂

  6. Wow! I had not heard of such evindent proofs of nanism and gigantism, though I faintly recall reading about them somewhere. Mysterious and breathtaking place which became all the more special with your tour 🙂

  7. I never see fossil in real before… Nice caves and information provided. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  8. These are some beautiful photos! You have such an interesting blog 🙂

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