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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