Oliver Cross: Speaking well of the dead

Clay figure of a reclining lady was found in one of the pits of the Hypogeum in Hal Saflien. PIC: Jan Van Der Crabben
Clay figure of a reclining lady was found in one of the pits of the Hypogeum in Hal Saflien. PIC: Jan Van Der Crabben
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THIS week, with the coming of spring and a growing sense of renewal and the call of B&Q, I found myself thinking of the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, an underground city of the dead in Paola, Malta.

Which isn’t as strange as it seems because visits to DIY stores do tend to get me down and the hypogeum is more heartening than you would expect of a prehistoric burial site.

It is the oddest World Heritage Site I’ve seen. Because of the limited access, only 80 people a day can visit (you have to book well in advance), so there are no crowds around the entrance, which is a dull, badly-signed building in a suburban side-street and could just as well be a dental practice.

The site wasn’t uncovered until 1902, when there was a great rush to make houses for workers at Valetta’s expanding Naval dockyards and builders laying foundations broke into a 6,000-year-old wonder of the world.

Which they immediately tried to cover up again, because if there’s one thing a speculative builder doesn’t need, it’s interfering archaeologists slowing things down as if they had all the time in the world (which, in a sense, archaeologists do have).

Anyway, eventually the size and age of the hypogeum (a word usually confined to burial tombs but which seems to mean any underground structure older than a basement) became clear – and it is indeed an astonishing sight.

There are chambers upon chambers, some clever elaborations of natural caves, which were once stuffed full of corpses laid to rest in a kind of crouching or foetal position, although given the scale and complexity of the construction work going on around them, I don’t think they would have found it restful.

The intention seems to have been to assure the dead that they had not just been shoved down a cave and forgotten. The chambers have imitation windows, grand columns supporting nothing and useless lintels carved (without any metal tools) above the doors – on some walls and ceilings you can still see, looking very fresh, the red ochre patterns used for decoration.

Approached from the 21st century, the place is not sombre at all. What you can see is great energy and skill and, in the small sculptures found scattered around the site and now, unfortunately for visitors, removed to museums, great humanity too.

A typical figure is of a woman with enormous hips, very fat arms and a tiny head resting comfortably on a couch. She looks very contented and not at all sad, let alone deceased.

So I don’t think it perverse that spring should put me in mind of the dead – it’s to do with the cycle of life and all the sort of stuff that our prehistoric ancestors probably understood very well, being cleverer than we tend to give them credit for.

And returning to the topic of spring, which is where we started, my friend Rob, who never tells anything but the exact truth, was walking in Burley, Leeds, when a sparrow flew into the back of his head. At the same time a woman threw a bucketful of water at him from an upstairs window.

The sparrow may have been investigating possible nesting sites, Rob having rather bushy hair, but generally I think the scene can only be explained as an outbreak of spring fever and just goes to show that, as we all know, there are people who make things happen and people who are happened to.

Did I ever tell you, incidentally, how one springtime I was woken in the middle of the night by a huge commotion in the garden and found it was caused by two hedgehogs having a very noisy time of togetherness under a gooseberry bush? Well I have now.

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