Għar Dalam Cave
Attractions - History and CultureGħar Dalam Cave & Museum, Żejtun Road, Birzebbuga, Malte. BBG 9014Website: www.heritagemalta.org/sites/ghardalamcave/ghardalamcaveinfo.html
The Ice Age had a great impact on Malta not only in shaping its topography but also on its flora and fauna. The climate in those days was milder and much wetter, almost tropical. The vast amount of water from heavy rainfalls was responsible for carving up the landscape and forming the valleys, as we know them today. Underground caverns and caves were also hollowed out. One such cave is that of Ghar Dalam, perched on a low cliff-face at the mouth of Wied Dalam at Birzebbuga on the south of Malta. It is good example of the KARST phenomenon erosive process within the Lower Coralline Limestone layer. Today Għar Dalam is considered to be one of the oldest caves in Maltese Islands. Evidence of its remote antiquity are the huge stalagmites and stalactites located in the first quarter of the cave. This cave was formed by the action of rushing waters that eroded the soft limestone forming a long phreatic tube. An overlaying river running down towards the sea gradually ate its way into, through, and well beyond the subterranean tunnel, reaching ultimately the level of the present valley bed. The two ends of the tunnel were thus left perched high on either side of the valley. One end is now Għar Dalam, whilst the opposite end is known simply as 'the Second Cave'.
The overflowing river, running at right angles to the tunnel, gradually "ate" its way deeper and deeper into the limestone until it reached the tunnel's roof and breached it. This formation of the cave happened in the early periods of the Pleistocene, but the collapse of the cave’s roof happened at much the same time when herds of hippopotami and elephants roamed the southern European shores. The opening of the tunnel roof acted as a swallow-hole. In this way soil, pebbles, stones, carcasses of dead animals, dismembered skeletal parts and other debris dragged by the river were sucked into the tunnel and deposited within. The pile of soil and bones gradually spread laterally but never reached either end of the tunnel. This explains why most of the organic remains (bones) are limited to the outermost 75 meters.
The lowermost layer inside the cave is made up of dissolved clay and is devoid of any animal remains, but in the second lowermost layer known as the "Hippopotamus layer", thousands of molars (teeth) and other skeletal parts had been discovered. Two species of hippopotamus have been identified as well as two species of elephants, and a variety of micro-mammals including dormice and bats. What made all these animals special was the fact that while some become stunted in stature, others turned into giants.
During the 'Ice Age' the sea-level dropped by some 250m, uncovering the submarine banks between Malta and Sicily. These in turn acted as land bridges for these south-bound migrating herds. When the sea level rose again to its former level, the Mediterranean islands again became isolated, and, large herds of hippopotami and elephants were trapped on them. Forced to live on an island with limited moving space and food, the trapped animals had to adapt in order to survive. Gradually they started to evolve into smaller forms, as less bulk requires less food. The absence of predators like wild cats, helped when they evolved into dwarfs, as there was no danger of being predated. The third layer is made up of pebbles but the fourth layer presents us with another type of faunal remains, these consist mainly of; Deer, Bears, Wolves and Foxes along with other micro-mammals, namely the Wood Mouse, various bat species and a shrew. The topmost layer is more of archaeological importance. This layer provided us with man-made implements and earthenware dating back to c.a.5, 200 bc. Artefacts from this layer are displayed inside the Għar Dalam Museum as well as at the National Museum of Archaeology (Valletta). Remains of domestic animals such as goat, horse and pig were also found along with human remains.
Discovery and History of Excavations.
The first documented excavation inside Għar Dalam was carried out in 1865 by Professor Arturo Issel, an Italian geologist in search of Neanderthal Man in Malta. Following Issels' footsteps came many, and not all with genuine intentions. For a number of years the cave was left abandoned and poachers collected material for their own private collections. Of the official excavations, the most notable and important were those carried out by; John H. Cooke (1892), Prof. N. Tagliaferro & C. Rizzo (1912), Dr. T. Ashby & G. Despott (1914), G. Despott and G. Caton Thompson, (1917), Dr. J.G. Baldachino (1933) and Dr. G. Storch (1970). A small sample of the material discovered can be now seen in the museum situated in the old museum on the upper level and this was opened to the public in the 1930s.
Human presence inside the cave.
Għar Dalam is also important archeological site because in it were found the first signs of human activity on the Maltese Islands. Apart from pottery dating back to 5.200BC human remains were found inside the cave. In 1917 and again in 1936 three human molars were discovered. These were different from all the other teeth discovered so-far. Close examination showed that they belonged to a different race of humans known as the Neanderthals. This was later proven to be inaccurate and when dated the teeth were found to be not older than the Neolithic. The Għar Dalam cave gave its name to the first phase of Maltese Prehistory. Man used the cave as his abode and later on utilized it as a cattle pen. A triangular rock with perforation just outside the cave was used to tether animals. During the first months of World War II the cave served as a habitation for over 90 persons until it was cleared by the British Forces who used the cave as a fuel storage depot. Għar Dalam was re-opened to the public in 1946.
The present-day cave fauna.
Caves support a unique ecosystem for a variety of animal species. Għar Dalam host over forty different species of life form, from anthropods (include crustaceans, insects, spiders and relatives) to birds to mammals. Spanish Sparrows and some insects live in the lighted zone, bats in semi- darkness. In the perpetual darkness lives a unique endemic creature. This is a tiny woodlouse known to science as Armadillidum ghardalamensis. It has no sense of sight and highly sensitive to light and this is why the inner part of the cave is kept in darkness.
A series of repetitive exhibits of semi-fossilized bones mounted on wooden boards are displayed in Victorian style and presented to the public. The center of the room is decorated with mounted skeletons of a brown bear, a young African elephant, a young hippopotamus and a skull of an adult, a red fox, a red deer, and wolf. All these skeleton belong to modern-day animals and are exhibited for comparative and educational purpose only. "The Old Museum" was opened in 1933 while the new didactic museum was inaugurated in 2002. The new museum bears information on life on earth, the effects of the Ice Age on Malta, the formation of the cave, and dwarfing and gigantism in animals. It is also present specific information about the hippopotami, elephants, deer, wolves, foxes, bears, and other remains, and deals with historical aspects of Għar Dalam.