Malta has the oldest stone buildings in the world. Their oldest temples are a millennium older than the Great Pyramid, three millennia before the Acropolis more than five thousand years old than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Perhaps because of those great seafarers, the Phoenicians, who spread out across the Mediterranean from 1500 BC, we tend to think of this archipelago in terms of its role as a seafaring crossroads. Certainly the Muslims, the Knights Hospitaller, Napoleon and Nelson all saw it that way. But that’s not how Malta got started.
The Archeology Museum in Valletta is enlightening, and not only for the curvy megalithic statues. The exhibits argue that Malta was settled from Sicily after the rising seas of the post-glacial era separated the two islands. The pattern of settlement is fascinating, because so many of them are inland, or on the south coasts, away from the harbours of the north. The Museum suggests that Malta was uninteresting to hunter-gatherer societies, including those whose main prey was fish, because they are simply not big enough to support permanent inhabitants. The Maltese islands only became habitable when agriculture developed enough to farm this rocky, dry landscape.
In that context, the pattern of megalithic settlement makes more sense. Looking for better water, easier land, more shelter from the wind and with little interest in the encroaching sea, you would turn away from Valletta and its crags.
(It’s perhaps less obvious why the Bronze Age, a much more warlike and contentious period, didn’t use the obvious natural defences of the Grand Harbour area.) The megalithic period, especially its later flowering in the Temple Period (roughly 4100 to 2500 BC) seems to have been a gentler, more luxurious time. Temples in rings of stone, with six or eight apses, were built. They must have been a huge effort, with so little mechanical help.Of course, they couldn’t build much in wood. For a start, there never was very much, as the limestone plateau and harsh summers are not generous planting grounds for hardwoods. And what there was swiftly fell to the agricultural onslaught. So instead they built in stone.
An interesting reminder for worldbuilding writers. You build with what you have, and the first things most societies build are temples and tombs. And once you’ve used up all of a scarce resource you have to build with something harder to use, though it may prove more durable. Of course, those lessons don’t only apply to writers.