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Stuck in a rut?

The Maltese cart ruts are considered to be one of the most enduring ancient enigmas. But could it be that they are precisely what their name suggests: cart ruts?

Philip Coppens


Malta’s cart ruts are Europe’s version of the Nazca lines – in the sense that both are lines that have been at the centre of huge controversy and intrigue. The Nazca lines are lines in the sandy desert of Peru, whereas the cart ruts are parallel grooves cut out of Malta’s limestone rock. Like the Nazca lines, they have attracted the seekers of mystery, whether they are Erich von Däniken or Graham Hancock.
Cart ruts are – normally – parallel tracks running through rock, though single-tracked grooves exist too. They were given their name because they had the typical width of a small vehicle or cart, ca. 140 cm – though the widths vary. The channels are U or V shaped in section and have an average depth of about 8 to 15 centimetres, but there are rare instances where a depth of 60 cm is recorded. Most are located in stone that is known as Upper Coralline Limestone (UCL), though that may simply be because tracks that had been made in the softer Globigerina Limestone have disappeared, due to erosion or human activity.

The father of Maltese archaeology, Sir Themistocles Zammit, studied them – and even he was not the first. The first recorded reference to cart ruts was made by Gian Francesco Abela in 1647, who suggested that they were used to transport stones from quarries to the sea for exportation to Africa, this during the Arab rule in Malta. Sanzio in 1776 wrote: “In several maritime sites around the island of Malta one could see deep cart ruts in the rock that extended for long distances into the sea.” In 1912, R.N. Bradley reported the presence of cart ruts near the Hagar Qim, which ran “over the precipitous edge of the cliff towards Filfla”. These ruts have now gone, but Father Emmanuel Magri said that cart ruts had been found on the island of Filfla too. For some, like Abela, the ruts running into the sea was evidence that they were loaded onto boats, though for those whose interests lay more in the domain of lost continents, they were seen as evidence that the sea level once was much lower – which science indeed tells us was the case, though it does not state this occurred in the apocalyptic scenarios suggested by some authors, but, instead, as a slow rising.

Cart ruts are not unique to Malta; they can also be found in Sicily, Sardinia, Italy, Greece, Southern France and Cyrenaica. Prominent areas where cart ruts can be found outside of Malta are in Agrigento, near the Temple of Hercules; Cagliari and Monte Sirai on Sardinia; Pompei, and even on Cap Couronne, West of the French city of Marseille. Still, David Trump has argued that only one set of tracks outside of Malta resemble those on the island, and these were in rock leading from an ancient quarry to the town of Messina, in nearby Sicily.
A cart rut of sorts can be found in the Greek Diolkos, a road built around 600 BC by Periander. The paved road was three to 5.5 metres wide, starting at Schinounda (now called Kalamaki) and ending at modern Poseidonia. The middle of the road has two ruts, so that the wheels of the carts on which boats were dragged across the Isthmus could move along without the fear of being overturned.
On Malta itself, there are potentially as many as 150 sites that have cart ruts, but the best known site is popularly known as “Clapham Junction” and officially known as Misrah Ghar il-Kbir. The site occupies a hill south from the Buskett Gardens, a popular tourist attraction near the south shores of the island, near the equally attractive Dingli cliffs.
The site is important, as datable Punic tombs were cut through a number of the ruts. As the ruts themselves were impossible to date on their own, the presence of these tombs allowed at least for some comparative dating. “Punic”, however, ranges from the 7th century BC to the 3rd century AD, itself a period of one millennium, and hence does not allow for any precise dates. David Trump – who is the one who nicknamed the site “Clapham Junction” – believes that they date to the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1000 BC). Trump noted that in a few sites, ruts ran up to the entrances of Bronze Age villages, suggesting a link between the ruts and these villages. But even if that is the case, the question as to their purpose is not answered by their dating.

Hundreds of theories have been put forward as to what they might have been used for. One theory is that they held two parallel poles pulled by cows to transport agricultural produce and that somehow, these tracks would have allowed the cows to find their own way home – from the field to the village. Near one car rut, a wheel, made from lava stone, was discovered, thus fuelling this theory.
Claudia Sagona argues that they were irrigation ditches from the Stone Age. She argues that torrential rains washed away the topsoil, forcing ancient farmers to invent new ways of growing their crops.
Zammit suggested that the cart ruts were used during the Temple Period (4000-2500 BC), to carry soil from the valleys up to the hill tops in order to make fields along the slopes and on the plateau. Others argued that the cart ruts were used as irrigation channels for the distribution of water from springs up to the agricultural terraces – an unlikely scenario at best.
Some speculate that they perhaps had an astronomical purpose, and “Clapham Junction” does remind the visitor a bit of the Hill O’Many Stanes in the northernmost parts of Scotland – but that’s all. If it has an astronomical purpose, it is highly improbable that this can ever be proven, and there is little on the ground to suggest that it does.
Despite some of these theories’ appeal or popularity, they all suffer from one problem or another, which has meant that the controversy as to what the cart ruts might be, has continued.

What makes Misrah Ghar il-Kbir important for the island is that, with the exception of a small deposit near Valletta, the site is the most convenient source of Upper Coralline Limestone for the eastern part of the island. That we find the most ingenious system of cart ruts in the same location, should therefore be an important clue – which for a long time was nevertheless neglected.
Today, the likeliest explanation for these ruts is that they were tracks made by – or for – the sledges that transported the stones from their quarry. Archaeologist Anthony Bonanno noted: “In my search and study of ancient quarries over the last fifteen years, I found cart ruts very frequently, almost invariably, associated with them. The best example is, perhaps, the Buskett group which lies next to the largest and most important of Malta’s ancient quarries. For this reason I cannot refrain from believing that they were intended for the transportation of construction blocks from the quarry face to the road in ancient (i.e., not prehistoric) times.”
He added: “This view is supported by a good number of parallels abroad (for instance Sicily, southern France and Greece) as well as by their concentration in several areas around Melite which must have required a constant supply of ashlar masonry for its buildings.”

Joseph Magro Conti and Paul Saliba agree with Bonanno and it is their detailed survey of “Clapham Junction” that makes it apparent – even to the untrained eye – that the lines here are definitely connected with the ancient quarries that even tourists can easily locate on the site.
At “Clapham Junction”, the ruts largely run in parallel lines, up the slope of a hill. On the top of this hill, there is a very deep rut crossing all lines, as if this pair of lines was used more often that the lines running up the hill. To the north, on the other side of the hill, another series runs down the hill, where a further series of lines crosses these lines in the valley below. The end of the crossing cart ruts at the top of the hill is marked by the visitor car park, and the crossing cart ruts at the foot of the hill are close to the modern road. It is clear that the stones were moved from their quarries, up the hill, from where they were taken to the “road”, for further transport.

Quarry C (as indicated on map above)

Conti and Saliba’s overview of the lines and the quarries make it abundantly clear that they are related and connected and this is perhaps best – and easiest – in evidence in the quarry they have labelled C – though it is clear that much further quarries, such as G and H, are still connected to “Clapham Junction” by cart ruts that are indeed very much like a railway network, the track leading via a system of interchanges to a “terminal building”, from where the stones were moved via another mode of transportation.
They noted: “We surveyed more than a couple of hundred different sites bearing cart-ruts on the rocky coralline and sometimes globigerina terrain in Malta and Gozo. We have a record of 31 different sites where cart-ruts are clearly associated with quarries.”
The quarries in themselves are not deep: roughly one metre in height, each forming a quasi-rectangular basin within the coralline limestone. The quarry has cart ruts running into it – but the cart rut itself does not run through it, underlining that the ruts were used for the transport of the stones away from the quarry, for loading onto another mode of transport elsewhere.

The question is: how old are these ruts? It is clear that Malta has many cart ruts – and a quick survey seems to suggest that there are too many quarries for the number of stones that were required for the temple complexes during the Temple Culture. Still, the sizes of stones removed from these quarries fits rather nicely with the size of the stones used in the temple complexes. At Misrah Ghar il-Kbir, the stones also seem to have been taken northwards... where – not far from this quarry – the temple complex of the Hagar Qim and Mnjadra is located. Coincidence?
What is unlikely is what was suggested by Abela in 1647, namely that the quarried stones were exported to Africa – though he did correctly link the ruts with the quarries. The stones had too little commercial value to warrant such an operation, but perhaps someone, at some point, might indeed show that somewhere someone in Africa had a specific desire or need for these specific stones.
Conti and Saliba believe that the whole network dates back to Phoenician-Roman times, when the use of ashlar blocks of the sizes that were extracted from these quarries is known to have been in use. Still, they argue that it is possible that the quarries were used before the Phoenician period. They conclude that the dating of these ruts is only of secondary importance: “Cart-ruts and quarries could have been a system which saw its birth in the Neolithic Period and continued to be used until the Classical and possibly later periods.” The rock was rough and fissured enough, so that primitive tools could easily break it up. The quarries at Misrah Ghar il-Kbir still show signs of drilling, which is of a similar type than e.g. unfinished sections of the Hypogeum, suggesting Neolithic hands might have engineered the first cart ruts.

Good rock is good rock, whether in Neolithic, medieval or modern times. Thus, when we look south-west of the site, there is a modern, huge quarry, more than 25 metres deep; it underlines that a quarry is often not used in just one period, but retained its importance throughout the ages. However, that the rock might not be as good as one might think – at least not if one looks for hard rock – is a conclusion drawn by Professor Derek Mottershead of the University of Portsmouth (UK). He developed a cart to fit the cart ruts, and estimated its weight and the stresses that would be involved when it moved over the rocks. Mottershead argues that in some places the rock is so soft, that after heavy rain, a single passage of a cart could cause the rock to fail and result in the deep ruts. In wet conditions, the rock looses eighty percent of its strength – which is why there are so many ruts.

It is known that some of the stones for the Maltese temples came from afar, just like some of the stones for Stonehenge were transported for several miles. Not only was it because it had to be the “right type” of stone, it seems that the stones were often taken from religiously important sites. Noting that several Maltese temples were built on top of hills, it might be no coincidence that “Clapham Junction” is located on a hill. Was stone once quarried here because these rocks were deemed to be sacred? We will likely never know, but if not Misrah Ghar il-Kbir, then perhaps some of the other sites elsewhere on the island, from which the stones for the temples were taken, were held sacred.
Still, for an island that has no rail infrastructure, Clapham Junction will remain its single greatest contribution to the “art” of such modes of transport. Indeed, one often forgotten aspect is the question where the workforce lived which quarried these stones. Though no trace of them exists, it has been proposed that nearby Buskett is one of the few areas of Malta with a year round spring-fed water supply. And hence, the two sites in this area that bring tourists – Buskett Gardens and Clapham Junction – might have been the two sites that have seen human habitation in ancient times. Good sites, like good stones, will always attract people, irrelevant of which times we live in. And though the ruts might not yet have revealed their age, they have unveiled their purpose.