Ghar Dalam Cave and Museum, Birzebbuga, Malta

Cave of Darkness (Maltese: Għar Dalam Cave) is a prehistoric cul-de-sac located in the outskirts of Birżebbuġa, Malta, containing the bone remains of animals that were stranded and subsequently became extinct in Malta at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum. It has lent its name to the Għar Dalam phase in Maltese prehistory.

Għar Dalam’s relevance as a prehistoric site was discovered in the latter half of the 19th Century with a series of excavations unearthing animal bones as well as human remains and artifacts. The Cave is a highly important site for its Palaeontology, archaeology and ecology.

Dwarf elephant, hippopotamus, deer and bear bone deposits found there are of different ages; the hippopotamuses became extinct about 10,000 years ago, whilst the deer species became extinct much later, about 4000 years ago during the Chalcolithic. It is also here that the earliest evidence of human settlement on Malta, some 7400 years ago, was discovered.

The history of the cave and that of the Islands can be decoded from Għar Dalam’s stratigraphy. The lowermost layers, more than 500,000 years old, contained the fossil bones of dwarf elephants, hippopotami, micro-mammals and birds among other species. This layer is topped by a pebble layer, and on top of it there is the so-called ‘deer’ layer, dated to around 18,000 years ago. The top layer, or ‘cultural layer’, dates less than 10,000 years and holds evidence of the first humans on the Island. It was here that the earliest evidence of human settlement on Malta, some 7,400 years ago, was discovered.

The site consists of a cave, a Victorian style exhibition and a didactic display as well as a garden planted with indigenous plants and trees.

Ghar Dalam forms part of the Natura 2000 network of protected sites which includes Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) of International Importance and Special Protection Areas (SPA). This conservation status is due to a small population of endemic cave woodlouse (Armadillidium ghardalamensis) and a roosting site for the Lesser Horse-shoe Bat (Rhinolophus hipposideros).

he cave was first scientifically investigated in 1885. It was included on the Antiquities List of 1925, but was not opened to the public until 1933. It was used as an air-raid shelter during World War II. A museum was set up on site by the then-Curator of Natural History, Joseph Baldacchino. In 1980, the most important and irreplaceable relics—such as four tusks of dwarf elephants and the skull of a Neolithic child—were stolen from the museum.

The cave was investigated in 1987 under the direction of Emmanuel Anati, professor of paleontology at the University of Salento. His team of Italian archaeologists from the Centro Camuno di Studi Preistorici discovered Palaeolithic cave art depicting human hands, anthropozoomorphic, and several animal designs from underneath the stalagmatic formations. Some depict elephants which have been extinct in the Maltese region since the Pleistocene. Most of these finds were destroyed due to recent vandalism.

The cave is some 144 metres (472 ft) deep but only the first 50 metres (160 ft) are accessible to visitors. The museum, which still exhibits a remarkable wealth of finds from animal bones to human artifacts, is the entrance to the whole area.

Domestic animal layer (c. 74 cm). This layer has mainly cultivated animals in it, such as cows, horses and sheep/goats. Human remains, like pottery, flints, tools and ornaments or amulets are present here.

Calcareous sheet (c. 0.6 cm).

Deer Layer (c. 175 cm). The dwarf deer found in this layer are derived from the red deer (Cervus elaphus). Even small numbers of carnivores are known from this layer. Namely brown bear, red fox and wolf. Also big swans, giant turtles and voles are found.

Pebble layer (c. 35 cm). This layer consists completely of small boulders and pebbles. They are indicators of a river that streamed through the cave. Since the stones are quite large, it was a fast-flowing river.

Hippopotamus layer (c. 120 cm). This layer consists of mainly Hippopotamus melitensis. Other species found are dwarf elephant and the giant dormouse Leithia cartei.

Bone-Free clay layer (c. 125 cm). No bones found in this layer, only some impressions of plant material

Għar Dalam Cave and Museum is operated by Heritage Malta.