Limestone country: the story behind Malta’s iconic golden hue
It’s the only exploitable mineral resource the Maltese Islands are endowed with, and it quite literally defines the country’s landscape.Limestone has been quarried and used for construction since time immemorial. From the oldest free-standing temples in the world to the dry stone rubble walls outlining fields, majestic fortifications, grand churches, opulent palazzos and modest townhouses, our history is virtually etched in limestone.
This tiny rock in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, covering a mere 316km2 is potted with quarries which are often deep, rectangular holes that are albeit small in size. Most Maltese masonry buildings are constructed out of the softer Globigerina limestone, giving the country its characteristic golden hue.
So iconic is Maltese limestone that it inspired last year's winning garden design at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show in London. Garden designer James Basson incorporated slabs of limestone cut from Maltese quarries and "planted" them among bunches of evergreens, perennials and ground cover "to show the interaction between humans and nature on the island".
Very early on, the Maltese mastered the skill of taming and shaping this resource. In order to appreciate this, you need to start by taking a closer look at those gigantic stones forming the prehistoric temples of Ggantija in Gozo, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra outside Qrendi and Tarxien. Bear in mind that these were constructed just before the wheel was invented. There is some evidence that spherical “balls” of stone were used to help manoeuvre the slabs in place, but local folklore puts it down to the work of “giants”. The truth, of course, is that Malta’s prehistoric inhabitants must have been pretty strong and determined to manhandle megaliths weighing up to 20 tonnes and over 5m high.
Now consider for a moment the bastions safeguarding Valletta, Mdina, and the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries with their ancient forts. When you take into consideration that an average, normal sized kantun(stone block) can weigh up to 75kg, it must have been a pretty mean feat of engineering and sheer physical prowess to build those outstanding walls!
Geologically speaking, Malta lies on a large carbonate platform stretching northwards from Africa. The islands are simply the “youngest” tops of the rocks that peak above the sea surface, and date back around 20 million years. There are three main rock layers. The bottom strata is the Lower Corralline Limestone which consists of carbonate sand and gravel mixed with shell fossils. Hard and resistant to erosion, it forms steep, vertical cliffs along the coast. Take a walk along the coast just northwest of Marsalforn in Gozo to see the crossbed formations in the rockface dipping in the direction of the current.
The middle strata is the soft Globigerina limestone which takes its name from a very tiny crustacean called globigerina foraminifera. This is our building stone. Above it lies thin Blue Clay, Malta’s softest rock, which is impermeable and forms the floor of a precious freshwater table. On the top is Upper Corralline limestone, which on Gozo stands out as the hills on which towns and the Citadel were built.
All this history of Malta’s single, most important natural resource is gathered in the Limestone Heritage Experience, an open-air museum of sorts located, of course, in a disused quarry. The brainchild of husband and wife team Manuel and Anne Marie Baldacchino, it charts the island’s stone heritage through the ages.
The defunct globigerina limestone quarry just outside the village of Siggiewi is just one-eighth of an acre, and was only operational for five years before reaching a depth where the stone hit the fossils-riddled lower corralline. Manuel’s family were quarry operators for generations, and Anne Marie’s relatives were also in the building industry. Together they have created an award-winning venue celebrating the beauty and resourcefulness of stone.
What stands out from the audio-visual presentation at the start of the tour and from walking through the site is the difficulty of working in a quarry. Before machinery helped ease the workload, this was the toughest manual labour, requiring brute strength and endurance, especially when temperatures in the quarry hit 50 degrees Celsius in summer.
Part of the quarry has now been turned into a citrus grove and a waterfall along the sheer cut rockface makes for a dramatic backdrop. A partly reconstructed farmhouse complete with several traditional stone features such as stone spiral staircase, stone water channels, tether stones and a stone ceiling demonstrate the use of quarried stone. Many older buildings were constructed from stone quarried on the site of the building itself, thus adding a basement or cellar.
And if all this talk of stone work has inspired you to try your hand at some stone carving, this is certainly the place to do it. Guided by professional craftsmen, you can learn to carve and sculpt in the Limestone Heritage’s own studio.