Prehistoric Lines Across Malta Defy Explanation: The Cart Ruts of Misrah Ghar il-Kbir

The islands of Malta and Gozo in the Maltese archipelago are scarred with hundreds, if not thousands, of parallel lines seemingly cut deep into the stone. These ancient grooves have puzzled experts for centuries. Some of the strange tracks deliberately plunge off cliffs or continue off land and into the ocean. Who made these enigmatic cart ruts, and why?

Mysterious Origins of the Cart Ruts: Unraveling the Enigma

The tracks are gouged into the rock, crisscrossing the islands, most notably at Misrah Ghar il-Kbir, a prehistoric cliff site on Malta. Like the impressive Nazca lines of Peruor giant stone circles in the Middle Eastthe mysterious nature of the tracks has confounded researchers for years. However, unlike the desert markings done for ceremonial, or a divinely-directed purpose, the so-called “cart ruts” of Malta are thought to be indications of transportation or industry—railways of the ancient world.

The enigmatic cart ruts of Malta, at Misrah Ghar il-Kbir or “Clapham Junction”.  (Ronny Siegel/Flickr)

The enigmatic cart ruts of Malta, at Misrah Ghar il-Kbir or “Clapham Junction”. (Ronny Siegel/Flickr)

Dubbed cart ruts due to their resemblance to tracks left by carts, it’s not known for certain how or why they were made. These clearly man-made ruts are dual channels, parallel grooves etched into the limestone bedrock of the islands. The channels measure about eight to 15 centimeters (5.90 in) deep, but can be as deep as 60 centimeters (23.62 in). Width between the tracks extends about 140 centimeters (55.11 in), but not in all instances. The tracks measured at the San Gwann site in Malta are said to be half a meter in depth, making them the deepest to be found.

If correct, “it seems impossible that any vehicle – sled or wheeled – could be dragged along them as the platform/axle would have to be over 1 or 2 meters (3.2-6.5 ft) high,” notes an article by CartRutsMalta.com

Some of the ruts are narrow and deep, squared off as if cut with tools, while others are wide, V shaped, and shallow, as if worn away by time and use. Does this indicate different vehicles for different uses, or does it simply mean the tracks have been weather-worn differently?

Clapham Junction”: The Intriguing Traffic Jam of Misrah Ghar il-Kbir

The purpose of the ruts seem to defy explanation, as some tracks surprisingly travel directly off cliff edges, or up and down very steep ridges, and some even drive off the island and into the sea, continuing underwater.

The ruts are so prevalent at Misrah Ghar il-Kbir that the location has been nicknamed “Clapham Junction” by an Englishman named David Trump. The ruts there are so numerous and seem to cause such a traffic jam that they resemble the complex network of tracks found at the busy railway station switching yard in London, England.

The tangle of tracks at Clapham switching yard, London, England. (Tadie88/Flickr)

The tangle of tracks at Clapham switching yard, London, England. (Tadie88/Flickr)

Similar types of tracks can be found in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Spain, France and Germany, but they’re not of the same origins and were created for different and known purposes. Some of those tracks were built purposefully with masonry, and some of the patterns were caused by natural erosion on wagon tracks. These differences make the Malta tracks unique in the world.

Archaeologists presume the ruts in Malta were made by repeated use of carts, skids or sleds (wheeled or on runners) going over the same route over decades or centuries. It’s thought that goods may have been transported using this system. Still others wonder if the deliberate channels were a prehistoric irrigation system stretching across the islands. A less accepted theory suggests the lines served an astronomical purpose.

Cart Ruts in Misrah Ghar il Kbir, Malta.  (Lysy/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cart Ruts in Misrah Ghar il Kbir, Malta. (Lysy/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Further complicating the matter is how the carts were moved. If animals were used to draw the carts, their footprints might be evident between or outside the parallel grooves, but there’s no evidence of that. Some researchers thus imagine the carts were pulled or pushed by humans.

It is speculated the lines were left by new settlers who came to Malta from Sicily at the beginning of the Bronze Ageabout 2000 B.C. However, Maltese archaeologist Anthony Bonanno theorizes that the ruts are Phoenician constructions, which would date them to the more recent seventh century B.C.

Cart Ruts at Misraħ Għar il-Kbir, Malta.  (Maximilian99/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cart Ruts at Misraħ Għar il-Kbir, Malta. (Maximilian99/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The mysterious lines are connected by some researchers to the amazing temples of Malta. It is thought that the tracks might be the remaining evidence of how the temples were built. Could it be that the sleds were used to transport heavy quarried rock from far off to the temple sites?

Stone Preferences: Did Temple Builders Utilize Specialized Materials?

The temple sites of Malta and Gozo are famous round the world. The more than 30 stone temple complexes and structures date from 5500 to 2500 BC. They are said to be the oldest known free standing monuments in the world, older than Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt.

Hagar Qim megalithic site in Malta. Megalithic temple complex. (Jaroslav Moravcik/Adobe Stock)

Hagar Qim megalithic site in Malta. Megalithic temple complex. (Jaroslav Moravcik/Adobe Stock)

One proposed scenario includes the idea that the cart ruts were created during this Temple Period as topsoil was transported to and from sites in order to create nearby fields for growing crops.

Archaeologist Anthony Bonanno believes that the ruts are undoubtedly associated with the temples. He cites the Buskett-area group of tracks, which runs next to the largest and most important quarry in Malta. Bonanno surmises they were intended to transport huge construction blocks from the quarry to a road in ancient times. Not unlike during the construction of Stonehenge where some of the heavy stones were transported as far as 225 kilometers (140 mi), could it have been that certain types of stones were preferred by the Malta temple builders, and thus any means necessary were used to get them to a build site?

The ruts to not seem to have obvious starting or ending points at megalithic temples in Malta, and so this remains only a theory for now.

Lost in Time: The Enigma of Cart Ruts and Unattainable Answers

It has not been proven that all of the ruts were even caused by heavy loads. A number of tracks seem to be so perfect they might have been cut by hand. Author and journalist Graham Hancock writes, “It is certain, too, that they were not simply worn away in the tough limestone by the passage of cart-wheels over periods of centuries, as many have wrongly theorized; on the contrary, there is no proof whatsoever that cart-wheels ever ran in these ruts – which were initially carved out of the bedrock with the use of tools,” in his book “Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization”.

Research continues to shed light on the age, formation, and potential uses of the cart ruts. A study on the morphological variability of Maltese ‘cart ruts’ and its implicationspublished in 2022, evaluated the shapes of cart ruts, to help us understand them better. If they’re from different times or have different uses, it might show in their shapes. The research found that cart ruts are quite similar in width and depth, suggesting they are of the same age and used in the same way. But it stated that we need clearer definitions, especially for measurements, as they’re not taken the same way as with railways. Changes in rut shapes hint at a lot of use or processes like limestone dissolving, giving us clues about how they formed.

Further examples of cart ruts showing additional aspects of morphology and landscape context. A: ruts on a relatively steep slope at San Pawl tat-Tarġa, Naxxar. Note right track repeatedly goes into solution hollows. B: junction of two deep, flat-bottomed ruts at Misraħ Għar il-Kbir (Fig. 1 A is taken from the other direction a few metres along the right-hand ruts), C: shallow parallel ruts on flatter ground at Misraħ Għar il-Kbir. (Color Image). (Huw S. Groucut/Sciencedirect)

Further examples of cart ruts showing additional aspects of morphology and landscape context. A: ruts on a relatively steep slope at San Pawl tat-Tarġa, Naxxar. Note right track repeatedly goes into solution hollows. B: junction of two deep, flat-bottomed ruts at Misraħ Għar il-Kbir (Fig. 1 A is taken from the other direction a few metres along the right-hand ruts), C: shallow parallel ruts on flatter ground at Misraħ Għar il-Kbir. (Color Image). (Huw S. Groucut/Sciencedirect)

So many questions remain surrounding the enigmatic cart ruts of Malta. The channels obviously played an important purpose in the lives of the ancient people who lived there but their significance, and the role they played may never be known—the answers have become a secret lost in time.

Top image: Cart Ruts at Misrah Ghar il-Kbir, Malta. Source: Lysy/CC BY-SA 3.0

By Liz Leafloor

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