by Sharon Sultana and Warren Bugeja.

A tiny clay sculpture dating back to ca. 3200 B.C. nestles in the palm of Sharon Sultana’s hand.

2.1cm in width and no higher than 2.3cm, the Neolithic artefact is a rarity worldwide for the period in that it represents a universal expression of emotion that transcends culture, space and time.

Known as the ‘Embracing Couple’ and discovered in Ħal Tarxien Prehistoric Complex, the artefact features the upper parts of two human figures in a close embrace. It is difficult to tell if the couple is hugging or kissing as the modelling, though spirited and lively, is very rough. Furthermore, the rest of the underside of the minuscule sculpture is missing, suggesting that perhaps it could have broken off from another object. The ‘Embracing Couple’ may equally have been a handle to a lid or a sculpture in its entirety; whether a decorative object, a votive offering or a romantic keepsake, we might never know. Each figure has one arm around the other. The hair is incised in straight lines falling to the shoulders.

Neolithic anthropomorphic representations, particularly such a relatable gesture as the ‘hug’, are rare, making this artefact extra special. Very little can be gleaned from Neolithic art about human relationships at the time. “The hug is a universal and time-defying sign of human expression of love and affection and may also express a sign of support and comfort”, Sharon explains. One often associates pre-history with primitive cavemen and possibly a rudimentary form of sentimental expression, “but this artefact proves that emotions are an integral part of human relationships, irrespective of the era one is living in,” Sharon affirms. The ‘Embracing Couple’ was archaeologist and Senior Curator for the National Museum of Archaeology, Sharon Sultana’s artefact of choice within the national collection for Heritage Malta’s HMTV series’ Treasure to Meet You’. “This unique figure is, to date, the only artefact from Malta dating to the Maltese Neolithic period which shows human feelings immortalized through artistic expression. These people who built and made use of the extraordinary megalithic monuments had feelings and needs just like we do nowadays. They just did not possess the resources we do, but notwithstanding, they have managed to leave us a legacy of great significance,” she states passionately.  

“It is important to place the ‘Embracing Couple’ within the context of where it was found,” Sultana elaborates. The Ħal Tarxien Prehistoric Complex, along with other megalithic structures in Malta and Gozo, was constructed around 3600 BC, which is over 5600 years ago. They were built by the community inhabiting our islands in the Neolithic period. As we know, the term Neolithic translates into ‘new stone age’, meaning that metal had not yet been discovered during this period and that the main tools used by these people consisted of stone. These early inhabitants also used other resources that they found on our islands, such as clay, which they worked into different products. “Some of the products they probably used daily such as bowls, cups, plates and ladles but others such as statuettes would have probably been used in association with rituals,” Sharon mentions.  

Dwarfed amongst the wealth of artefacts from the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Phoenician periods on display at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, the miniature ’embracing couple’ is easy to miss. Visitors are more familiar with the ‘Sleeping Lady’ figurine from the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, which has its own dedicated room within the museum. Sleep is a biological necessity when humans are at their most vulnerable. An embrace is symbolic of an intent, a reciprocal action where two humans have decided to reach out to each other and tangibly declare their desire to connect.

As relevant and affirming today as it was in the Neolithic, this softer aspect of the wide range of human emotions reveals our deep human need to love and be loved above all else.

Watch the feature here in English or Maltese

Treasure to Meet You‘ is uploaded to Heritage Malta’s Facebook page every fortnight on a Tuesday at 19:00. The intimate series consists of short features in both English and Maltese versions. Each fortnight, viewers get to meet one of our dedicated curators, who were asked to select an artefact or feature from the national collection to which they are particularly attached.

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