Għar Dalam (pronounced ar dàlam in Maltese and meaning "Cave of Darkness") is a prehistorical cul de sac located on the outskirts of Birżebbuġa, Malta containing the bone remains of animals that were stranded and subsequently became extinct on Malta at the end of the Ice age. It has lent its name to the Għar Dalam phase in Maltese prehistory.
Dwarf elephant, hippopotamus, deer and bear bone deposits found there are of different ages; the hippopotamuses became extinct about 180,000 years ago, whilst the deer species became extinct much later, about 18,000 years ago. It is also here that the earliest evidence of human settlement on Malta, some 7,400 years ago, was discovered.
The cave was first scientifically investigated in 1885 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 Dr J.G. 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 Lecce University. 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[when?] vandalism.
The cave is some 144 metres deep but only the first fifty metres 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.
Għar Dalam Cave and Museum is operated by Heritage Malta.
The cave consists of six layers.
- 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 European 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 dormouse, Leithia cartei.
- Bone-Free clay layer (c. 125 cm). No bones found in this layer, only some impressions of plant material
- George Zammit Maempel, 1989. Għar Dalam Cave and Deposits