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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 17th September 2011

Malta was our favourite holiday haunt. Or to be more precise, Gozo the second largest of the Maltese islands was where we would return to whenever we felt in need for some peace and quiet. It’s six years since we’ve been there; six years since my wife’s ‘accident’ that means we can’t contemplate overseas travel. But, if some medical miracle meant she could travel again, we’d go back in a flash.

But though we’ve had half a dozen or so holidays there and I was fortunate enough to make a number of business trips, as well, we’d never really done much in the way of learning about the place. Holidays to us were always about doing as little as possible though I would usually have an afternoon walk while my wife had a rest and, sometimes, those walks would include a visit to an historic site.

But, when I listened to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Excess Baggage’ this morning, I had no idea about the place one of the guests was describing. The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni is an underground Neolithic temple carved out of the bedrock. It has three levels and, as well as being used as a burial chamber for thousands of people, includes a ‘speaking chamber’ from which any noise can be heard throughout the complex and a central chamber where there are small round niches that can only be occupied by someone curled into the foetal position.

It is believed that drums would be played in a regular rhythm in the speaking chamber so that people curled up in these cubicles would hear a sound reminiscent of their mother’s heartbeat heard from the womb.

A rich source of information for archaeologists in an ancient site is the drains and, in the case of the hypogeum, these have yielded traces of some of the alkaloids of the ergot fungus, Claviceps purpurea. Sometimes called ergot of rye, this fungus forms in the ears of cereal crops, most commonly rye but it will form in wheat in the right conditions. Those right conditions involve damp or wet weather and, since Malta is not known for those conditions, it is believed that wheat was especially tended to induce production of the ergot fungus.

The important point about Claviceps purpurea is that it contains a number of alkaloids each producing different effects and often present in different concentrations sample to sample. The best known effects of ergot are uterine contractions, constriction of blood vessels in the extremities, convulsions and hallucinations. The blood vessel constrictions result in a burning pain, known as St Anthony’s Fire, and, if untreated or if the poisoning continues, can result in gangrene.   

According to the radio item, the purpose of the ergot was to induce muscle contractions to assist with achieving the foetal position necessary for getting into the niches as well as inducing hallucinations in response to the drumming in the speaking chamber.

This raised a number of questions for me.

The temple is believed to date from 4000BC and, if the design was for the apparent purpose, i.e. if the builders intended the niches to be used as replica wombs, then they must have been cultivating wheat. The earliest signs of deliberate farming rather than the collection of wild grains date from before 9000BC but I can’t see evidence that anyone understood how to manipulate growing conditions.

Muscle contractions are not a symptom of ergot poisoning I’ve come across before. There are references to convulsions but that implies an active process and goes against the notion that the ergot would be used to help people get in the right position in the niches and, presumably, hold that position for some time.

And, of course, there is the mystery of what the intended purpose of the apparent re-creation of life in the womb was. It implies a more advanced understanding of human development than is thought to have existed.

Further reading, suggests that the inconsistencies in the notion of using ergot fungus for the purpose described are minor against some of the theories surrounding this place. It always seems that anything unusual in our history brings out the weirdness in some people.

The Hypogeum was first discovered, by accident, in 1902 so you would expect any events surrounding it to be properly documented. Yet, there are those who claim that it is the entrance to a tunnel network under the whole of Malta but ‘the authorities’ have sealed it off to make it seem to be a discreet construction because they want the full network to remain secret. There is even a subset of these people who say the tunnel network extends under the Mediterranean and joins a similar network under Italy.

Then there is the ‘missing schoolchildren’ story. According to this, a school party of 30 children plus teachers entered the Hypogeum and were never seen again. No date is given for this event, presumably, because that would make it too easy to disprove and no explanation is offered for there being no reporting of what would have been a national tragedy in any country but especially a Roman Catholic one.

I don’t know what it is that leads some people to come up with such bizarre nonsense and then cling to it against all the evidence. It’s tempting to think they are ‘on something’ but, if they are, I hope it is not Claviceps purpurea because, modern man knows what ancient man didn’t, the ergot fungus is quite capable of causing death.