Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Celebrating an Island Heritage Volume 50 Number 4, July/August 1997
by Mark Rose

[image]The Neolithic temple of Hagar Qim, Malta (Mark Rose) [LARGER IMAGE]

For English archaeologist John Evans, who excavated prehistoric Maltese sites during the late 1940s and 1950s, the Mediterranean islands were "laboratories for the study of culture processes." On Malta the laboratory experiment took an unusual turn. Its Neolithic inhabitants began, like other Neolithic peoples, as simple farmers and herders but ended up building immense stone temples and digging equally immense subterranean sepulchres. Why this happened and why the temple builders abruptly stopped constructing temples after a millennium defy easy answers. An Anglo-Maltese project directed by David Trump of the University of Cambridge, Simon Stoddart and Caroline Malone (then of the University of Bristol), and the University of Malta's Anthony Bonanno has done much to sort out the evidence. Working on Gozo, they excavated Neolithic huts at Ghajnsielem in 1987 and underground burials, yielding hundreds of thousands of human bones, at Xaghra from 1988 to 1994. Using the new evidence and that from earlier studies, the Gozo Project archaeologists have devised a theory about how the temple building culture may have risen and collapsed. They see a shift from an early, egalitarian society, to a hierarchical one marked initially by competition among familes in trade with Sicily, followed by competition among chiefdoms in constructing temples for ritual use. Preoccupation with the temples, increasing population, greater agricultural uncertainty stemming from erosion, and declining links to Sicily left the culture on the brink of collapse. In time the temples were abandoned; the fate of their builders remains unknown.

The seventeenth-century antiquarian Gian Francesco Abela, vice-chancellor of the Knights of St. John, has been called the Father of Maltese Historiography for his Descrittione di Malta (1647), and the Founder of the Malta Museum for his antiquities collection, which he willed to the College of Jesuit Fathers in Valletta, stipulating that the objects be kept "in perpetuo...a benefitio de curiosi antiquarii." In 1902 construction workers discovered an underground burial complex, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, and emptied most of its 32 chambers of bones, dumping them in nearby fields. The Maltese archaeologist Themistocles Zammitt conducted a clean-up excavation at the Hypogeum a few years later, recovering pottery, stone tools, beads and pendants, and figurines of people and animals. Because of these efforts and his excavations at the Tarxien temples from 1915 to 1919, Zammitt earned the epithet Father of Maltese prehistory. After Zammitt, however, Maltese archaeology faltered and work on the islands was dominated by British and Italian scholars. Today, Maltese archaeology is experiencing a rebirth.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America