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Preserving our story for future generations

Nicholas C. Vella (Ed.) Malta Archaeological Review Issue 11 (2012-2013). The Journal of the Archaeological Society Malta.
Midsea Books, Malta 2017.

The 11th issue of the Malta Archaeological Review, a peer-reviewed journal, comprises a wide range of articles on several topics currently being researched by local and foreign scholars from various universities and institutions in Malta and abroad. The contributions are varied and touch upon different time periods as well as issues pertinent to current practices in archaeology and museology.  

The prehistory of the Maltese islands is complex and has a long history of research. Studies have primarily focused on material culture, which has been catalogued, dated and studied to reconstruct the living environment of the first inhabitants of our islands. Isabelle Vella Gregory invites us to take another approach, one which does not only take into consideration prehistoric structures and artefacts, but which centres on the people who created them. People are not passive, and narrating the story of our past in a linear chronological framework is limiting. Going beyond chronology, function and technology, we need to look at our prehistoric ancestors in terms of their daily lives, how they visualised and interacted with the monuments, tools, household and artistic artefacts they created. Vella Gregory’s studies build upon previous research and breathe new life into this area of study.

Abigail Zammit and Robert Kerr revisit the glyphs at the Taċ-Ċagħqi hypogeum in Rabat, focusing on the southeast burial chambers, and provide a critical assessment of what were previously identified as Neo-Punic inscriptions by Mgr Benedetto Rocco. By drawing parallels from similar inscriptions, and carefully re-examining the glyphs painted in red ochre, the authors conclude that the texts at Taċ-Ċagħqi are not Neo-Punic. The painted glyphs survive in a fragmentary state, making it difficult to reconstruct the original script.

Spectroscopic techniques have been successfully used to identify remnants of polychromy on ancient sculptures and architectural elements invisible to the naked eye by utilising electromagnetic radiation to analyse paint residues. Identifying if such techniques could be used to potentially help better reconstruct the glyphs, would in my view, provide a more conclusive understanding of their meaning.

Using epigraphic and iconographic evidence, George Azzopardi studies the funerary monument of a young girl who died during the Late Roman period in Malta, in an effort to determine her religious identity. Azzopardi notes that this monument was built during a time of religious transition on the Maltese islands, and concludes that this is reflected by the presence of Christian and pagan elements on the girl’s tombstone.

Leaping forward in time, Russell Palmer’s analysis of glassware and glass bottles provides insights into trade contacts and daily military life garrisoned at the Inquisitor’s Palace in Vittoriosa, which served as an army mess house and officers’ quarters during the 19th century. His aim to extend his research to include trade links with other British colonies, and ceramic and other vessels in his analysis, will provide a wider context to this study.

Anna Maria Rossi opens a window onto pre-independence archaeology in Malta, and reveals the heavy influence politics exerted on archaeological excavations at the time. It shows a budding archaeological discipline governed primarily not by academic research, but by a political agenda, which in turn, influenced the focus of Maltese archaeological research. This was an unfortunate event in the history of archaeological studies in Malta, exacerbated by political instability and lacking active involvement of local professionals, who were albeit few at the time and exerted little influence. These events teach us about the importance of preserving academic integrity, and the dangers of using archaeology to meet political agendas, examples of which unfortunately are not lacking.

Archaeology ultimately tells our story, and as archaeologists we need to share this story with the public

Stephanie Said’s documentation of traditional Maltese boats is exceptionally well researched and provides a lasting record of a dying tradition. She focuses on one of several boat types traditionally crafted on the islands, the firilla. Thorough examination of this sea craft, examples of which are housed at the Maritime Museum, allowed three-dimensional models to be reconstructed, which will preserve the knowledge and skills of our local boat builders to posterity. Woven into her research is information gleaned from old photographs and paintings, and from her efforts to record oral traditions from the few still active boat builders.

An architectural feature which dots our islands, but parallels of which can be found in several other European countries is the Maltese girna. This structure was the focus of research carried out by Ernest Vella, who produced a much-needed investigation of these relatively understudied buildings. His approach allowed the stratigraphic reconstruction of giren (pl.) located in the northwestern part of Malta.

Exhaustive research going back to the 1646 cabreo of the Order of St John’s Fondazione Lascaris provides us with a palimpsest of these corbelled constructions. This approach allowed other associated features to be dated and provided insights into agricultural practices, methods of construction and function. Further data can be obtained by expanding this study to include giren in other localities of the Maltese islands and carrying out a comparative study of Maltese giren with similar structures beyond our shores.

As archaeologists our work aims to locate, excavate and study the material remains left behind by past communities. Using myriad scientific techniques, we are able to reconstruct how, when and where our ancestors lived, we can track their movements, reconstruct their health and dietary patterns and the environment they inhabited, as well as their technological and artistic repertoire, rituals and beliefs.

Yet, archaeology is not just an academic exercise. Our findings need to be communicated and made accessible to the public. How we do this is assessed very aptly by Veronica Barbara, who raises a very important question: does it really matter what we exhibit in museum displays? The answer is a resounding yes. Through well researched case studies, we are encouraged to think more inclusively about how to tell the story of our past, and how to integrate academic research more effectively to make it accessible to all.

Sharon Sultana’s contribution on the setting up of the Phoenician display at the National Museum of Archaeology reiterates Barbara’s contribution. This was clearly an exercise that went beyond producing an informative and interactive display, but one set up around the visitors’ requirements. The work being carried out by curators responsible for managing our various museums and sites is truly remarkable, as they strive to not only ensure that our cultural heritage is preserved, but also to make these cultural gems accessible to us, and provide us with a unique experience as we delve into our country’s past.

In conclusion, I cannot but echo the call of the editor, Prof Nicholas C. Vella, for revisions to the current cultural heritage laws, which would enable archaeologists to deal with the backlog of data that has been generated due to countless excavations that have taken place in recent years, primarily generated by monitoring during construction works.

The speed with which this is happening is not proportional to the manpower and resources allocated to archaeological research. Documenting and publishing archaeological data is costly both in terms of time and money, and we run the risk of losing what we have gained if we do not have the resources to publish.

This is our national heritage. Once it is lost, it is gone forever. We hope that this issue will be given serious attention by whoever is next in government. Archaeology ultimately tells our story, and as archaeologists we need to share this story with the public and preserve it for generations yet to come.