The Maltese Archipelago at the Dawn of History

This, the third volume to tackle the legacy data from Malta (Tanasi et al. 2011; 2015), effectively lays the groundwork from which to launch renewed archaeological investigations. Its reinterpretation of past excavations highlights the fragile nature of the archaeological remains on the island and the limitations of past fieldwork concerning the Bronze Age site of Qlejgh¯a tal-Bah¯rija.

Maria-Elena Zammit’s account of her field survey in the region is a most welcome chapter in the volume, and it is to be hoped that a complete report will appear (Chapter 2). As a scholar with an enduring interest in material culture, I found the detailed studies of the finds from past excavations by T E Peet in 1909 and D H Trump in 1959 particularly satisfying; these have been overlooked and under-represented in publications for too many decades. The pottery (Chapter 3); the textile tools (loom weights, spindle whorls, T-shaped hooks) and figurines (Chapter 4); stone, metal, and bone items (Chapter 5); and various remains from post-prehistoric contexts (Chapter 6) from the site are discussed and illustrated. Overall, the amount of previously unpublished material from the earlier field campaigns is quite remarkable.

For decades, scholars have been refining our understanding of Malta’s past. Chemical analyses of ceramic fabrics have been finally applied to the existing legacy materials from the site concerned (Chapters 7, 8) and to finds from recent excavations elsewhere in the archipelago. These point to local production even for fragments thought to have been imported. Such findings alter considerably the line of research. While it is Tanasi’s prerogative to mention ‘all the limitations’ of my own research, in truth what has really been at issue is the dismal number of radiocarbon dates generated on the island for this period. Happily, this volume offers three new dates and heralds more to come (Chapter 9). When many more are obtained from tombs and settlement sites, Malta’s archaeological record will be on an independent and solid chronological ground, less reliant on relative constructs.

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons, continentaleurope.

Tanasi is right to ask, where is the evidence for the cultural interface between the Middle Bronze Age inhabitants and the Levantine Phoenician settlers? It is not present in Bah¯rija or Borg. in-Nadur. There are certainly tombs and pit sites, however, which do reflect some overlap in ceramic traditions. Other chapters delve into the connections with Sicily (Chapter 10), contemporary evidence from the important Tas-Silg. temple precinct (Chapter 11), and faunal evidence from the Gh¯ar Mirdum cave site (Chapter 12). The text would have benefited from closer editing, but, on the whole, the reader will find some valuable insights into the Middle Bronze Age period in Malta. If nothing else is gleaned from this volume, what is clear is the great need for more nuanced, systematic excavations drawing on the full gamut of scientific analyses, which could clarify the stratigraphic sequences and facilitate refinement of discussions concerning cultural traditions. For those interested in the archaeology of Mediterranean islands, this is a book worth considering.

The Maltese Archipelago at the Dawn of History Davide Tanasi and David Cardona (eds) Archaeopress, £35 ISBN 978-1789694932.
Review by Claudia Sagona.