Malte : The death of the temple people

Part 2

The European White Knight

Enter FRAGSUS. The Europe-wide €2.3 million study that brings together seven countries, five institutions (the Universities of Cambridge, Malta and Queen’s Belfast, Heritage Malta and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage), 19 academics, 10 post-doctorate researchers, and around 50 students, all coordinated by Prof. Caroline Malone and all focused on trying to answer the questions: What killed off the Temple people? Why do some civilisations survive for millennia in fragile environments and others do not?


To answer these questions (and plenty others) needs so many experts on board from fields as diverse as geologists to biologists, apart from archaeologists to interpret it all. They are also using scientific techniques to an extent never seen before on the Islands, from soil and pollen studies to GPS and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging laser) technology, all to try and reconstruct the past.

A key ingredient are 12 cores that are being taken of Maltese soil and sediments. A core involves taking a circular sample of soil down to the bedrock. In Malta and Gozo this ranges from 2 to 20m in depth. ‘This is like taking a sample to carry out a biopsy: from a tiny sample you try and build up a general picture, […] if I find material in the core that is suggestive of a very wooded environment it means that the environment was wooded but then eroded. If erosion has taken place it means that the landscape might not have been heavily terraced. Everything is linked,’ illustrated Vella.

Research on the Temple people did not stop after the Xagħra Circle dig and these cores are developing on previous ones, however they have never been studied so systematically. Prof. Patrick J. Schembri (for more about his research see issue 9, p. 30; is leading the local team studying molluscs, which includes snails, found within these cores to figure out the past environment and cultural habits. ‘We found a great many species that not only tell us about the environment at the time but also about how this has changed. As a bonus they also tell us about human activities,’ stated Schembri.

Researcher Dr Katrin Fenech went into greater detail about how much information we can glean simply by studying assemblages of snails. For a snail, the Maltese Islands and seas have not changed too much over the last seven thousand years, so you find similar species back in the Temple Period as today. ‘The species can be broadly categorised into ‘land snails’, ‘brackish water molluscs’ and ‘marine molluscs,’ said Fenech. These categories can be split into whether the snails live in the open countryside, or love shade, or live just about anywhere. So if you find a shade-loving snail (such asFerrussacia folliculus) in a place that is today rocky and dry, you can assume that just before Neolithic humans landed on Malta there were a lot more trees. Because they are taking so many cores they can refine these statements to specific areas.

At Tas-Silġ, a Neolithic temple site which was reused by subsequent civilisations, ‘the marine molluscs that were found all came from habitats at Marsaxlokk Bay that still exist today or were known to have existed in the not so distant past,’ said Fenech. Since the marine molluscs are edible this shows that, although sea food was not a regular on the menu, it was part of their diet.Land snails seem to have been a preferred delicacy. ‘At Taċ-Ċawla [a Neolithic settlement during the Temple Period] we recently found and excavated the first ever true shell middens in the Maltese Islands. These consisted of thousands of large edible land snails. Over 90% of snails were the red-banded snail (Eobania vermiculata) This snail is still found all over Malta, but while still eaten in Crete, it is off the menu for the modern Maltese.’ It’s a cultural notion, whether you eat them or not. At Taċ-Ċawla, they quite clearly ate them, at Tas-Silġ and at any other archaeological sites in Malta, this is not so clear,’ explained Fenech.

Prehistoric Malta has often been depicted as a wooded wonderland, pristine before the taint of humanity. Molluscs nod towards a different story. ‘The very few typical forest or woodland species that exist in the Maltese Islands (e.g. Lauria cylindracea) have not been found in any archaeological deposits.’ If Malta were wooded, it was not Island-wide. ‘The Islands had large patches of extensive vegetation cover, although whether this was forest, woodland or scrub-land is a matter of definition. This is one area that FRAGSUS is investigating,’ emphasised Fenech. 

Going back to the puzzle of what killed the Temple people off, when I asked Fenech about the idea of rapid ecological change, she quickly replied with ‘define “rapid”.’ There is evidence from Marsa that indicates warmer, wetter periods as well as cooler, dryer periods. Whether this change was sudden or gradual is impossible to say.’ The problem is inadequate radiocarbon dating to get more accurate dates and the low number of cores studied. FRAGSUS should change that.

The Maltese team are not the only ones looking at these cores. They are being split in half with Dr Chris Hunt (Queen’s University Belfast) and other colleagues looking at its pollen,soil composition, bone fragments, and tephra (although the Maltese team are studying some of these as well), which all tell you about the conditions under which the soil was created. ‘Most of our cores are from coastal locations which are great because you get deep cores and good preservation due to the anaerobic [oxygen-free] conditions,’ explained Dr Reuben Grima. Malone had previously emphasised, ‘every last granule here we will date’. While probably an exaggeration, the approach is important, study everything using any scientific discipline you have at hand, then piece the puzzle back together.

Another important piece of the Temple people puzzle is the studies into ancient and modern landscapes. The local specialists are Dr Nicholas Vella and Grima aided by researcher Dr Gianmarco Alberti. Part of their work involves studying the landscape to see how people exploited the land for cultivating crops and raising animals. These two ways of life were the mainstay during the Temple Period. 

What would have made most sense to the Neolithic Maltese was to mix and match these lifestyles. ‘In a small island rainclouds can literally pass you by, missing you time and again.’ Poor harvests could have been regular. ‘They would have had a range of crops like wheat and barley, as well as lentils, fruit, and olives’ explained Grima. They also had sheep, goats, and cattle as abundantly found around the Tarxien Temple Complex. ‘At the megalithic monuments they were either practising ritual sacrifice or ritual feasting,’ either as a gift to the god/s or to keep the population happy, healthy, cohesive, and power to the priest caste. Using these strategies they survived for hundreds of years.

To make sense of the huge amount of information needed to understand how an entire civilisation lived, the archaeologists are using models to reconstruct the past. Grima modelled the Neolithic monuments in his research. He used a GIS model to map all the temples in Malta and study why those sites were chosen. The temple builders chose ‘areas near fresh water springs, close to low-lying areas with a low gradient which are better suited to accumulate soil, rather than high windswept areas prone to erosion. The temples have a convenient access point to the sea, with a preference for south facing slopes for the megalithic monuments.’ It is likely that the Temple people built their huts near these monuments. ‘At Skorba [another Neolithic site] it is very obvious because you have huts built next to and in some cases below the foundations of megalithic monuments.’ FRAGSUS is allowing the reexamination of these temple, hypogeum and residential units with a much wider range of specialists, tools, and resources.

In the Knights’ and British periods, Vella and his team are figuring out that ‘landholdings would have a bit of the garigue on top because that is perfect for collecting firewood and for a degree of pasture. [Underneath this] is where you will have a spring, therefore your farm and garden are found there. Horticulture would be practised at that level. Then you have a clay slope, and that is where you will plant your grain. You don’t need to water it because the clays are going to keep moist even throughout summer. Then you will probably reach the valley bottom, which does not belong to anyone because you need to have running water (recently ignored by the Maltese construction industry),’ explained Vella. Again, FRAGSUS is going to bring a wealth of new information from the core studies and over five dig sites around the Islands.

The above all leaves a lot of unanswered questions,’ remark Grima and Vella. How did the ancients raise their animals? What did a day in their life look like? Why didn’t they fish much? How much trade was there with other civilisations? Who was being buried at these sites—the leaders of the settlements or everyone? Was everyone healthy? To try and understand the FRAGSUS team have just dug up a Neolithic settlement in Gozo.

A Residential Area

Dig sites are the other key source of information for archaeologists. I went to visit one at Taċ-Ċawla in Gozo two weeks into the dig. It is one of the few examples of prehistoric domestic life and might help answer many of the questions Grima and Vella pose. Despite its importance, ‘it was a dumping site for 20 years, since the council never took [the rubbish] away. I’m afraid it has been neglected,’ decried Malone, on site with a team of enthusiastic students from Malta and Britain.

The site was found around 25 years ago because of ‘some Dutch amateur archaeologists who made a big cry about […] an illegal building on this very spot we are sitting in here’. I was shocked but not surprised. The building spree in Malta has rarely honestly cared about the history and ecology of the Islands with many artefacts probably destroyed.

At Taċ-Ċawla ‘we have a very intense settlement, wonderful material culture is coming out—pottery and dark soil which makes us very happy’. Malone went on to explain that dark soil ‘is full of charcoal and human excrement, all the stuff that represents living and it tends to be black like a compost heap’. By examining what these people threw out lets archaeologists know the people’s diet, lifestyle, and culture. 

The archaeologists will ‘be sieving this dark soil, all this carbonised material […] to float off all those lightweight bits into mesh and then look under a microscope to identify bits of chaff, plant remains, tiny teeth, bones, all sorts of stuff and recognisable seeds,’ explained Malone. They are splitting the area up into square metres to study it all and be able to plot where and what they did in each area. This is a 3D model of their lives. Such a systematic approach has rarely been undertaken on the Islands and never on this scale. It needs this big team and millions of Euro.

The approach is necessary because archaeology has moved on in leaps and bounds from the time of Temi Zammit. It has become a rigorous science. ‘Archaeology has changed out of all recognition from retrieving material to understanding the relationship between all the component parts into something that is far more meaningful,’ explained Malone. ‘We already have an idea that they ate rather less well at the end of the Temple Period then at the beginning. They got less meat and they had no fish.’ If this team get it right within a few years they would have cracked the code.

The FRAGSUS team are planning to take things further. Site digs are being planned all over the Islands but it is also an opportunity to go for ‘field walks, collecting pottery to try and see if there are concentrations which might conceal an archaeological site,’ explained Vella. It could provide new sites to dig for decades. All of this will feed into that model of prehistoric Malta, giving more and more clues to build a picture out of this jigsaw of evidence.

The Maltese team are seeing this as an opportunity not only to figure out this puzzle so closely linked to the Islands’ identity, but an opportunity to study a big chunk of Maltese history through all ages. For example, at the Taċ-Ċawla site they had to remove classical (Punic/Roman) vine trenches which will also be studied. In Malta and Gozo history has tended to pile up on top of itself. The advantage of being so small.

FRAGSUS is a fantastic opportunity to put the spotlight on Malta and invest properly in Archaeology. Archaeology is not a discipline obsessed about the past. You can only know the present by understanding the past, and the idea of a fragile ecosystem is still prevalent in Malta. Our environment defines our situation. ‘There are island environments which are overpopulated and yet they manage to survive because, presumably, they have some form of in-built resilience. It is a word we use a lot because of the financial crises, the resilience of certain places more than others. How far can you go in a place where resources are finite and when you have to depend on help from abroad?’ cleverly pointed out Vella. We are quite sure how the Temple people did not die, but uncertain about why they did. Even if we cannot draw a direct lineage from the Temple people to us, by figuring out how they died, Malta can figure out how to flourish.

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