Working with museums

Archaeology has many faces. As an academic, I seem to encounter most of them, and that’s a very good thing. My most recent project involves analysing material recovered a long time ago. This is stored at the National Museum of Archaeology, Malta. Museums are a very different world from a university or a Cambridge college. In this case (and many others) they are warm, welcome places that house fascinating collections and even more fascinating scholars. Here are some tips on working with museums as a researcher.

Isabelle’s top ten tips:

1. Museum staff are overworked and underpaid. Be nice.

2. They will happily help you but remember point 1.

3. Your research uses up museum resources, including personnel. Be mindful of this and don’t be a snot.

4. Remember point 1? Don’t waste anyone’s time. Be clear about what you want. Send a concise and coherent research proposal. Staff will happily give you access to collections, but don’t wander in, without an appointment, and expect to be shown whatever it is that you want. If your questions concern aliens, for Batman’s sake just go away.

5. Museums all require agreements. This means that in return for access, you deposit a copy of your data with the museum, copies of any ensuing publications etc. Check the rules for copyright (for example for photographs). Do not argue. Yes, you took the photo. Yes, the copyright belongs to the museum, not you.

6. Be generous. People have given you their time and expertise. Be generous with your knowledge and with cups of coffee. The occasional cookie wouldn’t go amiss either.

7. Listen to the museum people. Yes, you may be the fancy academic and that’s great. But museum staff know a heck of a lot about objects. Listen carefully and give thoughtful consideration to any new perspectives.

8. Share your knowledge. Knowledge cannot be a one way street, enter into a dialogue with your museum colleagues and offer your perspective.

9. Invite your museum colleagues to present papers with you. Do I need to explain this?

10. As always in life, be nice, generous and thoughtful and treat others with the respect you think you deserve.

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…will resume shortly. Many apologies for the hiatus. I promise you interesting research updates. Meantime here is a pic of one of my favourite places in Valletta.

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The Mġarr phase

First of all, many apologies for the lack of posts. My faithful laptop decided to go kaboom approximately 10 days before my new one was ready (still waiting… dear Apple, hurry up please!). Fortunately, I had a lot of stuff backed up. Unfortunately, I also lost over a week’s worth of work and have been frantically catching up since. Someone explain to me why it’s taken twice the time to catch up with a week’s worth of work! I wonder if temple builders felt the same when things didn’t go according to plan. Anyway, normal blogging service can now resume (hopefully!).

Speaking of temples. Last time I wrote about the Żebbuġ phase, the next phase is the Mġarr phase – also named after a type site/area. The dates are 3800-3600 BC. Still no temples at this point – it’s described as a transitory phase but it did last 200 years, so that’s quite a few generations of people. In terms of pottery, we do see an evolution from the earlier phase, but I think this just highlights the dangers of seeing people purely in terms of pots. A typical Mġarr phase narrative takes into account the pots (apparently a natural evolution and the pots anticipate those from the subsequent phase). This is true, and we do mostly have pots to go by (and some tombs at Xemxija and a hut at Skorba). The pottery does indeed show all this, but it doesn’t tell us much about the people. Neither does it explain why temples crop up in the next phase.

We are of course hampered by lack of material, especially settlements. What is certain, however, that people did not remain suspended in time for 200 years, evolving pot types and anticipating new trends. Burial remained collective, at least some people continued to live in huts (and villages) and artefacts are still covered with red ochre. Symbolic behaviour is thus very much present, but very hard to define. Just “a transitional phase” neither explains how people lived nor how and why they eventually decided to build temples.

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Heritage Malta’s blog

Just a quick post to say Heritage Malta has a blog:  You can keep up to date with all their fantastic events.

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4000 BC: The times, they are a-changing

Welcome to 4000 BC when things start to change. This is not, initially, a big change which completely changes the landscape (although the landscape of course does change in much subtler ways) but we see a very distinctive change in the material culture. For one thing, we get a completely new pottery repertoire. This doesn’t normally happen for no particular reason. Pottery shapes tend to endure within a particular community, if only because people love the familiar. Conventionally, the appearance of a new repertoire is explained in terms of a new population. There are many reasons why this is a cheeky way out that’s not particularly convincing and I will be writing about this in other posts. It’s one of those conventional bits of wisdom about Maltese prehistory that needs to be debated.

In any case, the first of our new phases is the Żebbuġ phase, named after the type site. Incidentally, I hope the ‘foreign’ characters appear on everyone’s screens. Once again, the pottery has strong links with Sicilian pottery, this time the San Cono-Piano Notaro culture – which begs the question, if we have a wholesale population replacement, did we spit out some Sicilians and get some new ones? Is this a case for Commissario Montalbano? I do not wish to be to flippant, I’m merely highlighting the problems with such cop-outs (and the dangers of seeing people solely in terms of pots).

But for the moment, let’s go back to convention (I do occasionally pretend to go along with convention) and look at the different phases. First up is Żebbuġ (4100-3800 BC), with its all new pottery repertoire. This assemblage is much more diverse in terms of shapes and while it’s definitely got a Sicilian flavour, it’s also got distinctive elements. The whole Sicily-meets-Malta theme seems to be very distinctive of Maltese culture, even in the present! This is not a bad thing, incidentally, I’m personally in love with all things Sicilian. The clay used for making pots is much finer than previously and when fired it is harder and also more prone to breaking.

Zebbug pots (From Anthony Bonanno, Il-Preistorja, PIN, 2001)

Designs consist of either deep thin lines incised before firing or thin lines drawn on the surface of pots. What’s interesting is that sometimes we find these incisions on pots (apologies for appalling photo, I only have my phone cam and that awful Picnik, Daniel is a brilliant photographer and you can see his stunning work in my book [no self promotion, I promise] The Human Form in Neolithic Malta.)


(C) Daniel Cilia

Interestingly, we don’t get the human form again on pots in the ensuing phases. I should also point out that while this falls within the Temple period, no actual temples are known yet. Rather this is the beginning of change. What we do have in this period are tombs. The ones at Ta’ Trapna iż-Żgħira in Żebbuġ point to collective burial over a period of time. We basically have rock cut shaft and chamber tombs. People would move aside bodies when they needed space for a fresh burial, a practice that would come to characterize the temple period. Burials were often accompanied by grave goods, mostly consisting of pots and personal ornaments (e.g. beads, small discs, v-perforated buttons, miniature axes etc). Bones were generally sprinkled with red ochre, a material that is important to people from the earliest phases till the very end of the Neolithic.

Żebbuġ phase remains are also found on Gozo, specifically at the (Brochtorff) Xagħra Circle. Here we have oval chambers cut from the rock at the bottom of a deep vertical shaft. The entrance was closed by stone slabs. Once again we find collective burial. Both Ta’ Trapna iż-Żgħira  and Xagħra shared another feature – a stone with a carved face/head. In Gozo it was placed inside the entrance to one chamber.

The head from Gozo (C) Daniel Cilia

The head from Malta (C) Daniel Cilia


I will leave you with a tongue-in-cheek observation: see, people didn’t see themselves as pots but as bodiless heads. And in all seriousness, that is not as silly as it sounds, but more on that another time. For now, I want to keep providing a background before entering into the more complex debates.

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The first farmers (in Malta)

I confess this title is somewhat misleading, hence the brackets. Normally, when trying to impress the origins of farming on unimpressionable undergraduates, I go into the usual spiel how agriculture didn’t just suddenly appear, sweeping away those pesky hunter-gatherers in its path. In this case, farming had already been well established elsewhere and so we kind of get a “package” (ah that dreaded word). I do believe our knowledge of Malta and Gozo’s earliest phases could use some fleshing out, but sadly we lack such information for now. However, there is more to the simplistic “they got here” narrative.

At around 5000 BC the first farmers arrive from Sicily, for reasons that are never quite clear. At this time we find a well developed picture of farming communities in Sicily, but no real sign of pressure. In other words, farmers could have happily continued to farm in Sicily but chose to come over for reasons not quite clear. Of course it is argued that many settlements in Sicily so sign of defensive structures, e.g. the Stentinello culture villages in SE Sicily and while trouble in the homeland is not entirely excluded, it doesn’t quite explain what happened next. I should also point out that while you can now fly from Malta to Catania in a very short space of time (I always feel sorry for the cabin crew, frantically handing out orange juice before we actually get there! Three cheers for Air Malta!), the 90km or so journey would have been somewhat more laborious in prehistory. Do not be fooled by the gorgeous stretch of sea, the Mediterranean is often a treacherous sea to navigate, especially in winter. You would have needed a few exploratory voyages and a knowledge of currents and navigation. Furthermore, these farmers reached uninhabited islands and brought with them families, cattle, seeds, pottery etc. In other words, they needed sturdy boats. The wave of “immigration” thus required a few journeys  – this is not a case of people hastily fleeing the alleged troubles in Stentinello settlements but a well-planed move.

From Sicily they bring Impressed Ware pottery and this pottery characterizes the first phase, Għar Dalam. It is characterized by geometric patterns impressed on the surface of a vessel before firing. You can achieve this effect in several ways, e.g. using shells, finger nails, pointed sticks or pointed bone. Throughout the Neolithic, the new arrivals continue to import flint from Sicily (using it to make a variety of tools) and obsidian from Lipari and Pantelleria. Settlement was in the numerous caves and rocky shelters. Għar Dalam cave provides us with rich information in this regard. They also built small villages consisting of wattle and daub or mud brick huts on very low stone foundations, e.g. at Skorba.

Ghar Dalam Cave (Source: Jean-Christophe Benoist, Wikimedia)


The next phase, Grey Skorba, is identified by a change in pottery, which is now greyish in colour and undecorated. Eventually, the same fabric is transformed with the addition of a bright red slip, the Red Skorba.  The material culture from this pre-temple phase consists of the usual pots and tools, but also some figurines of animals and humans (more on this at a later date). Other aspects can be inferred, for examples the spindle whorls (which appear in the Red Skorba phase) point to the spinning of yarn, sadly we do not know which type. Animal bones do not just point to food, sheep would have also provided wool. Other clues are in the shape of perforated buttons, indicating they were used to fasten some type of clothing. I have also mentioned the presence of flint and obsidian, indicating contact in terms of trade and, given the closeness with Sicilian pottery styles, other cultural ideas. Red ochre, not found in Malta’s geology but used liberally throughout prehistory, is another example of commercial and cultural contact.

So all in all this is a busy and exciting period of Maltese archaeology, though sadly we lack information on burials and other matters. Next post will be about the temple period.

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A timeline for Maltese prehistory

As I noted in my previous post, temples do not just magically appear. I thought it would be useful to post a timeline of Maltese prehistory, thus putting temples in context. As with all timelines, this is but a broad way of categorizing things. Separately, I spent too much time faffing about with a table plug-in, clearly I’ve got quite the learning curve to deal with:-) I did find a plug in but couldn’t figure out how to erm… plug it in. So let’s do this the old-fashioned way…

First, many of the main phases are named after type sites, as is typical in archaeology – so the name of a phase often also refers to the name of a site or an area where major remains relating to that period were found.


This period represents the first human occupation of the island.

Għar Dalam: 5000-4500 BC

Grey Skorba: 4500-4400 BC

Red Skorba: 4400-4100 BC

The Temple period, when things start to change…

Żebbuġ: 4100-3800 BC

Mġarr: 3800-3600 BC

Ġgantija: 3600-3000 BC

Saflieni: 3300-3000 BC

Tarxien: 3500-2500 BC, after which the islands enter the Bronze Age.

I remind you that elsewhere in the Mediterranean, what we call the Temple Period is often commonly known as the Copper Age, but in Malta and Gozo we have no sign of copper technology and temples were built using stone tools. The next few posts (and I promise there will not be a week’s delay this time) will briefly examine each period so the reader can better place the story of the Temple people in context.

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About the temples

Where does one begin? The Maltese temples are overwhelming in their architectural complexity, beauty and significance. They also pose a challenge for archaeologists. What do we make of them? What do they mean? And how do we go beyond architecture? I hope to explore these themes as my research progresses. Meantime, let’s start with a brief introduction.

First up, if you want a visual tour, head over to Daniel Cilia’s  excellent page.  For significantly less impressive photos, check out my Hagar Qim and Mnajdra pics on Flickr.

A lot of “wisdom” is repeated about temples – firstly that they are temples, whatever that may mean, secondly that they are older than the pyramid of Giza (they are, by nearly a millennium, but don’t think this is the only thing that makes them interesting), third that they are all “megalithic”. Well yes, they’re all built using big stones but no one temple is like the other. The other crucial point is that temples don’t just suddenly appear on the Maltese landscape. There is a long history of settlement and other forms of material culture before temples are built. The first settlers headed over to Malta from Sicily c. 5000 BC, at which point the settlement and ritual patterns are broadly similar to other contemporary sites in the Mediterranean.

It took roughly another 1000 years before the temple phenomenon started and it was a long road. The beauty of temples is that while you can visually identify a site as such, each one is different. So typically, temples are approached across an oval space and have a forecourt, a large open space and a series of chambers to the left and right. Beyond this,  we find many variations in structure, plan, contents etc. A good introductory book on temples and their plans is David Trump’s Malta: Prehistory and Temples (here if you are in the US).

More importantly, life in Neolithic Malta was most certainly not just about temples. It’s just that monuments, by virtue of sheer size (and beauty, if I may say so) tend to dominate the landscape and perception, but big buildings are never all there is to a society. Think about it – London, for example, isn’t just made up of Big Ben, Houses of Parliament and all the other landmarks swarming with tourists. There’s a whole rich landscape in between each monument and the same goes for prehistoric Malta. Temples did not exist in a vacuum, suspended in some mysterious and static state. They were part of a landscape full of things and, more importantly, people.

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Welcome to Ancient People and Things

I set up this blog to document my current research. By way of introduction, I’m Isabelle, I’m an archaeologist and my research interests lie in the ancient Mediterranean. Currently, as a Junior Research Fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge, I am working on Maltese prehistory, specifically the Neolithic temples. As an archaeologist, I am interested in people – admittedly dead ones, but they have much to tell us. As archaeologists we try to reconstruct their lives: how they lived, what they ate, what they thought, how they went about things… in short everything that makes us human. At the moment, I’m interested in how people create, establish and maintain social relations (call it ancient politics, if you will), in particular how they do so through the use of material culture and creating and manipulating the landscape.

So I hope that you will join me on this ancient Maltese journey. I plan to post information about the temples, how I’m getting on with my research and, at times, a snapshot of life in a Cambridge college. Cambridge is my second home and has been for a long time so it’s very close to my heart. Feel free to get in touch and leave a comment.

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