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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Filed under Chronology, General

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