Archaeologist Reuben Grima on Lessons of Malta's Megalithic Legacy

Archaeologist Reuben Grima on Lessons of Malta's Megalithic Legacy
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I met Dr Reuben Grima in the midst of another busy day at the office -- the "office" in question being prehistoric ruins on Malta's rugged, southern coast. Reuben is a lecturer in the Department of Built Heritage at the University of Malta, and previously spent more than a decade with Heritage Malta, most recently as the Senior Curator of its Prehistoric Sites Department.

On a spectacular spring day, we walked and talked while making our way down a path from the megalithic temple of Hagar Qim to the neighboring site of Mnajdra. Amidst a timeless landscape of a sweeping field of wildflowers leading down to the sparkling azure Mediterranean, I enjoyed a history lesson that reached back more than five thousand years. An armchair archaeologist and History Channel buff, I was drawn to Malta by its important place in human history as the site of the oldest freestanding megalithic structure. I treasured the time I spent exploring Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, as well as the sites of Tarxien, Hal Saflieni and Ggantija, each a unique legacy from our Neolithic ancestors. 

I was intrigued that this sunny speck in a vast shimmering sea gave rise to more than thirty gigantic stone temples. Reuben gave me insight into the role of relative isolation in producing the creativity exemplified by the island's megalithic legacy. He also offered a cautionary perspective on the sustainability challenges now facing sites renown for ancient architecture that have endured for millennia--and what the catalyst was that turned this archaeologist into an activist.

In sharing his knowledge about Malta's ancient architecture, Reuben touched on themes as relevant today as they were then: identity, sense of place, community, ritual, power, awe, and connection--as well as greed and the conflict between the individual and the collective. 

We hope you enjoy this conversation with Reuben as he reflects on some of the enduring truths and eternal mysteries revealed by Malta's prehistoric prizes and his career studying them.

Meg: Can you describe your role as Senior Lecturer at Department of Conservation and Built Heritage at University of Malta?

Reuben: I am very privileged to form part of a small but brilliant team of extremely dedicated individuals. The department supports all aspects of graduate and postgraduate learning and research in the field of conservation and management of cultural heritage. One key focus is the formation of conservation professionals through Masters programs in different aspects of the conservation of built heritage. We also help ensure that all architects graduating from our University, irrespective of their chosen area of specialization, are familiar with the fundamental principles of respecting the historic environment. The department also runs a Masters program in cultural heritage management, which I am coordinating at present, where we prepare graduates to become more effective leaders and mediators in the field. Our students come from a wide range of countries and backgrounds, so we have plenty of very interesting discussions, and I must say, one of the big rewards of this role is that I learn from them every day. 

Tarxien Megalithic Temple (3150 BC) - Image credit: Dr Zoidberg.

Tarxien Megalithic Temple (3150 BC) - Image credit: Dr Zoidberg.

Meg: What are you currently focusing on?

Reuben: One major research project which is now entering its final stages is a five-year project funded by the European Research Council, on the theme of 'Fragility and Sustainability in restricted island environments' (FRAGSUS for short). This project, led by Professor Caroline Malone as Principal Investigator, has brought together an inter-disciplinary team from Queen's University Belfast, the University of Cambridge, the University of Malta and Heritage Malta to study the interplay of social, environmental and economic factors that unfolded in the Maltese landscape during the Neolithic. A core objective is to examine how it was possible for the culture that created such extraordinary megalithic monuments to emerge in such a restricted island environment. How did this culture maintain itself for over a millennium, with such meager resources, only to disappear so suddenly some time before the mid-third millennium B.C.? A subsidiary question which I am focusing on, which was also the focus of my PhD research, asks how the landscape was culturally appropriated, perceived and ordered by the Neolithic inhabitants.

It is safe to say that Maltese prehistory has never before been the focus of such a powerful array of world-class scholarship, backed up by cutting-edge lab facilities. As the results of the project start being published in the near future, they are going to revolutionise our understanding of how humans have engaged with and transformed Malta's islandscape, and are also expected to make significant contributions to the wider debate on the pressing issues of environmental exploitation and sustainability, against a backdrop of environmental change.

Meg: I understand you are acting as a community advocate in Valletta, seeking to rein in developers whose commercial projects are impacting the city's livability. I believe the rationale for some of the projects is the influx of ex-pats relocating to Malta. How does an ancient city like Valletta balance preservation of its historic assets and sustainable growth? Is the scenario in Valletta going to become more of an issue in other historic cities?

Reuben: Valletta today is at risk of becoming a victim of its own success. Since the inscription of the city on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1980, decades of hard work have gone into the conservation of major public monuments, the creation of pedestrian quarters, and the general rehabilitation and upkeep of the city, which had suffered a period of decline during the second half of the twentieth century. Over the past decade, this has started bearing fruit with a revival of activity and a growing influx of visitors, the creation of more publicly accessible cultural venues, followed more recently by a growing number of boutique hotels and dining establishments, many of which are of a very high standard, and which have done a wonderful job creating a new use for vacant historic buildings, to offer a distinctive experience.

My reading, and that of many other residents and observers, is that this intensification of activity is now at risk of going past a critical tipping point, and may have already done so. How many more restaurants and hotels can you cram into such a limited area, without eroding the quality of the very experience you are trying to offer? What I find alarming is that, instead of more policies to safeguard and maintain the delicate balance required for sustainable economic enjoyment in a livable city, over the past couple of years, as property prices continue to boom, we have witnessed an ever-growing number of insensitive interventions, such as rooftop additions that mar the skyline in order to cram in more accommodation units, some of which were brazenly built even before having the required permits in hand.

In January 2017, a discordant concrete projecting balcony appeared on Valletta's handsome Victorian market hall, replacing a public access point that had linked the hall to this street for more than a century and a half.

In January 2017, a discordant concrete projecting balcony appeared on Valletta's handsome Victorian market hall, replacing a public access point that had linked the hall to this street for more than a century and a half.

The problem is simply one of opportunism and greed, without an adequate and responsible regulatory framework, and without the vision to put the common good before the interests of entrepreneurs joining the stampede to cash in. The result is a short-term enrichment of the few, at the expense of a permanent impoverishment of the public, robbing present and future generations by eroding the values of the city, and consequently, its livability.

It does not need to be this way. Historic cities only take this route if they are betrayed by policy-makers who are unable or unwilling to stand up to market forces. As any seasoned urban conservation professional will tell you, to entrust the conservation, management and vision of a World Heritage City to unregulated market forces is like entrusting a flock to be shepherded by wolves. I am still hopeful that this will not happen in Valletta.

Valetta

Valetta

Meg: Your point is well-taken that preservation is not the sole responsibility of archaeologists but that it requires the commitment of political and community leaders of today to preserve existing infrastructure so it can be appreciated by the  residents and visitors of the future. How does your professional background lend itself to community activism?

Reuben: The responsibility to speak out and act is a very clear one to me. My professional formation in the cultural heritage sector, where I have worked for the past quarter of a century, allows me as a citizen to better understand the shortcomings, risks and implications of what is happening in plain sight. One cannot lecture to students by day about why it is important to respect and preserve the historic environment, then remain silent about what one sees taking place while heading home in the evening. I have published papers about why the place of research and study in this field should not be limited to some ivory tower, but needs to engage with the realities and needs of the public, of communities on the ground. This obligation is also enshrined in Malta's cultural heritage legislation. Article 4(2) of the Cultural Heritage Act (2002) spells out very clearly that:

Every citizen of Malta as well as every person present in Malta shall have the duty of protecting the cultural heritage as well as the right to benefit from this cultural heritage through learning and enjoyment. The cultural heritage is an asset of irreplaceable spiritual, cultural, social and economic value, and its protection and promotion are indispensable for a balanced and complete life.

It is a beautifully articulated principle, which also anticipated the Council of Europe’s (2005) Faro Convention, but  which is too often being forgotten or ignored.

Meg: Can you describe Heritage Malta's mission and what you did as senior curator while you were with the organization?

Reuben: Heritage Malta’s mission is the preservation and enjoyment of the cultural heritage resources entrusted to it, which include the principal national museums, collections and archaeological sites in the country. My role as senior curator of prehistoric sites was to, together with a team of very dedicated colleagues, help deliver this mission on the prehistoric temple sites as well as the Saflieni Hypogeum.

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Meg: What drew you to a career in archaeology and was Malta's wealth of history a factor?

Reuben: Definitely. You don’t need to go far looking for archaeology in Malta, you stumble over it every time you go for a walk. As far back as I can remember, exploring the valley that ran past our home in Mosta, the village of my birth, we would as children often discover and explore some cave, rock-cut tomb or ruin. Even then, we were somehow aware that these formed part of a much greater story, which I was curious to learn more about.

Meg: Malta has the distinction of being the site of some of the world's oldest megalithic structures -- why do you think that is?

Reuben: So, why did it happen here -- why is Malta so different? There is a school of thought that as islanders, the people were more introverted, and, as a result, began to get more original. That societies that were in frequent communication with others contributed to a sameness, whereas being different is a reflection of not being in touch with other areas through travel.

Malta lies on the fringe of Europe, a short crossing from Sicily, which is itself so large that, for most intents and purposes, it may be considered an extension of the continental landmass. In the Neolithic, it may be suggested that Malta was both remote and exotic, but also well-connected and well-known. The very fact that its inhabitants lived on a small island set the stage for them to create a very distinct identity, one in which megalithic architecture was to play an important part.

Meg: Why or how did early man choose the particular sites selected for the temples?

Reuben: Research has been done on why some types of landscape were more preferred than others. Across more than 30 sites of the same period in Malta and Gozo, there are the same characteristics -- access to the sea, fresh water springs, and agricultural land. The coastal shelf at Hagar Qim permits embarkation - the closest megalithic structure is located at the next such accessible point 10 kilometers away. Because they had no beasts of burden, if they wanted to carry a heavy object to a neighboring community, it was easier for them to carry a load by boat than carry it over land. The most favorable areas for agricultural exploitation were located in more level areas. Steeper slopes, on the other hand, require the construction of terrace walls, which is extremely labor-intensive. They looked for land that was reasonably flat, so that terracing wasn’t necessary, and preferably south-facing slopes, which get more sunlight, as well as shelter from the wind.

Tarxien, meanwhile, although today surrounded by modern buildings, is located close to the Grand Harbour. In fact, the reason that it has been surrounded by conurbation is fundamentally the same reason that it was built at this location in the first place – proximity to one of the best natural harbors in the Mediterranean, which has been central to the story of human exploitation of the Maltese archipelago throughout the last 7000 years.

Meg: When and why do you think the specific locations of Malta’s temples became significant?

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Reuben: We believe the sites of these temples were considered significant places for this civilization for easily 1,000 years before monuments started being built. At one point, it became important to monumentalize a location, which is an expression of people's culture and values developing, how the society organized themselves, and it is a big change. With an agricultural society, the people are more invested in a place than hunters, fishers and foragers. That shift in sustenance creates a very different sense of place, and perhaps the beginning of a local identity.

Meg: The sites are all referred to as temples -- what exactly does that mean?

Reuben: When the word temple is used, people think of it in the modern sense, as a church or a mosque, which we think of nowadays as very separate from other institutions such as the bank, parliament, stock market, or night club. Such a distinct separation of these areas of activity is highly unlikely in the Neolithic world. The buildings were at the very heart of daily existence, not some place that was visited once or twice a year. Today, we have water-tight compartments for functions like politics, economics, and food distribution, but that wasn't the case at the time of the prehistoric cultures that erected these sites. Even today, we can think of examples where the religious leaders are the political leaders, or where a monastery also manages an estate.

Meg: Are you and/or your colleagues able to discern any specific spiritual practices that were engaged in at any of the temple sites, and whether those practices changed or evolved over time?

Reuben: The buildings we call temples do appear to be places for the practice of religious beliefs. There is evidence of animal sacrifice or ritual feasting. They appear to embody elaborate belief systems about people’s place in the world and in the cosmos. As colleagues have argued, they also show an increasing preoccupation with controlling access into the deeper parts of the structures, which suggests there may have been ritual specialists developing increasingly complex and exclusive rituals to maintain their status and importance in society.  

Meg: What does the actual architecture of these structures tell you?

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Reuben: The buildings themselves are designed very much with an eye to fulfilling societal needs -- performing rituals in a very dramatic way, giving the illusion of control, creating power structures. A dark band snakes across the stone threshold of the South Temple at Mnajdra. This is calcite formed naturally by water deposits over long periods of time. What makes it very significant is that the temple builders carefully chose and cut this threshold slab to achieve this effect, almost certainly intended to give greater importance to the doorway, and to heighten the symbolic significance of crossing this threshold.

Meg: I wonder if you might speculate on whether the struggle between individual and common good might have existed in the days of Ħaġar Qim, Ġgantija and Tarxien.

Reuben: The tension between individual interest and that of the community is a timeless theme. The way it has manifested itself in different societies across time has varied immensely. In the case of Neolithic Malta, which you are asking about, most archaeologists agree that the evidence points to a society which gave pride of place to the collective interest before that of the individual. As argued by archaeologist Dr Anthony Pace, the practice of collective burial of the dead suggests that the cohesion and interests of the group were considered more important than the celebration and commemoration of any individual. By the Bronze Age, a very different picture is evident, with the creation of distinction and the material expression of social hierarchy in monuments and burial practices that celebrate and commemorate the individual.

To trace the origins of some of the contestations over the Maltese landscape today, I would focus on the modern period. During the British colonial period, in particular, a pattern of boom and bust established itself, where far-flung wars such as the Crimean War or even the First World War brought an economic boom to the island, which was providing support and services for the military machine from far behind the front-line. This has helped instill a mindset of grabbing an opportunity when it presents itself, without worrying too much about possible consequences. The difference now is of course that Malta is a sovereign state, and that we must shoulder the responsibility for keeping our own house in order, for present and future generations.

Meg: Can you describe the Malta "fat ladies" and their significance?

Reuben: A very varied group of extraordinarily beautiful statues and statuettes of human form have come down to us from the period of the temple builders. Some are made of baked clay, others of stone. They range in height from a few millimeters to some two meters. We do not know who they represent, indeed, the many different statues and statuettes that have come down to us may represent a range of divinities, ancestors, leaders or mythical figures. Some of them are evidently female, perhaps most famously, in the case of the ‘sleeping lady’ from the Hypogeum, which must rank among the most evocative works to have come down to us from the Neolithic world. In many other cases, however, the sex of the statues is anything but clear. Their generous proportions have often been interpreted as the result of a preoccupation with fecundity and plenty. We should also bear in mind that representational codes and conventions play an important part in determining the posture, proportions and gestures of these figures, all of which are very likely to have very specific meanings, even if these are often inaccessible to us.

Detail from the Tarxien Temples, a megalithic temple complex which is among the oldest freestanding structures on earth, and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is one of the"Fat Ladies," believed to represent fertility.

Detail from the Tarxien Temples, a megalithic temple complex which is among the oldest freestanding structures on earth, and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is one of the"Fat Ladies," believed to represent fertility.

Meg: Of Malta's 30 or so ancient temple sites, do you have a favorite, and if so, which one and why?

Reuben: No favorites. Even the most poorly preserved and least photogenic of these sites help shed light on the significance of the buildings as a group. As a group of sites, they are more meaningful than they are individually. Each site has its own idiosyncrasies and departures from shared characteristics, which are important keys to the thoughts and values of their builders.

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Meg: In a general sense, what do you think humanity can learn from archaeology?

Reuben: Let’s begin by attempting a definition of archaeology. One possible definition, which of course not everyone will agree with, is that it is the examination of remains that form part of our present environment, and making sense of these by constructing narratives of past human endeavor. If we accept this definition, it can be argued that archaeology is a very widespread line of enquiry that is attested in some shape or form in a wide range of societies across time.

Archaeology in this sense is part of our material engagement with the world that we live in, indispensable to anyone who wishes to understand their environment, and the ever-shifting interaction between people and that environment.

Meg: Based on what you’ve learned during your career to date, do you have any observations about whether man's desire to travel is innate, apart from meeting basic needs such as food and shelter?

Reuben: I’m not at all sure about this. Your question reminds me of a story I had heard from a Scottish archaeologist colleague, about an old man he met who lived on a tiny island, which had one road and two small clusters of houses about a kilometer or two apart. This man had lived all his life perfectly happily on one side of the island, without ever feeling the need or the inclination to walk the short distance to the other. I’ve come across several similar stories since, which goes to show that the desire to travel is very much a cultural construct, which may vary immensely from one situation to the next.

Meg: Has your career in archeology led you to observe any particular enduring truths about the human condition or society that appear not to have changed since the era in which Malta's temples were built?

Reuben: Working on a small island has made me acutely aware of two enduring truths. One is that creative endeavor may produce great marvels out of very frugal resources. Another is that the delicate balance that permits sustainable exploitation of those frugal resources is easily upset, with drastic consequences.

Meg: Could you describe your biggest "aha moment" in your career as an archaeologist?

Reuben: The ideas and realizations I cherish most did not come about in some instantaneous moment of inspiration, but are usually an accumulation of observations which over a period of time gradually unfold into a grand narrative, a bit like walking across a gigantic mosaic in pitch darkness, with only a little candle for light.

Meg: In visiting Malta's megalithic sites, I certainly felt awe at early man's ingenuity, as well as a sense of humility in being but a link in man's long continuum. Are those feelings you identify with and, if so, does regularly being amongst the ruins as part of your vocation diminish that sense of wonder in any way?

Reuben: I don’t think so. Of course there are days when we are distracted from this sense of awe by the hustle and bustle of the task in hand, but as soon as you can take a breath and listen to these sites, you become aware of some feature that you had never paid attention to till then, or some new enigma about their mode of construction or their purpose.

Meg: As someone very interested in history and archeology, part of the attraction for me is the mystery of ruins and a deep curiosity about the lives of those involved in creating such structures. At the same time, there is a recognition that I will never know anything about these sites with definitive certainty. Do you as an archeologist share that general view and, if so, how does that "dilemma" factor into your work?

Reuben: I can think of several novels and movies which revolve around the fact that we can never know the immediate present with definite certainty, let alone the remote past. Even in the natural sciences, developments in the twentieth century have increasingly underlined the fact that scientific knowledge is constituted as much by incomplete and imperfect models as by hard facts. Archaeology is in this respect no different. There is much that we can know with certainty from material remains alone, for instance, that people were present in a certain place in a certain period, that they exploited certain animal and mineral resources, etc. The way they perceived and made sense of their environment, their belief systems and cosmologies, are more elusive, and yet they are not beyond the pale of archaeologically informed suggestions.

Meg: Can you describe a moment or a discovery in which you felt a real sense of connection to the ancient ancestors who constructed one of Malta's temples?

Reuben: Every time we stand in the architectural volumes of what remains of the megalithic temples, every time we encounter one of their extraordinary statuettes, we have the privilege of being allowed to engage with a way of being that flourished more than five thousand years ago. Although much of the detail will always escape us, the engagement with the architectural forms and artifacts that have come down to us allows us to share that life at a sensory, often even sensuous, level of textures, materials, and play of light and shadow. When we feel the dangerously sharp edge of an obsidian blade or the warm glow of a sun-baked megalith, or immerse ourselves in the subterranean darkness of the Hypogeum, or squeeze through a dwarf-sized doorway in one of the temples, we encounter these past ways of being in ways too eloquent for words.

Meg: How important do you think understanding the past is to creating a better future?

Reuben: To my mind, its usefulness in this respect is indisputable, for a number of reasons: appreciation of the inspiring record of human achievement; awareness of the many cautionary tales and lessons that may be gleaned from past failed experiments; sensitivity to the delicate balance between people and their environment, the wisdom of sustainable practices that successfully managed this balance, and the dire long-term consequences of shortsightedness in this respect.

Click to see a short interview of Dr Grima speaking against Valletta over development, speaking out against a number of projects he feels will negatively impact on Valetta.