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The Archaeology of Malta: From the Neolithic Through the Roman Period

July 2017 (121.3)

Book Review

The Archaeology of Malta: From the Neolithic Through the Roman Period

By Claudia Sagona. Pp. xix + 449. Cambridge University Press, New York 2015. $135. ISBN 978-1-107-00669-0 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This substantial book (449 pages) produced mixed reactions in this reader: positive in the prospect of a comprehensive survey across the archaeology of Malta through its long history, but negative in that one book by a single author specializing in Punic pottery (C. Sagona, The Archaeology of Punic Malta. Ancient Near Eastern Studies Suppl. 9 [Leuven 2002]) cannot cover adequately almost six millennia of archaeology. Can such a survey be modern and useful to current and future scholars? Will the title be on my students’ reading list? Yes, but no, are the answers.

This book should be an exciting and informed review of an island’s archaeology, but there are many irritating issues of detail, style, and proofreading that let the book down. Numerous errors and misspellings of names in the text and in the footnotes do not bode well, and the publisher should have resolved such errors before the book went to press. The polemical presentation style presents a commentary on the data rather than an interpretation of it, and the tone is both critical and unduly, if selectively, negative toward past work, researchers, and even the quality of the archaeology itself. The writing style is of a thesis trying to find an argument, with many a paragraph beginning “Notwithstanding...” or a similar combative sentiment, which then fails to present a decent issue of debate; plus, the tone is sometimes annoyingly political and postcolonial. But on the positive side, this is a book with a mass of extraordinarily detailed footnotes, and reading these provides a vast index of useful information for a specialist reader who already knows about the archaeology of Malta.

The volume’s opening summary asserts that the Maltese Archipelago is a unique barometer for understanding cultural change in the central Mediterranean (18–19). Unfortunately, the promise of this assertion is not borne out as the book progresses, and understanding cultural change is not an outcome. Eight chapters ranging from prehistory to the Roman period form the book’s structure, commencing with a review of Malta’s archaeological past. The physical characteristics of Malta are compressed into less than three pages, without further comment, illustration, or reference. The environmental context is almost entirely missing, which, for a book that begins with human colonization of an islandscape, is curious. Soil, climate, environmental change, and other routine themes of modern archaeology are dismissed in a sentence and not backed up by recent research, maps, or documentation. Scientific work is little discussed, and radiocarbon estimations are presented in a couple of undifferentiated plots and an appendix that misreads the length of cultural episodes (16–17, 49). Assertions about navigation skills of early settlers are made without any analysis, and similarly comments on the early economy, such as “grinding implements ... suggesting cereals formed a large part of the diet,” are not supported by data on recovered plant remains (45–6).

The discussion of the special nature of an island world colonized by Neolithic settlers does not situate Malta in discussions of current research in the wider Mediterranean and misses an opportunity to explain the archipelago’s uniqueness. The author makes reference to old, traditional sources about the Early Neolithic, while the section on the important later Neolithic Temple Culture recites the published data of a century of research without much critique of the many new arguments prevailing. Neither does she make clear the current goals or methods of prehistory, especially the integration of environmental and paleoeconomic approaches and thus does not do justice to an exciting and changing field of study. Overall, the chapters on Neolithic and Bronze Age Malta are of mixed quality, and much is discussed negatively and without full understanding of the periods or the arguments that scholars in many fields have proposed in recent years. The inclusion of unreferenced pop ethnography or remote and inappropriate geographical references (the Irish Arran Islands and Wiltshire) to explain soil erosion and cart ruts do not stand up to scientific scrutiny either (124). Likewise, the assertions made about societies and culture—for instance that women made pots and thus brought ceramic styles to Malta—lack substance (43). Can gender-based production be proved or even sustained without better reference to ethnoarchaeological sources or microscopic analysis? Lacking any reference to current environmental or archaeological debates, the resulting discussion about the economic base of prehistory is rather unsatisfying. Throughout the book, copious information on pottery fabrics, forms, and decoration are described, but without secure, modern, scientific, or technical information, this lack of detail or attempt to explore Maltese ceramic or lithic technologies is of limited use. Reference instead is made uncritically to unpublished studies of uncertain reliability rather than key published peer-reviewed reports (e.g., J. Morter, The Chora of Croton 1: The Neolithic Settlement at Capo Alfiere [Austin 2010]), which are not cited. The massive and unprecedented megalithic building projects of Neolithic Malta also deserve more description and discussion, given their importance, but the book is brief on these. Likewise, the Bronze Age is treated as a ceramic story rather than one of the entangled maritime enterprises and territorial change that reengaged Malta with the wider Mediterranean. Nevertheless, artifact discussion is clearly where the author is most comfortable, and ceramics from prehistory to the end of Roman times are used to explain the subtleties of changing peoples and their economies. For mass production in industrial societies, this approach might be acceptable, but in early prehistory, where often very little material exists and it remains to be scientifically explored, such an approach is questionable.

The later chapters on Maltese Punic and Roman archaeology are comprehensively described and more strongly argued, reflecting the author’s chronological interests. The changing pattern of settlement, economic exploitation, and external linkage are well referenced and present useful observations of Malta’s classical heritage. The discussion of sites and their features and the detail in accompanying footnotes is extensive, but lacking are the vital maps of site distributions or their local context. Thus it is difficult to comprehend the density of activity across the islands in any of the different periods covered by the book. The spatial presentation of sites and lack of distribution maps is a major failure of the book, contrasting to the inclusion of visual material for every pot form. Likewise, at the broader Mediterranean scale of discussion, the writer provides little sense of the expanding socioeconomic horizons of later periods. A nonspecialist would not learn about Malta’s role in its changing world and might find the arguments introverted and insular. For this reviewer, too much faith is placed on the traditional ceramic typologies to explain the complex chronological framework.

In conclusion, how useful is this large volume on the beginnings of Malta? Can it offer more than previous volumes on specific eras of ancient Malta (e.g., J. Evans, The Prehistoric Antiquities of the Maltese Islands [London 1971]; D. Trump, Malta: An Archaeological Guide. 2nd ed. [Valletta 1990]; A. Bonanno, Malta: Phoenician, Punic and Roman [Valletta 2005]). This book should be timely given the growing data emerging from recent activity, but that progress is only briefly mentioned. The employment of ceramic typology as the means to explain early Malta is antiquated in approach, and here we have a traditional, fact-heavy but interpretation-light story of Malta that is more a compendium of facts and observations than an insight into the development of a unique island society.

Caroline Malone
School of Natural and Built Environment
Queen’s University Belfast

Book Review of The Archaeology of Malta: From the Neolithic Through the Roman Period, by Claudia Sagona

Reviewed by Caroline Malone

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 3 (July 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1213.Malone

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