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A Day on a Dig – Excavating Prehistoric Temple Sites on Gozo

[surf, wind blowing] [church bells ringing] I get up at 7:00. Arise and found new lands! I wake them at 7:30. [knocking on doors] They are eating breakfast by 8 o’clock, and then they are into the vehicles by 8:30. [sound of digging] [sound of trowelling] We are at the site of Santa Verna. It’s a temple that was first excavated in 1911, and we are now revisiting those old excavations. See this, and see that shape of that one there. That is precisely right. [sound of sieving] We’ve got students from the University of Malta and Cambridge and Belfast, all hard at work, beginning to clear back, to try and discover if there’s a real temple underneath this site. We get a lot of pottery, and very large pieces of bone. The dig for you is exciting? Yes, definitely. We don’t want to leave. We would much rather stay here than go back to our assignments. What is that? So, that’s where this little item, this piece of obsidian, has come from. So, that’s almost certainly going to have come all the way from the Lipari Islands, the other side of Sicily. It’s really interesting. Right now I’m literally just typing a brief little tweet, to show the sort of quality of finds that we obtain on site. This is about world heritage. So sharing what you find with Joe Bloggs on the street is just as important as sharing it in an academic journal. [sound of shovelling] Really exhausting, I imagine. At the end of the day I imagine you are knackered, are you? Absolutely, but it’s much better than sitting in an office all day. What about your wheelbarrow chair, Jeremy? I feel like I can lie down, and just tilt back, fall over. See you! This amazing structure behind me is one of the most ancient temples on earth. To give you an idea, it’s more than a thousand years older than either Stonehenge or the pyramids, and it forms part of a network of ancient temples and sites all over this tiny island of Gozo. I mean, look at the size of this stone. It’s huge. Well, these stones are colossal. This is probably the largest stone, and I don’t know what it weighs, but it must be somewhere between 50 and 100 tons. It’s some of the most impressive architecture in prehistory in the whole world. The word “Ggantija” means “giant’s tower”. Within there would have been liturgical theater, the sound of goats being slaughtered, the animals being sacrificed, the sound of music and even drums. We have an advanced and sophisticated civilisation, but clearly something went horribly wrong. It does look as though at a certain moment the people worshipping in these temples decided it was not working. Was it rainfall? Was it climate change? Was it volcanic eruptions causing, you know, just a few years of crop failures. It would only take a couple of years of failure to knock the whole thing out. This civilisation simply disappears and these great monuments are abandoned. One of the great mysteries of Malta is not that we have monuments like this, but how monuments of this scale, and the number of them is probably 30 or 40 groups of temples, came to be in an island landscape. Two small islands, covering only 316 square kilometers. So these people were immensely creative about how they made this little island flower and produce the food they needed. And away from me another two centimeters. What we’re doing here is Stephen setting up to draw. So I’m giving him a known baseline that he can offset from. I’ve been making an accurate plan, a measured plan of the temple, what remains of the outer ward of the temple, the megaliths in situ, and we’ve got the big megalith on the corner there, which is planned there. You can have all the digital scans you like, but you need an accurate measured interpretation. Steven Ashley has been coming to Gozo since the mid 1980s. He is part of a group of archaeologists led by Simon Stoddart and Caroline Malone, who for more than three decades have been unearthing the ancient secrets of this mysterious island. It’s very overgrown, and there is a megalith which has been covered over. One of their main digs was here, at the Brochtorff circle, a site rediscovered by local antiquarian Joseph Attard Tabone who was intrigued by the watercolours of a 19th century artist. Well this is the spot where a skull was found in the 1820s, and indeed you can see someone producing a skull from this very cave. And we had layer upon layer of dead bodies. We found perhaps as many as 800 people. There are many more yet to be found. The gruelling question is: whose bodies? Were they the bodies of a small elite or of a large population that was being pushed through this site to an eternity beyond? And one of the things that has been excavated from these temples is tons and tons of pottery. These people, on a very limited landscape, were making fantastic pottery, beautifully formed, highly decorated. The pottery and sculpture is indeed intriguing and often mysterious. This snail has a human head. We found that this morning, hey. We found that this morning, and it was just in the topsoil, and it seems to be another of these little snail-like objects that are found at Santa Verna. Does every bit have to be cleaned? Yep. Every bit has to be numbered. Hmmm. Must drive you nuts after a while. Yes, yes it does. Especially when this is all from the same layer. Well so there should be a whole intact copy, is it? Yeah, you just have to put all the pieces together. Well, now that fits there. Yeah, it fits really well there. Amazing, this intact piece. Extraordinarily intact. Simon and Steven are off to explore another site at the very top of a nearby hill. This season, the archaeological team has uncovered grain silos carved into the rock. You’re going in there, are you? I’m afraid so. You’re ready? Yes. Crikey! Careful! You’re alright? Yeah! The great excitement of this silo is that we find a three-and-a-half-thousand year-old capsule of time, full of seeds and bones and pollen. [machine whirring] Everything they find from the silo must be sifted. [machine whirring] This is mostly specks of charcoal sieved out of the soil that we dug out of the silo. And charcoal is almost pure carbon, and as such it can be used for carbon dating. So it may not look much, but it’s very important, this stuff. This is gold dust. Gold dust? Carbon dust, gold dust! Meanwhile back at the main dig, the archaeologists have uncovered a remarkable find. We’ve got this plaster floor. You can hear how hollow that is. And this is a layer of beaten, ground-up limestone and clay and things, that has made a really wonderful flat Neolithic floor. In fact I’m standing on a floor which is, what, 5000 years old. It’s very exciting! All civilisations rise and fall, and we are not exempt from that today. Population size, resources like water, soils and food; many of the problems are very, very similar. So if we can answer the questions for small Malta in prehistory, we can build that up into an understanding of the global landscape that we have today. The thrill of archeology for me is that I don’t just sit in a dull office all day. I go out into the landscape, I meet people, I engage with people, and I also have to use my physical being to uncover the relics of the past. There’s very few frontiers left, but actually, the past is one of them: very, very exciting to go and locate and enter other worlds. Done for the day, then? Done for the day! Very good day, but all good days come to an end.

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

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