Malta Diary When a roll of bread was classed to be more important than a gold ring! Malta’s invaluable archaeological national heritage
Besides former Prime Minister Dominic Mintoff (this is the Centenary Year of his birth) and internationally-famed tenor Joseph Calleja, together with Sir Themistocles (Temi) Zammit these indubitably make up a trio of worldwide esteemed Maltese personalities.
Sir Temi was born on 30th September, 151 years ago in 1864 and died on 2nd November 1935. He was a Maltese archaeologist and historian, a researcher and writer on Malta’s archaeological history, a professor of chemistry and a medical doctor and for six years served as Rector of Malta’s University – the oldest in the British Commonwealth after Oxford and Cambridge. For good measure he was also the first Director of the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.
Having graduated in medicine from Malta’s University he went to London and Paris and in 1905 achieved international acknowledgement by discovering that contaminated milk was responsible for the transmission of Brucellosis melitensis carried by goats and causing undulant fever (very high temperatures and debilitation on and off for several weeks). In recognition he was made a Knight of the British Empire and a Companion to the Order of St Michael and St George and later knighted as Sir Temi in 1930. For his literary works in the Maltese Language he was conferred DLitt Honoris Causa by Oxford University and undoubtedly goes down in Maltese history as one of its most academically qualified sons.
However, that is only a fragment of his overall achievements! His scientific approach to archaeology bore outstanding results and continued to enhance his international reputation. The Archaeology Museum in Valletta displays many of his important finds. His expertise enabled him to mastermind the excavations of some of the world’s oldest Neolithic temples (dating back to 5,000/4,000 BC) in Malta, mainly The Hypogeum (a vast underground burial chamber), the Tarxien Temples and the temples at Hagar Qim and Mnajdra.
The Hypogeum (much beloved by our Lyn Funnell because of her lost children mystery!) was discovered in 1902 by accident when an area where some workmen were digging collapsed and revealed the temple. This was initially hushed up but serious excavations began first under the priest Father Manuel Magri and after his death in 1907 continued by Sir Temi and first opened to the public in 1908 and visited by Britain’s Queen Mary in January 1912.
Today all these sites are listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites listing.
The thread of this article was triggered off by the death of another internationally-famed archaeologist, a few days ago at the end of August. The Briton Dr David Trump passed away a few days after his 85th birthday having been dubbed for many years as ‘Malta’s contemporary archaeological Icon’, very much following in Sir Temi’s footsteps but earning acknowledgement and fame in his own right.
Trump first came to Malta in 1954 to continue excavations on Gozo’s Neolithic Ggantija Temples and was then appointed as Curator of Archaeology at Malta’s National Museum. This enabled him to continue his excavations which proved to be of primary importance with the discovery and excavation of Malta’s oldest Neolithic Temple at Zebbiegh in Mgarr.
This was dated back to 5,000 BC and there followed a chain of links running down the west coast of Malta and south to the Ghar Dalam Cave (featured last week) in Birzebbuga, but also linked to Ggantija north of Malta in Gozo. This was dubbed the Skorba Period.
Later he returned to Cambridge as a Staff Tutor in Archaeology and made equally important excavations in Sardinia although visiting Malta frequently with groups of his adult students. From 1986 to 1994 he dug with the team that excavated the Xaghra Circle and intensively researched the mysterious Dingli Cart Ruts on which there are still no definite scientific explanations and in 2004 was honoured with Malta’s highest Order of Merit and last year he was given a DLitt Honoris Causa and Doctor of Literature for his literary archaeological writings by Malta University and in recognition for his lifelong commitment to the archaeology of the Maltese Islands.
David Trump will also remain renowned for two of his most famous pronouncements. One was that archaeologists in Malta will remain very happy for many, many years.
The second concerned his discovery of a roll of bread in the ashes of a burnt tower that dated back to Roman times. On finding it, Trump said it was a more important find than a gold ring which he had excavated from the same site a week earlier.
Delivering a lecture, Trump said, “Earrings had already been found in Punic and Roman tombs but the burnt bread roll was – and still is to the best of my knowledge – the only bread roll from the Roman period found in Malta and probably the only one this side of Pompeii.
“Mortimer Wheeler said that archaeologists are not digging for things but for people and the roll brings to mind the people who were meant to eat it. It brings the past to life,”