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11 October 2003
Mnajdra temples in Malta threatened by landfill

Astonishment as to how anyone could consider building a landfill close to the Mnajdra temples (Malta) was expressed by Linda Eneix, the director and president of Old Temple Study Foundation (OSTF, a non-profit organisation that deals with the prehistory of Malta and Gozo). "I was personally astonished that anyone could consider this," she said.
     Ms Eneix said anything considered in this region should be very carefully planned as the area was 'way too sensitive'. "The message that Malta seems to be sending to the rest of the world is that it dumps trash onto its treasures," she said. And Ms Eneix’s belief was supported by a number of archaeological experts from around the world, who attended a conference at the end of last month. The conference – Exploring the Maltese Prehistoric Temple Culture – was the first of its kind organised by the OSTF, and a number of issues regarding the local temples were raised.
     The Mnajdra temples were at the centre of discussion during the conference not only because of the proposed landfill, but also because of its astronomical significance. Engineer Chris Micallef made a convincing case for an alignment for the equinotial sunrise. But he asked: "If it was so important for the builders, why was it not applied in other temples?"
     The conference heard that throughout prehistory, the Maltese of the time were in constant contact with Sicily and beyond. Therefore the "unique achievement in their temple architecture, statuary and pottery was a matter of choice and not simply the result of isolation," Dr John Robb from Cambridge University’s archaeology department argued.
     During the conference Isabelle Vella-Gregory discussed the issue of gender in the temple period, and complained about the distortions of feminism, which sparkled a lively discussion on the old controversy of the sex of the "fat ladies". It was even suggested that the sockets in the necks of some figurines were to take interchangeable heads, male or female as appropriate to immediate circumstance.
     Several themes emerged during the conference. UK archaeologist David Trump said that hardly anything can be categorically proved or disproved by archaeological means – the best that can be achieved is a balance of probabilities. "That balance can be drastically altered by new discoveries. For example, a link between the relief spirals in the Tarxien Temples and those on the grave stele at Mycenae were considered highly significant, until radiocarbon dates ruled them out completely," he said.
     Another theme was that although symbolism was widely employed and highly important, it was always strictly culturally determined, which makes it extremely difficult to recover from preliterate periods with any confidence. He said spirals can have one of innumerable meanings, or be purely decorative. Dr Trump said this leads to constant danger of over interpretation, of reading more into the evidence than was actually intended by those who left it. "Crouched burials are widely referred to as being in the fetal position, and taken to symbolise a return to the womb of Mother Earth, often with the corollary that they there await rebirth. A simpler answer is that the motivation was strictly practical – a crouched burial requires the digging of a much smaller grave pit," he explained.
     With regards the road ahead, Dr Trump said the conference members all agreed that more evidence was needed. He said particularly bewailed was the dearth, or near-absence, of settlement sites contemporary with the Maltese temples. "Their builders and worshippers must have lived somewhere, the evidence from which would enormously improve our chances of reconstructing life at the time," he said, adding that much more could be learnt from new excavations.
     Meanwhile Ms Eneix said that the seminar was just the beginning, and there were more plans to bring about awareness about Maltese prehistoric temples. One major plan is helping major IMAX company MacGillivray Freeman Films with research for a film about the local megalithic monuments. The film, Lost Civilisation of Malta, is expected to be out by 2005.

Source: Independent Online (9 October 2003)

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