A ‘monstrosity’ of gigantic proportions

Not only are we seen to willingly obliterate our own cultural heritage at every opportunity, but we also enact laws to permit and even encourage its continued demolition in the future

Back in my early University days – in other words, around 25-30 years ago – I remember attending a particular lecture by the late Rev. Prof. Peter Serracino Inglott. 

Naturally, that doesn’t mean I also remember what that lecture was supposed to be about. As can be confirmed by anyone else who had the privilege of being taught by Fr Peter… he had this tendency to keep drifting ever farther from the topic at hand: only to eventually lose sight of it altogether, and get lost in an ocean of his own digressions…

Sounds familiar, huh? Well, now you know where I picked up the habit myself. In any case:  on this occasion, Fr Peter’s meanderings took us to Neolithic Malta... and the megalithic temple culture which flourished here between three and five thousand years ago. 

Or at least, that was the received wisdom at the time. As usual, Fr Peter had a slightly different take on the matter:  but whether it was his own pet theory, or someone else’s that simply appealed to his intellectual imagination – possibly even to his religious convictions, as a Catholic priest – I cannot rightly say.

But in that lecture, Fr Peter explored the possibility that the people who built those temples may not have actually lived here at all. Pointing towards the lack of evidence for habitation sites (more of which in a sec) he portrayed Neolithic Malta, not as the seat of a permanent, sustainable human population… but as the Stone Age equivalent of Mecca’s Kaaba: a sort of ‘Holy Island’, slap-bang in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea – and thus, quite literally, at the very epicentre of the Ancient Cosmos - whose temples served as pilgrimage sites for devotees from all over the known world...

Now: to be fair to Fr Peter, I only remember him putting that hypothesis forward as a suggestion. He certainly didn’t declare his own personal conviction in the matter: there was, after all, no real evidence to support the theory, at the time; and Fr Peter himself – for all his philosophical musings and elaborate digressions – was ultimately a scientifically-minded man.

But… there was certainly not enough evidence to disprove it, either. Truth be told, we knew so very little about Malta’s temple-building culture, back in the late 1980s/early 1990s, that anyone’s guess was almost literally as good as anyone else’s.

For instance: we didn’t even know (and still don’t, to this day) where those people actually lived. And I don’t just mean the precise location of their settlements or villages; but what sort of dwellings they would even have called ‘home’.

And this, on its own, is enough to fully justify Fr Peter’s (and, I freely confess, my own) evident fascination with that ‘Holy Island’ hypothesis, all those years ago. Not only did it seem to miraculously ‘fill in all the blanks’ in our collective knowledge: but the image itself is (let’s face it) immensely powerful and evocative in its own right.

Honestly though: who wouldn’t experience just a tiny thrill of excitement, to suddenly discover that their own homeland – ‘boring old Malta’, which in the 1980s felt like ‘the farthest planet from the centre of the Galaxy’ – was in reality some kind of primordial ‘Terra Sancta’: at the height of its power, possibly the single most important locus in the whole Universe…?   

Looking back, it is hardly surprising that it remains the only one of Fr Peter’s many digressions that I still distinctly remember, all these years later. For apart from appealing so strongly to my own imagination… it also brought home, in one staggering moment, the sheer extent of how little we actually know about this mysterious, vanished prehistoric culture of ours. 

Please note: ‘of ours’. Not some remote, otherworldly culture, brought into our homes by David Attenborough documentaries; but something unique that existed right here, on our own soil; and in a sense, still exists there today… possibly lying merely inches away from discovery, in the sub-soil beneath our own two feet.

And this brings me to why this memory was so forcefully jogged this week. As you may have already surmised, even from international press reports: there is now a development application for ‘31 apartments and 20 garages’, almost literally a stone’s throw from the perimeter of the Ġgantija Temples in Xaghra, Gozo. 

That is to say, slap-bang in the middle of what can only be described as an archaeological goldmine: the fields surrounding one of the most impressive of those mysterious monuments, bequeathed to us by that even more mysterious vanished culture… and which we already know to be immensely rich in as-yet undiscovered information about the same period.

How do we know this? Well… partly for the same reason that the Ġgantija threat ended up on The UK Times in the first place. That article featured quotes by archaeologists Steve Stoddart and Caroline Malone: both of whom worked extensively on that site, and others in Malta and Gozo, ever since the 1980s.  

Stoddart, for instance, argues that: “such a development would most likely result in the loss of invaluable archaeological information […] we’ve seen incredible deposits lying just under the ground. The whole plateau is rich with such material and should be protected.”

Malones adds that: “Surveys have repeatedly demonstrated pottery and evidence of settlements in every field of what is a monumental complex. The whole landscape is interlinked and it’s one of the most major and best-preserved finds in the Mediterranean…”

Both those scientists also worked on the more recent FRAGSUS project, alongside a team of local and international archaeologists. And thanks to that project, we can now confirm that the Maltese islands were indeed permanently and continually occupied, by at least one settled community, throughout the temple-building period. 

We also have a much clearer picture of ‘how’ – if not precisely ‘where’ – they lived. Studies of soil and pollen samples (taken, please note, from the fields surrounding temple-sites) confirm that those people were in fact farmers: they planted and harvested grain; they bred livestock including goats, cattle and pigs… and through comparative DNA studies on bones retrieved from burial-sites, we even know more or less exactly what they ate on a daily basis. 

And that’s just scratching the surface of the wealth of new information, provided by this and other studies, that was quite simply unavailable to Fr Peter Seraccino Inglott – or anyone else, for that matter – 25 years ago, or more. And while I admit that it pained me slightly, to have to finally let go of such a forceful, appealing theory… the fact remains that this new knowledge is also infinitely more exciting, because it really does ‘fill in those gaps’ in our collective consciousness. 

If anything: a greater, more detailed understanding of who actually built those megalithic marvels, would only contribute to the undeniable sense of wonder they still provoke among the thousands of visitors – or ‘pilgrims’ – to this very day.

And nearly all this newfound knowledge comes to us – not from the temples themselves; which have already been exhaustively researched (though I daresay still retain a few secrets, here and there) – but from the surrounding areas: the buffer-zone, of what is ultimately supposed to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and which still represents an as-yet uncharted treasure map for possible future excavations.

These future excavations, in turn, may have access to more advanced forms of technology … just like today’s archaeologists, compared to the early efforts of, say, Sir Themistocles Zammit in the 1920s. So there is literally no telling how much of this priceless information would be irretrievably lost… if the Planning Authority were to really do the unthinkable, and approve what Dr Malone so rightly described as a ‘monstrosity’ of a project.

Sadly, however, a lot of this undiscovered archaeological treasure-trove has already been irretrievably lost. The same aerial photos, showing the sheer proximity of this application to Ggantija, also reveal that Xaghra’s relentless ribbon-development has already eaten into significant portions of the same buffer-zone. 

I don’t even want to imagine how much of our irreplaceable cultural heritage has already been utterly demolished, with each chunk of earth that was scooped out in the construction of all those buildings. But by the same token: I can’t imagine what excuse the Planning Authority could possibly come up to with, either, to so much as dream of permitting the destruction of another square inch today….

Erm… no, wait, maybe I can. It will probably be the same old excuse they always come up with it: i.e., that it is only their job to implement Malta’s existing Planning and Development Policies; not to actually draw them up themselves.

And – utterly insane as this may sound, to any civilised ears – Malta’s planning policies do actually designate parts of that site (including the footprint of the application in question) to the permissible development zone.

Having said that: it doesn’t exactly follow that the PA has to automatically approve any application – regardless of environmental of heritage impact - just because the loosest interpretation of planning policies makes it vaguely ‘permissible’. 

And in this case, there are already strong arguments for a flat refusal: including the negative recommendation of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, among others.

There is, in a word, still hope - albeit not very much - that this monumental folly may not actually go ahead at all. But as long as that buffer-zone remains within the established development boundaries – where it clearly has no business to be – the threat of an impending archaeological calamity will still be left dangling over the Fat Lady of Ġgantija’s (missing) head.

And it is this – arguably more than the individual application itself – that makes this episode so truly ‘monstrous’, in the eyes of the rest of the world: enough, in fact, to attract attention by the foreign press). Not only are we seen to willingly obliterate our own cultural heritage, at every opportunity; but we also enact laws to permit – and even encourage – its continued demolition in future. 

That is ‘monstrous’ by any standard, you know; yes, even the gigantic standards of Maltese prehistory…