Was Megalithic Malta the lost city of Atlantis? It all boils down to probabilities | Anthony Bonanno

A recent Netflix series entitled ‘Ancient Apocalypse’ has reignited an equally ancient controversy: by suggesting that megalithic temples such as Ggantija, may actually be the remnants of a 10,000-year old ‘lost civilization’ (possibly, the mythical Atlantis). But Professor ANTHONY BONANNO, of the University’s Archaeology department, argues that the truth is probably less fanciful - but more interesting - than that

Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday
Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday

At a glance, the main contentions made by Graham Hancock seem to challenge some of the more established interpretations of Maltese prehistory. He suggests, for instance, that ‘there is no reliable carbon dating’ to prove the claim that the temples are around 6,000 years old; and he also pushes back the date of Malta’s earliest known human occupation, by around 4,000 years… all the way to 10,000 BC. First of all, however: how reliable is the evidence for the more ‘orthodox’ version of events? How do we really know, for instance, that the temples date back to, at most, 3,600BC?

From an archaeological perspective, there are two ways of dating prehistory. The first is the ‘old’ methodology, of examining the material culture: the most significant of which is pottery.

Pottery changes in style, according to the fashion of the time; and this makes it a good gauge of how cultures also develop, as they come into contact with each other. But that is relative chronology. It’s a valid approach, for determining whether ‘one culture came before another’, or vice versa. But material culture is best viewed when combined with other scientific dating methods: such as radio carbon-14 dating, which is scientifically accepted to be very accurate - within a margin of error of around 100 years - for anything between 10,000 years ago, and the present.

So, how do we combine the two? It starts with the archaeological excavation itself: which is why we are so finicky, and careful, when we go about digging an archaeological site. First of all, it’s very important to identify one stratigraphical layer, from another: especially, if the layers conform to established changes in pottery styles. Secondly, we are always very careful to examine the relation between the horizontal layers, and any vertical structures such as walls, or blocks of stone.

For example: if a layer of earth abuts onto an upright stone, it means the layer must have come later. This is enough to safely conclude that the stone must have erected into that position, before the layer which accumulated around it…

This pre-empts a question I had about carbon-dating, in general. Given that the process requires the presence of organic matter: how can it be used to accurately determine the age of a stone structure such as, say, Ggantija, or Hagar Qim?

It can’t, quite frankly. Some people make this mistake: saying from instance, that ‘the stones have been carbon-dated’. But no: it’s only carbonized biological matter that can be carbon-dated. And besides: even if it were possible to ‘carbon-date stone’… what you’d get is the geological age of the stone itself, and not of the structure it is part of.

This is a mistake Graham Hancock himself once made, when he was in Malta at some time in the 1990s. He had interviewed me once, at the Tas-Silg excavation site; and at one point he asked me ‘how old a certain particular stone was’ – or ‘rock’, I can’t exactly remember exactly, now - and I told him, ‘Probably, quite a few millions years old…’.

If I’m not mistaken, he even included the detail in one of his books…

I intended to ask this later, but: you’ve had encounters with Hancock before; and you’ve even featured as an interview subject, in one his earlier documentaries…

Yes; there is nothing really all that ‘new’ in what he’s saying. He’s been making the same claims for at least 30 years now; and others have been similar claims before him…

How would you describe your personal relations – such that they are – with him?

Well, on the few occasions we’ve met, he was always very cordial; not that I ever had any ‘personal relations’, as such. But of course, from a scientific point of view, he comes to what I consider to be the wrong conclusions…

That brings us back to the precise age of Malta’s megalithic temples. If I understood correctly; that information comes not directly from carbon-dating; but from an analysis of the material culture from the stratigraphical layers of the excavation site…

It’s a lot more complex than that, in practice: you also have to look at how the data all fits into the overall context. But otherwise, yes: and when you combine the material evidence, with other scientifically-approved methods of testing… the consensus that emerges is that the culture that built the megalithic temples, flourished here between around 5,800BC, until around 2,200BC; and the temple-building phase, started around 3,600BC.   

This brings us to another of Hancock’s contentions: i.e., that the islands were inhabited for much longer than that; and that the temple-building phase actually represented the last remnants of an ancient civilization that existed between Malta and Sicily at the end of the last Ice Age (only to be submerged by rising sea-levels).  Judging by popular reactions so far, this view has been very well received. Are you concerned that such interpretations may be more ‘attractive’, to ordinary viewers, than the seemingly ‘boring’ scientific consensus?

Well, I suppose that – from the point of view of ordinary people, watching that kind of programme – the idea of a ‘lost civilisation’, or an ‘ancient mystery’, is always going to be more glamorous, than what is much likelier to be the truth. It gives them something more interesting to write home about, as it were.

Academics and scientists, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. They have to be more careful to always back up their claims with solid evidence. For while, at the end of the day, everything that we know - or think that we know - about prehistory, is almost always going to be ‘speculative’ in nature; there are different degrees of percentual probabilities.

To give you an example: there is nothing in the archaeological record, to suggest that human beings ever settled in Malta before the Ghar Dalam phase: which, until recently, was dated to around 5,000BC.

Now: the fact that the same site has also yielded animal fossils from long before that date - including dwarf elephants, hippopotami, etc.: which could only have come to Malta when it was still geographically connected to Sicily – also suggest that human beings COULD have come here at an earlier stage; just like those other animals did.

However, the earliest evidence of human activity, dating back to the Ghar Dalam phase, coincides with the fossil remains of much later animals: including domesticated animals such as cattle and goats, which humans brought with them themselves. So when you examine the evidence from this phase, in its proper context – including the material culture; the association with other animal remains, and so on – it gives us a gauge with which to measure the earliest signs of human activity on the island.

Another thing to mention is that, so far, no one has ever identified any tools, from any prehistoric Maltese site, as being typically ‘Paleolithic’ in nature: as would be found, for instance, in sites dating back to 10,000BC on mainland Europe. There is in fact, nothing in the local archaeological record that goes back further than the Neolithic.

Having said this, though: it only means that the scientific consensus is that Malta’s earliest inhabitants must have come here in the Neolithic, and that they were already farmers. And in fact, a recent study [Frasgus] has already pushed back the earliest known date [of human occupation] from 5,000BC, to 5,800BC.

To be honest, this had been suggested even earlier by a team of Italian archaeologists, back in the 1980s. But at the time, they didn’t have enough material evidence to prove it.

Even now, some archaeologists occasionally try to push it back farther still, to 6,000BC – even just to give themselves a round figure – but either way, the scientific consensus is that Malta was first inhabited towards the end of the fifth millennium BC. And it is fully supported by all the available evidence.

So to disregard all that, and extend the age of Ggantija - or any other Maltese temple - all the way back to 10,000BC, with no evidence at all: in the scale of probabilities, it’s just a bit too much of a stretch, really….

At the risk of playing the Devil’s advocate, though: Hancock is not merely pushing back the age of Malta’s temples… but also, the earliest emergence of human civilization. His theory proposes a ‘lost’ civilization actually flourished 5,000 years earlier than the oldest known existing ones: at a time when the rest of Europe was still in its hunter-gatherer phase. Given that any evidence of such a civilization would have been (very conveniently, it must be said) ‘destroyed in the deluge’… who’s to say that Hancock is wrong, anyway?

Well, the first problem I see with that idea is that: if Malta’s neolithic culture really was the survivor of an earlier ‘lost civilization’, that once existed somewhere between Sicily and Malta… why are there no comparable remains in Sicily?

Why did such an advanced social structure – which was capable of producing complex megalithicism, and such refined art – seem to have evolved only here in Malta; but not on a much larger territory, that was also (according to Hancock’s theory, anyway) within reach of overland travel?

Now: to be fair, it’s a question that can always be asked, even when applied to the consensus view of prehistory. Why did this complex society, with its distinct cultural features, flourish only here, on such a small island… and not, it seems, anywhere else?

To me, however, the more probable answers are far more interesting, than fanciful, ‘pseudo-sientific’ theories.  For instance, it could be that the rise of Malta’s megalithic culture was not just more ‘possible’, on a small island; but maybe even more likely… because when you have a confluence of so many new ideas, in isolation, the result is often similar to a ‘greenhouse effect’…

You mean, like the sudden explosion of culture in Greece, during the Classical Age?   

Perhaps. But then, judging by what happened a few thousand years after the megalithic period: Greek culture had no difficulty expanding out of Greece, and taking root - and flourishing quite extensively - in Sicily, either. So there is no real reason to suppose that a similar civilization would not have been able to flourish just a successfully there, as in Malta, during prehistory as well.

The fact remains, however, that – while there is plenty of evidence of contact in the form of trade, between Malta and communities in Sicily – there is no evidence of any comparable temple-building culture present on that island, or anywhere else, at that time.

I don’t want to make a circular argument of it, of course; but it remains a flaw with Hancock’s theory, that ‘Malta was the remnant of an earlier civilization’…

I take it’s not the only flaw you’ve identified, with the whole ‘Malta is Atlantis’ theory?

Well, now that you mention it: I haven’t watched the TV series, but I did see a small clip which featured a ‘reconstruction’ of what Ggantija may have looked like, when still in use.

In that clip, the external walls appear to be very cleanly cut into squares, separated by straight, deeply-cut grooves: a bit like the Pyramids of Egypt, really.

But Hancock makes a basic mistake here. He doesn’t distinguish between two different types of stone. Hagar Qim, for instance, is made up of blocks of Globegerina Limestone: which has deteriorated, but not by that much, through exposure to the elements.

The exterior envelope of Ggantija, on the other hand, is made from Coralline Limestone. I have it from a scientist colleague of mine – and this can be independently confirmed, by anyone who knows the properties of Coralline Limestone – that the stones that went into the outer envelope of Ggantija, have remained more or less the same, in appearance, ever since.

That rugged, ‘Swiss-cheese’ like effect does not come from erosion; it’s how the stones would originally have looked, even at the time when they were first quarried. All of which leads me to question what sort of research that ‘reconstruction’ was based on, in the first place.

Lastly, if you don’t mind another ’personal’ question: from the perspective of an archaeologist who has dedicated his entire career to promoting the more scientifically-established view of prehistory… is it frustrating, to witness the widespread popular success of ‘pseudoscience’?

It is, up to a certain extent. However, to be honest, in my career I don’t remember any students ever coming up with such ideas themselves; or even being particularly interested in them, when they are proposed by others. I think they might have been educated enough, before reaching University, to enter the mindset of archaeological thinking, for themselves.

And that is, at the end of the day, what we try to impart here, from the very beginning.