Unearthing the mysteries of the past | Anthony Bonanno

Prof. Anthony Bonanno pays tribute to the late Dr David Trump, who set out to answer some of the most intriguing (and to date unanswered) questions about Malta’s enigmatic prehistory

Anthony Bonanno, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Malta
Anthony Bonanno, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Malta

In a year that has claimed so many cherished celebrities and international icons, it is easy to overlook other less immediately identifiable casualties of 2016. Largely overshadowed by the passing of such world famous icons as Fidel Castro, David Bowie and George Michael, among this year’s obituaries there was also a certain Dr David Trump – not, of course, to be confused with the slightly better-known US President of (almost) the same name – who passed away in September at the age of 85.

Outside the sphere for which he was best known locally – namely, archaeology – this detail may seem insignificant in the annals of 2016. Within academic circles, however, Trump was by all accounts a celebrity in his own right: a man who helped shape much of our understanding of Malta’s unique prehistoric heritage, in the course of more than 60 years of fieldwork and research. 

So extensive was his contribution that Anthony Bonanno, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Malta, finds it difficult to quantify.

“It is not easy to do justice to David Trump’s invaluable contribution to Maltese archaeology, more specifically to Maltese prehistory,” he begins when asked for a specific assessment. “Trump took up from his mentor and predecessor, Prof. John Evans, the task of sorting out the chronological sequence of the different phases of Malta’s prehistory, and further refined it and enlarged it. As a result, Malta has probably the neatest and most comprehensible sequence of prehistoric cultural development of the rest of the Mediterranean countries...”

Trump’s association with Malta began in 1954, when he formed part of a team excavating Gozo’s Ggantija Temples. Subsequently curator of the National Museum of Archaeology, he went on to excavate numerous other sites, of which the Skorba temples near Mgarr (Malta), and the Brocktorff Circle in Xaghra, are the best known. 

It was Trump who replaced the earlier, cumbersome labels for prehistoric phases with a more comprehensible, representative nomenclature based on place-names – the Ghar Dalam phase, Grey Skorba phase, etc. – which is in use today.  

“He also divided Maltese prehistory into three main ‘Periods’ – Neolithic, Copper Age and Bronze Age – instead of Evans’ bipartite division; and for the first time, attached to each period and phase scientifically produced dates using radiocarbon. This pushed back the earliest appearance of humans on the islands to shortly after 4,000 BC...”

This date was later pushed back even further to 5,000 BC by means of another dating method adopted in the 1970s: tree-ring calibration. It was in part thanks to these efforts, too, that Malta’s megalithic temples acquired their reputation as ‘the oldest free-standing buildings in the world’.

“The latter calibration also made it possible to date the earliest megalithic temples, such as the Ggantija ones, to the Ggantija Phase (3600-3000 BC)... that is, centuries before the first pyramid in Egypt.”

Bonanno also credits David Trump with placing Malta’s prehistoric legacy on the world archaeology map. “Trump was a skilled divulgator of knowledge, both in his frequent public lectures and in his writings, reaching out to a whole range of different audiences using everyday vocabulary instead of recondite specialized jargon... such as in his Malta, an Archaeological Guide, published first in 1971.  He published a surfeit of scientific papers in academic journals, one of which refers for the first time to the ‘architects’ of the megalithic temples.”

Beyond Malta, Dr Trump also made a valid contribution to Sardinian prehistory, introducing a new phase. “For many years when I used to teach General Prehistory to first year students, I followed and recommended the use of his book The Prehistory of the Mediterranean, an excellent overview of the subject up to the 1980s, encompassing most of the prehistoric sites within 100 km from the shores of the Mediterranean...”

For all this, his name remains more closely associated with Malta’s most enigmatic archaeological conundrum: the so-called ‘cart-ruts’, which all these millennia later continue to withhold their secrets. 

Trump himself often admitted to being mystified by the purpose and function of these curious grooves carved into the living rock. In one of his last local interviews, he confessed that: “Thinking about my experience of the Maltese cart ruts, the thing that strikes me most is that in these 57 years, I have added far more questions than answers.”

Among these unanswered questions is their precise age. Bonanno admits that this critical knowledge has so far proved elusive.

“Cart ruts, like many other rock-cut features which do not trap inside them a sufficiently reliable stratigraphic sequence of archaeological deposits, are very difficult to date. They constitute the only area where in the past David Trump and myself had divergent views: on the footsteps of Temi Zammit, Trump opted for a Bronze Age date. Along the years I came to realize that statistically, the majority of cart ruts – both in Malta and elsewhere in the Mediterranean – were intimately associated with quarrying of the Classical age... which in Malta corresponds to the Punic and Roman periods. We even have two instances where cart-ruts cut through the floor of quarries of the Classical age, making it impossible for them to predate that period...”

The two divergent viewpoints were never fully reconciled, though Trump would eventually revise his own opinion slightly. Prof. Bonanno recalls his last lecture on this subject at Din l-Art Helwa in December 2015. “I was happy to attend that lecture, in which he extended the range of date for the cart ruts from the Borg in-Nadur phase (1500-900 BC) to the end of the Roman period (AD 535). In spite of this, I admit that there are still many unanswered, or unsatisfactorily answered questions...”

But doesn’t Trump’s comment about ‘unanswered questions’ up to a point also apply to the study of archaeology as a whole? Wouldn’t it be fair to say that the most we can hope to do is approximate the truth about the ancient world... without ever being certain?

“My answer to that is ‘no’; Trump’s comment does not apply to archaeology in general. It applies more to certain areas of prehistory because, by their very nature, they have no written documentation to corroborate them. To answer questions concerning religious beliefs and social relations, recourse must be made to anthropological analogies. In these grey areas, it is always a question of percentage of probabilities: one hypothetical view being more probable than another, unless there exists evidence that makes it possible to eliminate any of them completely... such as, for instance, extraterrestrial interventions...”

Naturally, not everyone would be equally keen to eliminate outlandish hypotheses such as alien origins for Malta’s temple culture... indeed, the absence of conclusive answers has attracted any number of such theories. 

In ‘Chariots of the Gods’, for instance, author Erich Von Daniken argued that Malta’s cart-ruts were actually ancient landing strips for extra-terrestrial spacecraft. Daniken also argued that the pyramids of Egypt were built by alien civilisation, and that Biblical accounts such as the Creation myth were ancestral memories of early human encounters with extra-terrestrials.

His work has since been thoroughly debunked, but this hasn’t stopped others from building on its foundations. More recently, a documentary made by Graham Hancock identified Malta’s temple culture as the last vestiges of the lost continent of Atlantis... suggesting that other, as yet undiscovered temples lie on the seabed. Again, ‘alien intervention’ lies at the heart of this hypothesis. Hancock points towards the famous ‘elongated skulls’ unearthed from the Hypogeum. Ignoring tests which have established they are fully human, he favours the view that they belonged to a ‘master race’ from another world.

Meanwhile, a cursory online search yields masses of sites dedicated to promulgating such fanciful theories. Just as the rest of the world is beset by ‘fake news’ and the so-called ‘Post-truth’ era, scientific and academic research must constantly contend with a global factory of mass-produced conspiracy theories: distorting the available evidence in the process.

Trump himself was critical of such ‘pseudoscience’, arguing that any theory should be backed by archaeological and anthropological evidence. Does Prof Bonanno share his concern that such theories are undermining scientific efforts? 

“I do share David Trump’s concern about some of these pseudoscientific theories, especially when they denigrate and try to discredit archaeological professionalism and expertise, and resort to unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. On the other hand, a few well-established archaeologists have been more liberal in making allowance for fringe archaeological interpretations on their excavation sites, in the name of ‘multivocality’ (such as Çatal Höyük in Turkey)... without, however, adopting them in mainstream academic discourse...”

Interestingly, similar efforts have been undertaken on local excavation sites. “By way of anecdote, it should be said that once – in the summer of 1988, I believe... Trump experimented with the application to archaeology of an unorthodox methodology: ‘rhabdomancy’, or dowsing... ‘the art of discovering ores, springs of water, etc. in the earth by means of a divining-rod’. I followed him while he used the rods to divine the existence of walls, thresholds, and even windows. The first two could be verified by physical excavation; the third one obviously not. That experiment only lasted one season of excavation at the Xaghra Circle; it had been completely abandoned by the following season...”

Turning back to Trump’s concern with unanswered questions: have any of these questions been answered since then? And if a new technology or discovery might shed light on unknown aspects of Malta’s prehistoric culture... what would Prof. Bonanno himself most like to shed light on?

“There are two questions about Maltese prehistory that intrigue me personally and, I think, many of my colleagues. The first question is... where did the temple builders derive their profound and consummate knowledge of engineering manifested in their megalithic buildings? Since the overhaul of European prehistoric chronology resulting from radiocarbon dating and tree-ring calibration in the 1970s, it has proved impossible to identify any outside source of inspiration for such knowledge. One can legitimately resort to endemic geniality (the native genius) to explain the rise of such refined art as expressed in the sculpture of Hagar Qim, Tarxien and the Xaghra hypogeum... but not to explain the engineering feats ably assessed by Prof. Alex Torpiano in his writings...”

The second question, he adds, is even more serious, and goes back to the discovery by Temi Zammit – the great-grandfather, so to speak, of modern Maltese archaeology – of two successive and clearly distinct prehistoric cultures at Tarxien in 1915-19. 

“To explain the deposition of the respective stratigraphic layers, Zammit suggested a break, possibly of centuries, between the temple culture and the following Bronze Age culture (now known as Tarxien Cemetery culture). That, by the way, would logically do away with any notion of direct ancestry from the temple builders to the present – leaving aside, for this occasion, the other contested break immediately after the Arab conquest of AD 870. Apart from a likely misinterpretation by Zammit of the ‘sterile’ layer separating the above two layers which postulates unnecessarily the centuries-long gap between the two cultures, the question of ‘break or continuity’ between the two cultures is a matter of continued debate among archaeologists. The emerging school of thought would like to see a continuity of the same people into the Bronze Age, the cultural change being attributed to a social upheaval which saw the collapse of one social structure and its replacement by another. I am personally not satisfied with this interpretation. I find the radical change in all cultural aspects far too complete...”

The gap between Neolithic and Bronze Age involves radical overhauls in technology: the total loss of old building knowhow; the first use of metals. Bonanno identifies other innovations suggesting a clean break between the two periods.

“A new type of pottery repertoire arose, differing in shape, clay, decoration and firing technique. There was a radical change in religious practice and funerary ritual – with cremation replacing inhumation. Completely different artistic conceptualizing and rendering of the human form were developed, without any trace of continuity... with one exception. There is only one archaeological indicator that overlaps the two cultures: a type of pottery, called Thermi Ware, a handful of specimens of which occur also in previous temple contexts. This raises one of the unanswered questions that you refer to. Some attempt has been made to answer it, but not everyone is happy with the answer, including myself.”