'Shed light on Arab period' leading academic pleads

Oxford academic Jeremy Johns makes an impassioned plea to the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage to publish research which could shed some light on Malta's Arab period

The 1198, Empress Constance document addressed to “the whole people of the entire island of Malta and of the entire island of Gozo, our loyal Christian and Saracen subjects alike (Latin) / to all the Christians and the Muslims of Malta and Gozo – may God guide them! (Arabic)”.
The 1198, Empress Constance document addressed to “the whole people of the entire island of Malta and of the entire island of Gozo, our loyal Christian and Saracen subjects alike (Latin) / to all the Christians and the Muslims of Malta and Gozo – may God guide them! (Arabic)”.

Prof. Jeremy Johns, a world authority on Medieval Sicily who lectures at the University of Oxford Institute of Oriental Studies, is calling on the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage to publish archaeological research related to the Roman, Norman and Arab period.
Johns is a Professor of the Art & Archaeology of the Islamic Mediterranean. His research has focused on the archaeology, history and art history of Sicily under Islamic and Norman rule.

Johns’s appeal coincides with the death of Prof. Godfrey Wettinger, whose historical research has disproved the myth of the continuity of Christianity in Malta between the time of St Paul and the present day.

But the results of archaeological research, some dating back to the 1990s, remains unpublished.
Interviewed by MaltaToday, Johns laments that displays of the National Archaeological Museum currently end with the Phoenicians, and completely ignore the Roman, the Arab and the Christian Medieval periods.

He argues that given the paucity of written sources from the 9th to the 14th centuries, archaeological evidence is especially important for the reconstruction of the medieval history of the Maltese Islands, when the culture and language of modern Malta began to evolve.
For example, one reading of the written sources suggests that Malta was largely uninhabited and lacked any centres of permanent settlement on Malta and Gozo between 869 and 1048.

“In the absence of new written sources, that hypothesis can only be tested by archaeology,” Johns says.
Johns refers to preliminary conclusions of the survey of 26 medieval sites published by Alessandra Molinari and Nathaniel Cutajar in 1999, which would seem to indicate that the hypothesis of abandonment requires at the very least significant modification in the light of the archaeological evidence.

But the evidence upon which those preliminary conclusions were based has still not been fully published, and so cannot be scrutinised.
Moreover, in the 17 years since their survey was conducted, no new evidence of occupation in the Maltese Islands between the late 9th and mid-11th century has been published – “at least, none of which I am aware”.

He refers to the extensive excavations carried out by the Superintendence in Mdina – the very site that is most likely to provide the most useful evidence for the problem of continuity of occupation – to say that their findings have not yet been published; not even, for example, in the form of preliminary reports published online.

“It is the responsibility of the Superintendence to ensure that the findings of fieldwork that it conducts are published fully and promptly”.
He acknowledges that the Superintendence may lack sufficient resources to fulfil that responsibility.

If this is the case Johns calls for additional funds by the government or, in the case of excavations carried out on sites earmarked for development, by the developers of the site or sites in question.

But the failure to publish the results of archaeological fieldwork is only one aspect of the problem.
The catalyst for the 1999 survey of medieval sites by Molinari and Cutajar was the proposal by the National Museum of Archaeology to open a new wing dedicated to the medieval archaeology of the Maltese Islands.

“Again, after 16 years, no permanent exhibit of medieval archaeology has materialised, and the schoolchild or the tourist could be forgiven for believing that the archaeology of these islands begins with the Neolithic period and ends with the Phoenicians, except at Rabat, where Romans lived and Arabs died.”

According to Johns, if the Superintendence is unable to publish the results of archaeological fieldwork, and to make them available to Heritage Malta for exhibition, “then after (say) five years have elapsed, the records and the finds of excavation should be made available to qualified scholars and students for them to study and publish”.

Planning applications taking toll on archaeology

Contacted by MaltaToday, Superintendent Dr Anthony Pace reiterated the commitment to publish and making publicly accessible the results of archaeological investigations.

“We hope that we will be able to overcome the perennial problems that we face because of a lack of resources,” he said.
Pace announced that the Superintendence is planning to publish a number of landmark archaeological investigations on medieval sites by the end of this year.

“The Superintendence has carried out these excavations during construction emergency excavations in a number of localities. These rescue excavations have taken place over a number of years. We hope that the publication of these reports will be a significant and constructive contribution to the ongoing debate regarding Malta’s Middle Ages.”

Pace claims that achieving the required standards of a good scientific report is both time consuming and requires resources, which are in short supply.

“Much of this work takes place in our unpaid private time away from the office. Although we are keen to publish, we are also aware of the sound standards that are required.”

The onslaught of development applications is one of the factors limiting the Superintendence’s ability to focus on its application.
This is because the Superintendence is regularly asked to investigate sites earmarked for development which may impact on archaeologically sensitive sites. In a number of cases the Superintendence, which has a very limited staff complement, is even asked to monitor works on these sites.

“The workload of the Superintendence has dramatically increased, in the main part because of MEPA and development-related matters. This year we expect our workload to double compared to that of 2013.”

Yet the human and financial resources of the Superintendence remain at a disproportionately low level.

“In such circumstances, real people issues, dealing with development investment and employment drivers have to be given priority over those of enthusiasts of Maltese history and archaeology. For the professional researchers working at the Superintendence, whose wish is to advance their work through publication, such choices are unfortunate, but real,” Pace said.

Notwithstanding these severe limitations the Superintendence is pursuing the objective of publishing the first key archaeological studies for the Middle Ages.

“Further studies are planned to be published in the following years. The regularity and speed with which the follow up publications will be produced depends very much on what resources are available to pursue these studies at the expected scientific standard.”

No signs of suppression of evidence – Johns

While calling for the publication of this research, Jeremy Johns insists that there is no reason “to conclude that evidence for the Arab and Muslim past is being deliberately suppressed”.

In 2013 the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage had denied a request by researcher and historian  Mark Camilleri to publish a list of all archaeological objects dated from 800AD to 1400AD – a period which coincides with the Arab occupation and continued Muslim presence in the island in subsequent years.

In a letter sent to Camilleri who chairs the National Book Council, the Superintendence claimed that it was exempted from the Freedom of Information Act because the publication of the information requested would prejudice academic and scientific research which is still taking place.

On his part, Camilleri accused the Superintendence of serving as a “propagandistic machine which controls and abuses historical evidence for religious and ideological ends,” an accusation which was denied by Pace, who insisted that “all bona fide researchers who have worked with the Superintendence recognise the impartial scientific research of this institution”.

In December 2013 Pace told MaltaToday that the results of all archaeological investigations related to the Arab period were to be published in two years’ time.

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