Near Eastern Archaeology in Malta

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, Archaeology, Archaeology and Bible, ASOR, Bronze Age, Classical Period, Dead Sea Scrolls, Excavations
Tags: Archaeology, biblical literature, bronze age, dead sea scrolls, excavation, qumran, Syria
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Frendo_Fig1. Tas-silg aerial

Aerial view of Tas-Silg.

By: Anthony J. Frendo

The Maltese archipelago lies practically at the centre of the Mediterranean, roughly midway between the eastern and the western Mediterranean Sea, and between the island of Sicily to its north and Libya to its south. Given this unusual location – between the Near East and Classical worlds and at the epicenter of the Punic world – one would expect Near Eastern archaeology to be a long-standing academic discipline. This is not the case, at least not yet.


Malta’s location in the Mediterranean. Image from Wikipedia

Some of the current status of the field in fact stems from my own experiences in high school. When I was in high school on Malta, I remember being enthusiastic about the vibrant power of the Scripture that we had to study for our religious classes. I was completely awed by the literary aspects of the Bible which I saw as indivisible from the message it aimed to communicate. At that time, little did I know the tremendous role which literary analysis would play in contemporary Biblical Studies. I was then told that to study the Bible properly it would be appropriate to first read Near Eastern Studies with an emphasis on Semitic languages (Classical Hebrew holding the pride of place). And I also wanted a grasp of the New Testament. All this meant learning Greek and Biblical Aramaic.

I also came to realize that the archaeology of the Near East played a crucial role in Biblical Studies. This eventually led me to embark on doctoral studies at the Institute of Archaeology in London. My broad field of research was “Biblical Archaeology” and I specifically worked on the stratigraphic and ceramic changes at Tell Deir ‘Alla towards the end of the Late Bronze Age. Shortly after obtaining my Ph.D., I taught Biblical Archaeology and Geography at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. When I returned home to Malta I was given a full-time post in Near Eastern Archaeology in the Department of Classics (later the Department of Classics and Archaeology) at the University of Malta. My focus for teaching and research was Levantine Archaeology with a focus on “Biblical Archaeology.” I offered courses on Ancient Israel, Syro-Palestinian Archaeology, and the archaeology of neighbouring areas, besides teaching Classical Hebrew and Phoenician-Punic.

I traced briefly my teaching path at the University of Malta as a background to the challenges faced when I embarked on teaching Near Eastern Archaeology at this university. The Republic of Malta (formerly a British colony) had no tradition of Near Eastern Archaeology. To my knowledge, prior to 1989 there had never been a post in Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Malta. Before I came back to Malta, there had been limited teaching on certain matters of the history and archaeology of the ancient Near East linked to the Bible, but this had been offered by theologians from the Faculty of Theology. For the first time in 1989, we had an area of study that was a field in its own right and which was based in the Faculty of Arts. The main difficulties were the same faced by all who embark on something wholly new; I had to start from scratch.

Another hurdle was financial– it was clear from the outset that there was no way the University of Malta could finance its own excavations in the Levant or the Near East. This posed a serious problem – how were students to be trained in the field of the region chosen for their study? The problem solved to an extent when the University of Malta partially financed one season of excavation at Tell in-Nebi Mendu in Syria. In 1995, a joint project with Peter J. Parr of the Institute of Archaeology, University of London, allowed me to take my top five students with me to receive their first training as supervisors on a mud-brick site in the Levant. This was a godsend. A year later a colleague, Professor Anthony Bonanno, who specializes in Roman Archaeology and the Prehistory of Malta, and I jointly opened up a new research and training excavation on a multi-period site in Malta, namely the site of Tas-Silġ, which was previously dug by an Italian team. We worked on the southern sector of the site in those areas untouched by the Italian excavators. The remains were primarily from the Phoenician-Punic period, and this was like having a Near Eastern site “planted” on the island.

Excavating at Tas-Silg. Photo courtesy of Anthony Frendo.

Though not a mud-brick site, Tas-Silġ resembled Levantine sites that were multi-period, shallow, and built largely in stone. This scenario was ideal since it provided excellent possibilities for training students in stratigraphic excavation. From 1996 up to 1999, Professor Bonanno and I were the directors of this excavation. Thereafter I had to abandon the excavation for departmental duties. The first supervisors at Tas-Silġ were students whom I had taken with me to Syria a year before. Nowadays, they all have found jobs related to archaeology – with a number of them in academia; indeed, one of them, Dr. Nicholas C. Vella, is the current Head of the Department of Classics and Archaeology and teaches Phoenician-Punic archaeology! These students helped us to train others in turn. A chain has been forged, and it all started with the participation of the University of Malta on a site in the Levant back in 1995. A second big challenge was – at least in a certain sense – taken care of.

The northern area of Tas-Silg. Photo courtesy of Anthony Frendo.

One of our archaeology students, Dr. Dennis Mizzi, went to do his Masters and then doctoral studies at the University of Oxford specializing in the Dead Sea Scrolls. He deals both with the archaeology and the texts of the site and is now one of my colleagues. I mention his case because over the years I had developed a keen sense for the importance of linking artefactual and textual evidence in a proper methodological manner and in viewing both types of evidence as two gateways to the past.

In fact, the third great challenge in teaching Near Eastern Archaeology is creating a holistic approach where texts and non-textual archaeological evidence are given their due weight. Initially there was a lack of interest in the Hebrew language and the “scientific” study of the Bible where various types of evidence – including that of archaeology – were given their full, due importance. It was not easy to sell such a package, probably because students had not yet discovered the riches of Near Eastern texts and archaeology, including the Hebrew Bible. It took time to overcome this hurdle, and the secret was dedication, enthusiasm, and persistence. All this seems to be working. Now, another former student of archaeology, Ms Abigail Zammit, is doing her doctoral studies at the University of Oxford where she is undertaking a re-examination of the Lachish ostraca.

All in all everything seems to be falling into place. Near Eastern Archaeology is being taught both in the Department of Classics and Archaeology as well as, albeit to a lesser extent, in the Department of Oriental Studies to those students pursuing a degree in Hebrew. Our philosophy is that students should be trained in the nuts and bolts of how to “read” both artefactual and textual data and to take a holistic approach to the reconstruction of our ancestors. They are taught to “read” the non-textual archaeological evidence as though they were prehistorians, and to read the biblical texts as though archaeology did not exist. The aim is helping them to then compare and contrast, as required, their archaeological interpretation with their textual interpretation.

There is still much more which needs to be done before Near Eastern Archaeology really becomes a fully-fledged discipline at the University of Malta. But a solid foundation has been laid, and for a small country like Malta to have two resident academics who, amongst other things, deal with the archaeology of the southern Levant of both the First and the Second Temple periods is already something.

Indeed, the original enthusiasm for biblical texts that I had in high school has been maintained through all these years and it became always clearer to me that these texts are better appreciated when studied in the overall context of Near Eastern Archaeology. What has already been done with the archaeology of the Levant and the Biblical texts, we hope one day to be able to do with the cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia and its archaeology. One step at a time.

 Professor Anthony J. Frendo is Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology and the Hebrew Bible at the University of Malta in the Department of Oriental Studies. He is also a member of the Department of Classics and Archaeology.

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