And God created woman
“We come closest to the early Maltese when we contemplate their mortal remains, but dry bones are still depressingly impersonal. Progress is being made, however, in methods for reconstructing the living appearance of long dead persons ...” (David H. Trump, Malta: Prehistory and Temples, 2002).
Modern science alas has no time for poor Yorick. One of the skulls found at the Xagħra Brochtorff Circle has been used by Heritage Malta to give us our first face, that of a young woman who was laid to rest there over five thousand years ago. It’s a charming twist to what we might call ‘imaginative archaeology’.
The person behind the reconstruction wizardry was reported by Times of Malta to have been Caroline Wilkinson. Prof. Wilkinson is one of the world’s leading experts in the field, and that means the face is more forensic precision than artistic licence. In fact, it is likely to be the best that science can do at this time.
I emphasise this because I wouldn’t wish to confuse imaginative archaeology with fantastical speculation. Atlantis is not the issue here, nor are super-intelligent giants with long heads and a penchant for lugging around heavy rocks. Rather, the Xagħra face is an example of the intersection between science and poetry.
Things seem to be quite the contrary at first glance. Surely vanitas paintings, Danish princes, and such are infinitely more poetic than forensic science when it comes to contemplating skulls?
Yes and no. For several years I was a regular reader of New Scientist, a magazine that’s particularly fond of cosmology and sub-atomic science. The writing was invariably of the highest scientific standard. What I used to find intriguing, however, was the art.
Scientists will tell you that black holes and superstrings are happiest in the form of numbers on a whiteboard. Only numbers are hardly the Sistine Chapel of creation: visually, they simply don’t cut the mustard. Which is why New Scientist comes with spectacular artwork that ‘shows’ the far reaches of the universe or the deepest recesses of the nucleus. It’s science alright, only spiced up with a spot of dreaming, in full colour.
The Xagħra face is probably millimetrically scientific in terms of height of cheeks, length of nose, and so on. The rest – the complexion, the Elizabeth Taylor eyebrows, and the hairdo – is daydreaming. Of the informed kind perhaps, but daydreaming nonetheless. It turns out it is not an exception.
Mortuary Customs in Prehistoric Malta (2009) is a detailed account of the 1987-1994 excavations (and finds) at the Brochtorff Circle in Gozo. The book is no flight of fancy. On the contrary it is a technical work that includes topics such as ‘aggregated habitat data by phase’, ‘proton magnetometers’, and ‘inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectroscopy’.
Until we reach the Conclusion, that is, where the authors tell us – somewhat apologetically – that in the course of their spectroscopic labour they “developed close relationships with bones”. What they mean is that archaeology cannot stop at the cerebral. They go on to talk about the sort of funerary rituals that might have taken place at the site.
Their ‘liberal interpretation’ reads like a Rider Haggard novel and includes elders in head-dresses and long skirts, the buzzing of flies, the pervasive stench of decayed flesh, and lots of drumming, spinning, and wailing. Quite a send-off for our dear Xagħra lady. Still, with eyebrows like that ...
I’m not remotely sardonic. On the contrary, it’s the liberal interpretation that breathes life into the mass of bone density and other tests that populate the rest of the book. I’d go so far as to say that one cannot exist without the other, that imagination informs science as much as science informs imagination.
There’s another thing. I particularly like the buzzing flies and smell of rotting flesh. That’s because they lend a new, multi-sensory dimension to the reconstruction. The dream isn’t just colourful, it also conjures up smells and sounds.
Which is exactly what Robin Skeates tries to do in his An Archaeology of the Senses: Prehistoric Malta (2010). Again, this is serious scientific archaeology. Suffice it to say that Skeates is employed by the University of Durham and that the book is published by Oxford University Press, which means it will have gone through zealous peer review.
Skeates’s main argument is that the archaeology of Malta has tended to over-emphasise the visual, and that a fuller understanding requires us to engage with the sounds, smells, flavours, and tactile sensations that the temple-builders might have experienced.
We’re told that prehistory unfolded to the tune of “barking dogs, bleating sheep and goats, buzzing flies, scratching hoes, crackling hearths, the slap of daubed clay” (who said onomatopoeia was a poet’s prerogative?). That the “pleasing aroma of burnt substances in the temples” offered a contrast to the “threatening odour of putrefaction in the rock-cut tombs and hypogeal”.
That the islanders’ sense of touch was extended in the Temple Period by the local production or import of new tactile materials. And so on. Skeates’s sensorium is sans bound.
Which brings me to another, somewhat more audacious brand of dreamers. Possibly the best known example of imaginative archaeology is the mother goddess theory. Spearheaded in the 1980s and 1990s by Marija Gimbutas (in her time a well-known academic archaeologist), the idea is that the culture of Neolithic Europe hinged on the generous figure of a mother goddess. As expected, Maltese curves feature prominently in Gimbutas’s books and their spin-offs.
Of which there were quite a few. They included the work of Dutch art historian Veronica Veen, who saw evidence of the mother goddess everywhere she looked. Seen through Veen’s eyes, what was left of the local Neolithic was evidence of a cult of ‘the lady of the waters and the earth’. There was hardly a sherd of pottery that wasn’t covered in vulvas, breasts, or buttocks.
Veen’s argument was for a general symbolism that was rooted in the elements and was also quite timeless. Clay slopes became a “goddess-like landscape” and figolli “goddesses of fertility with their red eggs on the belly”. The logical step was goddess tours to Malta, and indeed, Veen had her own travel agency for women. It was called Inanna, which is what the Sumerians called their own goddess of fertility.
Of course, by this time, a good number of archaeologists will have had a heart attack. No matter, we’ll spare a couple of goats and inter them with all the Temple-period honours. The way science is going, we’ll have their voices and palates in a few thousand years.