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A dedicated follower of culture

Joe Sultana:
A Man Of Cultural Achievements. Essays In Honour Of Joseph Attard Tabone
BDL, Malta 2016
271 pp

Indeed it is difficult to compartmentalize Joseph Attard Tabone whose 80th birthday last November was celebrated by an excellent festschrift which should rightly hold its place on the shelves of all Melitensia lovers.

Xagħra-born Attard Tabone is best known for his part in the rediscovery of the Stone Circle near Ġgantija and his fight to save the area from the rampant building spree in the late seventies and early eighties. For this alone he deserves the gratitude of archaeologists not only of Malta but of the world since the Circle has provided lots of important new information which is still being scientifically evaluated.

Chigi mapChigi map

Largely self-taught, he lived life to the full, achieving more than a score of graduates who merely sit on their qualifications. His contributions to archaeology in particular have been recognised by his admittance to the august Royal Society of Antiquaries of London in December 2015

At the age of 25, he founded the Xagħra Cultural Centre and then went on to co-found the Malta Ornithological Society and preside it for 10 years, but then his interests include general Melitensia matters, art, travel, history, gardening, and the environment, all of which he pursued with an admirable and infectious passion. Through all this, he also managed a notable career in the police force, especially the fire-fighting division, from which he retired in 1981.

Mario Gauci provides a short account of Tabone Attard’s life and his achievements, including his crusades in favour of Gozo’s archaeological remains, together with a list of his publications.

Giovanni Bonello writes about the first discovery and amateur excavations (organized looting?) of the Stone Circle in the early nineteenth century and the various travails this site had to go through including its wilful destruction in a moment of pique by its owner after the government failed to pay up the requested sum. Thankfully its real treasures lay underground!

The paper is illustrated by some of Houel’s wonderful drawings and Brocktorff’s better-known depictions.

Daniel Cilia, who has beautifully photographed so many of our archaeological sites, writes about the unique ritual sculptures found at the Circle. The most famous are undoubtedly the six marvellous mysterious statuettes generally known as the ‘Shaman’s Cache’, which are so unlike anything else discovered locally and which would surely have been universally labelled as fakes had they not been found in such a secure context. Just as remarkable is the figurine of the two seated figures, as are the small clay figurines that pre-date Henry Moore by four millennia.

Joe Attard TaboneJoe Attard Tabone

The late David Trump says his last words about the mysterious cart ruts of the islands whose explanation continued to vex his logic to the very end. In his essay he gives due credit to the constant help he used to receive from Attard Tabone in their exploration of Gozo who knows his native island like the palm of his hand.

George Azzopardi, who has researched religious landscapes and identities in the Maltese islands from Phoenician to Late Roman times, suggests that the typical Zebbug-Phase jars could have had a symbolical role connected with fertility as he draws parallels with Punic practices.

The doyen of Melitensia Albert Ganado writes about maps of Gozo from the 1630s to 1907. Possibly the earliest such map is to be found in a manuscript that belonged to Inquisitor Fabio Chigi who later became Pope Alexander VII. Maps of just Gozo are rather rare and the author identifies and describes seven of them. Unfortunately, the maps themselves are not printed large enough to enable aficionado to pore over their minutiae.

David Dandria contributes a paper on references to Gozo and Comino in some pre-eighteenth-century authors, starting with Quintinus’ account. All accounts stress the island’s fertility and many refer to the siege of 1551 which decimated the population.

Ideally what we really need is a Joseph Attard Tabone in every village in Gozo and Malta too

The author who gave the longest references was, of course, Gian Francesco Abela, who was apparently the first scholar to refer to the ‘fungus’ that grew on the Ġebla tal-General which he calls the ‘Hagira tal Gernal’. Another longish description was made by the French traveller Jean de Thevenot in 1655.

Admiral William Henry Smyth (1788-1865) was another amateur archaeologist who wrote about Maltese antiquities and Ggantija and also made famous hydrological charts of the Mediterranean. Typical of his times he was a great collector of coins and medals which he described in a catalogue in 1834.

Anton Bugeja writes about the 82 medals with Maltese connections. Quite a number seems to have come form a notable hoard of coins discovered at Ta’ Gawhar in 1819, a good number of which were sold for melting down after the farmer who discovered them did not get the price he wanted. Shades of what had happened at the Xaghra Stone Circle!

Mgr Joseph Bezzina, the founder and head of the Gozo section of the National Archives, writes about the wealth of records and documents that have been assembled there since its official foundation in 1987. It holds fonds from 27 different entities, the earliest being those of the Gozo Universitas. The author then gives a tantalizing foretaste by describing briefly 10 interesting documents and photos from the archive collection.

Michael Gatt writes about the geology and palaeontology of Gozo which are essentially shared with Malta’s and of which he gives an exhaustive description, together with many illustrative examples.

Botanist Edwin Lanfranco provides an overview of the flora of Gozo, which does differ much from that of the larger island but the author chooses to focus on aspects that make Gozo floristically special and treats a number of taxa with a strong local connection. Pride of place certainly goes to the ‘fungus’ of Fungus Rock although it is not actually limited geographically to that rock. He also lists and describes species that are currently found in the smaller island.

Social anthropologist Mark-Anthony Falzon expresses his thoughts on land use, hunting, and conservation in the islands whose 14,000 licensed hunters mean that there are 75 per square kilometre! That means every hunter has about 130 square metres to roam about, the size of a smallish flat.

Falzon discusses some of the many complex relations between local hunters and the environment. For those of us who do not have an inkling of the ‘knowledge’, the paper is a pleasant eye-opener to the intricacies of the hunt from the anthropological and idiomatic points of view.

John J. Borg writes about the evolution of bird studies in Malta which changed drastically to become more organized and scientific with the setting of the Malta Ornithological Society in 1962. Scientific studies about bird migration and bird-ringing brought about a new professional approach with many exciting discoveries and revisions. To date over half-a-million birds have been ringed, while studies have thrown new light on several breeding species. In all this Attard Tabone played a meaningful part.

Michael Refalo writes about postal arrangements in Gozo in the late 19th century by analysing the 1888 report by Postmaster Ferdinando Inglott. The problems included obvious lack of patronage in a society that was far from literate and the people insisting on buying the postage stamps from the post office because they considered the ones sold by the postman as ‘fake’.

Michela D’Angelo from the University of Messina writes about an Attard family that settled in Messina in the 18th century. Melchiorre was the illegitimate son of a Sicilian knight who left Malta after the French invasion, shortly to be followed by his mistress and her son who eventually became a successful businessman. One son became the first custode of the Gran Camposanto, with the Attards becoming guardians of the cemetery for almost a century.

Sharon Sultana writes about the various tenants of the Auberge de Provence. For some time it was a hotel before becoming the site of the Malta Union Club which was founded in 1826 but only allowed female members in 1906, although access was initially permitted only through a side door. The club’s honorary members included Sir Water Scott and Benjamin Disraeli. The lease was terminated in 1955 and the auberge became the site of the National Museum which today houses our archaeological treasures.

Theresa Vella perceptive essay discusses Perellos’ magnificent ‘Indian’ tapestries at the Grand Master’s palace. They are only remaining complete series in the world and moreover they still grace the hall for which they were intended. Meant for the council meetings, the hall would house Malta’s legislative assemblies until 1974.

Vella gives details about the prolific artist Albert Eckhout who is being greatly revalued as an artist. Among other interesting details, she points out that the artist contrasts the natural world with its ‘dramatic brutality’ and the cultured and domesticated state brought about by the introduction of the Christian civilisation.

Like Attard Tabone, the Boy Scouts in Xaghra celebrated their 80th anniversary last year. Carmel Attard celebrates their events by giving a brief account of their history. The group had quite a travailed history, was disbanded a couple of times, and was finally reactivated on solid lines just 11 years ago.

The editor of the festschrift, Joe Sultana, writes about the Xagħra Cultural Centre, the first of its kind in Gozo, and which the young Attard Tabone was crucial in its setting-up in 1961. It was fundamental in raising the awareness of the villagers of their history and environment. It revived the traditional Kummittiva dance during carnival, and fired several young persons with a new love for their surroundings.

Unfortunately, it fizzled out in 1967, when Attard Tabone was following a course in the UK and the permission to use a room in the primary school was withdrawn. Still it was to prove instrumental in the founding of the Malta Ornithological Society, a legacy that has gone from strength to strength and slowly, perhaps too slowly, helped to change the traditional attitude to hunting and trapping.

One little tiny carp concerns the idiosyncratic referencing system but this does not in any way detract from the importance of this collection of papers.

One cannot do better than conclude with David Trump’s remark: “Ideally what we really need is a Joseph Attard Tabone in every village in Gozo and Malta too, but this perhaps is too much hope for. There aren’t many Attard Tabones with the appropriate skills, enthusiasm, and dedication, around.”

Ad multos annos, Joe.

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