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SECRETS OF A 3000-YEAR OLD AVALANCHE REVEALED
New Evidence on the Bronze Age

by
Francis S. Mallia
Curator of Archeology - National Museum of Malta


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Report on Organic Material - Royal University of Malta


Pages of the Times of Malta of March 14th, 1965, which carried part of the Lecture given by Mr. Francis Mallia.
Photographs taken by Paul Calleja-Gera, and drawings by Francis Mallia.
SundayTimes1.jpg (76959 bytes) BoneCupDrawing.jpg (50606 bytes) DaggerDrawing.jpg (49889 bytes) SundayTimes2.jpg (80085 bytes)
Unbaked clay vessel & bone dagger handle (not to scale) The bronze dagger, or knife, which fitted the bone handle.
Below is the transcript of the original text of the lecture...
This article is an edited version of a lecture given by the author, who was also chairman of the Malta Archeological Circle, to members and guests at the British Institute, Valletta, on January 8th, 1965.  The photographs are by Mr. Paul Calleja-Gera, leader of the Dingli Speleological Expedition.  The drawings have been specially prepared by the author.

BI programme.jpg (33194 bytes)

The Cave Complex 

When an archeologist is called in to investigate a casual find, it often means an occasion for him to make a number of complaints, if not loudly to the people around him, at least to himself, although he knows he is not to blame.  He sees objects that have been carelessly broken, others removed, and even sometimes suspects a number of total losses. I remember a similar case recently when I was handed the entire contents of an unusual Roman cremation burial in the parlor of their rescuer's home.  Needless to say, archeology gained next to nothing; I had the pots, but I could not go on from there to interpret what they meant in terms of history because they were hopelessly out of context.

With the site and archeological material I am going to describe, exactly the reverse was the case and very happily too, as you shall soon realize. At the beginning of last November 1964, I got to know Messrs. Paul Calleja-Gera, Franz Vella Bamber, Ernest German, Vincent Bugeja, Vincent Sciberras and Bernard Storace, members of a cave exploring group who have turned out to be the best collaborators it has ever been my fortune to come across and, if I may be allowed to say, utilize in my work.   Not only were they responsible for the location of the site in the first place, but they also left every bit of the rich material they saw around them where it lay until they took me to the spot 'to have a look' as they put it.  As I will explain later on, some of the important discoveries we have made together will need looking into by a few other people besides myself before the full story can be told.

The Archeological Site

I will first tell you about the site itself and how we came to know about it.  To begin with, someone told Paul Calleja-Gera, leader of the Group and an expert cave-explorer in his own right, about a 'beauty' of a cave in the south-west of Malta, but would not disclose its exact whereabouts.  The upshot of this brief encounter was that Paul found it, or rather, the two inconspicuous entrances to it, high up in the scree ('Irdum' in Maltese) behind Dingli Village and approximately half way between Madalena Chapel and the restaurant on the edge of the cliff.

For what follows I would ask your forbearance while I will be using descriptive terms which normally apply to the usual run of natural, solid caves, whereas what I mean most of the time is anything but 'terra firma'.  we have now in fact seen the hidden face of the Dingli cliffs and can report that in most places the scree is hollow, permitting movement in all horizontal and vertical directions as far as one's courage would take one, a possibility, I guess, never realized before.  I would however advise against anyone taking this hint, and for reasons which will presently become obvious.

The two entrances lead into a limbo on interconnected labyrinths of all sizes, the entrances, the caves and connections being the rough clearances left between the irregular coralline blocks of which the scree is composed.   No two chambers can be negotiated in the same manner, so that, while squeezing along a narrow passage could get us into an area where we found we could only crawl, a wide open space could not be reached except by a clear vertical descent of about 20 feet.

This sort of environment, rugged and potentially full of danger, imposed on us a method of going about our investigations, and here the quiet, inspiring leadership of Mr. Calleja-Gera in the matters of personal safety came to the fore.  Once inside one or the other of the two entrances, we had to employ hill-climbing techniques on a small scale, using, among other equipment, nylon safety lines, rope ladders and acetylene and battery lamps to get to the various levels and to see our way in the pitch darkness.  Half-way through the investigation, which has been going on since last November (1964), we had the luxury of a couple of field telephones, kindly lent by the Civil Defense Commissioner, to enable parties working at the different levels to keep in touch about movements and finds.

As I implied earlier on, the stability of each individual rock depends entirely on several natural, unknown factors, and I have often been preoccupied with the conviction that the 'irdum' at Dingli is the right sort place which would change considerably with the faintest earthquake registered in Malta, with hardly anything to show for it on the surface.  With disturbing note, I leave for a while the site and what nature has done to it, and pass on to the brief description and preliminary appraisal of the man-made or used material found inside the labyrinth.

The Finds

Whenever pottery occurs in a prehistoric context it invariably provides a primary determining factor, and so it is with our site at Dingli.   I am not going to deal at length with this aspect though, however necessary that may be, but only give a summary of it in order to present the new evidence.

The relative dating of GHAR MIRDUM, the name aptly given to the site by the leader of the expedition and which I propose to retain, is Borg-in-Nadur Phase, which lasted from about 1450 B.C. until the arrival of the Phoenicians.  We have literally car-loads of pottery to support this, and its characteristics are unmistakable.  The bulk of the material has a bright or dark red slip, there are several shapes to compare with the old finds from Borg-in-Nadur itself, and if this were not enough, almost with every batch of shards hauled all the way up at the end of each day's work, a few or several pieces with the typical groupings of parallel lines with white inlay could be noticed.

Foreign influence on the local culture is very well marked by the so-called axe and catapult handles which had their origin and full development in the Apennine mountains of Italy during the Bronze Age.  There are also three red painted shards of an imported ware which I shall come to in a moment.

A Piece we never had before.

After an exhaustive study of the pottery I might yet find a few more shapes or designs to add to those already known from previous excavations, but the evidence on one particular piece can be presented right away as something we never had before. Maltese pre-historic pottery was hand made from blue clay and the vessels, after shaping, ere put in a cool shade to dry to a leather-hard condition before being fired to harden.  This one, a section of the flat base of a large thick jar, had been stood up on a useful household commodity, a mat, which left the imprints of its component parts (main rope and transversal ties) on the bottom of the jar.  the same specimen also shows imprints and casts of seeds, and possibly an indication as to what kind of grass had provided the raw material for the matting.

And now for the tail-piece to the subject of pottery.   Close by two handfuls o soft blue clay, there was a miniature glass, also of unbaked clay, and full of a white and brownish mould.  I think you will allow me to suggest that one day about 3000 years ago a potter at Dingli had to leave his work for something more urgent and never returned to finish it.

During one of my descents into the scree at Dingli, the telephone rang.  It was a call from Ernest German who stayed behind in the upper levels of the labyrinth.  I listened to his description of an unusual object: bone, decorated, three holes at one end.  I was suddenly gripped with excitement and gave him a blind interpretation: "You could have a pendant; we are coming up as soon as possible."  That meant of course a climb lasting about an hour, and when we finally reached him he produces an object which tallied with his description, but not with what I had thought of it.  It was, believe it or not, a bone handle for a small bronze dagger and the holes were there to take the rivets.  It's maker had taken a cow's metacarpal, a bone of the fore limb, cut and shaped it to the required dimensions, and sawn it lengthwise, but not completely, for hanging in his or someone else's belt.   Unfortunately the tongue of bone at the back which would have made this possible was missing, having broken off at the base.  The decoration of lines and encircled dots had been made by metal tools and filled with carbon to contrast with the natural creamy colour of the handle.

Unique beyond our shores

The uniqueness of this object in so far as its shape, and therefore its function, is concerned extends far afield beyond the shores of Malta & Gozo.  On another score, the nearest parallel I can find for the decoration is a bone plaque from Sicily, similarly decorated with dots and circles, which Professor Bernabo' Brea dates to the Castelluccio Phase, about 1800-1400 B.C.  This, it will be recalled, overlaps with our Borg-in-Nadur Phase.  Remembering also that fringe dates in pre-history are not all that secure, we can for the time being consider Borg-in-Nadur and Castelluccio to be partly contemporary.  Brea, in turn,  points out parallels for the Sicilian plaque in Troy, Poliochni and other sites on the Aegean Islands.   The handle, or the idea to make it, may or may not have come from Sicily, but there will eventually, I hope, be no doubts as to the provenances of the three red-painted shards I mentioned earlier on and which fit almost to perfection the pottery from the Castelluccio site I remember seeing in the Syracuse Museum.

The bone handle looks harmless enough without its blade, which unfortunately we have not found.  Instead we have very tangible evidence for the mood and practices of the times, and the means with which people behaved accordingly, in a sharp-edged bronze dagger found broken at the hilt and bent by the weight of a rock.   Naturally the metal had other uses in life, as two large rivets which could have held the handle of a bucket clearly testify.

The Ghar Mirdum Folk

Turning rather abruptly to the peaceful occupations of the anonymous Ghar Mirdum folk, I want to tell you about what I consider to be the most unexpected of our finds.  For this I had to go all the way down to the 100 foot level, and I assure you it was well worth it; sandwiched between two large pieces of pottery was a thick layer of fibrous material, sleek and shiny at the top, becoming rougher and more pronouncedly fibrous over the bottom shard.  I thought this was the thing to put straight into a polythene bag (which was done very soon after) because it must be of an organic nature.  God know how many times since it was found I have wished that it will turn out to be so, or better still, perhaps the grass from which the matting has been made.

Professor W.G.H. Edwards and, through him Dr. S M Haslam, both of the Royal university of Malta, and to whom I referred all the organic material from Dingli just before Christmas (1964), have now confirmed the first guess but not my second; the material is organic, and appears at first glance to be decomposed wood.   Further work by the experts may yet tell us, I hope, what kind of wood the specimen is made of.

By way of consolation, we have some vegetable fibers on a rim shard, not however in as big a sample as the wood.  If not in the manufacture of clothing, these fibers could have been used in the making of baskets, or even mats of the type which left us the imprints. Whatever the case may have been, the results of future laboratory analysis also on this specimen are eagerly awaited.  Furthermore, samples of carbon picked up on the site might yet be analyzed for the possibility of fixing one more date in Maltese prehistory by C14 analysis and of knowing more about the local flora in antiquity.

Constant Temperature

The presence of organic remains inevitably raises the question of why they have been preserved at all at the Dingli Site.  As I see it, there could be one or both of two reasons for this phenomenon; first, they have not been buried in soil, but in pockets between the boulders and under a sprinkling of rock dust which, I suppose, possesses less destructive qualities than the soil. Secondly, the temperature inside the labyrinth might have something to do with the preservation of otherwise perishable matter.  We have therefore started taking a series of comparative temperature readings which will eventually be passed on to the laboratories helping us in our investigations.

For the remainder of the numerous finds, I do not think the space at my disposal here permits me to go beyond saying that they are just as intriguing, each in its own way, as the ones I have described.  later on, their turn will come to be dealt with at length in my final written report on Ghar Mirdum.

Interpretation on the Evidence

Instead I propose to close by giving a brief tentative interpretation of what could have happened to the Dingli Site in antiquity, the catastrophic results of which are only too evident to us today.

Sometime between the middle of the second Millennium before Christ, a community of farmers, with their domestic animals, chose some large caves in the Dingli heights facing the sea as their home, thinking, quite rightly, that they could easily defend themselves against attack when the need arose.  I would like to imagine that their enemy would first have had to locate them before planning anything hostile.  Perhaps over the centuries, an attack never materialized, or if it did, they were able to repel it. 

But nature - the very walls of their impregnable habitations - slowly but surely worked itself to a cataclysmic showdown.  The same springs of fresh water which they tapped at the level of blue clay for their daily uses, gradually undermined the limestone brow of the Dingli cliffs by washing away out too much of the underlying clay, until the overhang exceeded the limits of leverage possibilities and the whole area, with our hapless folk and all they possessed, came tumbling down.

If a small amount of Punic and Roman pottery found in the upper levels of the labyrinth can be taken as a 'terminus ante quem' (Latin: 'date before which'), this terrible event would have already occurred by the time the Phoenicians landed on the shores of Malta.  I leave it to my gallant helpers to find me a human skeleton somewhere down inside the Dingli labyrinth to prove my interpretation is not wide off the mark. (Ed: Remain of a child were later found, and deposited with the archeological finds in the Museum).


A Preliminary note on the organic material from a prehiostoric site forwarded to the Department of Chemistry (Prof. W.G.H. Edwards), Royal University of Malta, Evans Laboratories, Valletta,
on December 18th, 1964.

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The find-site

An underground labyrinth made by the rough clearances left between the upper coralline limestone blocks of which the scree on the Dingli cliffs between M.R. 446679 and M.R. 457668 is composed.  the actual site has been named GHAR MIRDUM, Maltese for 'subsided cave'.  The archeological material occurs at all levels and is in fact being collected as excavation in the strict scientific meaning of the term appears to be possible.

Dating

The finds (pottery, metal and worked bone) point overwhelmingly to a local prehistoric (Bronze Age) phase style Borg-in-Nadur and spanning the period 1450 to 800 B.C. A sherd of imported painted ware of the Castelluccio phase in Sicily, when confirmed, would add no little weight to this dating.  C14 dates are available at the moment only up to the preceeding phase, tarxien Cemetary, c.2000-1450 B.C.

The Organic and other material submitted

  1. a fringe section of the base of a large pottery vessel showing the imprints of matting, grass and seeds.
  2. rim sherd with a bunch of fine fibres stuck to the inside
  3. fibrous material sandwiched between and lying over two sherds of unequal thickness, the larger and thicker supporting the lot now and when first seen in situ.
  4. lumps of unbaked blue clay and, in the same material and in association, a miniature peg-based vessel which, when discovered, was full of mould; this has now shgrunk to a small ball.
  5. several fragments of charcoal, amongst which twigs or small branches of plants or trees can be recognised.

Temperature readings

A series of observations inside the caves are due to be started very soon, and their result will be passed on in due course.

 

December 18, 1964
Francis S Mallia
Curator of Archaeology, Malta.


Copyright P Calleja-Gera:  All rights reserved.

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