Emergence of a New Picture of the Maltese Holocene Environment Ph.D. with an Innovative inter-disciplinary approach

A new picture of the Maltese Holocene Environment is emerging through Katrin Fenech’s recent Ph.D. thesis entitled “Human-induced changes in the environment and landscape of the Maltese Islands from the Neolithic to the 15th cent. AD, as inferred from a scientific study of sediments from Marsa, Malta”. The thesis investigates current theories through scientific analyses of sediment.

For this purpose, an 11.2m long sediment core was retrieved from the Marsa Sports Ground, with the help of a mechanical corer, in June 2002, financed by Linda Eneix of the OTS Foundation. The core was then split into two halves for chemical, physical and biological analyses, jointly undertaken by Katrin Fenech and Frank Carroll, as part of a larger study on the palaeo-environment of the Maltese Islands and the role of humans in bringing about environmental change being undertaken by the Department of Classics & Archaeology and the Department of Biology of the University of Malta under the supervision of Prof. Anthony Bonanno, and Prof. Patrick J. Schembri, and the Queen’s University, Belfast, under the supervision of Dr Chris O. Hunt.

This type of inter-disciplinary approach is novel to the study of the Maltese environment. The ‘classical’ approach to research on past Maltese cultures has been based mainly on the study of material remains such as pottery and architectural features. The extent of human interactions, actions and reactions vis-à-vis the environment and landscape needed to be assessed on the basis of scientific data rather than received wisdom. Through the scientific study of sediments and their components, valuable additional information about human interactions with the Maltese environment and their responses to natural and anthropogenic changes could be gained. Katrin Fenech’s thesis aimed to reconstruct the Holocene environment of the Maltese Islands through the scientific study of sediments from Marsa, Malta, and highlighted the contributions such an inter-disciplinary study can make to archaeology, while also pointing out any limitations.

Results from the study indicate, among other things, that the Maltese Islands were probably never as densely forested as other Mediterranean sites in the early and middle Holocene. No evidence was found for any slash-and-burn the prehistoric people are said to have resorted to for the creation of agricultural land. Thus, the results suggest that the prehistoric people probably did not cause any irreparable harm to the environment. Interestingly, the Phoenician/Punic people appeared to have been agriculturally more efficient in taking advantage of the resources than the subsequent Roman people. Results from sedimentological investigations indicate that the biggest changes in the environment until the 15 th century AD were mainly due to natural causes like, for example, significant changes in the rainfall regime and tectonic movements, with anthropogenic ones playing a secondary role.

The results of the research furthermore show that a flexible methodological approach should be adapted as not all tested methodologies can be applied without taking the particulars of the specific context into considerations.

It is hoped that the thesis and the data presented together with its interpretation and implications will be considered in future research and open a debate that sparks off further research.

left to right: Dr Chris Hunt, Prof. Anthony Frendo, Prof. Patrick Schembri, Dr Katrin Fenech, Prof. Anthony Bonanno, Dr Nicholas Vella