In 1947, a group of dockyard workers were digging trenches at Ta’ Trapna, Żebbuġ when they stumbled across the remains of five tombs each containing multiple human remains and a distinctive new type of pottery. What fascinated the archaeologists is where these pottery shards came from. Were they produced locally or brought from across the Mediterreanen sea? The answer lies with the single-celled organisms found fossilised within the clay.
The Department of Classics and Archaeology at the University of Malta, have begun to examine the Neolithic pottery (4400–4100 BC) found in this dig. They studied the fossilized foraminifera (the single-celled organisms) found within the pottery shards under the microscope.
The researchers Dr Catriona Brogan and Dr Ing. John Charles Betts, found that these shards form part of the earlier Neolithic period (4400–4100 BC), before the famous Temple builders responsible for some of the oldest freestanding structures in the world, Ġgantija, Ħagar Qim, and Mnajdra.
Observing the pottery shards using a microscope reveals other hidden gems. When Neolithic potters collect clay to be fired, this clay often contains plant seeds, wind-blown sand, and other particles. The clay would also have been combined with temper (small particles of stone or crushed shells) to ensure the clay survives the firing process. The firing process itself would burn away most of the organic material, leaving only minerals. The remaining minerals are another clue to help uncover the Neolithic mystery.
By collaborating with an Italian researcher who specialises in polarised light microscopy, the research team will uncover fascinating secrets about Malta’s ancient inhabitants. Identifying the exact nature of the clay, whether the temper came from Sicily or locally (Sicilian temper would contain some volcanic minerals), shows how people and skills moved around the Mediterranean.
A temporary exhibition will be held at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, Malta to share the discoveries with citizens. The research will continue with further analyses by attempting to reproduce the methods used by Neolithic potters. As a citizen science project, volunteers are welcome to come and help with this fascinating and exciting project!
The full version of this article was published in THINK issue 32 and is available online.
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