Well, of course not. Any archaeologist worth his salt today would date them to the late Neolithic (roughly 3500-2500 BC). They were not built by aliens, either. But that’s not my point. Or maybe it is, somewhat.
One of the first difficulties when dealing with the work of archaeologists and antiquarians – in my case Fr Magri – is an issue of language and of frameworks of interpretation. When we read his work today, and that of his predecessors (such as A.A. Caruana), we may be horrified to read that they were ready to consider the megalithic temples could be related to the Phoenicians. The result is that, often enough, we tend to dismiss their work completely. And that where our mistake lies. Their ideas, a hundred years ago, were not outright mad (as the alien theories are today), but were often based on plenty of erudition, and had some basis, however odd they seem to us today. If we have to dismiss their conclusions, that does not mean that we cannot profit much from their work. So …
1. If you dismiss the conclusions (perhaps), keep the data …
Separating the interpretation from the data itself is not simple, but sometimes it is possible. Magri’s correspondence with the British Museum and with Fr Delattre provide interesting descriptions of the Hypogeum at Saflieni, and some of the finds. In this sense, they shed light on the Hypogeum, information to which we had lost direct access for about a century.
2. Understand the language … their language
We might speak the same language, but perhaps we actually don’t. Let me take an example. We all know what “Phoenician” means, or at least what we mean by the label today. But we’d be mistaken to apply that to Magri’s take on things: his Phoenicians could date back to mid-second millenium BC, well into what we now classify as Bronze Age. Considering that the archaeology of Malta had still not identified the Bronze Age (that will only come with Temi Zammit’s dig at the Tarxien Temples), perhaps we should concede [in his framework] that postulating a long period, dragging in the mid-second millenium was not without logic. So, he could comfortably still not dismiss fully that label, while looking towards prehistoric Egypt for comparative material. Perhaps, he was less off the mark than we care to admit. So, if you want to cite (or criticise) an older source, for goodness sake, you need to take the trouble to understand what they’re up, and not what you think they said.
3. Let yourself be surprised …
There is actually a healthy level of fascination in seeing the development of someone’s thought as you work through their papers. As I read through Magri’s work, a trend starts to emerge. He starts off quite convinced with the idea that the Temple were Phoenician. Their was a fair amount of scholarly consensus, even though questions were emerging. Yet, to his credit, for him this was not a given, but a research question. He may have been convinced of it, but still was asking questions, and looking beyond. Working within his times, he was looking towards ancient (and prehistoric) Egypt, and elsewhere, hoping to find links. He didn’t, but who can blame him if there weren’t?
4. Learn about ourselves
Research into the history of archaeology can go beyond recovering data that has gone lost. In considering the framework of interpretation of others, especially when they are so “alien” to our frame of mind, we can reflect on our own way of interpreting things. We, too, can get stuck in our own paradigms, our own frameworks, the current trends in research. If we’re lucky enough to “see” others getting unstuck, we too might learn the art.