The Malta Independent 14 November 2018, Wednesday

Phoenician and Punic remains in Malta

Malta Independent Sunday, 23 March 2014, 09:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

There was a very good turnout on Tuesday at the San Anton Hotel in Attard for another lecture organised by Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar.

The speaker this time was Professor Anthony Frendo.

Whatever happened in the eastern Mediterranean between 1200 and 1000BC had incalculable effects on the rest of history. There were huge human migration flows which pushed peoples to areas where they had not been before. There may also have been natural disasters, which added to the panic and led to more people movements.

 This led to the end of the Bronze Age and to a stampede-like migration of peoples. At the end of it, the Hebrews had established themselves on the central highlands, while those who were later known as the Phoenicians found themselves squeezed in between the Hebrews and the sea. That is when, feeling the increased pressure, they migrated across the sea to nearby Cyprus first and thence to the Aegean Islands.

Between 1000 and 800 BC they expanded further, reaching Spain where they mined tin, silver and iron. There were both a northern and a southern route and Malta lay astride both of them. Originally, the Phoenicians were traders and were little interested in establishing colonies. But a new invasion and threat from the Assyrians caused them to start setting up colonies, and Carthage in Tunisia became their big colony.

The Phoenicians reached Malta around 700BC and stayed here officially till 218BC, but culturally for a longer time.

Very few remains of the Phoenician period remain but there was one important effect the Phoenicians had on Malta: under the Phoenicians Malta passed from prehistory to history proper.

One must remember that Carthage is nearer to Sicily than to Malta. Malta seems to have been closer to the motherland in today’s Lebanon than to Phoenician Carthage.

In fact, some of the Phoenician artefacts that have been found are linked to Phoenician Cyprus.

Most of the Phoenician remains are the tombs found around the Rabat area from Mtarfa to Ghajn Qatet, as well at Tas-Silg in the south and at Ras il-Wardija in Gozo.

All the evidence points to a peaceful coexistence between the new Phoenician arrivals and the Bronze Age residents of Malta. This can be seen from pottery remains which show the craftsmanship of the Bronze Age people and the new skills brought by the new arrivals. The original pottery of the Bronze Age people seems not to have been very different from that found in northern Africa.

Unfortunately, while there are very few Phoenician, or Punic, remains in Maltese museums, there exist at least two memorable collections in Australia, maybe taken from tombs in Malta. One was donated by the Malta consul general in Canada in 1966, and the other was donated by the Maltese government to Australia in 1935 as part of King George V’s Silver Jubilee celebrations.

The National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta has many Phoenician items, including gold and silver amulets which have a marked Egyptian influence. But this does not mean these items came from Egypt but more probably because the Phoenicians were great admirers of anything Egyptian and liked to adorn themselves with fake Egyptian items.

There were also seven clay coffins which were found but today, somehow, only one remains, as well as coins found in the vicinity of Rabat.

The strangest remains from Punic times is a tower that stands in the garden of the Zurrieq archpriest’s house. However, the top of this tower, which uses no cement, has been damaged by people who must have had no idea the building was so important for Maltese archaeology.

The Ras il-Wardija remains in Gozo date from a very late Punic period and were excavated by an Italian mission in 1960.

At Tas-Silg, the Phoenician remains are mingled with what came later in Roman and Byzantine times when the building was a church with its baptistery.

But the most signal of Phoenician remains in Malta is literacy: Malta became literate with the arrival of the Phoenicians, as signified by some rare inscriptions that have been found. It was through the famous Phoenician broken candelabra, one of which was sent to Louis XVI as a present, that the Phoenician language was finally deciphered.

During question time, the inevitable language question came up. Prof. Frendo said the Maltese spoke Phoenician for some 700 years even during the Roman period and until the arrival of the Arabs. It is also known that the further away one moves from North Africa and nearer to Lebanon, the more one finds words that are similar to Maltese.

At the end, FAA’s Astrid Vella announced that FAA is sponsoring the restoration of a medieval painting that was found at St Augustine Priory in Rabat and appealed for funds.

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