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Island identities: ritual, travel and the creation of difference in Neolithic Malta

  • John Robb (a1)

Abstract

Malta's Neolithic megalithic ‘temples’, unique in the Mediterranean, provide a striking challenge to the archaeological imagination. Most explanations have employed a simple functionalism: the temples resulted from Malta's insularity. Such explanations lack the theoretical grounding provided by studies of agency and meaning, and they do not sufficiently account for Malta's pattern of integration into and differentiation from a central Mediterranean regional culture. I argue that: (a) contextual evidence suggests that the temples created settings for rites emphasizing local origins and identity; (b) even in periods of greatest cultural difference, the Maltese had contacts with nearby societies, and Maltese travellers probably recognized cultural differences in important ritual practices; and (c) when ritual practitioners began reinterpreting a common heritage of meanings to create the temple rites, they also created a new island identity based on these rites. In effect, after two millennia of cultural similarity to their neighbours, the Neolithic Maltese created a cultural island, perhaps in reaction to changes in the constitution of society sweeping Europe in the fourth millennium BC. The result was an island of cultural difference similar in scale and, perhaps, origin to many other archaeologically unique settings such as Val Camonica, the Morbihan, Stonehenge, and Chaco Canyon.

Les ‘temples’ néolithiques de Malte, uniques en Méditerranée, représentent un défi à l'imagination archéologique. La plupart des interprétations ont recours à un simple fonctionalisme: les temples résulteraient de la condition insulaire de Malte. De telles explications ne tiennent cependant pas compte des aspects théoriques fondamentaux découlant de différentes études sur l'activité et la signification de ces temples. Le schéma spécifique de Malte, poursuivant une intégration dans la culture régionale de la Méditerranée centrale tout en développant une différenciation explicite de celle-ci, n'est pas assez respecté. Je soutiens que: a) l'évidence contextuelle semble indiquer que les temples étaient conçus, par les rites y attachés, de façon à renforcer l'origine et l'identité locales; b) même pendant les périodes de très grande différence culturelle, les Maltais étaient en contacte avec les sociétés avoisinantes, et les voyageurs maltais discernaient probablement des différences culturelles dans les coutumes rituelles importantes; et que c) lorsque les praticiens rituels commençaient à réinterpréter l'imaginaire collectif pour façonner les rites propres au temple, ils créaient simultanément une nouvelle identité insulaire fondée sur ces rites. En effet, après deux millénaires de ressemblance culturelle à leurs voisins, le néolithique maltais créait une culture insulaire propre, peut-être en réaction aux changements intra-sociétaux dans l'Europe du quatrième millénaire avant J-C. Le résultat en était une différence culturelle comparable - peut-être aussi en ce qui concerne son origine - à d'autres sites archéologiques tels que Val Canonica, Morbihan, Stonehenge et Chaco Canyon.

Zusammenfassung

Maltas neolithische megalithische ‘Tempel’ - einzigartig im Mittelmeerraum - regen auf eindrucksvolle Weise die Phantasie der Archäologen an. Die meisten Erklärungen bedienen sich eines simplen Funktionalismus: die Tempel sollen aus Maltas insularer Abgeschiedenheit resultieren. Derartigen Interpretationen fehlt jedoch die theoretische Basis. Weiterhin begründen sie nicht ausreichend Maltas Muster der kulturellen Integration in bzw. der Abtrennung von der Welt des zentralen Mittelmeerraumes. Der Verfasser stellt fest, daß (a.) kontextuelle Argumente es wahrscheinlich machen, daß die Tempel den Hintergrund für Riten bildeten, die eine lokale Herkunft und Identität betonten, (b.) die Malteser selbst in Perioden größter kultureller Unterschiede Kontakte zu den umliegenden Kulturen pflegten und maltesische Reisende höchst-wahrscheinlich die kulturellen Unterschiede in wichtigen rituellen Praktiken erkannten und (c.) als die Ausübenden dieser Handlungen begannen, zur Entwicklung der Tempelriten ein gemeinsames inhaltliches Erbe zu reinterpretieren, sie damit gleichzeitig auch eine neue Insel-Identität entwickelten, die auf diesen Riten beruhte. So schufen die Malteser nach zwei Jahrtausenden kultureller Ähnlichkeit zu ihren Nachbarn während des Neolithikums zur geographischen auch eine kulturelle Inselstellung - dies möglicherweise in Reaktion auf die gesellschaftlichen Umwälz-ungen, die Europa im vierten vorchristlichen Jahrtausend erschütterten. Das Resultat war eine Insel deutlich abweichender kultureller Prägung, die in ihrem Erscheinungsbild und vielleicht auch ihrer Ursache vielen anderen einzigartigen archäologischen Denkmälern, wie z.B. Val Camonica, Morbihan, Stonehenge und Chaco Canyon, ähnelt.

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Keywords

Island identities: ritual, travel and the creation of difference in Neolithic Malta

  • John Robb (a1)

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