Material Life in a Mediterranean Melting ‘Pot’ (2016)

Material Life in a Mediterranean Melting ‘Pot’: A Historical Archaeology of Malta, c. 1530-1900

In 1529, the Order of the Knights of St John accepted the offer of a Mediterranean base from Charles V and relocated to the islands of the Maltese archipelago. During the next 269 years of occupation, the Order developed a new urban area (including Valletta and the Three Cities) around the banks of the Grand Harbour and extended the coastal fortifications. The newly equipped Grand Harbour, with its central position in the Mediterranean Sea, positioned Malta as an attractive base from which the Knights could exploit trade routes connecting East with West and North with South. Whilst dependent on Sicily for grain and other vital supplies, a prosperous cotton export industry was developed alongside licensed corsairing activities. The bounty from captured vessels was commandeered by the Knights; including its crew who were either enslaved and sold or ransomed. War and disruptions in the food supplies from Sicily made Malta and the Order a sitting target during the late-eighteenth-century battle for Mediterranean naval supremacy. The islands were seized in 1798 by Napoleonic forces and the Order expelled. The short-lived French rule was ended in 1800, after a blockade by the British Navy.

During the nineteenth century, Malta played a crucial role as a British naval base and colony, safeguarding trade routes to Egypt, India, and the Far East (via the Red Sea). It also served as one of the most important Allied naval bases during WWI and WWII. In the course of the research period, the islands’ inhabitants experienced phases of emigration, immigration and disease; economic instability followed by war-related growth and industrial prosperity; and exponential growth of an increasingly diverse population.

The aim of this project is to produce a novel, material culture-led narrative of daily life during this turbulent period. Charting the changing tastes and choices of everyday people through the analysis of excavated assemblages, the project will contextualise changes in moveable material culture within the developing spatio-architectural environment of the Grand Harbour. Furthermore, by employing a sophisticated interpretive framework drawing the work of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, and Henri Lefebvre, it aims to investigate transformations in the relationships between people and things, and the role of material worlds in the negotiation of plural, changing, and conflicting collective identities. The project methodology combines mineralogical, chemical and archaeological analyses of ceramic artefacts alongside archival study in order to assemble a narrative that will illuminate social interaction on scales of i) individual sites, ii) urban Malta, and iii) Malta within the economic and social systems of the Mediterranean and British Empire. The project represents the first systematic study of post-1500 ceramics found in Malta.

The project involves collaboration with archaeologists at the University of Malta, Heritage Malta and Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, Malta.

Contact

Prof. dr. Wim De Clercq

Prof. dr. Roald Docter

Russell Palmer