A number of historical manuscripts unearthed recently in Rome and Palermo have shed new light on the work of Fr Emmanuel Magri, a Jesuit who oversaw excavation works at the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in the early 1900s.

The manuscripts, including notes of an unpublished lecture and a series of letters penned by Fr Magri - the ethnographer who is remembered for his recording and studying of Maltese folk tales and lore - have been traced by Jesuit student and archaeologist Br Josef Mario Briffa.

Br Briffa found a set of letters which Fr Magri had written to Fr Alfred Louis Delattre between 1901 and 1906. Fr Delattre was a Missionary of Africa (White Father) and an archaeologist conducting excavations in Carthage at the time.

"The documents throw important new light on Fr Magri's archaeological work, particularly in the absence of his notebooks containing observations, which disappeared at his death 100 years ago," Br Briffa said.

Traced in the General Archive of the Missionaries of Africa in Rome, the letters, written in French, show how Fr Magri had discussed his finds at the "Necropolis". He stated that finds, such as bones and broken terracotta, had been thrown in sans ordre (without any order). The bones were very fragmented, and only a few skulls could be saved.

Though later archaeologists thought of the work of Fr Magri and some of his contemporaries as being unscientific, Br Briffa argued that the letters penned by Fr Magri prove that this was not the case at Hal Saflieni, and later judgements on such work had often been made without clear supporting evidence.

"We may safely say - on the basis of archival material - that earth, bones and finds had been found in a complete jumble. Fr Magri didn't simply empty the site of its contents, but did try to understand the context and formation of the site, with the best methods available then," Br Briffa said.

Drawing parallels with the Xaghra Stone Circle, Br Briffa noted how such a complex site is difficult to unravel, even with today's more refined study of stratigraphy. The build-up of different layers of soil and finds is examined to understand better the formation on the site, which is harder to understand where a site is the result of accumulation of burials over a longer period of time.

In other cases, the build-up of deposits may be distinguished in more clear layers, as in the case of the Bronze Age Cremation site over the Late Neolithic Temples at Tarxien.

Fr Magri's correspondence with E.A. Wallis Budge at the British Museum, which Br Briffa traced in 2003, revealed how Fr Magri had been in contact with archaeologists and researchers of his time. Even if lacking professional training of archaeologists in the modern sense, the Maltese pioneers of archaeology who conducted research out of personal love for heritage and history still gave a crucial contribution, Br Briffa argued.

The manuscripts Br Briffa found in Palermo consist of one of Fr Magri's unpublished lectures to the Malta Archaeological and Scientific Society entitled The Temple (Of Proserpina) At Mtarfa, an article on The Ancient Autonomous Coins of Malta, and manuscripts of his writings on Maltese folk tales (belonging to the cycle on the months), as well as his article Ghan-Nies Tas-Sengha U N-Nisa Tal-Gabra.

They build steadily on previous research on Fr Magri, among which are Salv Mallia's researched biography, published in 1977. In the early 1980s, Mr Mallia discovered Fr Magri's official correspondence with the government. A notebook of Magri's notes on folk tales and lore, discovered at the National Museum of Archaeology, was published by Guzè Cassar Pullicino in 1991. The folk tales collected by Fr Magri were analysed by Gorg Mifsud Chircop, who published a critical edition in 1994.

Fr Magri's contribution to Maltese archaeology will be discussed in a lecture which Br Briffa will give to mark the 100 years since the death of Fr Magri. Entitled Unearthing Malta's Past: Fr Emmanuel Magri's Pioneering Work In Archaeology, the lecture will be delivered today at Heritage Malta's Head Office in Merchants Street, Valletta, at 6.30 p.m. Entrance is free.

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