Remains of various ceramic vessels are throwing some light on a little-known period in Maltese history.

Dug up during excavations in Mdina and Safi, these artefacts confirm Malta’s economic importance in the Early Middle Ages, also known as the Dark Ages, while re-flecting contrasting social realities.

The excavated area at Mdina where ceramic artefacts were found in 2008.The excavated area at Mdina where ceramic artefacts were found in 2008.

Whereas past historians portrayed Malta as being rural and inward-looking, a mere backwater attached to the Sicilian province, archaeological evidence points to a more complex historical scenario. 

“On a macro scale, it is clear that the major regional political powers had strong vested interests in this part of the Mediterranean,” Nathaniel Cutajar, principal curator of medieval archaeology at the National Museum of Archaeology, said.

“Malta punched way above its weight from an economic point of view. It was a somehow privileged territory acting as a strategic bridge linking the north to the south of the Mediterranean. 

“It was capable of drawing large amounts of imported goods from far off regions and of tapping into both Byzantine and Arab trading networks.”

However, only a select few seem to have enjoyed the fruit of such international trade as evidenced by the ceramic artefacts on display at the Core and Periphery – Mdina and Ħal Safi in the 9th and 10th Centuries exhibition, currently on at the museum.

“On one hand, urban cores, such as Mdina, were comparatively affluent and politically powerful and enjoyed a wide range of imported material goods. 

A political map of Europe and the Mediterranean for the mid-9th century, illustrating Malta’s highly-strategic position in relation to the great imperial powers of the period. It was this geo-political position which rendered it commercially valuable to both Byzantines and Arabs.A political map of Europe and the Mediterranean for the mid-9th century, illustrating Malta’s highly-strategic position in relation to the great imperial powers of the period. It was this geo-political position which rendered it commercially valuable to both Byzantines and Arabs.

“On the other hand, small communities in the rural hinterland, as in the case of Safi, enjoyed a far more basic material culture – a situation typical of an impoverished peasant community at the time,” Mr Cutajar explained.

Almost 50 ceramic artefacts have been put on display, ranging from individual fragments to some almost intact, restored vessels. 

“All the pieces have an important story to tell,” the curator said.

Among the artefacts recovered from the Mdina excavation in 2008 are numerous remains of commercial containers, also known as amphorae, which document Malta’s intense trading contacts with different areas of the early medieval Mediterranean. 

A fragment belonging to a decorated glazed bowl found in Mdina. This rare type of vessel was produced and imported from Constantinople towards the end of the 9th century.A fragment belonging to a decorated glazed bowl found in Mdina. This rare type of vessel was produced and imported from Constantinople towards the end of the 9th century.

Other ceramic groups – such as oil lamps, cooking and domestic wares − confirm the island’s commercial contacts with both the Byzantine Eastern Mediterranean and with Arab North Africa and Sicily. 

Mr Cutajar was particularly struck by a small group of glazed Byzantine ceramics fragments, which he said are “the oldest group of glazed ceramics to be discovered so far in Malta”.

Among the most valuable artefacts recovered from Safi in 2015 is a humble, locally-produced, hand-modelled cooking pot.

“The context of discovery of this vessel suggests that it could date to the 10th century. Even more significant is the fact that the pot can be identified from the shape and style of manufacture as a type of cooking pot typical of medieval Arab culture in North Africa,” Mr Cutajar noted.  

“This may be a good indication of how rapidly Maltese rural communities adopted grass-roots popular cultural traits from North Africa.”

The exhibition is also important because it presents for the first time the ceramic typology of this period.

“Ceramic typologies are the basis on which most archaeological research is conducted, as well as providing dating chronologies,” Mr Cutajar said.

Mid-Byzantine oil lamps from Mdina dating back to the 9th century. They are made of different clays, suggesting they were imported from different areas.Mid-Byzantine oil lamps from Mdina dating back to the 9th century. They are made of different clays, suggesting they were imported from different areas.

“Such typologies have been published for the prehistoric and Punic periods in Malta but were missing for the Middle Ages. This is therefore a major scientific step forward for medieval studies in Malta,” he enthused.

Core & Periphery runs at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta until the end of March. Entrance is free. A publication on the exhibition, which includes a detailed reading list for anyone wishing to delve deeper into these historical subjects, is also available.

The exhibition is a joint undertaking between Heritage Malta and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage. 

The excavations were the result of the monitoring work carried out by the Superintendence on various construction and landdevelopment projects.

An example of an early medieval imported amphora from a rural site in Safi.An example of an early medieval imported amphora from a rural site in Safi.

A reconstructed casserole dish from Mdina. This vessel type indicates that in the 9th century the cooking habits in Mdina were similar to those found in Byzantine Sicily.A reconstructed casserole dish from Mdina. This vessel type indicates that in the 9th century the cooking habits in Mdina were similar to those found in Byzantine Sicily.

A humble cooking pot from Safi. It is possibly the single most interesting item on display as it attests to the rise of North African/Arab grassroots culture in rural Malta, starting from as early as the 10th century.A humble cooking pot from Safi. It is possibly the single most interesting item on display as it attests to the rise of North African/Arab grassroots culture in rural Malta, starting from as early as the 10th century.

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