Let’s say Doc from Back to the Future came up to you this morning, with his frazzled grey hair, white lab coat and mad eyes, and, while you spluttered on your coffee, he offered you a trip in his time-travelling machine. There’s one condition though: you can either choose to visit the past or the future, not both.
Where would you go?
Without a shadow of a doubt, I’d jump straight to the past, the remote past. I’m utterly fascinated by prehistory. What were ‘Maltese’ people like then? Is there any semblance of them in us?
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if women and men in prehistoric times never decided to set up base and start toiling the land but simply kept on foraging. True, you and I might not be here today because there would be millions and millions less of us around. But, of course, that would mean that the planet would be in a much better shape than it is today.
Also, on Sunday mornings, none of us would be reading the papers and starting out our day worrying about how the government wants to turn our bays into marinas and our fields into roads. We’d be idling about, sprawled on a beach after a full meal of blackberries, gigantic tomatoes, wild carrots and some old-world melon for dessert instead of a tray of pasti bil-krema.
Obesity would be an alien concept as we’d be constantly on the move, walking daily from one place to another to forage for food, climbing trees and building temporary shelters. Most of all, we’d be enjoying life in the moment with not a care in the world; we’d simply be at one with nature.
But, alas, that was not to be. That first agriculture revolution some 12,000 years ago meant goodbye to hunting and gathering and a hello to humankind settled in a life tied to the same spot of land, which, over the thousands of years, resulted in multiple hierarchies and, inevitably, power struggles.
This is what brings me to Elsa. A 20-something woman who lived in Malta, give or take, around the same time that St Paul is said to have shipwrecked on the islands. If she were still alive today, she’d be around 2,000 years old.
She was Maltese, probably of Phoenician descent. Her ancestors probably had arrived here by boat a few centuries earlier, after setting sail from what is now modern-day Lebanon.
Were they told to “go back to their country”, I wonder. I doubt it: Phoenicians were incredibly clever people, brilliant seafarers and builders of powerful vessels. They are credited with inventing glass blowing and with the first draft of the Roman alphabet. They started using Malta as a stop on their trade route circa 700BC and some stayed put, choosing the best spots on the islands to set up base: the southern bays of the island and the northern area of Rabat.
Imagine if Elsa had fallen into a slumber sleep back in AD21 and then woke up 2000 years later. What would she make of today’s Malta?- Kristina Chetcuti
Probably, the few people inhabiting the island then would have been in awe with just one look at their purple-coloured robes.
Not much is known about Elsa except that she was about 150cm tall, quite on the short side even for her time. Her teeth were in excellent condition and she had a healthy childhood.
We know all this from Elsa’s skeleton, unearthed in one of the shaft-and-chamber burials in St Paul’s Catacombs, in Rabat (the name ‘Elsa’ was, in fact, given to her by the archaeologist who unearthed her).
Thereafter, Elsa’s skeleton underwent extensive archaeological and osteopathic studies. Subsequently, Heritage Malta and Italian scientists even managed to reconstruct the soft tissues around her skull and created a visual image of what she probably looked like. Heritage Malta had released her image back in April and I’ve been wanting to write about her since then. Frankly, I think she looked amazing.
Of course, we don’t know what her lifestyle was like but we can take educated guesses. Elsa probably grew up surrounded by olive trees, carobs and probably helped her parents and siblings produce textiles or crops which they then traded. But what did she eat? Did she live in a community? Was she ever in love? Was she severely ill?
As I watched Heritage Malta’s online video about her reconstruction, one thing kept nagging me: imagine if Elsa had fallen into a slumber sleep back in AD21 and imagine she then woke up 2,000 years later. What would she make of today’s Malta? Looking at our surroundings through ancestral eyes makes things fall into perspective and it makes you realise that our only main role is to be planet caretakers for the future generation.
Heritage Malta have done a brilliant job with Elsa but they can’t stop at that. Now they need to help us get to know her and her compatriots more. She is our time machine to the past. History – which I strongly believe should be made compulsory in secondary schools – is not about memorising dates; it is about helping us revisit part of ourselves and understand who we truly are.
Only then can we plan a better future.
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