Artefacts from Malta in the British Museum

Josef Mario Briffa SJ introduces his new volume: Catalogue of Artefacts from Malta in the British Museum (Archaeopress, 2017)

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Some books are born of serendipity: being at the right place at the right time, finding something you weren’t looking for. This book is one of them.

Reverend Greville John Chester Collection cat. no. 66 pg 156
Closed single-nozzled lamp. Late Roman to Early Byzantine, c. 400–500 AD (Charles Townley Collection. Drawing by C. Sagona)

It started quite simply and unexpectedly. Some ten years ago (2006/7), I was conducting research at the British Museum on letters written by Father Emmanuel Magri SJ  to Dr E.A. Wallis Budge. Chatting – as you do – with the duty curator that day (Dr St John Simpson, now Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Middle East), who was responsible for taking care of visiting researchers, and in my case bringing over the volumes of correspondence that I needed to consult, the conversation fell, naturally on Malta and Maltese archaeology. St John asked whether I knew of the British Museum artefacts database (online here), which I didn’t … so I was introduced to Merlin, as the database is called, and merely out of curiosity, we searched for “Malta”. A quick scroll through the results, and I was quite positively surprised, and felt there was potential for this project. Somewhere, I must still have the first list that St John emailed me, with an Excel extract from Merlin.

Figure 68. Reverend Greville John Chester Collection cat. nos 73, 81
Strigil in bronze, found in Mdina, Malta (Reverend Greville John Chester Collection. Photo © J. M. Briffa. Taken courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum; drawings by C. Sagona)

I realised immediately that such a project would have been impossible for me to handle alone: firstly, I felt that I lacked the experience to start with, and, secondly, I was busy with my studies to the priesthood as a Jesuit (then in theology in London), such that I would never have managed to finish it at all. Very early on, I roped in Dr Claudia Sagona, who I had known through the archaeological excavation at Tas-Silġ, and whose experience with catalogues of material I knew could bring important expertise to the project. Looking back, it was the most important decision I could take, and without Claudia’s significant contribution, the book would probably still be very much in the realm of ideas.

Figure 111. Arthur John Matthews Collection cat. no. 416
Large Maiolica storage jar. Painted decoration on front — arms of Antonio Manoel de Vilhena (1663–1736), Grand Master of the Order of Malta (Arthur John Matthews Collection. Photos © J. M. Briffa. Taken courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

The book has been slowly cooking away on the back burner. Ten years, with many trips to the British Museum, its departments and storage facilities, by both Claudia and myself. Thousands of photos taken both in preparation for publication, as well as to help in the study of the material. Not to mention the drawings of the various items, and the detailed descriptions, and introductions to each of the collections. And many emails, phone conversations, as well as numerous drafts. I must say that after ten long years, seeing the book in print has something surreal about it.

I cannot imagine the book to become a major best seller. Catalogues of material aren’t exactly designed to be. But I hope that in its own way, this catalogue may shed some light on the history of archaeology in Malta, and make some material from historical excavations more immediately accessible to researchers in Malta and worldwide.

9781784915889The catalogue is published by Archaeopress.

viii+326 pages; illustrated throughout in colour and black & white.

Paperback | 9781784915889 | £50.00

eBook | 9781784915896 | from £16.00 (+VAT if applicable)

Further information  and purchase options available via the Archaeopress wesbite, here.

Josef Mario Briffa SJ is Lecturer at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and a Roman Catholic priest. He has recently completed his PhD at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London on The Figural World of the Southern Levant during the Late Iron Age. He also holds a Licentiate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. His research has included the history of Maltese archaeology, with a focus on the work of Fr Emmanuel Magri SJ (1851-1907), pioneer in Maltese archaeology and folklore studies. He has excavated in Malta and Israel, and is currently a staff member of The Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition.

Claudia Sagona is Honorary Principal Fellow in the Centre for Classics and Archaeology at The University of Melbourne. Her research has taken her from the islands of the Maltese Archipelago, to the highlands of north-eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus. She has written a number of books concerning Malta’s ancient past, including a comprehensive volume for Cambridge University Press, The Archaeology of Malta: From the Neolithic through the Roman Period (2015), another on the Phoenician-Punic evidence, The Archaeology of Punic Malta (2002), and has delved into the Mithraic mystery cult, Looking for Mithra in Malta (2009). In 2007, she was made an honorary member of the National Order of Merit of Malta (M.O.M.).