An Ancient History of Bread (part 2): Bread for an Emperor

If our mutual friend Bread could pass a global decree I believe it would include the mandatory separation between dining and politics. It would absolutely prohibit political discussions when consuming bread. Even if politics is your favorite topic, from its cheap slogans and broken promises, it’s still not a good idea to discuss with your friends while enjoying a soft loaf. It brings back painful memories of a controversial time in Bread’s life–a time when it felt used, helpless, like a puppet in the hands of manipulative elites.

Continue reading

An Ancient History of Bread (part one): the Child of Civilization

You’ve probably never given your lunch a second thought. How did bread become the worldwide sensation it is today? If one dares to go back in time, it is apparent how the consumption of certain foods came to symbolize the advancement of our species and the growth of civilization. In particular, staple foods like bread faithfully accompanied mankind like a puppy would its master.

Continue reading

A lifetime worth of stories

Like a painting, society is created out of different, colourful brush strokes of social, legal, economic, political, and religious aspects. The work of notary Bernardo Maria Callus depicts the changes and developments, traditions and values, and aspirations of the Order of St John’s as well as Maltese individuals’ needs. The acts of notary Callus are important for the study of continuity, change, and interaction in mid-eighteenth century Hospitaller Malta.

Continue reading

Our editor-in-chief’s favourite THINK stories of all time!

The festive season is a time for family, friendship, and remembrance. Over the last nine years, I’ve seen THINK magazine being born, grow up, and mature. First as its life giver, then as its pilot, my job has been to make sure the ship doesn’t stray too far off course while allowing the excellent editors Cassi Camilleri, Daiva Repečkaitė, and David Mizzi to bring their own flavours and thoughts to the magazine. 

The journey has been long — full of hurdles and rewards. Some academics did not agree with the approach: ‘THINK turns researchers into superstars,’ blurted one researcher, making that seem like an awful thing. Other researchers couldn’t understand why we wanted to talk about their failures. Experiments don’t always work, and we wanted to show the passion researchers need in order to contribute to human knowledge through publications. Meanwhile, other people loved how much time we dedicated to design and how easy the magazine was to read, proud that the University of Malta could produce such a high quality publication on a shoe-string budget.

The year’s end has made me reflect on all the stories we have covered, from articles that affected every Maltese resident to research stories that rewrote Maltese history. It has been a great ride. Below are some of my favourites. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed working on them with the excellent THINK team.

Stories that bring to light vital issues

Research sometimes brings shocking things to light. Imagine If one-third of the world’s shipping traffic passed by your door, and every ship burnt heavy fuel oil equivalent to a medium-sized power station. Prof. Ray Ellul and his team discovered that these fumes were causing pollution peaks in Malta, which also has high levels of asthma and other respiratory diseases. 

Writing about this story showed me how important it was that THINK’s dedicated team was trying to find out what research was happening in Malta. We were the first to write about this research. Our story was picked up by issuu.com, gaining over a million hits through their platform. The story hit a nerve both in Malta and abroad.

Malta’s pollution problem is partly due to shipping, but also stems from traffic: fossil-fuel burning vehicles are Malta’s largest contributor. To this day, neither has been addressed. Lung conditions are still rampant.

We followed up the story in 2017 and again in 2020.

Imagine If one-third of the world’s shipping traffic passed by your door, and every ship burnt heavy fuel oil equivalent to a medium-sized power station.

Re-writing history

Other research shows how history tells many stories. History is not made up of one narrative but of many competing ones. The final story is written by the victor. Back in 1798, Malta was invaded by the French, but recent research by Dr Charles Xuereb adds nuance to the story Maltese children have been taught in school. The story was that the French were hated, stole all our silver, and treated the Maltese very badly. Xuereb found out that many Maltese people and the then-rulers, the Order of the Knights of St John (many of whom were French), had practically invited the French to Malta. Napoleon tried to bring his values of free education and health to Malta, but that didn’t last long as it upset the merchant class and church — two powerful forces that didn’t benefit from Napoleonic rule.

But this isn’t what surprised me the most from Xuereb’s research. Around 10,000 Maltese people died in the ensuing two-year siege by the Maltese people in rural Malta supported by the British, against those locked up in the Three Cities and the Valletta/Floriana area bolstered by the French. What’s shocking is that this event is not remembered in our history books or monuments. The British rulers who came after the French didn’t want the Maltese people to think they could overthrow a colonial power, so they emphasised the British help and reduced the role of Maltese residents in this bloody two-year war. 

For more, do read MALTA | Stockholm Syndrome: or why we love the British. If you’d like to read about other rewrites of Maltese history, see 1565 – Was it that great?

‘Lil din l-art ħelwa’ – Jean Claude Vancell

Stories that touch people’s hearts

Research changes lives. Dementia affects over 6,000 people in Malta. Cassi Camilleri wrote I’m sorry I forgot: Is dementia Malta’s next national crisis? Her story interwove Malta’s National Dementia Strategy publication with the sad story of Briton Geoffrey Morgan, who went missing and died because of his condition. His family opened up about their experience, showing just how important it is to invest in research on how to treat dementia, but also how to care for patients and their carers and families, who are normally overlooked. 

A few years later dementia treatment in Malta received another boost: dance. The Step Up For Parkinson’s Voluntary Organisation started working with dementia patients and carers in Malta. THINK worked with them to produce Dancing with Parkinson’s: A short documentary and an article by Dawn Giles about the lives of people changed by this movement. Research by the organisation’s founder Nathalie Muschamp showed the impact the organisation’s work has on people’s lives. We recently followed up on this story in Caring for Carers, where we take a look at these unsung heroes.

Dementia affects over 6,000 people in Malta

Tackling the problem of gender

THINK hasn’t shied away from difficult issues. Our March 2020 issue focused on gender boundaries. THINK investigated how women are still held back in journalism, medical research, STEM careers, and even climate change. The issues are both Maltese and present the world over. I really loved how we celebrated the women who made it despite the glass ceilings. Read Making it in a male-dominated world to learn more about the three researchers we covered. 

One article that is close to my heart is on the need to normalise the issue of gender. Rather than simply shrugging off the problem, the issue needs to be tackled head on. Dr Brenda Murphy spoke about Mainstream gender = mainstream funding. By focusing on gender and including more LGBTIQ+ community members in research, research quality will improve. I have spent tens of hours writing research grants to try and make this happen in Malta — the search goes on.

By focusing on gender and including more LGBTIQ+ community members in research, research quality will improve

THINK has been an incredible life journey for me. Creating a magazine that speaks about Maltese research has been a dream come true. I had the idea while I was still living in Edinburgh, but the concept was a shared one, and many others pushed to start such a publication in Malta. That it is still going strong, with plans to make it even stronger under the helm of Editor David Mizzi, is the best Christmas present I could have received. 

I want Maltese research to be known locally and worldwide. I want locals and politicians to talk to researchers and to make the best decisions for the country by balancing facts with public need. These wishes sound like pipe dreams, but let’s hope Santa is listening.

Safe haven?

Dr Trevor Borg

Some refer to the Venice Biennale as the pinnacle of the international art world. Last year, feathers were flurried by the Maltese delegation and their representation of Maltese identity. This year, the works question a specific part of the Maltese narrative. 

‘We are working around the theme of MALETH,’ says Dr Trevor Borg, artist, curator, and University of Malta lecturer. Maleth refers to the ancient word for Malta. ‘It is also called HAVEN and SAFE PORT.’ These were all terms used in reference to Malta over the centuries. But is our island really that? This is the question being tackled by Borg and his colleagues. 

Immigration has been a critical issue in recent years, creating an inflammatory divide in Malta. Borg is using the first immigrants, the animals that travelled to Malta during the ice age, to make his point. ‘They travelled here because of the heat our island provided and the food that came with it. But as the ice in the North started to melt, sea level rose and they were unable to return.’

What is the relation between an (apparent) safe haven and a heterotopia? Here, heterotopia refers to Michel Foucault‘s notion of the ‘other place’. Heterotopias are described as ‘worlds within worlds’, connecting different places. They are places that constitute multiple layers of meaning, that accumulate time, that can be both real and unreal.

To represent this visually, Borg is going to create an archaeological find with hundreds of objects from history. Animal remains will feature, as will unusual artefacts and other strange finds. Borg was inspired by Ghar Dalam and used it as a starting point, but this work is not about history. ‘My work begins at the cave. But I will then leave the cave behind and delve into a distant world that never was! The work responds to fabricated histories, museological conventions, historical interpretations, and hypothetical authenticity. It is based on pseudo-archaeological objects and imaginary narratives,’ he explains. 

Collaborating on this work, bringing the artefacts to life is Dr Ing. Emmanuel Francalanza (Faculty of Engineering). The process began at the National History museum in Mdina. ‘Together we selected and scanned a number of animal bones from their archives,’ Francalanza says. This included femurs, teeth, and skulls among others. ‘I then supported Trevor in reconstructing the 3D model and preparing it for printing.’ 

For Francalanza, this was a chance to apply engineering technologies in new ways, to allow artists to express themselves. But not just. ‘At the same time, this opportunity provides us engineers and scientists with an avenue to explore concepts and even utilise thinking patterns which are not traditionally associated with our disciplines. It helps us be more creative and open to innovative practices.’ 

Working together, Borg and Francalanza are blurring the lines between what is real and what is fake. By recreating the original artefacts in such a way that a viewer cannot determine whether what is being seen is authentic, the project is poignant commentary for the post-truth era we are living in. 

Poverty in a prospering country

Author: Samuel Casha

Samuel Casha

In 2018, anti-poverty organization Oxfam reported how in 2017, the world’s 2,043 billionaires increased their combined wealth by $762 billion–enough money to eradicate global poverty seven times over. While in past centuries, poverty was a consequence of a lack of resources, abundance is a far greater issue in today’s world. The problem is resource distribution. 

The gap between the rich and poor is ever-widening, and this is a reality that is true in Malta.

Our streets might not be blighted by homeless people as in most big European cities, yet hidden poverty is increasing. In 2016, the National Statistics Office reported that 16.5% of the Maltese population live at risk of poverty. Skyrocketing property prices have their part to play, grinding society’s most vulnerable members down. Currently, over 900 families live in garages, as stated in a parliamentary meeting in May 2018. 

The situation is not the fault of any one political party or another. Poverty is a structural problem. Capitalism generates poverty, just as it generates wealth. Yet, too often, those in the middle-class point their fingers not at the rich and powerful fuelling the machine, but at the poor themselves. Many assume that the poor could climb the social ladder if only they worked harder, but many are employed and still fail to achieve a decent standard of living since the minimum wage is inadequate. 

Throughout history, countless artists have depicted poverty, among them Vincent Van Gogh, whose Potato Eaters (1885) remains one of the most powerful paintings about poverty in history. Criticised for its lack of a ‘conventional sweetness,’ in a letter to his brother, Vincent insisted that ‘a painting of peasant life should not be perfumed.’ Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters brings the viewer face-to-face with a type of poverty that exists behind closed doors. Malta’s poverty problem is exactly that: behind closed doors. If we cannot do much to help them, at the very least, the poor deserve our empathy, not our judgement. 

This article is based on research carried out as part of the B. A. (Hons.) History of Art with Fine Arts course within the Department of Art and Art History, University of Malta, under the supervision of Prof. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci.

The sky’s role in archaeology

In 1994, Czech poet-president Vaclav Havel wrote an article discussing the role of science in helping people understand the world around them. He also noted that in this advance of knowledge, however, something was left behind. ‘We may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us.’ Almost all traditional cultures looked to the sky for guidance. Cosmology is what gave our ancestors their fundamental sense of where they came from, who they were, and what their role in life was. While arguably incorrect, these ideas created codes of behaviour and bestowed a sense of identity. The cosmology of European prehistoric societies has been studied independently by archaeologists and archaeoastronomers (an interdisciplinary field between archaeology and astronomy). Despite their shared goal of shedding light on our past lives, thoughts, and ideas, the two fields have often failed to merge, mainly due to different approaches. A clear local case is the question of the Maltese megalithic temples.

Tore Lomsdalen

The Mnajdra South Temple on Malta predates both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. It is the oldest known site in the world that qualifies as a Neolithic device constructed to cover the path of the rising of the sun throughout a whole year. What is unfortunate is that, so far, archaeologists and archaeoastronomers have studied the site largely in isolation.

Whether the temples were built to visualise the effects of the rising sun as seen today is an open question. But with such specific and repetitive patterning, one cannot deny that the sky was an important element in the builders’ understanding of the world—their cosmology.

With some exceptions, archaeologists have largely ignored, excluded, or underrated the importance of the sky in the cultural interpretation of the material record. When studying ancient communities, chronological dating and economic concerns are often given precedence over the immaterial.

But the fault does not lie solely with disinterested archaeologists. Archaeoastronomy has often been too concerned with collecting astronomical and orientation data, neglecting the wider archaeological record, and ignoring the human element in cosmology.

We need to find a common ground. Both sides need to open themselves up to different professional perspectives and convictions and embrace alternative interpretations and possibilities. Bridging the gap between archaeology and archaeoastronomy will allow us to paint a detailed picture of past societies. And maybe it will shed light on that lost knowledge about the universe and our place in it.


Lomsdalen and Prof. Nicholas Vella are organising an afternoon workshop on Skyscape Archaeology as well as an open symposium on Cosmology in Archaeology. For more information, visit: um.edu.mt/arts/ classics-archaeo/newsandevents

  Author: Tore Lomsdalen