Beyond Heritage
by Kim Tondeur, June 2014

Anthropologists, says Joël Robbins, have always been nearly exclusively committed to “continuity thinking” (Robbins 2007). Indeed, this can be reflected in the terms of transmission, “survivals”, resistance, habitus, agency, syncretism and so many other milestone-concepts of anthropology. Are not they all referring to the same “processes which, by bounding individuals together, contribute to cultural perpetuation” (Berliner 2010: 6, my translation)? Are the terms “tradition” and “culture” deeply linked and referring to continuity themselves? In this sense, it is clear that the questions and issues related to heritage, both material or immaterial, as noticed by many before, mark out a legitimate field for anthropological inquiries and analysis.

With a total land area of 316 square kilometers dotted with a significant number of (pre)historical cultural sites, one would have difficulties taking a walk in Malta without coming face to face with a beautiful old church, a typical dry-stone wall or some ancient watch-towers and fortifications. Inhabited for 7000 years, the archipelago is full of reminders of the past, and pictures of heritage sites are everywhere: on coins, sugar packets, wine bottles, etcetera. Furthermore, politics of heritage take place at all street corners. Indeed, Maltese people and authorities have understood the importance of developing a cultural tourism approach in order to diversify Maltese touristic industry offering, therefore combining seaside and cultural tourism. Regarding the general tendency – in Malta and elsewhere – to transform every legacy of the past – “from the cathedral to the teaspoon” (Heinich 2009, my translation) – into recognized patrimony, those characteristics make of Malta a first-hand choice for an anthropology of heritage.

Some key features of heritage studies can help to figure out their great potential for the one greedy of good insights in social, economical and cultural dynamics. One of the first thoughts that come to mind when studying natural and cultural heritage is the evidence of an arbitrary choice between legacies which will or will not enter into the preserved and protected realms of heritage. If heritage rhymes with continuity, it is thereby important to remember that it also finds resonance with oblivion, and, one could say, discontinuity. Moreover, as Berliner pointed out, the current and widespread concern about heritage has probably a lot to do with the “omnipresence of nostalgic narratives upon loss, oblivion, [and] the necessity or incapacity to convey [culture]” (Berliner 2010: 4); a mourning used as an asset for the frenzy of recording, preserving and safe keeping of both material and immaterial aspects of culture.

In her study of Gozo's neolithic heritage, Sara Rich (Ggantija and ta’ Marziena) seizes this issue by comparing two temples situated at the extreme opposite of what she calls the “preservation-presentation spectrum” (Rich 2006: 14). Illuminating the miscellaneous actors involved in heritage sites, Rich shows the different trajectories of the two temples: Ggantija and ta' Marziena. Looking at the most famous of the two, she interrogates the role played by both national and international institutions specialized in heritage – such as Heritage Malta and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – and points out how their preservation and presentation policies can alter the essential meaning of the site by threatening the “atmosphere of the site” (Rich 2006: 16); while the other temple, the author explains, faces physical collapse and re-appropriation of its rocks and places by local groups such as builders, farmers and birders.

In a second paper crafted with a similar approach (Scuba diving as Mediterranean Culture), Rich dives into the surrounding waters of Malta and discusses how everyday interactions and negotiations between dive shop owners, tourists and Maltese authorities set up a process by which they decide what will be part of heritage or not. As Malta receives international recognition from its delighting underwater heritage sites, both natural (rock formations, fauna, etc.) and cultural (ancient roman shipwrecks, etc.), Maltese authorities deliberately scuttle wrecks “to create dive sites and artificial reefs for the protection of local and migrating marine life” (Rich 2006 : 20), while transforming at the same time the traditional meaning of diving once deeply related to fishing practices.

With a different but interesting study angle, Adam Thomson (The Character of a Wall) also questions the way an “object” becomes part of national heritage. Looking at the life trajectory of dry rubble Gozitan walls and their associated building practices in a typical material-culture approach, the author shows how dry-stone walls lost their economical value while gaining symbolic worth together. A phenomenon which created a shift between top-down heritage policies and the everyday-life reality of farmers facing changes in agricultural technologies which particularly call for open-space fields. With this study, the author grasps the complexity of heritage issues, showing how external factors such as globalization and tourism can trigger in same spaces and times both the decline and the resurrection of an old traditional practice. Ancient field walls are thereby crumbling, while one could observe, at the same time, the late building of old fashioned dry rubble walls on UNESCO sites, or the birth of hybrid walls combining modern economical materials and dry-stone frontages as “character-additives”.

If Rich and Thomson argue that the current push on cultural tourism sets off an increase in an overlap between tourists' and locals' times and spaces, thus challenging Maltese identity, Massara and Daly crop up with another point of view. Studying the heritage site of Dwejra, Massara (Anybody on the horizon?) argues that, even if there is always “a tendency to build a mythic time on the historic time, digging up elements from the past and over imposing them [to its inhabitants and] to the current significance of the place” (Massara 2008: 209), heritage site always carry with them various and living meaning depending on the different uses made of it. Following this idea by studying “the multiplicity of profane uses” of the Dwejra site (Fabre and Iuso 2009: 25, my translation), Massara shows that, in accordance with the hours of the day and the months of the year, “locals and tourists live their life and experience [of the site] in totally parallel ways” (Massara 2008: 208).

In a similar vein, Stephen Daly (Strategies for controlling social space in tourist locations) analyzes the different strategies of local people to staunch the flow of tourists by creating both time and space boundaries between tourists and themselves. Churches and Cathedrals, for example, can thereby be understood as multi-purpose places depending on the uses and meanings made of it, changing their inner nature from a museum to a place of prayer in a single minute or performing them both together in separate spaces. Eventually, Daly stands that the increasing overlap between Malteses and foreigners could strengthen rather than weaken natives' sense of cultural identity and “cause the people to […] connect more strongly with each other” (Daly 2007: 5).

Without being exhaustive at all, this sketch on heritage issues aimed to present you Omertaa's selection of articles about heritage studies in Gozo and Malta. Of course, a lot of other themes could have been raised here, as, for example, the official use of heritage made by state agents and institutions in the construction process of a national sense of belonging. But one can see through this selection how the anthropology of heritage, even when restrained to monuments studies, opens up loads of different topics, from the anthropology of tourism and material culture to the study of nostalgia, time and space, taking us to the heart of complex cultural dynamics.


BERLINER, David, 2010. “Anthropologie et transmission”, Terrain, 55, [online], URL :

FABRE, Daniel et Anna IUSO (éd.), 2009. Les monuments sont habités. Paris : Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme.

HEINICH, Nathalie. 2009. La Fabrique du patrimoine. “De la cathédrale à la petite cuillère”. Paris : Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme.

ROBBINS, Joel, 2007. “Continuity thinking and the problem of Christian cutlure. Belief, time and the anthropology of Christianity”, Current Anthropology, 48 (1), pp. 5-38.


Ggantija and ta’ Marziena. Preservation and presentation of Gozo’s neolithic heritage by Sara Rich

Scuba diving as Mediterranean Culture. Preservation and presentation of Gozo’s Maritime heritage by Sara Rich

The Character of a Wall. The changing construction of agricultural walls on the island of Gozo by Adam Thompson

Anybody on the horizon?  Changing the Static, Moving the unchangeable. by Camilla Massara

Strategies for controlling social space in tourist locations. by Stephen Daly


Ggantija and ta’ Marziena.
Preservation and presentation of Gozo’s neolithic heritage
by Sara Rich
Scuba diving as Mediterranean Culture.
Preservation and presentation of Gozo’s Maritime heritage
by Sara Rich
Anybody on the horizon?
Changing the Static, Moving the unchangeable.
by Camilla Massara
The Character of a Wall.
The changing construction of agricultural walls on the island of Gozo
by Adam Thompson