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On the islands of Malta, an international team of researchers is unlocking the secrets of an ancient civilisation.

The remarkable project – FRAGSUS, which stands for Fragility and Sustainability in Restricted Island Environments – will take five years and is funded by a €2.5m ERC grant. It is also being led by Queen’s with Professor Caroline Malone as Principal Investigator.

In all there are six senior academics from Queen’s, as well as researchers from Cambridge, Plymouth, the University of Malta, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, Malta, and its National Museum of Archaeology. Seven postdoctoral researchers are also included in the team.

Caroline’s distinguished career has been divided between academia and national museums and heritage, including responsibility for Avebury and Stonehenge. She joined Queen’s in 2007 because ‘I wanted to return to research and teaching more fully.’

Her fascination with Malta goes back to the 1980s. It is more than 25 years since she and fellow archaeologists, including her husband, set up a new phase of fieldwork and training there.

‘It was essentially capacity-building for Malta. Our work went on for nine years and we excavated a major burial hypogeum, dating back to 4,000BC, filled with human remains and wonderful artworks.

‘This set the scene for what we’re doing now. We established a collaborative programme with the University of Malta and trained a new generation of archaeologists. Twenty years later they are now in positions of authority and are very much part of the current team.’

The FRAGSUS project focuses on chronology, on environmental change, how the human population responded to the island environment and it examines the effect on the landscape.

Caroline says, ‘The heritage of Malta is an exceptional moment of early European civilisation. It has an extraordinary fluorescence and then more or less disappears. My interest is – why do small island cultures manage to survive in the way they do and what brings them to an end?

‘Can we on a small test bed like Malta understand how an island population sustained viable civilised life for thousands of years in the face of catastrophic environmental change? We should be trying to learn from the strategies of our ancestors – how they managed and harnessed their limited resources. It is an extraordinarily individual European story.’

Telling that story will be assisted by high-quality facilities for palaeoecological-archaeological research at Queen’s, including the specialist 14CHRONO laboratory. ‘What it enables the archaeologist to do is pinpoint the moment of change. How can you understand change if you can’t work out how fast it takes for something to happen? Queen’s has led the world in this area for about 40 years, making an enormous impact. ‘

The work also provides huge benefits for students. ‘This spring we brought out our Masters students to do part of their placement training with us. We’ve also had students from Cambridge and the University of Malta.

‘You can’t sit in a laboratory or a classroom in Northern Ireland and solve these problems. You’ve got to get out there and do it. This is about confidence-building.

‘It’s important to get students out into the wider world where they can engage with a senior research team and learn professionallevel techniques. Our students are the envy of my academic colleagues. They’re demonstrating that they can go anywhere and do anything. They’re some of the best.’

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