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‘A Dirtier Reality?’ Archaeological Methods and the Urban Project

Abstract and Keywords

Strait Street in Malta’s capital Valletta is an extraordinary street, and one that has fascinating stories to tell about its resident population and visitors over nearly 300 years. For Strait Street (part of which was also known as The Gut) was a focal point for visiting navies, from Nelson’s time until the departure of the British Royal Navy in the 1960s and early ’70s. But such was the contradiction between this street’s activities and Catholic society that the street has remained empty post-abandonment. This situation is only now beginning to change. This chapter briefly summarizes a project which set out to record, interpret, and present Strait Street to diverse audiences, focusing here on the field methods used in the investigation. While this is primarily an archaeological study, the methodology also incorporates ethnographic and historic components to construct a complex narrative of coexistence and tolerance in the heart of the Mediterranean.

Keywords: Strait Street, Malta, Valletta, Royal Navy, abandonment, fieldwork, ethnography, archaeology, tolerance

33.1 Introduction

Archaeology: the study of ancient things, and a suite of techniques which promotes understanding of times and lives long past? Well, not exactly, not any more. In this chapter I argue that, for the contemporary past, archaeology can have an additional and very different role, one that still retains focus on ‘studying’ and ‘understanding’, but which also recognizes merit in participation, as a way of facilitating engagement with the unfamiliar world around us. By doing archaeology in and of the contemporary past, we encounter place and material culture in ways that can bring social benefit and reward for participants. This is what I mean by ‘reality’; not as in authenticity or accuracy, but more in a sense of democracy and multi-vocality, which is fast becoming a twenty-first century reality. In short, archaeology has the potential to reach places (and people) other disciplines cannot reach. And for that reason, archaeology of the contemporary past can be as much (if not more) about opportunity and involvement, about the process, as it is about the results, something that relates closely to recent discussions of a more future-oriented archaeology (e.g. González-Ruibal 2006; Dawdy 2009, 2010; Harrison and Schofield 2010; Harrison 2011). This may also be true for earlier periods. This chapter will comprise a close examination of these points, using the case study of recent fieldwork in Valletta (Malta). The emphasis here is on the methodology developed for investigating one of the city’s back streets, a methodology that emerged through experience to combine elements of field archaeology, ethnography, creative practice, and psychogeography. For more detail on the project and its results see Schofield and Morrissey (2007, 2013).

33.2 Archaeologists and ‘The Gut’

Archaeology as an approach can often be inclusive—demonstrating a willingness to involve, represent, and recall the diversity of humankind in its many forms, principally through the (p. 467) material traces ordinary people leave behind. The Strait Street project was largely about those material traces, presenting an archaeological perspective on the artefacts and places that characterize one particular and extraordinary street in Malta’s capital city, Valletta. Many archaeological traces encourage conventional descriptions of how lives are led, and how people adapt and survive to environmental and social circumstances. Some descriptions, however, are distinctly subaltern in their outlook and ambition. It is these ‘counter-narratives’ that interest me more, and this study provides an extreme example of why there can be fascination in the alternative heritage of the city.

‘A Dirtier Reality?’ Archaeological Methods and the Urban ProjectClick to view larger

Figure 33.1 The Gut in 2005

(photograph: John Schofield)

Strait Street (and especially that portion at the lower end known as ‘The Gut’, Figure 33.1) has a colourful history of occupation and counter-culture from the time of Valletta’s foundation. The city was designed and built by the Knights of St John in the sixteenth century with specific zones dedicated to particular types of activity: merchants and public office at the top and central areas of town; residential areas for those who supported these activities at the lower end, in the poorer neighbourhoods of Due Balli and L-Arkipierku. Strait Street runs the length of the town, from the more prosperous upper (western) end near City Gate, to the poorer lower (eastern) end, near the garrison at Fort St Elmo. Evidence gathered by, for example, Bonello (2002a, 2002b, 2002c, 2008) illustrates the range of activities characteristic of Due Balli, especially those dating back to the time of the knights, and during British rule and beyond (1800 onwards), leading up to the final withdrawal of the British in 1979. For this later period, oral historical evidence confirms that this was undoubtedly a street that existed largely, if not entirely, to support service personnel, mostly of the Royal Navy, but also merchant navies, army garrisons, and—from the mid-twentieth century—the Royal Air Force. The street was lined with bars, hotels, lodging houses, and music halls. Some were small, intimate spaces, perhaps opportunistic ventures on the part of their owners, simply opening up a front room to create a bar for profit; others were carefully designed or purpose-built, for the entertainment of larger audiences. This appears true especially for the music halls. There was also prostitution.

(p. 468) But the character of Strait Street is perhaps best conveyed through two personal accounts. The first of these was offered in response to a call for stories and memories through an advert placed in Navy News. The second is from Thomas Pynchon’s (2000 [1961]) novel V.

In the first account Roger Bigden describes his time in Strait Street during what he refers to as the ‘high noon’ period, in the first half of the 1960s. Roger was a young aircraft armourer in 807 Squadron HMS Ark Royal, progressing during the summer of 1963 to a helicopter aircrewman/diver in HMS Hermes’ ship’s flight. His account introduces a number of themes, places, and characters that are central to the Strait Street story:

All the bars, dance halls, and cafes were doing a roaring trade. ‘Bobby’ was playing his piano, ‘Tiny’, the big, friendly, Maltese policeman was usually in position on the left of the crossroads halfway down. The ‘Sparrow’ had long gone from the Egyptian Queen, where she was a legend, amazing and delighting the sailors. Mythology had her marrying an Australian Stoker and emigrating back to Aussie with him. The likely truth is that a drunken matelot threw her down the stairs of the Gyppo [Egyptian] Queen….

I remember noting [in c.1961] that a couple of more salubrious pubs had opened up in Birzebuggia, one of which was run by a Maltese man, with an English wife. The seeds of the tourist trade were being sown. The Gut was a concept beyond the comprehension of the average British tourist (like Bugis Street in Singapore) and the end was in sight. It dated back to Pax Britannica. Certainly before foreign travel was widely available to ordinary people and more particularly before British public moral standards were generally expected abroad in holiday areas. Oddly, I can remember reflecting on all this back then.

(Roger Bigden. Email correspondence, 5 December 2005)

Bigden’s comments raise a number of issues that became central to this project. The first is that of mythology. His is not the only story of Sparrow, and what happened to her. And what unites many of these stories is their inaccuracy (challenging the notion of a ‘familiar world’ around us). Second is the issue of change. Bigden was a perceptive young man. As he says, the world was changing and ultimately The Gut would change too. A third issue (not referred to in this quotation) refers to the way people’s circumstances influenced their encounter with Strait Street. One’s rank and status (e.g. single or married), and one’s service (RAF, Army, Navy) will have shaped one’s experience of The Gut: which places were acceptable to visit and which were off-limits. Things were different in wartime no doubt, with heightened tension and more unaccompanied men in Malta, but in peacetime these other considerations are directly relevant. RAF and Army personnel are more likely to have been in Malta with their families than would naval personnel, for instance, as would be the case for officers of all three armed forces.

Thomas Pynchon’s 1956 visit to Malta informed his novel V (2000 [1961]). His accounts of Valletta are widely considered to be accurate and authentic, his colourful descriptions of Strait Street most likely the result of his own experiences. In one passage he describes one of his leading characters approaching the street thus:

Here were the borders of this city’s Disreputable Quarter; Stencil looked around without much curiosity. It was all the same. What a warped idea of cities one got in this occupation! If no record of this century should survive except the personal logs of F[oreign] O[ffice] operatives, the historians of the future must reconstruct a curious language indeed.

Massive public buildings with characterless facades; networks of streets from which the civilian populace seem mysteriously absent. An aseptic administrative world, surrounded by (p. 469) an outlying vandal-country of twisting lanes, houses of prostitution, taverns, ill-lit except for rendezvous points, which stand out like sequins on an old and misused ball-gown….

Strada Stretta; Strait Street. A passage meant, one felt, to be choked with mobs. Such was nearly the case: early evening had brought to it sailors ashore from HMS Egmont and smaller men-o-war; seamen from Greek, Italian, and North African merchantmen; and a supporting cast of shoeshine boys, pimps, hawkers of trinkets, confections, dirty pictures. Such were the topological deformities of this street that one seemed to walk through a succession of music-hall stages, each demarcated by a curve or slope, each with a different set and acting company but all for the same low entertainment.

(Pynchon 2000 [1961]: 468)

Thus Pynchon captures a particular element of the character of Strait Street, of what it felt like at this particular time in its history. Pynchon’s descriptions of Strait Street are eloquently expressed in a way that neatly accompanies the (more-or-less) contemporary photographs of Tony Armstrong Jones in the mid-1950s (Sitwell and Armstrong Jones 1958). Some of these photographs convey the ‘rendezvous points, standing out like sequins on an old and misused ball-gown’. Any one of the sailors captured in these images could be Stencil, encountering this ‘vandal-country’, ‘the Disreputable Quarter’ of Valletta.

33.3 Field Archaeology and the Urban Project

The role of archaeology has traditionally been to uncover stories using only archaeological (and ethnoarchaeological—see Fewster, this volume) evidence and approaches, and a criticism levelled at archaeology of the contemporary past is sometimes: ‘Why bother? We know all this from other sources.’ The Strait Street project challenged that presumption. Why should archaeology not contribute something new? How can one assess the accuracy of those other sources (assuming they exist) without testing the ground, so to speak? And does archaeology not have the potential to engage wider audiences than other forms of historical inquiry? There was a further angle to this: that Strait Street appeared taboo in Malta. Fieldwork felt a little like trying to uncover a secret, one deeply buried in the collective memory. Strait Street was rarely mentioned in the media or in conversation. Few people would talk about it and little was written down. In this case, archaeology provided an entrée that might not otherwise have existed.

Relevant here was the status of the fieldwork team as outsiders (barranin), something Mitchell (2002: 63–4) also felt when conducting research for his book Ambivalent Europeans. The difference is that Mitchell learnt Maltese and lived with a local family, factors that contributed to him becoming more of an insider, more accepted, and privy therefore to the knowledge and conversations amongst other insiders. That said, there are different contexts within which people are considered ‘outsiders’, which include nationality, but also village, community, parish, and household. Even if one came from a rural village in Malta, and spoke Maltese, one would still be an outsider to Valletta. Yet as Mitchell explains, language—Malti—is nevertheless an essential marker of inclusion and exclusion in Malta. While most Maltese are multi-lingual, speaking English and Italian, they (p. 470) also speak Maltese, which in some places (such as Due Balli) is the main language used in everyday conversations.

Of course it is impossible to know what more would have been learnt, being Malti speakers. But there appeared some distinct advantages to being barranin; notably a safe distance was created, geographical and cultural, which made it acceptable for some to talk to us freely and at times frankly about the history of Strait Street. As one person explained: ‘A Maltese person could not have conducted this study. It is much too close. It would have been impossible.’

As barranin, how then were the hidden histories of Strait Street and Due Balli investigated? By what methods did we achieve a comparatively in-depth investigation under what appeared difficult circumstances? The first point is that an archaeological approach seemed important. This meant starting the process of investigation not through documentary sources or ethnography, but through the places themselves, the very fabric of Strait Street. It meant studying the buildings and the spaces within and around them, documenting and recording them, and the traces encountered within. It meant—in this case—filming and photographing what we saw, and making notes on the things we encountered; sketches for examples of interior spaces and the artefacts still present or which have accumulated since the building was abandoned (for the afterlife of buildings is important too); and sketching and recording the locations of signage and graffiti in the street. Only then, with the traces documented for each place would we embark on documentary and ethnographic research. This ‘staged’ process was not always possible of course. At times a first visit was accompanied by the very people we needed to interview (and could therefore interview ‘in place’), who often brought original documentation with them. Nonetheless, our archaeological approach to Strait Street always started with its material remains.

33.4 Preparing for Fieldwork

Before arriving in Malta to begin research, we wrote a letter to the Times of Malta asking for information. There was a limited response, but one letter was a clear warning not to pursue our study. The letter directed us, with a map, to the area of coastline below Fort St Elmo on the end of the peninsula where, we were later told, tourists had been attacked and robbed. But this response was an isolated case. Another letter was more positive. This came from Joseph Piccinino who asked us to visit him on our arrival. This meeting shaped our experience of Valletta and of our seven-year (and ongoing) association with Strait Street. It also helped us to realize how much personal connections and introductions matter in a close-knit community like this. From Joseph’s enthusiastic support and his initial emails, he clearly understood our interest in Strait Street. We were not voyeurs or trouble-makers, or out to insult Malta or the city (Beltin) in any way. He understood our commitment to presenting what he considered ‘the reality’ of Strait Street, recognizing in this the entrepreneurs, the artistes, the musicians and performers, and those who plied their various trades and professions to make a living. We wanted our research to reflect the character of Strait Street: the buzz, the noise, the smell and chaos—the brouhaha, the lives and loves of those who lived and worked there, and those who visited the place. Strait Street represents a heady mix, and it divides opinion. But we felt sure that no one could deny the fascination of Strait Street. To this end he introduced us to Victor Scerri, and while Joseph faded into the background once these connections were (p. 471) established, Victor did anything but. Without Victor’s assistance and generosity this project would never have progressed to the extent that it has, and many doors would have remained firmly bolted. It is because of Victor’s kindness to us and his standing in the community that people felt able to talk to us. As we have seen, contacts and connections are everything. If a trusted local resident vouches for you, then access can be assured. Victor was the biggest ‘skeleton key’ we could have hoped for, giving access to a whole host of other contacts not to mention the many bars and other buildings to which he arranged access.

Let us return to the suspicion with which this project was first received. The aim was to tell a story of Strait Street in as accurate and respectful a way as possible. We feel drawn to the place and the people we have met there. We have been taken into people’s confidence and have received generous hospitality from the start. Many of the people we met have become friends. The reputation of Strait Street as ‘shameful’ is barely evident in the studies we have undertaken. What is apparent is a pride and enthusiasm for a place that shaped the lives of many people and their families over generations, from at least 1800 and arguably earlier. That is not of course to deny elements of an unquestionably troubled past. But it is these different emphases that beg the question: what is it precisely that shapes the perception of Strait Street as a somehow shameful place, and why, when much talk is of regeneration, is the street still avoided? Is Strait Street merely disliked for being unconventional? Either way, Strait Street remains largely empty and unloved, awaiting a change of fortune.

Finally, by way of preparation we had to explore how our thoughts on heritage applied in this unconventional setting. I find the old-fashioned view that heritage must be exclusive, special, and necessarily outstanding to be deeply problematic (see also Smith 2006; Council of Europe 2008), preferring to define it in terms of collective cultural property, material, and other legacies of the past that persist into the present and will be passed on to the future. As such, heritage can be special and outstanding, but it can also be ‘everyday’: the quotidian, the ordinary, and the commonplace.

Denis Byrne (2008: 170) refers to heritage as ‘social action’; the relationship between a community and its neighbourhood that is dialectical or ‘two-way’. A local community may live in a landscape that is scattered with places where physical traces of past occupation are present. Yet this does not in itself create an association between those traces and the community. That association comes through activities which might include participation in a research project, telling one’s story, or rifling through tins of old photographs to re-connect with the past. In Strait Street the connection between place and people appears strong. This project sought to reaffirm and legitimize this bond and re-emphasize the heritage-ness of Strait Street. The cultural legacy of Strait Street is as rich as it is significant for those who live there still, and those who might wish to do so again. Documenting the archaeology of Strait Street, and presenting it explicitly in these terms, as cultural heritage and as archaeology, is one of the main objectives of this study.

33.5 Field Methods

The Strait Street project is what some might call a ‘pyschogeography’, generating a ‘mental map’ of the place and the people who inhabit it. Psychogeography is an approach that is increasingly used in archaeological fieldwork, especially with regard to archaeological (p. 472) heritage, and archaeologies of the contemporary past. Depending on emphasis, the labels may vary, but the essentials remain consistent: mapping attachment and stories onto a landscape. Byrne and Nugent refer to this as ‘geo-biography’ (2004), Harrison (2010) calls it ‘landscape biography’, while Green et al. (2003) describe the collection process as ‘story trekking’. But following Byrne’s comment on social action (2008), we might also describe our psychogeography as a concern for ‘the specific effects of the geographic environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’; or put another way, exploring the behavioural impact of urban space (Debord 1981: 5; see Yaneva, this volume). This approach seems particularly relevant here. And to use another not entirely unconnected parallel, Thomas De Quincey is considered by some (e.g. Coverley 2006: 17) a prototype psychogeographer. His drug-fuelled ramblings through London gave him access to the invisible community of the marginalized and the dispossessed. For De Quincey, the city became a riddle, a puzzle that still perplexes writers and walkers to this day, a dreamscape where nothing was what it seemed, and a place which could only be navigated by those possessing secret knowledge. A predominant characteristic of such an approach is walking, with its promotion of swift circulation and the street-level gaze, enabling the official representation of the city to be challenged by cutting across established routes and exploring those marginal and forgotten areas often overlooked by the city’s inhabitants.

With this in mind, we summarize our field methods as comprising three stages:

  • being seen in and around the street;

  • seeing and recording as many of the places and objects we encountered as possible; and

  • the conduct of informal interviews in situ combined with information gathered online.

33.5.1 Being Seen

Being seen was an essential first step. We needed to build trust and confidence amongst those living, working, or just frequenting this part of Valletta. We also needed to be careful. There have been instances in the past of students conducting research being seen as intrusive and were therefore intimidated. Initially, therefore, our approach was a cautious one. We wanted to become a familiar sight in Strait Street before we started asking too many questions. We walked up and down Strait Street many times, spending hours during the course of each day doing so. We met people this way and the contacts we made gradually produced a valuable network of informants including owners and occupiers.

33.5.2 Recording Traces and Places

Archaeological recording usually involves meticulous and often forensic attention to detail—the close investigation of even the subtlest traces: small artefacts and the patterns they exhibit—a footprint in the dust, wall markings and graffiti. And these were indeed the types of archaeological evidence we gathered. However, the method of retrieval had to be adapted to a situation where access to bars was either unsafe or where the owner was impatient and access was allowed for a limited time. We had (rather optimistically) intended to (p. 473) compile detailed sketches and survey drawings (see Buchli and Lucas 2001), but this proved impossible in almost every case, as visits were invariably brief and hurried affairs. Instead we made rough, quick sketches which were refined and redrawn after the event, in addition to extensive coverage of the space through high resolution digital photography and digital video. This had the additional benefit of capturing the dialogue that typically accompanied our visits, either our own conversations or those with the owner or tenant.

Harder to capture is the acute sense that something interesting happened in these buildings, and something that remains with the place, in the stones almost. It is not so much enchantment and exoticization, as the place’s mystery as a subject of research, raising ethical questions about our own perceptions alongside those of residents and former participants, especially given issues of criminality and—for the Roman Catholic Church—morality. But it was a sense of the exotic that drew us to Strait Street and it is a sense that has remained throughout the study. Tim Edensor captures the mood in his (2005) Industrial Ruins, describing the ‘limitless possibilities for encounters with the weird, with inscrutable legends inscribed on notice boards and signs, and with peculiar things and curious spaces which allow wide scope for imaginative interpretation’ (2005: 4). Edensor’s study contests the notion that ruins are spaces of waste, that contain nothing, or nothing of value, arguing rather that they are ‘endowed with meaning and function’ (2005: 6). This is precisely how we felt, entering old bars, or just peering through cracks or keyholes, recording what we saw, that these were meaningful places with an interesting past.

Any building associated with Strait Street’s historic role was examined, even where the space has now been converted for a new use: the annexe to Marks and Spencer, for instance (52–54 Strait Street), and the legal office at Mamo TCV (89–90 Strait Street). Strait Street is changing, albeit slowly. The fact that our visits to Strait Street took place in 2004, 2005, and 2009 meant that we could observe and document some of the incremental changes taking place over that time. The processes that can transform a place and change its character, and in some cases also its fortunes, are often slow. The bombing of Valletta in the Second World War is an example of sudden and rapid transformative change, but typically change happens more slowly. Currently that is what we see in Strait Street: small changes, hopefully for the better, but in a way that incorporates the character of Strait Street’s colourful past. The gradual erosion of graffiti, such as that marking the Cambridge Music and Dancing Hall (104–105 Strait Street, Figure 33.2), the removal or tidying up of cables and wires, the removal of bar signs, and the repaving of sections of the street, are all small-scale changes which collectively can transform the place and undermine its historic character. Undertaking this survey over time has allowed us to observe and record this process, and to document details others might miss.

33.5.3 Informal Interviews

‘A Dirtier Reality?’ Archaeological Methods and the Urban ProjectClick to view larger

Figure 33.2 Faded lettering marks the former location of the Cambridge Dancing Hall, photographed in 2004

(photograph: John Schofield)

Much of the information gathered here stems from the third stage of our investigation, oral historical research, either in the form of informal interviews or conversations conducted in or close to Strait Street or through letters, emails, and telephone conversations. Our interviews followed the advice of social anthropologists such as Anderson (2004) who adopted ‘bimbling’ as a methodology for investigating sites of environmental protest. For Anderson, ‘bimbling’ amounts to walking or wandering as a means to providing the ideological space necessary to re-experience people’s connections with landscape. Given the people we were (p. 474) meeting (one-time barmaids, cross-dressers, cabaret artistes, and—potentially at least—former petty criminals and prostitutes), we sensed that structured and formalized interviews—including questionnaires—were to be avoided. Through bimbling, we were told stories of Strait Street, the details of which mirrored and enhanced those gathered by Victor Scerri, whose own interviews are published periodically in the left-wing Maltese-language newspaper IT-TORĊA. But, most significantly, bimbling—combined with Victor’s knowledge and influence—quite literally opened doors, and we gained access to 20 of the 80 or so bars that originally lined the lower end and parts of the upper end of Strait Street. As we had been told we would never get into any of them, this degree of access seemed a successful outcome.

Contacting former service personnel and especially sailors has taken the form of letters, messages strategically placed on Internet message/bulletin boards, or placed in veterans’ societies’ newsletters. One observation is the different rates of response from British and US navies. Every call for information elicited a response from British former naval personnel; yet similar posts to US Navy websites produced not one single response. One explanation for this might be the closer connection between the British and Malta than for the Americans. Perhaps, for the Americans, Malta and Strait Street were nothing special; just a stop en route to Vietnam.

Another reason for conducting our ethnographic research was a concern to explore the history of social groups excluded from what Mitchell (2002: 40) terms the ‘grand historical narratives of political and military history’ (and there is significant overlap here with Indigenous archaeologies and the use of oral accounts from non-literate and subaltern peoples). Alternative, subversive histories (such as women’s history, black, or gay and lesbian history, e.g. Chetcuti 2009) provide an avenue for emancipation. The approach described here, which combines oral history with archaeological analyses, can focus on the ‘authenticity of people’s daily lives, and the generalizations made by official elite history’ (Mitchell 2002: 41).

‘A Dirtier Reality?’ Archaeological Methods and the Urban ProjectClick to view larger

Figure 33.3 Bobby in characteristic pose

(photographer unknown)

It is worth emphasizing also here that many of the stories and memories recounted represent a ‘collective memory’ (Mitchell 2002: 42), where autobiographical experiences are shared (p. 475) by a number of people. Many people recall some of the characters of Strait Street, and three in particular: ‘Tiny’, the policeman; Sparrow the barmaid and ‘Empress of the Gut’; and Bobby, the hugely talented artiste and pianist (Figure 33.3). These are people recalled by most of our correspondents, whether naval personnel or local Maltese. And not only that, but many of the same stories are recalled. Perhaps these people had catch-phrases or actions whose repetition was part of their star attraction. Or perhaps it is more a reflection of the large numbers of people they performed to, or whose lives they influenced in some way. There are also examples of ‘social memory’ where autobiographical memories are carried across generations. This usually applies only for local Maltese and families, where successive generations served in the Royal Navy and in which legends and stories are passed on. We should also not forget or trivialize the sensitivity of some of the subject matter: Strait Street memories can be painful, awkward, embarrassing, shameful, and often hard to handle for those left behind.

33.6 Archaeology, Heritage, and the Future

In a landmark publication, and in the context of the 2005 Faro Convention on the Value of Heritage for Society, the Director of Culture and Cultural and Natural Heritage of the Council of Europe said that ‘in certain communities, heritage consciousness is still dominated by elites and expert concerns. Looked after by professionals and academics, what is the role of the public, except as passive spectators and witnesses to the decisions of others?’ (Palmer 2008: 8). He also stressed that ‘heritage is not simply about the past; it is vitally about the present and the future. A heritage that is disjointed from ongoing life has limited (p. 476) value. Heritage involves continual creation and transformation. We can make heritage by adding new ideas to old ideas. Heritage is never merely something to be conserved or protected, but rather to be modified and enhanced.’

By any conventional or authorized view, the heritage value of Strait Street would be at best minimal, at worst non-existent. With notable exceptions, the buildings are not spectacular. The decrepit bar signs and other traces of The Gut, the graffiti on the walls and paving all add to a very particular ‘down at heel’ atmosphere, one that can be discomforting and challenging to town planners and visitors alike. Some visitors see a landscape in need of improvement, or regeneration; others see a place of real character and interest. But beyond visitors’ experiences and the street’s physical appearance is another layer: people live in the flats above the former bars and music halls, people who are integral to the Strait Street story. All of this forms part of Valletta’s rich cultural heritage: the place and the people; the memories and the traces.

Some might consider this Strait Street story an unnecessary subversion of the official and glorious history of Valletta. They may even dislike the decision to tell this story and to publish it. But this is not alternative history. This is part of the living history of Valletta and arguably one of the more intriguing and entertaining histories the city has on offer. Whoever said history must always be comfortable, easy, and nice?

‘A Dirtier Reality?’ Archaeological Methods and the Urban ProjectClick to view larger

Figure 33.4 The Egyptian Queen, World Heritage?

(photograph: John Schofield)

Archaeology and heritage are no longer only about the past, but about the present and the future. This story of the contemporary past should have the potential to influence thoughts and ideas of what present and future generations of Vallettans think about this episode, along with those who take an interest in how Valletta has become the wonderful city it is today. One might go so far as to suggest that Sparrow, Bobby, Tiny, and others, a few of whom remain resident in Strait Street, form part of the greater historical narrative, alongside de Valette, Falzon, etc., just as New Life and the Egyptian Queen (Figure 33.4) should (p. 477) take their places as historic landmarks alongside the auberges, the fortifications, and other grand and protected buildings of Valletta.

Strait Street and especially The Gut were always marginal places. But archaeology is a subject that can embrace marginality and marginalized communities. This chapter promotes the acceptance of Strait Street as heritage as well as illustrating a methodology for exploring other places like this—‘the vandal country’; the ‘disreputable quarters’ of cities. The hope here must be that one day The Gut will live again as a marginal environment, vital and sustainable, as a lively, chaotic, and colourful place—Valletta’s beating heart, for the benefit of all.


The research described here was conducted jointly with Emily Morrissey. We are grateful to the British Academy and the Farsons Foundation (Malta) for funding the fieldwork, and many others for supporting us during our time in Malta. A full list of acknowledgements appears in Schofield and Morrissey (2013).


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