Prehistoric Malta under microscope
Researchers from Northern Ireland are hoping to unlock the secrets of a prehistoric Mediterranean society and chart the rise and fall of a civilisation.
New forensic technology will be used to study how early people lived in an unstable environment on the island of Malta around 5,500 years ago.
Experts from Queen's University Belfast will reconstruct the changing ecology of the island using ancient pollen samples.
Caroline Malone said: "The island provides us with a fascinating laboratory.
"By a combination of fieldwork and exciting new forensic technology, we expect to uncover a wealth of new information.
"This may tell us about how early people managed to live in an unstable environment and develop coping mechanisms that reveal extraordinary resilience to change."
Megalithic temples were created in Malta when most of Europe was far less sophisticated.
Dr Malone, from Queen's School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, added: "Yet this civilisation disappeared quite unexpectedly around 2,400 BC.
"We hope to look at the unstable conditions - fluctuating rainfall, deforestation - to find out more about what happened and why even this remarkable island community had to change its cultural and economic world."
Academics from Queen's, Cambridge University and the University of Malta will research the country from its first occupation by Neolithic farmers around 5,500 BC until medieval times, attempting to learn lessons about long-term conservation.
Researchers will question how particular conditions or circumstances made societies change and how they adapted to change, and how they were sustained when catastrophic events like invasion, disease or environmental change disrupted their world.
Malta was one of Europe's earliest civilisations.
Settled in around 5,300 BC, the Maltese islands supported a thriving, substantially populated and sophisticated civilisation.
The research team said: "By circa 3,000 BC, many extraordinary megalithic temples demonstrated the most precocious complex architecture and culture of the period in all Europe.
"For 2,500 years, this relatively isolated island society maintained a high culture, and their temples appear to have been central to a well-organised system of production and redistribution of foods and feasting."
It will question why the temples were built.
"Did erosion, landscape degradation, environmental instability and over-exploitation combine to bring social stability to an end in the later third millennium BC?" the expert group asked.
"What was the origin of the Bronze Age cultures that followed?"
The study is funded through a 2.5 million euro (£2 million) grant from a European research council.