At the western edge of the Mediterranean, the Phoenicians have also left their mark. In the spectacularly atmospheric Gorham’s Cave on Gibraltar’s eastern shore, accessible only by sea, fragments of an ancient clay mask of the monster Medusa have, just this year, been lovingly pieced together. The finds (thanks to genius work by Professor Gerry Finlayson and her team) reveal that the myths which swirled about Medusa – that ferocious gorgon-goddess, with snakes for hair, whose stare turned men to stone – have left traces in the archaeological record.
Medusa was thought to inhabit a remote lair, in the badlands where the Atlantic met the Mediterranean, where civilisation ended. Gibraltar’s discoveries, along with other offerings, traded by those intrepid Phoenician sailor-boys – a rainbow-bright glass post from the island of Rhodes, seal-stones boasting an African face, Egyptian scarab beads – are living proof that ancient travellers stitched together the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe with their sheer drive.
Not that it was all plain sailing – for them, and for us. I am not a fan of small, dark spaces, but found myself wedged into tiny wall-channels in Gibraltar’s early medieval “Moorish castle” to investigate Game of Thrones-scale damage meted out by attacking Christian forces.
I had to lower myself down into St Michael’s cave complex to read the graffiti left by duelling Napoleonic soldiers; and, on Malta, in the pitch black, explored the remarkable prehistoric, subterranean temple the Hypogeum, where up to 7,000 Stone Age women, men and children have been buried together, along with fat, female, 5000-year-old figurines and enigmatic red, pigment decorations on walls and ceilings – messages from the past we have yet to decipher.
The time of corona has helped us to appreciate what we treasure. Health, and our loved ones are, obviously, top of the list. But so too is hope. Exploring the treasures left by our ancestors – from the damp Second World War air-raid tunnels of the besieged Maltese and the gold dhirams minted by the island’s medieval Muslim population, to the neglected poetry of Michelangelo’s muse Vittoria Colonna on the island of Ischia and the bouji villas of the super-rich Ancient Greeks on the sacred island of Delos – helps to connect us to their good times and their bad, to the dogged determination of the human species to carry on, and to try to find the delight in life, whatever the world throws our way.
Bettany Hughes’ Treasures of the World begins on Saturday at 8pm on Channel 4