Sometimes you come across exceptional people who excel in everything they do.
Maltese scientist Sir Themistocles Zammit was one such person, and a true giant of science.
He was born in Valletta in 1864 into a humble family. His parents were illiterate and yet they succeeded to nurture his thirst for knowledge and his ability to triumph in spite of all the obstacles he faced.
After studying at the Lyceum and the Royal University of Malta he obtained the degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1889. In 1905 he was appointed Professor of Chemistry in the same University, of which he was also appointed Rector in 1920.
He occupied this position until 1926 when he decided to dedicate his time and uncommon intellectual faculties to the organisation of the National Museum, particularly in the archaeological field.
Sir Temi, as he was popularly known, was a man of great versatility.
His scholarly interests were multifarious and he was a very prolific writer as evidenced by his numerous publications.
As a scientist engaged in research work on the transmission of Mediterranean his name first became known in medical circles across the British Empire thanks to his continuation of the work of Sir David Bruce.
In 1920 he was awarded the “Mary Kingsley Medal” by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. His name also gained renown as a result of his archaeological excavations of prehistoric sites in the Maltese Islands and also of his scholarly writings on the material found on such sites.
The range of Zammit’s talents extended to Maltese history, literature, culture and education. His accomplishments and merits received acknowledgment in various international quarters.
In 1911, King George V honoured him with the decoration of Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George.
In 1920 the University of Oxford conferred on him an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature.
In 1930 he was honoured with a knighthood for his vital scientific work, and in 1932 he was made an “Officier d’Académie” of the French Republic.
Sir Temistokle Zammit died on 2 November 1935.
The legacy Sir Temi left science and archaeology is evident in the work that he conducted at Tarxien Temples, which today form part of the UNESCO World Heritage List
It was a farmer from Paola who led to the excavation of the site when, in 1913, he reported hitting large blocks of stone while trying to plough a field.
The tell-tale signs of an impressive discovery were immediately apparent when an exploratory trench was dug. At a depth of just a metre, blocks of stones started to emerge, coupled with prehistoric pottery.
Further excavations led by Sir Temi in 1915 revealed the grandeur of prehistoric structures that were built with a high level of artistic and technical accomplishment.
By the end of the excavations, in 1919, four structures were uncovered, three of which were interpreted as ‘temples’ due to their size and the artefacts found within them.
Besides this remarkable discovery, Sir Temi is acclaimed for having introduced the first systematic archaeological excavations. Although not using the modern excavation techniques employed today, he applied the approaches that he had learned as a medical doctor and as a renowned scientific researcher.
The observations and drawings he left in his notebooks prove the level of detail he went into.
His scientific approach enhanced his international reputation. A permanent display of some of his findings may be viewed at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.
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