Malte : Bad and good examples of protecting heritage

Noel Grima




In 1961, while work was underway for the construction of the new village secondary school in Zejtun, ancient remains were discovered. Archaeological excavations that began on the site in 1964 revealed a large cistern and some water channels.

Eight years later, an excavation, led by the Museums Department, began and in the course of short excavation sessions that continued till 1976, the remains of a Roman villa were revealed.


Various parts of the stone apparatus used for the production of olive oil were discovered, clustered around one room. This was the industrial section of the villa complex.

The residential area was discovered to the south, and consisted of three adjoining rooms, with floors of lozenge-shaped terracotta tiles. Some of the walls were found to have been plastered and decorated with paint.

A second cistern, cylindrical in shape, was uncovered to the north. Other discoveries of note included not just a large quantity of pottery vessels and worked stone fragments but also 44 Roman coins dating from between AD222 and AD361.

After a lapse of 30 years, excavations resumed in 2006 and local NGO Wirt iz-Zejtun has been holding an exhibition on those excavations. Yesterday, a day-long seminar looked back at the excavations and tried to establish the best way to proceed. There will also be a site visit this morning at 11am.

The seminar heard how a considerable amount of damage has been allowed to occur to those parts of the villa that were unearthed in the 1970s. The plaster has been left out in the open and is flaking and falling off, while the paint on it is fading. JoAnn Cassar, from the Department of Built Heritage at the university, warned that most of the Roman remains that were unearthed in the 1970s are in a very fragile state.

This also shows the difference between bad practice and good practice as regards our archaeological heritage. Bad practice was what happened in the past and which has led to the deterioration of what had been conserved for thousands of years. They were also the years of individual efforts. Today, it is all a matter of teamwork, bringing together people from different disciplines. Today, too, as a previous speaker pointed out, conservation sometimes requires that what is discovered is carefully studied and then reburied.

Yesterday’s seminar was riveting for the way in which it showed that young secondary school students from the adjoining school were developing an interest in archaeology. As well as being present for the entire seminar, and listening attentively, five of them also made a presentation in which they described their experiments on the effects of herbicides on the stones. They did this by testing two herbicides, one from Monsanto, and measured their impact on the shrubs that afflict so much of the remains.

An even more interesting example of team effort came from a team of students from the architecture and archaeology courses at the university, led by Professor Alex Torpiano.

The challenge they set themselves was to erect a low-cost tent, built very much on the model of the tents at Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra, to protect the site.

The students had a meagre budget of €5,000 (the Ħaġar Qim tents cost €1.5 million) so the students spent an entire summer very ingeniously erecting a structure made of PVC pipes covered in plastic, which they laboriously pulled up and put in place at the end of the summer.

But they had not reckoned with the 5 September storm in which the tent was damaged and had to be removed. The group nonetheless said it must learn from this experience, even though there is no plan to do it again.

David Cardona from Heritage Malta, but speaking on a personal basis, then gave his ideas on what should be done about the Roman villa.

In a way, the villa being in the school grounds, has helped its preservation in that it is inaccessible to visitors, safeguarded from vandalism and also from people tramping all over the site.

At the same time, the site remains far from the public’s awareness. Mr Cardona thus suggested the school’s increased involvement in the management of the site through the participation of teachers as well as students.

The Superintendent of Cultural Heritage, Nathaniel Cutajar, then gave a riveting presentation of the villa in its immediate context in the light of three new archaeological discoveries that have been made.

Zejtun, in its wider sense, lies midway between two very important harbours in the south of Malta: Grand Harbour, from which ships left for the Aegean, and Marsaxlokk harbour, from which ships left for North Africa.

The area is criss-crossed with roads between the two harbours. What we know as Tal-Barrani may have been one such road and one can also identify a road from the Xarolla area in Żurrieq all the way to Mdina.

The three important recent discoveries in the area are:

· The Tal-Barrani complex, including a catacomb and numerous tombs, found in 1993 and dating from late antiquity and the Byzantine period.

· The Tal-Ħotba area in Bulebel, discovered during excavation work for a new private hospital. This area had previously been an MMU plant and when this was being built in 1960, two tombs were found and were destroyed. Today, 14 tombs have been discovered and the developer has had to drastically alter his plans. The tombs are on one straight line, maybe along the side of a road. Further excavations in 2011 found many agricultural channels, signifying that the rest of the area was fields, even in those days.

· The Actavis site in Bulebel where Actavis, in the process of enlarging its plant, has found four tombs dug into the side of a Roman quarry. Actavis is fully supporting the archaeological effort and is spending far more money to protect the quarry and the tombs. Maybe the big stones used at Tas-Silg and at the Zejtun Roman villa came from here for this is good stone, whereas the stone on both sides is quite poor.

Mr Cutajar also announced that, over the summer, a survey was carried out of the area between Xewkija and Sannat in Gozo up to Mġarr ix-Xini, to understand the archaeological potential of the area.

Today’s excavations are seeing the involvement of osteologists (bone experts) to date any human remains that are found and pottery experts, as well as carbon dating and even DNA matching – for instance between remains from Tal-Barrani and remains from the Rabat catacombs.

Zejtun mayor Joe Attard, who intervened many times during the seminar, announced the setting up of a tourist trail between Ħal Tmiem and San Niklaw, to be called the “Chapels’ Trail” and provide visitors with an idea of the wealth of heritage hidden behind the rubble walls, such as Malta’s first oil press.

Later on, this trail will also link Zejtun with the nearby important ruins of Tas-Silg.