Malta’s oldest fortification

Malta’s oldest fortification

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Mention Maltese fortifications and one’s mind is automatically transported to the impressive and extensive defensive systems designed and constructed during the period of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, more popularly known as the Knights of Malta.   The most impressive of the Knights’ fortifications include the walls of Valletta and Floriana, the Cottonera Lines encompassing the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea and the walled citadels of Mdina and Victoria on Gozo.

The British also left some impressive fortifications the most famous of which are the Victoria Lines which criss-cross the island at its widest breadth between Madliena and Fomm ir-Rih. Older medieval fortifications, some dating from the Byzantine and Arab period, are found in Vittoriosa, Mdina and the Gozo Citadel where they were incorporated into the Knights’ battlements. A couple of locations such as San Gwann also feature the remains of Roman towers which presumably had some sort of military significance, albeit of an observatory nature.

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By far, the oldest evidence of a fortified structure to have been found in Malta is the impressive wall protecting the remains of the Bronze Age village at Borg in-Nadur in Birzebbuga on the south-eastern tip of the island of Malta.

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Borg in-Nadur has a very interesting history. It lies at the tip of the Wied Dalam valley where around half a kilometre upstream lies Ghar Dalam, the Cave of Darkness after which the earliest phase of Maltese prehistory is named. The Ghar Dalam phase dates back to around 5000BCE and is reputed to contain the oldest evidence of human activity in the Maltese Islands: settlers who came from Sicily by crossing the 100 kilometre stretch of sea on rafts and boats bringing with them seeds, livestock, fabrics and pottery which has been matched with artefacts from a south-eastern Sicilian prehistoric site called Stentinello.

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Borg in-Nadur started life around 2,500BCE as a Tarxien-phase temple. It was a relatively small and undecorated temple on a promontory overlooking the protected expanse of Marsaxlokk harbour.  After around a thousand years as a temple, the site was taken over by a new wave of Bronze-Age settlers around 1500BCE who differed principally from their Neolithic predecessors owing to their introduction of metal tools, implements and weapons to the Islands. The Bronze Age settlers occupied Borg in-Nadur for a thousand years until 500BCE when the literate Phoenicians reached these shores and transported Malta into the historic age.

The Bronze-Age settlers redeveloped the site quite extensively into a sizeable village. They recycled a lot of the stones from the temple complex and built their huts in the general area of the older temple site. Hut foundations were excavated by Margaret Murray in the 1930s but were buried once more once the necessary studies were conducted.   The village seems to have been quite large housing a few hundred residents and also featured around one hundred grain silos excavated as bell-shaped cisterns in the soft globigerina limestone around the coast.

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Most of the silos were destroyed in two episodes of road construction and widening in the twentieth century but a handful survive on a thin coastal stretch across the road from the main site: silos which have their own unique story to tell owing to the fact that most of them lie under sea level suggesting either a rise in sea levels over the past couple of thousand years or else land subsidence. This story is further corroborated by the presence of a single, adjacent set of cart-ruts which also lead straight into the sea.

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Evidence indicates that the Bronze-Age inhabitants were more warlike than their predecessors, although it is not clear whether their bellicose behaviour extended to the threat of foreign seafarers or other clans inhabiting other parts of the Island.

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One of the most impressive and clear indications of the troubled times in which these people lived, is the extensive 4.5 metre high semi-circular wall which lies at the northern end of the Borg in-Nadur village. The wall was excavated by Murray in the 1930s and contrary to most of the dig carried out then, it was not reburied. The original remains of the wall were augmented by modern reconstructions especially in the back part. The entire structure is about 30 metres long and circa 2.5 metres thick. The most impressive aspect of this 3,500 year old wall is the huge rock boulders which are embedded within the structure: megaliths which were probably recycled and reused from the original temple.

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An intriguing aspect of the Borg in-Nadur defensive wall is that it actually faces inland rather than towards the sea! Does this mean that the villagers were more interested in defending themselves from the enemy within or is there another unknown significance?

Whatever the interpretation, this small and relatively unknown site has its special place in Malta’s impressive list of historical treasures: the first in a 3,500 year fortress-building tradition making Malta one of the most well-defended locations in the Mediterranean.

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The sunken silos of Birzebbuga

The sunken silos of Birzebbuga

At the very entrance of the village of Birzebbuga, at the extreme south-east of Malta, lies the small but important prehistoric site of Borg in-Nadur. The site, which lies a few hundred metres away from the better known Ghar Dalam cave, started life as a late Tarxien-phase megalithic temple but was eventually occupied by Bronze-Age settlers who developed a major village complete with a still-surviving defensive wall which is reputedly Malta’s oldest surviving fortification. L1460357 hdr pixlr signed The extensive Bronze-Age village which existed during a one thousand year interval between 1500 and 500 BCE originally stood on high ground overlooking St. George’s Bay but its remains and context have today been sadly disturbed by modern development including the building of the major road into Birzebbuga which cuts through the land formerly occupied by the village near the shore. One surviving indicator of the size and extent of the Borg in-Nadur bronze-age village consists of a number of rock-cut silos which were used by the villagers to store grain. Silos of this type have also been found in similar settlements from the same period such as Bahrija and Luqa on Malta and in-Nuffara in Xaghra, Gozo.  The grain was either stored for future consumption or else as seeds for the forthcoming growing season.  Given their location so close to the sea it could also be that the grain was stored there for purposes of trade with visiting vessels. L1460359 pixlr signed These silos were dug into the rock and eventually plugged to keep the grain dry and protected from the elements. They were bell-shaped cisterns not unlike the rainwater cisterns dug by the inhabitants of the Maltese islands to capture and store rainwater during the rainy season. The Birzebbuga silos which survive today consist of a small group on an exposed patch of rocky coast which is accessible from the promenade near the small sandy beach opposite the Al Fresco restaurant. The surviving silos today consist of around fifteen but until a hundred years ago they numbered closer to one hundred. In fact no less than 32 were destroyed by the British colonial administration on 31 May 1920 so that they could build a coastal road to the village which had increased in importance due to the seaplane base which had been established at Kalafrana. A further 41 silos were destroyed some time later when the original road was widened. L1460387 pixlr signed An interesting aspect connected with the Birzebbuga grain silos is the fact that the surviving ones all lie at the very edge of the coast and that some of them are actually below sea level. Given that underwater silos are of little practical use, what the current state of the silos implies is that the coastal landscape on which they stand must have undergone some fairly substantial upheavals over the past three thousand or so years.   The silos today lie under water either due to a sea level rise of a few metres which changed their original low cliff-top location to a sea-level one or else as a result of subsidence which saw the rocky foreshore on which they were carved sink below sea level due to some tectonic cataclysm which pulled it downwards. L1460362 pixlr signed Today, the silos lie in an accessible area which is reasonably well protected from the deprivations of further development. Most of them have filled up with accumulated silt from both the land and the sea and a number of them feature recent channels which have been cut into the rock to link them directly to the sea. A couple have been sealed to prevent accidents. Evidence of past quarrying on the globigerina rock-face on which the silos are located is visible through two cross-sections of silos which still survive.   The cross-sections give a very good indication of the original bell-shape of the silos. L1460406 pixlr signed Some of the silos feature a reddish tint which was caused by fire implying that the pits were filled with flammable material which was set alight during some point. L1460394 pixlr signed The silos of Borg in-Nadur are not impressive or monumental in any way, being mere holes in the rock.  But they do bear testament to a forgotten people who inhabited this land some three thousand five hundred years ago: a warrior-like people with bronze tools who built fortified villages next to the abandoned temples of their stone-age predecessors. A people who not only were farmers and traders but also built complex food storage facilities for their grain using the concept of rock-cut cisterns which continued to be used in Malta for the same purpose until at least the 1980s of the current age. They also serve as a grim reminder related to the major risk phenomenon of our time: global warming and its effect on coastal settlements should sea levels rise. L1460398 hdr pixlr signed