A rushed burial on Comino

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A rushed burial on Comino

I visited Gozo’s small but rich Museum of Archaeology recently.  A small building housing an impressive spectrum of remains and artefacts from Man’s earliest forays on the island up to early medieval times. A testament to how this small island has played host to multitudes of peoples and cultures for the past eight thousand years.

In a room reserved for Roman-era finds, one exhibit attracted my attention. The well-preserved, skeletal remains of a man accompanied by a vertically split amphora lay gingerly within the confines of a glass display cabinet. The man’s skull, his vertebral column, his shoulder blades and his ribs indicating a state of repose spanning long centuries. His well preserved skull still contains teeth and also sports a reasonably sized puncture in the cranium.

The remains were discovered on the island of Comino in 1912. Workmen carrying out trenching works on the eastern side of Santa Maria Bay discovered a shallow grave in the soil. The grave contained a man’s remains covered by two vertical halves of a split terracotta amphora. Amphorae were the classical age’s equivalent of packages and containers and were used to transport anything from wine to oil, honey or the famous, pungent Roman fish sauce known as garum. The burial has been dated to around 1,500 to 1,700 years ago between the 3rd and 5th centuries of the current era.

The archaeologists could say a lot from the style and nature of this unique burial from the evidence at hand. This was not a typical rock-cut tomb in an inland location as one is normally used to for the Roman period. It was a shallow grave in soft soil very near to the sea. The split amphora provided even further clues.

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In all probability this man was a sailor or passenger on a ship who died on board. His death must have happened in Maltese waters and the decision must have been taken to bury him at the first available opportunity for a landfall. This landfall was Comino’s Santa Maria Bay, a small sandy beach at the mouth of Comino’s two miniature valleys of Wied Imdied and Wied l-Ahmar.

The deceased’s body must have been unloaded off the vessel and transported to the beach where a shallow grave was rapidly dug out of the soil. In order to compensate for the shallowness of the grave and protect the remains from exposure, the burial was completed by covering the corpse with two halves of a vertically split amphora, from the stock of amphorae on board the vessel. And there it lay in peace until 1912 when it was brought to light once more and now lies in its new resting place in the museum in Victoria’s Citadel.

Who was this man? Where did he come from and where was he bound to? Was he a sailor or a passenger? What led to his early demise? Is the hole in his skull related to his death? What did he look like and how old was he?

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I hope that one day we will have answers to these questions. A mix of detective work assisted by analysis of DNA extracted from this man’s teeth and facial reconstruction from the well preserved skull could tell us so much more about this small incident which played its final drama on tiny Comino so many centuries ago.

 

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A clothes line amidst the fennel stalks.

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A clothes line amidst the fennel stalks.

A hot August morning on Comino. The rising sun’s heat is tempered by the occasional straggling cloud providing a few overcast seconds of relief and a stiff breeze of Majjistral, Malta’s prevailing north west wind which is nature’s alternative to refreshing air conditioning.

We are on our annual pilgrimage to this desolate little island. Arid, but full of life. Ruggedly beautiful with ever changing scenery. A two and a half square kilometre island. One tiny corner of which, its Blue Lagoon, is over-run by up to five thousand visitors daily. Leaving the rest to people like us. A fair deal, I think. Amazing how even on such a small landmass, you can just climb the small hill overlooking Cominotto Island and all evidence of the crowds dissipates into thin air. No sight, no sound. Nothing.

We have climbed from the inlet of San Niklaw and walked across Comino’s main thoroughfare, Triq Kemmunett. At the location of the old Bakery building we take a sharp right and climb steeply up Triq il-Gvernatur, the road leading to the imposing Santa Maria Tower, part of a network of coastal watchtowers built by the Knights of St. John.

Our final destination today is the small mooring place at Wied Ernu, a tiny cleft in the island’s southern coast which used to serve as the landing for boats from Malta during the time of the twentieth century agricultural colony on Comino.

The colony is long gone, but its remains, mostly in ruins and disrepair are spread all over the island.

On the way back, a small sign of human activity. One of the handful of people which stayed behind when the colony disbanded in the late 1960s. True Comino-born and bred. Hanging clothes to dry on a line. Surrounded by stalks of wild fennel.

A beautiful sight. A sign of humanity’s resilience and adaptability. And oneness with nature.

The fresh breeze, the aromatic smell of ripening fennel seeds and the slight waft of damp, clean laundry hanging out to dry in the wind. Elements which make me return to Comino year after year.

Dining with the Dear Departed

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Dining with the Dear Departed.

In many cultures the concept of a wake takes place to bid farewell to the deceased. A wake is very often a social occasion which emphasises the fact that the loss pertains to a social group and therefore has an effect on the group as a whole.

Modern wakes are also associated with the serving of refreshments after the burial ceremony: something which contemporary Maltese society is not accustomed to except in feature films portraying northern cultures. However, evidence from the Maltese early-Christian catacombs clearly suggests that the custom of a final farewell meal with the person who has just been laid to rest was a common occurrence during the Roman period of Malta’s history.

While there is no documentary evidence to support this, the major Maltese catacombs from the Roman period commonly feature one important component which clearly points to this tradition.

This feature is commonly known as the Agape Table and is generally found in the wide public hall areas of the catacombs, generally at their entrance. The larger catacombs such as St Paul’s and St. Agatha’s in Rabat, Malta generally feature two of these tables while smaller catacombs with reduced burial capacity such as the small hypogea overlooking the old Roman harbour in Salina (where the pictures accompanying this story were taken) either feature a single Agape table or even none at all.

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This so called “table” is carved in its entirety from the living rock and its shape is assumed to have been jointly inspired by the triclinium (reclining couch) which was a common accessory in Roman dining rooms together with the stibadium which was the C-shaped banquet table from whose surface the diners reclining on the triclinium obtained their food.

These combined triclinium-stibadium combinations were hewn out of the limestone rock within the catacombs to form a solid architectural unit. Thus they are a solid part of the catacomb meant for permanent, multiple use.

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The Agape tables generally rise around 60cm above ground level. They were carved in such a way so as to slope gently downwards towards the circumference of the main chamber. On the surface, they assume the shape of a round, flat table encircled with a 6cm wide rim which is around about 3cm high, a sort of raised circumference giving the impression of a shallow flat bowl. The tables in the Maltese catacombs are about 75cm in diameter.  These Agape tables copy the C-shape of the Roman stibadium and all feature a small section of the rim which is opened on their front part. It is assumed that this opening had a functional rather than ceremonial function making it possible to clean and wash the table when the meal was over.

Of course, one assumes that at the time when the catacombs were in use, the people partaking in the meal were not expected to recline on the bare rock but that cushions and other soft material were laid on the sloping surface surrounding the table to provide for comfortable posture.

There are various interpretations for the use of these structures but the most popular explanation is that they were generally used by relatives and friends of the deceased to share a last meal to commemorate the person’s passing to the afterlife, possibly inspired by Christ’s last supper with his disciples.  They may also have been used to host commemorative meals during festivals of the dead such as All Souls Day during which visits to places of burial were very common and ceremonies to renew the rite of burials were held.

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So next time you visit the catacombs do look for these conspicuous structures, close your eyes and go back fifteen hundred years to imagine a silent gathering of mourners sharing a meal within the stark rocky embrace of these underground labyrinths.

 

 

The Roman Catacombs of Salina

DSCN9531_Creative pixlr signedThe Roman Catacombs of Salina.

I have known about the small Christian Catacombs of Salina for a very long time but never had the opportunity to visit them. Finally, an opportunity to go to the site arose and I took my trusted Nikon with me to explore this relatively unknown, small but nevertheless impressive legacy from Malta’s early Christian period.

Salina Bay today is a small inlet within whose inner waters one finds the salt-pans which give it its name. Centuries ago, however, Salina was Malta’s biggest Roman harbour, extending as far inland as the village of Burmarrad. Centuries of silting by soil and sediment carried by storm-water draining from the huge watercourses of Wied il-Ghasel and Wied Rihana eventually choked this once-great harbour, first converting it into marshland and eventually into the fertile agricultural land there is today.

Proof of Salina Harbour’s historical importance and relevance is evidenced by numerous archaeological finds including anchor stocks and amphorae found underwater (suggesting the unfortunate remains of ships caught in storms and which did not make safe harbour), walls of Roman ashlar masonry indicating the presence of jetties now located inland, the huge agricultural estate over which the Chapel of San Pawl Milqi was eventually constructed and, of course, the Salina Catacombs.

The area where the catacombs lie is behind the Chapel of the Annunciation near the Ta’ Cassia Restaurant. The complex consists of a main catacomb which is inaccessible and protected by a locked metal gate and a number of smaller tomb groups clustered around a rectangular court cut in the rock in what must have been an ancient coralline limestone quarry.

DSCN9505 pixlr signedIt is in fact the smaller tombs that I managed to visit and photograph. You can get to them through a signposted public footpath which passes through private agricultural land. The land is characterised by a grey lower coralline limestone outcrop showing clear evidence of ancient quarrying. Eventually you get to a small rectangular space in which five portals are cut into the vertical rock-face although the remains of tombs outside these entrances suggests that more recent quarrying may have destroyed parts of this catacomb complex.

The catacombs are well maintained, clean and navigable. Since these small hypogea are almost at surface level and do not penetrate deep underground, they are reasonably well illuminated with natural light. Mosses and ferns grow on their damp walls and floors. Their ceilings are not very high and care needs to be taken to avoid painful encounters with the hard coralline limestone!

DSCN9542_Monochrome 2 pixlr signedThe catacombs contain different types and shapes of graves including canopied graves and others which are arched recesses in the wall (called arcosolium graves). Some of the grave pits are wide enough to have held the remains of two individuals lying side by side. Until at least the eighteenth century a number of the graves still contained intact skeletons pertaining to the late Roman or Byzantine periods.

DSCN9524_Balanced pixlr signedIn one of the small catacombs there is a perfectly preserved Stibadium, the c-shaped dining table also called the agape table on which relatives of the deceased shared a meal after the burial. The size of these smaller catacombs suggests that they either belonged to different families or to guilds who interred their departed members in them.

DSCN9539_Soft 3 pixlr signedHaving a complex burial site such as the one at Salina indicates that the area continued to host a sizeable community even during the late Roman period after 500AD when the old harbour was already silting up and turning into unhealthy marshland rife with malaria. The area was eventually abandoned as evidenced by the name of the hamlet of Bûr Marrad which translates from the Semitic into the Marsh of Sickness.

The Salina Catacombs are well worth a visit. Their historical significance, their simple architectural charm, their status as an ancient resting place for our predecessors and their link with Salina’s rich ancient history all make the short sojourn to visit them very worthwhile.

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Snapshot from a historic garden

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Snapshot from a historic garden

For most people, the suburb of Floriana is merely a place of transit en route to Malta’s capital Valletta. This is indeed a pity, for Floriana, in spite of its relatively small size, features a rich variety of places to visit, foremost amongst which its numerous public gardens, mostly on the extensive network of fortifications which were built as an outer buffer to the massive bulwarks defending Valletta itself.

One of the oldest of these gardens is the Argotti Botanic Gardens on the Marsamxett Harbour flank of Floriana.  The garden’s oldest parts date back to 1741 when they served as the private domain of the Portuguese Grandmaster of the Order of St. John in Malta Dom Fra’ Manuel Pinto da Fonseca.  They were later cared for and extended by the Bailiff Ignatius de Argote et Gusman from whose family name the corrupted name Argotti originated.

During the Knights’ period, the gardens were used to grow medicinal herbs and plants bearing in mind the Order’s Hospitaller vocation only to be later transformed into the Botanical Gardens we see today during the early years of the British period in 1805.

Amongst the Argotti Garden’s treasured possessions one finds an extensive and internationally recognised collection of potted cacti which are available for public display in the enclosed area managed by the University of Malta and which is generally accessible by appointment with the Curator during office hours.

The photo which is the subject of this short entry shows an area of dense foliage in the Gardens which is dominated by an impressive giant cactus which looks like some surreal creation from Salvador Dalí’s paintbrush.

The Neo-Gothic building in the background is the Wesleyan Methodist Church which was designed by architect Thomas Mullet Ellis in 1881 and was completed in 1883 under the direction of Poulsen. It was inaugurated for religious worship on the 18th March 1883.

A snapshot of yet another of those nonchalantly and perfectly co-existing Maltese paradox landscapes: a decades old New World cactus flanked by a South East Asian ficus and a North African date palm in a herb garden designed by eighteenth century Catholic warrior monks with a nineteenth century Protestant place of worship filling up the background!

 

The Stepped Streets of Valletta

 

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“Adieu, ye cursed streets of stairs, how surely he who mounts you swears”

Thus did Lord Byron describe the stepped streets of Valletta during his twenty day visit to Malta between August 31 and September 19, 1809 when he was forced into an extended stay, mainly due to quarantine following an outbreak of yellow fever in his previous port of call.

Following a few miserable days on board, made worse by the customary September hot and humid weather conditions, he was eventually allowed to disembark and visit Valletta.   At that time, the best way to reach upper Valletta on foot was via an interminable staircase which started near today’s fish-market (the infamous Nix-Mangiaris steps) and climbed steeply until they linked with the stepped part of St. Ursula Street all the way to Castille Square.

Byron suffered from a limp, and having to negotiate Valletta’s stepped streets in the sweltering humidity of September must have been a huge effort which stressed him to the point of putting pen to paper to create the spiteful, nevertheless immortal, lines quoted above.

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But this short essay is not about Byron’s short sojourn but about Valletta’s stepped streets.   The streets are today taken for granted by most Maltese as an integral part of the City’s street-scape.

Valletta is built on a spit of land jutting between two deep-water harbours. A nineteenth century visitor once described Valletta as a city built “on a hog’s back, a narrow but high neck of land dividing the Grand Harbour from the Quarantine Harbour”. The same visitor vividly goes on to describe the City’s main streets as running “in parallel lines along the said hog’s back”, while being regularly intersected “by others which run up and down its steep sides”. He then concludes by stating that, “in some parts they are so steep that flights of steps take the place of the carriage-way”.

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When the Knights of St John were planning the city, as a modern renaissance town combining the best of military architecture together with the latest trends in street layout and infrastructural design, they apparently tried, as much as possible, to minimise the annoying limitations brought about by the “hog’s back” contours of the Xiberras Peninsula.

In fact they managed to use rubble to flatten as much as possible of the area between City Gate and St. George’s Square where they built the Grandmaster’s Palace together with an almost similar stretch of Merchants Street except for the hilly upper part which led to Castille Square.

As to the steep side streets: the only way they could negotiate these impossible gradients was to use steps, creating a practical way to make otherwise difficult slopes negotiable by pedestrians. Some of the streets were stepped across their entire width while others had a smooth surface but had pavements (sidewalks for our American readers) made of steps.

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Given the tendency of most Maltese-sourced masonry to become polished and very slippery upon extensive use, the designers countered this by using a very scarce, today almost exhausted, source of hardstone: a particularly hard type of coralline limestone known colloquially as żonqor for the steps to ensure durability and a non-slip surface. It is, in fact, amazing that these stone surfaces, evenly pitted with a pickaxe to provide a better grip, remain intact after hundreds of years of use!

If you are a local who regularly walks past these steps and stepped streets with a sense of déjà-vu, do pause for a moment to admire their style and practicality. And if you are a visitor, do make sure to spend some time to experience negotiating these stepped streets which give Valletta yet another unique touch to the many it surprisingly contains within its minuscule dimensions.

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Ghar il-Hamrija: A medieval troglodyte chapel on Comino

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Ghar il-Hamrija: A medieval troglodyte chapel on Comino.

The more I visit Comino the more I deeply fall in love with it.

And the more I explore its bare, rugged, windswept terrain, the more I appreciate its rich history and diversity.  A history spanning millennia of human presence and activity on a 2.5 square kilometre island with limited agricultural land and even more limited water resources.

Archaeological evidence of humanity’s past presence on this tiny island is generally sparse although plentiful enough to indicate a continuous presence over most of the past twenty five centuries.

Ancient burial sites on the island suggest both a Punic and a Roman presence.  Pottery sherds, oil lamps, glass fragments, water channels, lead anchors and ancient coins unearthed over the past few hundred years also lend further support to some sort of permanent human activity on Comino since Antiquity.  However, when compared to its two larger siblings Malta and Gozo, the one historical footprint which is immediately lacking on Comino pertains to the lack of ancient structures.  In the past this was interpreted as evidence that the island was never really populated and that any sort of human activity across the centuries was either of a very short term nature, or else that the island was farmed by people crossing over from Malta and Gozo on a seasonal basis and living in temporary abodes.

The counter argument to this lies in Comino’s geology.  For contrary to its two larger neighbours, with their abundant stocks of soft globigerina building stone, Comino is composed entirely of Upper Coralline Limestone: a much harder, rougher and less easy stone to quarry and build with.  This implies that given the scarcity of building material on this small island, there must have been a much more common tendency to recycle and re-use masonry rather than simply extract new blocks as happened on Malta and Gozo.

One of the more permanent survivors of past human activity across the ages generally relates to places of worship.  Such places were usually designed to achieve prominence and permanence and are usually some of the few things to survive the passage of time.  Some even survived invasions and changes of faith.  The site at Tas-Silg in Marsaxlokk started off as a prehistoric temple dedicated to the Earth Mother and was subsequently adapted and reused as a temple by worshippers from the Bronze Age, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans and finally the early Christians.  Similarly a structure at Is-Simblija, limits of Dingli, probably started off as a mosque and was eventually converted into a small medieval chapel prior to losing context and significance and ending up as a farmyard building after the estate fell into disuse.

Back to Comino!  The most prominent religious structure on Comino is the Christian church dedicated to the Holy Family on the Flight to Egypt.  The current structure was built in 1618 and was subsequently enlarged in two different phases in 1667 and 1716.  There are however medieval references to a place of Christian worship on Comino in a 1296 text which I am tentatively associating with the Carta Pisana portolan.

Some time ago I encountered an academic paper by Keith Buhagiar which made reference to two man-made caves dug into an area of high ground in the central part of Comino.  The area was once a quarry and commands a good view of the fertile fields of Wied l-Ahmar and Wied Imdied all the way down to the inlet of il-Kola which was most likely Comino’s next best alternative to a miniature harbour in ancient times.  During my latest visit to Comino with my wife this summer, we made it a point to seek these caves and see them for ourselves!

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We found the cave complex in an area off one of the footpaths linking the two valleys.  They lie in an area surrounded by the crumbling remains of a dry-stone wall enclosure.  One of the cave entrances was very visible while the other smaller cave is totally enveloped by a huge fig tree rendering access to it impossible.

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The larger cave, known as Ghar il-Hamrija or the Cave of Soil is easily accessible down a rough stone ramp through a low doorway and its interior floor level is about one metre lower than the ground outside.  The floor of the cave has a thick, soft and damp layer of the terrarossa soil prevailing on Comino giving the cave its name.  According to experts who have surveyed the cave, the existence of different and distinct types of toolmarks in its interior indicate that the original smaller cave was enlarged at an unknown date.

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The cave’s roof is probably the only surviving part of the original chamber and provides evidence that the original cave was oval in shape with a barrel shaped ceiling which was well-finished.  Three Latin-type crosses are carved on three sides of the ceiling, while the faint remains of a straight decorative band of receded rock which seems to have circled the entire cave below the barrel-vaulted ceiling are still discernible.

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This oldest part of the cave gives the impression of a long history.  Its vantage-point location on the high ground overlooking fertile fields, its plan and the level of refinement suggests that it was not hewn out of the living rock simply as an agricultural structure.  Rather, the evidence strongly suggests that its original purpose may have been to serve as a rural cave-church of which there are still a few surviving examples scattered across the Maltese Islands.  One of its nearest neighbours is the cave-church of St. Nicholas in nearby Mellieha on mainland Malta which I am yet to visit.  Such churches were built to service the spiritual needs of scattered and isolated rural communities and their relative refinement serves to distinguish them from other troglodytic structures such as cave dwellings and animal pens.

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At this point, the question I ask as a layman is, could this cave-chapel be the one referred to in the 1296 text?  I would argue that it most probably is, as it would not have been logical to have two contemporary places of worship within a few hundred metres of each other on a small island like Comino.  In my opinion, Ghar il-Hamrija may well be Comino’s original Christian church referred to in 1296 until it was subsequently replaced by the more elaborate surface structure built in 1618 at the mouth of Wied Imdied which still stands as Comino’s chapel today.

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Later additions and alterations to Ghar il-Hamrija expanded it into three separate chambers which are today subdivided by dry-stone walls.  The remains of gates, locks and feeding troughs all suggest a more recent use as an animal pen.  A blocked circular shaft in the roof near the doorway could have either been a ventilation hole for smoke dispersal or else a hole through which animal manure from the pens could be extracted for dispersal in the fields.

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Ghar il-Hamrija is one of those special places which can either kindle a flame of respect and interest for the rich history of a small island like Comino or otherwise leave you cold, to be dismissed as a mere damp hole in the rock.  It has survived the ravages of hundreds of years and lies there today: a relatively hidden and unknown testament to ancestors of ours who lived in a much smaller, unprepossessing and simple world so different from the madness prevailing in our time.  To me it provided an experience which bound me even closer to tiny Comino!

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