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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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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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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Malta’s original name as told by an ancient coin

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Malta’s original name as told by an ancient coin

The modern name of “Malta” derives from “Malitah” which was the Arabic corruption of the classic Graeco-Roman “Melita”.  Melita was the name of both the island and its city: names which eventually changed to “Malta” for the island and “Mdina” for the ancient Punico-Roman city which originally covered not only present day Mdina but almost one half of its suburb of Rabat too, all the way to St.Paul’s Church.  The name “Mdina” itself derives from the Arabic word “Medina” which simply means “the City”.

Given that humanity’s presence in Malta extended to at least three thousand years before the era of Graeco-Roman influence, it is only natural to speculate on what the island’s name was in such earlier times.  What the historic and prehistoric evidence tells us is that Malta was first inhabited by the prehistoric migrants from Sicily who eventually developed the highly sophisticated megalithic temple culture which gave the world its first complex monuments built in stone.  After these people mysteriously and inexplicably died out, they were replaced by a Bronze-Age prehistoric people, also migrating from Sicily, who were more warlike and defensive in nature as evidenced by the fortified remains of the Bronze Age Village at Borg in-Nadur in Birzebbuga.

Maltese prehistory (ie that period of human existence before writing was invented), gave way to historical times and their written records with the arrival of the Phoenicians; those great traders who originated from modern-day Lebanon and whose trading network extended beyond the Straits of Gibraltar to Britain in the north and West Africa in the south.  The Phoenicians’ most important contribution to global civilisation was the alphabet which used letters representing sounds instead of the more cumbersome symbols and pictograms to denote writing used previously by more ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians with their hieroglyphics and the Sumerians with their cuneiform. The Phoenicians wrote from right to left as in modern day Arabic.

The Phoenician alphabet revolutionised writing and from it evolved all the major alphabets of the ancient and classical world: Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and eventually Cyrillic.  Quite an achievement for a small people who achieved fame by establishing themselves as the used-car salesmen of the Mediterranean!

But lets get back to Malta.  So the Phoenicians arrived here with their trade and their alphabet around 800BC and eventually Malta’s lot fell under the influence of their great colony of Carthage in modern day Tunisia.  By this time, coins were introduced for the first time in Malta and the historical findings suggest that these coins were the same as the ones used within the Phoenician colonies.  The Phoenicians populated the Maltese Islands and ruled for some 600 years and such was their influence that the Maltese continued to speak their language for hundreds of years after the Roman conquest of 218BC, so much so that the Apostle Luke, writing about St. Paul’s shipwreck in Malta in the Bible’s Acts of the Apostles in 60AD describes the Maltese as “barbarians”: a description not because of their savagery but merely to highlight the fact that they spoke neither Latin nor Greek.

And here comes the subject of this story, which, you will recollect, deals with Malta’s original name as told by an ancient coin.  While all of the first coins used in Malta were imported varieties, there was a very short period of about 200 years between 212BC and 15BC, when Malta and Gozo were allowed by the Romans to mint their own bronze coins: a privilege given to Roman municipia in Sicily under whose administrative control the Maltese Islands lay.

During this period around twelve different types of coins were minted, including one specifically by the Island of Gozo suggesting that the smaller island possessed a level of autonomy from Malta.  Eventually this practice was discontinued as the evolution of Rome from a Republic to an Empire under the Caesars led to a single, uniform coinage throughout the whole Empire.  The different types of coins feature the name of Malta or Gozo either in Greek or Latin but there are also a few which feature Malta’s name in Punic, the language of the Phoenicians.  The pictures in this post, of a Maltese triens coin from 85BC, show a sacrificial tripod on the reverse side, and, most importantly, Malta’s original Phoenician name as represented by the three characters:

                                                                               

which represent the Phoenician letters (from right to left) aleph, nun and nun or A, N and N.  The letters are reasonably visible in the photos.

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The sound of the three letters, which signify Malta’s original and older name from the time of the Phoenicians, has been differently interpreted as “Ann” or “Ghonan” given that the Phoenician alphabet did not have vowels but merely consonants like the modern Arabic alphabet.  The best way to represent the word would be ‘nn.  This word best translates into “ship” or “vessel” and has been tentatively attributed to the ship-like profile of the Maltese Islands as viewed from the distance by an approaching ship.  The Hebrew word for ship which also features a similar root is oni.

Malta and Melita but also ‘nn or Ghonan.  One wonders what other names this little island had before writing was invented when the temple builders and their Bronze-age successors lived here.  A question which will probably go unresolved forever given that there are no more fantastic coins inscribed with ancient alphabets waiting to be discovered!L1320630 pixlr signed pixlr signed closeup