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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Giving a face to Malta’s Temple builders

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Giving a face to Malta’s Temple builders

Malta’s fascinating prehistory is not only of local but of global significance.  This is because this phase in the island’s human development gave rise to the renowned temple culture which is reputed to have given the world its first complex constructions in stone.

The Megalithic Temples of Malta collectively possess a UNESCO World Heritage Status.  This status has also been bestowed directly on the unique Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni, a massive underground burial complex which has no equivalent worldwide.

The extent of prehistoric heritage in the Maltese islands is impressively immense.  Temples, dolmens, megaliths, tombs, cart-ruts and the foundations of villages dot the landscape.  Additional, though less complex, hypogea have been discovered on both Gozo and Malta.  The many sites have yielded numerous artifacts to archaeologists, foremost amongst which a variety of representations of the human form.  Some of the human statues are easily distinguishable as male or female while others are more difficult to define in terms of gender.

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While an entire category of statuettes are headless, the excavations have also yielded a number of statues with heads and stand-alone heads.  Heads showing refined faces with neat hairstyles and beardless faces: a far cry from the popular yet mistaken notion that all prehistoric peoples fell within the caveman stereotype popularised by cinema and pulp fiction worldwide over the past couple of hundred years.

Until recently, these small stone faces provided the best available indication of what the prehistoric temple builders who lived in Malta five and a half thousand years ago looked like.  Other than that, the only other evidence came from the skulls found in the tombs and hypogea from which until recently only generic observations such as those relating to skull shape could be surmised.

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Until recently that is!  A Heritage Malta (www.heritagemalta.org) team led by Katya Stroud has just released the findings of some cutting edge research on the skull of a female which was unearthed from the Xaghra Stone Circle on Gozo.  Research which has led to the first ever 3D virtual reconstruction of the facial features of a prehistoric Maltese person.  Presenting for the first time ever, a scientifically-based representation of what one of the earliest Maltese inhabitants looked like.  The work was carried out under the expert guidance and assistance of Professor Caroline Wilkinson (http://www.lifesci.dundee.ac.uk/people/caroline-wilkinson), a Professor of Craniofacial Identification at Dundee University in Scotland.

The resulting facial reconstruction, which I have integrated into the above image of the autumn equinox I took at Mnajdra in the late 1980s, shows a person from our distant past who could very easily mingle with modern-day Maltese and pass unnoticed.  A facial reconstruction which is not based on mere supposition, but on the latest technology available in Professor Wilkinson’s laboratory.

I find this development very touching.  Our prehistoric ancestors left us their buildings and artifacts and their mortal remains. But no images and no written records.  So near and yet so far away.  A missing link which relegated them to an unreachable, distant past which was too far away. Very different from say the Knights of Malta who left portraits and a wealth of documents in a language we can understand.   A faceless, writing-less people about who we could only speculate by interpreting their artifacts.

And now we can see what they actually looked like!

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