The apparent indifference of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage towards the discovery of a Neolithic-era burial pit at a development site in Xaghra has been causing dismay among archeologists, this website can report.
Veteran archeologist Caroline Malone told this website that the area, called Santa Verna, is “clearly extremely rich, even if not evident on the surface, and given the caves below, the general indication is that all this part of Xaghra is stiff with archaeological evidence.”
Malone, a professor emeritus of prehistory at the UK’s University of Cambridge and Queen’s University Belfast, was involved in seven archeological digs around Malta, including seven years spent excavating the Xaghra Circle and Santa Verna. She has co-authored multiple books about the temple period.
This website revealed last October that the Superintendence told the Planning Authority that nothing had been found at the development site near Santa Verna even though the Superintendence’s own archeologists had excavated a burial pit last June that contained large quantities of bones, including 7 carefully-arranged skulls, as well as animal bones and sherds of pottery. In its letter on 9 August, the Superintendence wrote that “while significant archeological remains have been recorded in the vicinity, these are not located within the site subject to the current application which has been investigated.” The burial pit is situated on the edge of the site footprint.
This website can now report that Superintendent Kurt Farrugia wrote in an internal email that they "knew of this case", and that he could “confirm that in the past few months human remains were found that were investigated by archeologists of the Superintendence.” The email was titled “Re: Carmen Bajada” – a resident and former Xaghra councillor who has been objecting to the development in question, as well as other nearby development applications, and calling for wider archeological investigations. Bajada was the person who originally reported the presence of broken bones during the earthworks for the development that eventually led to the excavation by the Superintendence’s archeologists.
The reference to ‘human remains’ in Farrugia’s email does not quite convey the significance of the burial pit.
Farrugia also wrote that the “Superintendence is not informed that the caves [found within the site and area] hold any bones.”
Asked what she made of this, Malone said: “Well, if you do not look for something, you will not find anything.”
She added: “All the caves genuinely need checking and, in many cases, testing archaeologically. The cavers tend to get in and muddle things if the caves are of any depth, so it really is important that a new programme [of investigations] is undertaken. Such a survey has never really been done.”
The discovery of the burial pit last April indeed attests to the superficiality of a supposed archeological survey that was supposedly conducted prior to rezoning of the area for development – something that Farrugia referred to in his email.
The burial pit was excavated by Bernardette Mercieca-Spiteri, an archeologist who studied osteology at the University of Sheffield. She works for the Superintendence and lectures at the University of Malta. She also collaborated with Malone and others during the excavations in the nineties, and co-authored a study titled Temple people, Bioarcheology, resilience and culture in prehistoric Malta.
“Bernardette,” Malone said, “is one of the more able archeologists in Malta and one of the more reliable people in the Superintendence.”
Other archeologists consulted by this website also said that discovery of the burial pit calls for further archeological examinations in the area.
Malone said that the find reminds her of “what we called the Rock Cut Tomb at the Xaghra Brochtorff Circle.” The Xaghra Circle is an underground shrine and burial site of sorts, situated a couple of hundred metres away, which was excavated between 1987 and 1994. It yielded an impressive array of material, which advanced the knowledge of Malta’s temple people.
At the time, Malone and her colleagues also dug two trenches at Santa Verna, and devoted a chapter to the site in one of their volumes. They found that human activity at Santa Verna went back to the earliest period of human activity in Malta – the so-called Ghar Dalam period – and then later it was in use again during the so-called Zebbug Phase, dating as early as 4,000BC. At the core of the site are megalithic structures.
“It’s very similar to the smaller temple of Ggantija and it is oriented in the same direction,” Malone said.
Talking about the applications for development – these include the application for 7 houses where the burial pit was found as well as an application for 11 houses that seems to belong to the developer Joseph Portelli – Malone said: “If there was to be a move for more houses, then I would argue for complete excavation and not just watching briefs [what the Superintendence calls archeological monitoring], and place the cost of that work on the shoulders of the developers, as is the norm across Europe. Malta currently simply demands a watching brief, and if any digging is done, it seems to be just a small percentage, not the 100 percent that is justified.”
Planning Authority renews permit
On the footprint of the development site where the burial pit was found, the applicant has recently got an earlier permit renewed. The earlier permit for four houses was initially granted in 2018 – it was during excavations on the basis of that permit that the burial pit was discovered – and now the permit has been renewed earlier this month after it had expired.
At the same time, the Planning Authority is hearing a fresh application to expand the development from four to seven houses. The latter application for seven houses is set to be heard this Wednesday.
During the processing of the initial application for four houses – in 2018 – the Superintendence had written to the Planning Authority of a “risk that ground disturbance in this area may uncover cultural heritage features that may necessitate amendments to the proposed drawings. The applicant is being made aware of these risks.”
Yet five years later, after the discovery of the burial pit, the Superintendence then told the Planning Authority, as already pointed above, that no archeological finds were made.
Application for seven houses
Renewal of the earlier permit for four houses, which cover the same footprint, shows that the application for seven houses, yet to be decided, is immaterial as far as preservation of any archeology is concerned. The developer can go ahead and build the four houses over the burial pit as well as the relatively large underground cave.
Meanwhile, the Superintendence repeatedly makes conditions that there has to be so-called “archeological monitoring” – something that Malone calls “watching briefs.” Such monitoring, or watching briefs, involves stripping away the soil layer and examining the bedrock for any archeological remains.
“They don’t seem to understand,” Malone said, “that the soil coverage is where the archeology is found. They think that bulldozers can take the soil away and somehow the rock will tell them a story. They are not handling the matter properly, these watching briefs.”
“Malta does not have so much of it [archeology] to spare, a lot of has already been lost,” Malone said. “If the SCH [Superintendence] and the Planning Authority need information, our work demonstrates at the highest level! But no one is reading the reports or making any reference to this EU funded work – it is simply inconvenient to acknowledge it. Science is thrown out in favour of money and wealth-making. That plateau should be turned into a conservation area for history and nature – but it will never happen, the views are too good.”
“Even Heritage Malta are not intervening as they should,” she said. “They are not enforcing the World Heritage agreements [at other Neolithic sites]. There is the real possibility that if Malta is unable to protect its monuments, then they may be removed from the World Heritage list, and that would be a disgrace to any European nation.”
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The excavations that took place in Xaghra Circle and Santa Verna were published in several volumes.
Here are links to four of the publications/volumes that can be downloaded for free.