The Malta Independent 3 March 2024, Sunday
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Heartbreaking stories from 2,000 years ago surface in the catacombs

Malta Independent Sunday, 15 September 2013, 08:30 Last update: about 11 years ago

A young mother buried with a baby on her arm. Two young people buried side by side in a tomb for one person, sex indeterminate. A remnant of a shoe found next to them. A cup containing the bones of a baby buried in an amphora that was later filled with sand.

Heartbreaking stories from a Malta of at least 2000 years ago.

These, and other discoveries have been made recently in the ongoing archaeological excavations at two contiguous Rabat catacombs, the St Augustine and the St Paul catacombs.

Heritage Malta (HM) held a day-long seminar on Friday to celebrate the work undertaken by the agency in its 10 years of existence.

Apart from the policy speeches, of which more later, the rest of the day was spent with a series of presentations by Heritage Malta experts outlining the work that is currently being done.

In Rabat, as David Cardona explained, excavation work is being carried out both in the St Augustine Catacombs, which contains three hypogea, and in the adjoining St Paul Catacombs, the largest complex of catacombs in Malta, which includes 23 catacombs that originally formed part of a larger cemetery complex which includes the St Agatha Catacombs across the road.

So far, only two catacombs at St Paul’s Catacombs are open to the public. The idea is to open up the entire site later on.

Extensive excavation works have been carried out in a field to create a new visitor centre for the site. Even here, a number of features have been found.

One intriguing issue regards the catacombs and quarries. It would seem the area was used for quarrying before it was turned over to burials. The same happened at Salina and the Abbatija tad-Dejr catacombs. It is now thought that the hollows left by the old quarries were later used as ossuaries – which would explain why ossuaries inside the catacombs are so few in number.

As to the excavations at the Ghajn Tuffieha Roman Baths, this is an ongoing excavation which is seeing the re-discovery of features first exposed in 1929-30 although boxes of remains found then seem to have disappeared after they were taken away in the 1960s.

Mario Galea and Maria Elena Zammit explained the ongoing environmental monitoring at the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum.

In the 1990s restoration, four houses on top were pulled down, visitor flow was restricted and air-conditioning installed. But still, the most important prehistoric site in Malta continues to suffer from water and rain infiltration and the monitoring has shown that even the presence of a small number of persons destabilizes the environment.

Turning to the modern era, Ray Spiteri explained the restoration of Mattia Preti’s ‘St Paul Liberating Malta from the Turkish Siege of 1427’, done by the artist and his bottega in 1688 for the Mdina Cathedral.

Today, the experts do not talk of restoring the painting but more of conserving it. This leads them to first study and document all their findings before tackling the painting itself.

In this painting, St Paul is shown wearing a blue, star-studded robe, flying with his horse over the heads of the Turkish soldiers.

Analysis of the painting showed some Preti pentimenti, as one usually finds in later Preti paintings – the lapel of a Turkish soldier is adjusted, as also his hand on the sword. What appear as Maltese flags in the distance originally were pennants and one can also glimpse the old campanile of the former Mdina cathedral before it collapsed in the 1693 earthquake.

David Bugeja gave a riveting description of the conservation and restoration of what is known as the Filfla Triptych. This is so called because it was said this painting, one of the oldest surviving panel paintings in Malta, used to hang in the cave-church there was on Filfla. Nowadays, Prof. Mario Buhagiar holds it was the old altarpiece of the of the Virgin from the Bubaqra church.

It was later taken to the Zurrieq parish church where it was hung, quite precariously, in front of an air grill in the vestry. Today, after being restored, it is hanging in the office of the archpriest but even this is not the proper place for it, the conservators said.

The painting is on spruce (injam tal-abjad) and the conservators were able to discover through collaboration with a Viterbo institute, the wood came from the Alps and was cut in 1498. The dating 1604 on its back may not have been original and may even have been the date of the first restoration of the painting.

David Cardona, Lindsay Galea and Sharon Sultana described the ongoing work to collect, classify and conserve the vast photographic material that used to be kept stored in very inadequate ways mainly at the National Museum of Archaeology.

Many do not know that Daguerreotype was discovered in 1839 and a Horace Venet took the first known photo of Malta in March 1840, and that the first studio was set up in 1849.

The HM collection contains over 11,000 glass negatives including photos taken by official photographer Edward Alfred Gouder and photos taken by Sir Temi Zammit.

Godwin Vella explained the ongoing restoration of the Inquisitors’ Palace in Vittoriosa, the only Inquisitors’ Palace open to the public in the whole world. Mr Vella’s talk entitled “From Mausoleum to Museum” spoke about the building itself is as ‘an anthology of building techniques over the years and a landmark of architectural expression’.

Head of Conservation Joseph Schiro explained how Malta’s appreciation of its history has grown in the 10 years of HM existence and has moved from focusing on restoration to conservation and preservation, a very important culture change.

His talk included a riveting description of the restoration of the Byzantine prayer book that used to belong to Padre Ottomano, the son of Sultan Ibrahim who was caught by the Knights in a Turkish galley and brought to Malta where he became a Dominican priest.

The book itself is an heirloom kept by the Valletta Dominican friars.


Policy issues

While both the new chairman, Dr J.M. Buttigieg, and the new CEO, Kenneth Gambin, seemed to have little to say about HM’s future policy, both Parliamentary Secretary Jose Herrera who opened the proceedings and Dr Anthony Pace, the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage who closed the proceedings had much to say.

Dr Herrera announced that the 260 workers in the Restoration Unity at the Works Division would be shifted to HM in the future.

HM must foster synergy with academia and especially with NGOs. Some NGOs have been given sites to manage and he intends to propose the continuation of such agreements but he seemed to draw the line at those NGOs who turn such agreements into money-making enterprises.

Dr Herrera also urged HM to be more responsive to local councils who do not have the funds to take proper care of the heritage in their localities.

HM will be given an important role to play in V18. Malta has a cultural heritage it can be proud of and HM must turn the V18 experience into branding Malta in an inimitable way.

As Dr Herrera, Mr Pace spoke off the cuff. Malta has an inimitable cultural heritage which makes up our identity as a people, our social aesthetic heritage. The future must be based on sustainability and must include areas that were not covered in the day’s presentation, such as language and music. So far, a lot has been done with the help of funds coming from the EU but in the future it must be self-sustaining and viable.

In 200 years’ time, people will be studying the new Cirkewwa Road just as today we study the Knights’ and the British fortifications.

It was a pity that the day-long presentation did not include any reference to the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra conservation efforts, and the holding of the Mattia Preti and similar exhibitions. Nor did it include any word on current restoration works at Fort St Angelo and St Elmo.

And although it celebrated the 10 years of HM’s existence and the presentations themselves showed how Malta has progressed in these 10 years, it did not include just one word of appreciation to all those who, in one way or another, worked at HM all these years. Ma tarax.

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