The Malta Independent 24 August 2019, Saturday

The man who saved the Xaghra stone circle

Noel Grima Tuesday, 11 June 2019, 12:36 Last update: about 3 months ago

The book can also be called: Praise from the dead for the living.

For two at least of the authors have since died while the object of their praise is still alive.

The book was planned to coincide with Attard Tabone's 80th birthday but since then the book's editor, Joe Sultana, the noted tireless campaigner on behalf of the Maltese environment, has died. So too, Professor David Trump, the archaeologist who has contributed so much to knowledge of Malta's past.


Yet wide knowledge about Attard Tabone is rather scarce - a pity considering his many achievements.

Like Sultana, Attard Tabone hailed from Xaghra. In 1961 he founded the Xaghra Cultural Centre; then in 1962 he established the Malta Ornithological Society which later became BirdLife. Even in those remote times, he was actively campaigning on behalf of the Maltese environment by protesting against the plan to drive a road through what is now known as the Ghadira Nature Reserve.

But perhaps his greatest achievement was to safeguard for posterity the Xaghra Stone Circle, otherwise known as the Brocktorff Circle, one of the most important megalithic remains in the Maltese islands, one about which studies are still ongoing.

In one of the first articles in the book, Judge Giovanni Bonello explains that we know how the stone circle looked like in 1777 from a series of sketches drawn by French artist Jean Houel, published in four volumes that are now to be found in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Later on, the structure attracted the attention of many visitors and would-be archaeologists who came to the conclusion that the circle of standing stones was "druidical" because its round megalithic perimeter recalled superficially Britain's Stonehenge. The Xaghra structure is actually much older and was estimated to measure some 45 metres in diameter, against Stonehenge's 33 metres across.

Around 1835, the British government made some feeble attempts to expropriate from private ownership the lands where the Gozo Circle stood. The magistrate for Gozo, James Somerville, suggested that government should buy the land and that this would cost only a few hundred Spanish dollars but the government offered the owner 100 less than what he asked for and the owner, in a rage, destroyed the circle.

Fast forward to the last century and Attard Tabone: as a child he had roamed around Xaghra and became fascinated by the many archaeological remains especially near the Ggantija Temples. Later he did his research in the archives and in 1965 he gave a public lecture to the Malta Archaeological Circle at the British Council in Valletta in which he announced his rediscovery of the Xaghra Stone Circle and defended its integrity in the face of threats by development in the area.

As the British archaeologists involved in the research since then, Steven Ashley, Caroline Malone and Simon Stoddart write, there would probably be no scientific information later recovered by the Cambridge Malta Gozo Project and quite possibly the remains of the Circle would have been destroyed by the construction of a road.

It is now clear that at Xaghra an entire community of people has been revealed together with their spectacular burial - 220,000 human body parts were excavated, representing between 400 and 800 persons. This is one of the most significant early populations of prehistoric southern Europe and it continues to yield new discoveries about the ancient people of Xaghra, their diet, health, origins and activities.

The rest of this book can be divided, we can say, into articles about the Stone Circle and about Attard Tabone and articles of interest about other subjects.

Among the former we may classify, as said earlier, Judge Bonello's article about the first discovery of the Stone Circle in Gozo, as well as Carmel Attard's article about the Scouts in Xaghra, Sultana's about the Xaghra Cultural Centre, Michela d'Angelo about the history of the Attard family from Malta to Messina and Daniel Cilia's interesting article about the figures of Maltese of thousands of years ago as seen from the large number of anthropomorphic ritual figurines representing them.

In the rest of the book, Albert Ganado writes about maps of the island of Gozo from the 1630s to 1907; David Trump on what exercised him in the last years, the significance of cart ruts; Theresa Vella on the tapestries of the Tapestry Chamber in the Palace, the unique Tentures des Indes; Sharon Sultana about the riveting history of the Auberge de Provence; George Azzopardi about jars associated with funerary contexts from the Zebbug phase of the Maltese prehistoric period;  Anton Bugeja about Maltese connections in the Roman Imperial medal collection of William Henry Smyth; David Dandria about Gozo and Comino in some pre-18th century texts; Joseph Bezzina about treasures at the National Archives in Gozo; Michael Refalo on postal arrangements in Gozo in 1881; Michael Gatt on the geology and paleontology of Gozo; Edwin Lanfranco on the flora of Gozo; John J. Borg on the evolution of bird studies in Malta and last but certainly not least an interesting and maybe controversial article by Mark-Anthony Falzon about land use, hunting and conservation in Malta.


Editor: Joe Sultana

A Man of Cultural Achievements

Essays in honour of Joseph Attard Tabone

BDL Publishing



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