The Malta Independent 17 October 2019, Thursday

Taking care of our heritage

Owen Bonnici Friday, 13 September 2019, 09:21 Last update: about 2 months ago

There are various entities within the Ministry for Justice, Culture and Local Government which are doing their utmost to protect our heritage. In my previous articles I wrote at length about the excellent work being done by the Restoration Directorate and also Heritage Malta. Their mission – to preserve, restore, maintain and also give a new life to our heritage – is giving exceptional results.

Another entity with a “mission to fulfil the duties of the State in ensuring the protection and accessibility of Malta’s cultural heritage”, is the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, headed by Joseph Magro Conti.

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In the past months, the entity had been strengthened with the engagement of professional staff, a new collective agreement, and ongoing training. This is in line with one of the three fundamental pillars in the culture sector – that of increasing professionalization. The culture sector is at the heart of our strategy, and we are committed to keep on strengthening the sector in all ways possible.

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage is responsible for the scientific investigations related to cultural heritage assets found both on land and at sea. The Superintendence also regulates archaeological evaluations and monitoring of development works in order to guide on planning decisions and to safeguard cultural sites throughout ongoing works.

Onsite surveillance of development is carried out by qualified and competent persons who are registered on the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage Services Register. The Superintendence keeps full records of the archaeological documentation resulting from these investigations.

As was the case in the recent discoveries during works at the Santa Lucia road network tunnels.

Professional staff were on site as soon as the works started as the site was archaeologically sensitive, and the works on this project were monitored from day one. This monitoring led to the discovery of cultural heritage features of various degrees of heritage value.

Constant archaeological monitoring is being carried out by qualified archaeologists included in the Register of the Superintendence, and under the supervision and direction of the Superintendence, as is the standard procedure for development projects within archaeologically sensitive areas. 

As normally done in all issues where cultural heritage remains are found, the Superintendence is in constant discussions with Infrastructure Malta to mitigate impacts of the proposed works on cultural heritage items, with full cooperation being shown by this agency.

This entity also collaborates closely with others to highlight our heritage. Late last year an interesting exhibition Core and Periphery: Mdina and Safi in the 9th and 10th centuries caught the attention of many. An exhibition that focused on medieval times in Malta, and organised by Heritage Malta with the collaboration of the Superintendence and the University of Malta.

The Superintendence’s collaboration with Heritage Malta resulted in new discoveries of prehistoric animal bones and pottery fragments in Ghar Dalam, announced last February.

This entity also informs the general public about its works as was the case of last June’s exhibition on archaeological findings, held in Valletta and forming part of the Archaeology Days in Europe initiative.

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage is also on the forefront to further educate and provide more information to the public on our history and heritage. As a government we are committed to make culture and our heritage more accessible to all, and this entity is also part of the great team which is doing precisely that.

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We are always embarking on projects and initiatives to better understand our heritage. This Sunday Heritage Malta is organising an innovative Open Day and Memory Collection at one of the, maybe, lesser known sites in Malta – Ta’ Bistra Catacombs.

These catacombs have an interesting history, but even some unfortunate mishaps.

Ta’ Bistra Catacombs are so far the largest set of tombs and catacombs which are found outside Rabat, a short distance from Mosta centre. Although the tombs were first recorded in the late 1880s, they were only archaeologically investigated in 1933 by Captain Charles Zammit. This documentation was done since the tombs were meant to be destroyed to make way for the construction of a new road leading to Burmarrad. Interestingly in 2004, Ta’ Bistra Catacombs came once again into the spotlight when archaeological monitoring taking place during road works revealed that these catacombs had not been destroyed after all.

Along the years, a farm was built over the underground tombs and this today serves as the entrance to this archaeological site. Besides adjusting some of the chambers to his personal use and to accommodate some farm animals, the farmer also engraved a number of faces in different parts of the catacombs. Apart from the farm, other development took place in the area, including the construction of a number of semi-detached villas and a main road connecting Mosta to Rabat. During World War 2, it is believed that the site served as an air-raid shelter for civilians.

Ta’ Bistra Catacombs are thought to form part of a much larger network of tombs and catacombs which may have been partially damaged due to extensive quarrying in the area, particularly for stone related to the building of Mosta’s Rotunda church towards 1833.

In an attempt to recapture the collective memory of those who remember Ta’ Bistra Catacombs and the surrounding landscape as it was in the past, this Sunday between 09:00 and 15:00, Heritage Malta is organising this event during which the public can visit and explore this site for free.

This is also a significant opportunity for those who have any memories or memorabilia of these catacombs to share their narratives and leave their mark at the event, ‘Niftakar Ta’ Bistra’. Heritage Malta is eagerly inviting the public to share their narratives, objects, and old photos of the area. Such collective memory will make it possible to truly understand Ta’ Bistra, not just as an archaeological site, but also as a cultural landscape with a meaning in the lives of those who grew it.

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Again I congratulate colleague Helena Dalli for her nomination as new Commissioner for Equality by President-elect Ursula von der Leyen, who presented her team and the new structure of the next European Commission on Tuesday. A very positive nomination for Helena and also for Malta.

I am sure that after making a huge difference in our country with her astounding work in this field, she will also leave her mark in Europe.

Helena Dalli will be Malta’s first ever woman to take up the post in the commission, which will also be led for the first time by another woman.

 

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