The Malta Independent 4 October 2023, Wednesday
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Phoenician sarcophagus discovered in Rabat being conserved, will go up on permanent display

Thursday, 3 March 2022, 16:08 Last update: about 3 years ago

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, Heritage Malta and the Department of Classics and Archaeology at the University of Malta have joined forces to work closely together on the research and conservation of a Phoenician stone sarcophagus discovered 21 years ago and excavated last summer at Għajn Klieb, on the outskirts of Rabat. 

Sarcophagi feature very rarely in Maltese archaeology, so much so that the previous discovery happened some 300 years ago. 


The tomb containing the sarcophagus was discovered by accident during trenching works in 2001. At the time, the decision was taken to preserve in situ but, notwithstanding, the Superintendence continued to monitor the area. In the past months, increased development pressures to improve infrastructural services in the area led to the decision by the Superintendence to investigate the site through a joint collaboration by the three mentioned entities to ensure the best use of the available resources in view of the rarity of the find. 

When the sarcophagus was opened, it was found to contain the remains of two individuals, possibly a male and a female, one of whom was wearing jewellery made of a metal alloy. A small number of Phoenician pottery vessels and an animal inhumation were also discovered within the burial chamber. 

All these objects, along with the sarcophagus itself, were extracted from the tomb chamber and transported to the Superintendence’s laboratories in Valletta and Heritage Malta’s laboratories in Bighi. A preliminary date of around 600 B.C. has been assigned to the tomb. 

All the objects are also being analysed by specialists from the three entities so that the information extracted from the artefacts will eventually shed more light on the Phoenician culture to which the people buried here belonged. 

Commenting about this project, Kurt Farrugia, the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage, said that the decision to investigate the burial site at Għajn Klieb was taken in view of the substantial infrastructural works planned for the area, which could compromise the site’s integrity. He explained that the three entities will be collaborating on all the necessary studies, analysis and interventions. The studies will be extended to include other tombs discovered in the immediate area in recent years, to provide a more comprehensive perspective. Currently, the Superintendence is carrying out conservation and analysis of the pottery artefacts and skeletal remains found in these tombs. 

Professor Nicholas Vella, from the Department of Classics and Archaeology at the University of Malta, spoke of the importance of this discovery. He said that the Għajn Klieb area in Rabat has long been known to be the site of a long-lived burial complex dating back to Phoenician times. Many of the tombs were explored a century ago, often without a clear record being kept of what was found. The University of Malta is delighted to have been invited to collaborate in the exploration and study of this tomb, with its unique stone sarcophagus and the goods that were placed to accompany the two individuals buried inside it. This research will throw light on the death rituals prevalent in Malta in the second half of the seventh century BC, said Prof. Vella.  

Noel Zammit, Heritage Malta’s Chief Executive Officer, said that Heritage Malta conservators are currently working on the sarcophagus and the metal objects discovered on site. Plans are underway for a temporary exhibition at the National Museum of Archaeology later this year, where some of the objects would be exhibited for the public to appreciate and enjoy them as soon as possible. The sarcophagus and the related artefacts will then be on permanent display – possibly at St Paul’s Catacombs – for constant public accessibility.

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