The Malta Independent 21 April 2024, Sunday
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Gozo: Our prehistoric legacy is under threat

Emmanuel J. Galea Sunday, 3 March 2024, 08:37 Last update: about 3 months ago

We may have experienced the misfortune of losing something valuable or damaging a precious item. The underlying issue was not only monetary value but the sentimental value linked to that object, which is priceless, irreplaceable.

Let’s consider the invaluable cost when someone plunders a part of a nation’s historical heritage or, even worse, destroys it forever.

Countries are proud of their history, even those that were colonies and subject to other ruling countries such as Britain, France and Portugal. Such dominating countries ruled over their colonies and occasionally took away valuable historical items that they have yet to return to the original country.

Such is the case of the Elgin Marbles, which belong to Greece. The British government bought the marble sculptures from Lord Elgin in 1816 for display in the British Museum. But when Greece became independent in 1835, the Greek government asked the UK to return them. It’s a request the Greeks have been repeating for decades, supported by the world heritage organisation UNESCO.

In October 2021, President Emmanuel Macron hailed a breakthrough moment as France returned 26 artefacts looted during the colonial era to Benin, a country in West Africa which became independent in 1960 from France. France’s restitution of the Benin artefacts has had ramifications across Europe and its former colonies, opening up debates on looted artefacts that are currently housed in museums and institutions in several West European nations. 

Gozo is much smaller than Greece or Saharan Africa but richer in history. The Ggantija temples date back 3600 BCE, older than the Pyramids in Egypt. The Verna temple (Xaghra) dates back 5000 BCE. Our history artefacts are being destroyed beyond retrieval by developers’ greed. Furthermore, the guardians we appoint to protect them are closing their eyes and allowing them to be bulldozed, eventually covering them with concrete to erect modern buildings. 

Protection of our Maltese cultural heritage is enshrined in both our constitution and the Cultural Heritage Act, 2002, which stipulates:
 “Every citizen of Malta and every person present in Malta shall have the duty of protecting the cultural heritage. Cultural heritage is an asset of irreplaceable spiritual, cultural, social and economic value, and its protection and promotion are indispensable for a balanced and complete life. The State in Malta shall have the duty of establishing and maintaining administrative regulatory structures of superintendence to ensure that this heritage is protected and conserved.”

But are we being loyal to our responsibility to protect this national heritage? Here I am referring specifically to the heritage which in Gozo we are privileged to be endowed with.

In November 2023 the Planning Authority approved an application that will see 22 apartments and 20 garages built on the edge of the Xagħra Development Zone, about 200m away from the Ggantija world heritage site, even ignoring a request for further consideration by UNESCO. Over 2,000 persons signed a petition against this PA controversial permit.

Still, the PA ignores all protests. Even the ex Minister responsible for PA Stephan Zrinzo Azzopardi skirted questions referring to this shameful permit.

The heritage watchdog invoked an article of the Development Planning Act and requested the freezing or withdrawal of the permit until it concluded a heritage impact assessment it had asked for. 

Nikola Said, a worker at the Public Works Department, discovered the megalithic remains at Santa Verna in Xaghra. In the early 20th century, Manuel Magri, an archaeologist, made observations of them as well. T. Eric Peet excavated the site in 1908, and it was later explored by Thomas Ashby and R. N. Bradley in 1911. The excavations yielded the discovery of two skeletons and various incomplete ones, including a child’s. Many smaller artifacts were also found during the excavations.

The only remains of the temple that survive today are three upright megaliths, another three horizontal blocks lining their eastern side, and the earth floor, which makes it possible to see the temple’s original outline.

This Santa Verna Temple made headlines again when the excavation for a construction site triggered reports of archaeological remains on the site. Despite repeated reports to the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and the police, they did nothing to secure the site from tampering and save the caves that showed prehistoric uses. 

In February this year, Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar (FAA) denounced the destruction of prehistoric remains at the Sta Verna Temple area, which was scheduled in 1932. 

Residents and FAA have been making reports about the bones being unearthed in the excavation works to build houses on the site. However, despite photographic evidence, PA officials ignored these reports and topsoil continued to be removed and dumped. 

“The official archaeologists entrusted with monitoring the building site did not report the prehistoric remains, and as a result, the contractor bulldozed the findings without a trace, and these works caused the collapse of the roof of one of the caves,” the FAA said. 

In October 2023, the discovery of an ancient quarry resulted in the temporary suspension of construction on a seven-story retiring home in Victoria, Gozo. The cultural watchdog had warned the site was archaeologically sensitive. Before demolishing the ‘Cupid’ building, parts of the quarry were already visible. 

NGO Din L-Art Ħelwa indicated this discovery months after their request to suspend the project because of the negative impact it could have on the views of the historic Ċittadella. Environment and Planning Review Tribunal turned down this request.

“The archaeological discoveries next to this site include a Punico-Roman quarry bearing technological similarities to the extensive quarries found at Gozo Middle School, about 150 metres away,” said the NGO.

FAA has expressed its disgust at the way heritage-sensitive applications are being handled by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and the PA. 

Partit Demokratiku warned four years ago in 2019 that Malta and Gozo’s pre-historic heritage is under increasing assault for short-term gain. “This obliteration of our origins is not only a loss for our country, but for the world. Repeated undervaluing and inconsistent analyses of our heritage is leading to the irreversible erosion of thousands of years of history overnight,” PD said in a statement.

Over the last five years, Heritage Malta spent almost €2.8 million on recovering artefacts, with the most expensive items being a sword worth €350,860 gifted by Napoleon to one of his bravest French admirals and a full-length oil on canvas painting of Grandmaster de Rohan costing €300,000 signed by Antoine de Favray which dates back to 1775.

We can retrieve such artifacts, but we will never restore the pre-historic sites that endow Gozo, which we are intentionally destroying, to accommodate these greedy developers. Our ancestors may be uncomfortable in their resting place, future generations may look upon us as shortsighted, while the entire world will consider us an irresponsible and mismanaged country. 


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