Our prehistoric past faces another threat | Dawn Adrienne Saliba

Sadly, as the power dynamics currently stand, the voices of the many are outweighed by the financial clout and political connections of the few

Close to Ġgantija, situated within the vicinity of the Neolithic Santa Verna Temple and the Xagħra Circle Hypogeum, lie a unique series of caves facing an all too familiar threat: imminent destruction via development.

These caverns not only add to the beauty and richness of Xagħra’s landscape, they are scientifically important.  One Xagħra resident, Carmen Bajada, discovered human remains right near the caves, which she said was confirmed by the Cultural Superintendence.

However, despite the fact that these remains may date back to prehistoric times, the threat of destruction is pending. A proposal to destroy the caves to build seven houses with basement garages for cars has been submitted by applicant James Borg and Architect Emanuel Vella (PA/03174/23) and will likely be approved.

On 3 June 2023, the Planning Authority released a report written by Case Officer Neville Mangion and endorsed by Perit Joseph Bezzina detailing that despite numerous objections regarding the archaeological sensitivity area of the site, “the proposed excavations have been endorsed by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage subject to monitoring conditions”, which include:

1) Archaeological monitoring paid for by the developer.

2) The stipulation that the developer must report any in situ remains found onsite.

The fact that the SCH approved this development and transfers the responsibility of archaeological-monitoring to the excavators, trusting them to self-report and ensure that our cultural heritage is preserved and protected, is beyond shocking.

It goes without saying that development should be halted until a full archaeological study is conducted. These caves and the surrounding entire area boasts several rock-cut features and clearly form an archaeological site. Lying so close to Santa Verna and Ġgantija, the area may have served as a habitation, as well as a burial ground, for the people who worshipped at the temples.

Furthermore, new developments in archaeology-technology allow for the testing of aDNA in soil: as it can one day yield further, priceless information regarding the Neolithic civilisation, nothing should be disturbed until the soil is tested or at least preserved for future studies.

However, on 3 October 2023, it was communicated by the Planning Authority to Ms Bajada that despite the fact that human remains have been identified, the Planning Authority Case Officer recommends to the Planning Authority Board that they “Grant Permission” to develop.

An online hearing will be held on 31 October; anyone can make a request to join the meeting by sending a request on the Planning Authority’s website, although applications for presentations are closed.

In a last-ditch effort to preserve the site, Xagħra's Local Council and Mayor are also working with Ms Bajada to advocate for the caves’ preservation. Furthermore, judicial actions are being pursued.

The cultural, historical, and scientific importance of this area is inestimable. The fact that these caves now face erasure from history is incomprehensible. Even more heartbreaking is Bajada's claim that the site bearing human remains has been bulldozed.

It is astounding that while the Planning Authority often prevents the average person from making minor changes to a façade of a house or installing a pool – despite no connection to heritage – it allows major archaeological sites, even on ODZ land or in Urban Conservation Areas, to constantly face the onslaught of development. These constructions do not add to Malta’s beauty, charm, or culture. They profit the tiny few whilst destroying the country.

The Cultural Heritage Act of 2002, signed in Valletta, states: “Every person present in Malta shall have the duty of protecting the cultural heritage and the right to benefit from this heritage through learning and enjoyment. This cultural heritage is of irreplaceable spiritual, cultural, social and economic value. Its protection and promotion are indispensable for a balanced and complete life... Every generation shall have the duty to protect this heritage and to make it accessible for future generations and for all mankind.”

Sadly, as the power dynamics currently stand, the voices of the many are outweighed by the financial clout and political connections of the few. However, the Act's words are not mere letters on paper; they are a solemn oath, a sacred vow, and sworn commitment to Malta’s children.

It is our shared responsibility and moral duty to raise our voices against such cultural erasure. It is time we embrace both the spirit of the Cultural Heritage Act and the letter of the law to ensure that our legacy is not, once again, buried beneath more concrete.