Rare Phoenician sarcophagus covered by Rabat trenching works excavated

600BC Phoenician stone sarcophagus discovered 21 years ago being examined by University and heritage experts over fears of damage from increased roadworks

Remains of two individuals, possibly a male and female, were found in the sarcophagus
Remains of two individuals, possibly a male and female, were found in the sarcophagus

A rare Phoenician stone sarcophagus from 600BC excavated since last summer at Għajn Klieb, outskirts of Rabat, is being examined by the University of Malta, Heritage Malta and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage.

Sarcophagi feature very rarely in Maltese archaeology. 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 with the Superintendence monitoring the area.

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. 

But increased development pressures to improve infrastructural services in the area during the last months led to the decision by the Superintendence to investigate the site and ensure the best use of the available resources in view of the rarity of the find.

All the objects in 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.

“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,” Kurt Farrugia, Superintendent of Cultural Heritage, said.

“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.”

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.

“Għajn Klieb 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.”

Noel Zammit, Heritage Malta’s Chief Executive Officer, said that Heritage Malta conservators were 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.”