Bones, pottery found in Gozitan construction site could date to 5,800 BC

Dutch archaeologists find bones and pottery shards in abandoned heaps next to construction site, which could offer insights on the daily life of Malta’s earliest inhabitants

Heaps discarded and left unattended in fields next to a construction site for a new five-storey apartment block in Rabat, Gozo, may contain valuable archaeological material possibly dating back to the earliest phases of human settlement in the island: namely the early Żebbuġ phase (4000 BC) and possibly the Għar Dalam phase (5800 BC).

Taċ-Ċawla, a site recognised for its archaeological importance, is unique because remains found in the past years are suggestive of a domestic habitation, unlike other sites dating to this period, which are mainly funerary.

MaltaToday can confirm that the permit for this development on previously undeveloped land, was issued in the absence of a prior archaeological investigation, as initially requested by the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage – but with a condition that works are monitored by an archaeologist approved by the heritage watchdog.

Dutch archaeologists Adrian Van der Blom and Veronica Veen had a major role in the discovery of the Taċ-Ċawla site back in the early 1990s, stumbled on the heaps during a brief visit to the site in June 2022 during which he inspected the top layer, of which they have retained photographic evidence.

On that occasion, the elderly archaeologist documented around 80 pieces from the topsoil, including pottery shards and animal bones and molars, which were duly reported and delivered to the Maltese heritage authorities. 40 more pieces, including a fine tunnel handle, were documented during a second visit to the site in August.

Van der Blom contends that these findings could shed light on the domestic life of the forerunners of the temple builders, and is calling for a full investigation of the site before any further building permits are issued in the area.

Questions sent by MaltaToday to the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage on the significance of these findings and on the archaeological monitoring of works related to the five-storey development have remained unanswered.

Permit issued without prior archaeological investigation

A permit for a ground floor maisonette, eight apartments, and underlying garages at basement level in Triq in-Neolitiċi in Rabat, was issued in 2021.

In its first reaction to the application in March 2020, the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage had immediately alerted the Planning Authority to the archaeological importance of site, which is officially designated as the Taċ-Ċawla Area of Archaeological Importance (AAI). The SCH referred to “traces of a prehistoric structure and associated cultural material discovered in the immediate vicinity of the proposed development during investigations carried out between 1993 and 1995 on an adjacent site.”

Noting that “the proposal will require extensive ground clearing and rock-cutting to form the proposed basement level and water reservoir,” the Superintendence called for an archaeological evaluation of the site prior to the issuing of a development permit, as required by the Cultural Heritage Act. This archaeological evaluation was to be carried out by the applicant but carried out in keeping with directions and terms of reference issued by the Superintendence.

But no such prior investigation was carried out prior to the issue of the permit, because a previous permit for excavations on the same site had already been issued to another applicant in 2019. This permit had included a condition requiring archaeological monitoring during the works, but foresaw no assessment of the site prior to its issue.

“Given that the previous permit is still valid and can be utilised to excavate the site, the conditions set out in the previous permit are being copied to cover this development application,” the case officer said when referring to the SCH’s call for a prior archaeological evaluation.

Strangely when assessing the first permit issued in 2019, the SCH had not called for a prior investigation, and had simply imposed monitoring conditions which were included in the permit.

While archaeological monitoring during works – if properly implemented – can be effective in safeguarding remains found during works and even lead to changes in plans, a prior archaeological evaluation ensures that planning decisions are informed by the outcome of these investigations. Such investigations are regularly done prior to the issue of permits on archaeologically-sensitive sites.

For example, the SCH had ordered prior archaeological investigations prior to the issue of permits on a number of sites like the site of the Center Park in Qormi, which resulted in the discovery of Roman tombs and cart ruts, which were integrated in the project.

In this case it remains a mystery how heaps allegedly full of archaeological material were left exposed in nearby fields, despite archaeological monitoring during the works.

MaltaToday has asked the Superintendence to provide it with a copy of the terms of reference for the archaeological monitoring of the site and whether this included any investigation prior to ground disturbance and excavations. It also asked the Superintendence for the outcome of its investigations on the archaeological material recovered from the heaps left unattended in nearby fields, which had been reported by Van der Blom.

The Tac-Cawla saga

Back in 1991, Van der Blom and his wife Veronica Veen, who is also a cultural anthropologist, made their greatest find, consisting of domestic remains dating to the Għar Dalam phase, found in a building trench and on the adjoining heaps, in a situation not so different from the present one.

In the early 1990s, the couple had vigorously campaigned against sprawling building development in the area.

At that time the Museums Department disputed the findings and even initiated a court case against the two archaeologists, accusing them of conducting illegal excavations, which were dismissed by the law courts.

Excavations over the years by an Oxford team in 1995 and a British-Maltese project in 2014 uncovered an extensive complex of prehistoric foundations, floors and walls, mainly from the Żebbuġ and Ġgantija phase, with Għar Dalam remains in pockets underneath.