Superintendence investigating ‘heaps’ denounced by Dutch archeologist

But heritage watchdog insists that the construction site for a new 5 storey block in Rabat Gozo was adequately investigated and previous studies had indicated an absence of archeological remains on this specific site

The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage (SCH) is carrying out "further investigations” on heaps discarded and left unattended in fields next to a construction site for a new five-storey apartment block in Rabat, Gozo, which according to Dutch archeologist Adrian  Van Der Blom  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).

"Notwithstanding previous investigations (excluding archeological discoveries on this specific site) the Superintendence is carrying out further investigations with regards to the spoil heaps mentioned,” a spokesperson for the SCH told MaltaToday.

But no further details can be provided since "this would compromise the Superintendent’s possibility of intervening in terms of Article 70 of the Cultural Heritage Act".

The Superintendence is also insisting  that all" necessary precautions" have been taken to safeguard any archeological remains present on the site which is designated as an  Area of Archeological of Importance and has downplayed the archeological potential of the site. 

Dutch archaeologists Adrian Van der Blom who together with 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.

MaltaToday can confirm that the permit for this development on previously undeveloped land, was issued to Mario George Cassar and James Pace 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.

But the Superintendece insists that "a precautionary approach" has always been adopted with any permits buffer zone area for the Tac-Cawla site. 

"Such an approach requires an evaluation of the site, or archaeology monitoring depending on the archaeology potential of the site, as directed by the Superintendence. When monitoring is imposed, this is tantamount to archaeology evaluation in that best practice and standards for archaeology investigation are adopted and the monitoring condition includes the proviso that the discovery of any archaeology remains may require changes to the approved plans".

The SCH has also downplayed the archeological potential of the site noting that the construction site is  located in an area which was "partially investigated" by the Museums Department in 1994. 

"The investigations did not identify any archaeology in this area. Further investigations in the area known as Taċ-Ċawla in the last 30 years by the Authorities have shown that the main area of archaeological interest lies to the west of these sites". 

Moreover despite the absence of an investigation of the site prior to the issue of the permit the development in question  "was fully investigated under the direction of the Superintendence, adding that these "investigations have not yielded any archaeological discovery”. 

"The Superintendence is satisfied that a proper archaeology investigation has been carried out and that no archaeology was impacted within the built footprint. Notwithstanding the Superintendence is carrying out further investigations with regards to the spoil heaps mentioned “.

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.

Questions sent by MaltaToday on 20 October to the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage on the significance of archeological findings reported by Van Der Blom and the archaeological monitoring of works related to the five-storey development were only  answered this morning after the  publication of the story on Sunday.