Protecting our heritage

Let us halt developers’ greed, wanting to turn the island into a concrete jungle in the mad rush to activate the domestic multiplier effect to continue ratcheting the GDP index a race to the bottom to build soul-less concrete structures of doubtful architectural merit 


DIN l-Art Helwa has successfully called for the intervention of the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage and for the Planning Authority concerning an application by a developer to remove the top soil on a three tumoli site in Tal -Wej, Mosta - a hallowed ground hosting bronze age remains.

The site is located outside development zone in the outskirts of San Pawl Tat-Targa and the archaeological investigation is being proposed by the owner of the land. In the past, Mosta residents gave a sigh of relief after so many years of protest the tomb area at Tal-Wej currently lying in ruins was finally scheduled by PA. Thanks for the environmentalists who lobbied unsung and unaided for years they succeeded (so far) to protect this sacred burial ground in Mosta from the ravages of demolition and building works.

However, a development permit was issued by PA for a massive building project of showrooms, flats and basement garages in an area known as il-Wesgha tal-Gganti, in the road next to the Lidl supermarket, and just opposite the entrance to MCAST. The Superintendent of Cultural Heritage proclaimed that the site itself had low archaeological value saying that he cannot afford to protect all areas within the approved development plan as this will be tantamount to classify the entire spatial plan as “fossil” Malta.

But residents disagree saying that if we ignore precautions and send in excavators to dig up ancestor tombs, dolmens and catacombs we destroy our heritage and all this will eventually turn the island into a jungle of glass and concrete structures a soulless city. This land is listed as sacred in “Storja tal Mosta” in a book written by famous historian E.B. Vella who points out to the discovery of megaliths dating to the Neolithic period. Vella also makes reference to earlier descriptions of the area by Grognet, as well as folkloric references, which suggest the presence of more complex megalithic structures.

This saga begs the question - what is the cost of protecting our heritage from overzealous developers and can the benefits of commercial exploitation of such land ever outweigh the loss of our patrimony. An argument has developed of late as to who shall compensate developers who own land blessed with proven artifacts, dolmens or remains of ancient tombs. Is the public expected to yield to pressure from developers owning such plots?

The latter protest that their livelihood is threatened given the high incidence of ancient ruins and archaeological remains. The dilemma often tests the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage when asked to decide to veto development permits issued on certain sites. This is a rich legacy from our ancestors bequeathing us with an island with sites showing traces of rare archaeological remains particularly from the Bronze age period consisting of catacombs, shallow tombs dug in rock and sometimes the presence of complex megalithic structures which form an opulent archaeological marvel. With hindsight, one recalls how in 2006, there was a substantial extension of the national development plan which any doubt included ODZ land approved in Parliament.

Such a land parcel did treasure rich artifacts. It is obvious that owners of such land endowed with archaeological remains are faced with a veto from the Superintendence of Heritage mandating that the land cannot be developed. Can the argument go - we cannot halt progress and building activity considering the fact that the island is so dotted with artifacts that one may cheekily brand it as a “fossil” island.

Can we protect such heritage when there are so many land parcels rich in garigue community replete with a network of rock pools and ancient tombs which archaeologists proudly list as areas of ecological importance? Thus, it should come as no surprise that developers or speculators question the value of heritage and relevance of preventive archaeology.

Seeing it as a hindrance to their business plans they persist to question its importance and lobby against its protection at the highest political level. Really and truly, preventive archaeology is not only about protecting our heritage, but also about the discipline of a true interpretation of archaeology based on a scientific knowledge of the past. In an island so rich in ancient patrimony the topic, unfortunately, opens a multitude of varying interpretations, conflict of interests and fuels debate between various stakeholders such as archaeologists, historians, business community and the general public.

Let us consider another important era that is the unique Temple Period civilisation. This is famous for having built the oldest free-standing stone structures in the world. They covered Malta and Gozo with over 30 temple complexes over their 1100-year history. Apart from extensive temple sites cluttered with the evidence of complex rituals and animal sacrifices, intricate burial complexes were also built showing a deep respect for death. It was during the Temple Period that interesting artwork flourished. Hundreds of statues have been discovered (see picture). Such discoveries are famous for abundantly fertile ‘fat ladies’, these only make up around 15% of the statues found, with phallic symbols being much more common.

This needs protection from the state agencies such as ERA. Simply paying a fee by developers to sanction transgressions is blood money. Nothing can compensate for the permanent loss of the archaeological heritage such Phoenician sanctuaries and rock-cut tombs, or even Roman villas in the countryside and by the sea, not to mention late Roman and Byzantine Catacombs, and Islamic burial grounds. It is, therefore, the State as an emanation of the community of citizens and not as an abstract entity which must organize preventive excavations through adequate funding of public research institutions responsible for defining national research programs and eventually publishing the results of such excavations.

Another glaring example of abuse in excavating close to archeologically sensitive area is that of a planned development next to an early Neolithic site in Tas-Srug, Xagħra, Gozo. This is rated to be at least 5,000 years old since an investigation in 2012 resulted in the discovery of mud brick walls, ancient pottery and other remains. This prehistoric settlement at TasSruġ is threatened by the building of two maisonettes, four apartments and a penthouse, including a communal pool.

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage registered no objection to the proposed development provided that works were archaeologically monitored. In conclusion, one may comment that thankfully the economy has turned the corner and our national budget registered a surplus so we can afford a higher subvention to the protectors of such heritage. Let us halt developers’ greed, wanting to turn the island into a concrete jungle in the mad rush to activate the domestic multiplier effect to continue ratcheting the GDP index a race to the bottom to build soul-less concrete structures of doubtful architectural merit. 

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