It is midday and the July sun is scorching but none of the archaeologists working in the open field are complaining as they busily unearth the 2,000-year-old past at the site of the former Roman villa in Żejtun.
They wear sun hats and sunscreen as they dig millimetre by millimetre, using micro tools such as trowels and dainty paintbrushes. This is a typical behind the scenes of an archaeological dig, which we never get to see in Indiana Jones and other blockbuster movies.
There are no “holy grails” to unearth, no “crystal skulls”. Archaeology is less about thrilling adventure and more about painstaking patience. The “lost ark” can be anything from a tiny shred of pottery to a rut in a hole.
The excavations, that have been going on since 2006, have so far revealed that the site is older than previously thought.
“The data will be thoroughly analysed when the excavations terminate. However, at the lower levels we have found Punic pottery, which indicates this was not just a Roman villa. A Phoenician-Punic building, dating to the third century BC, had been there before,” Anthony Bonanno, head at the University’s Archaeology Department, said.
This archaeological site, located within the grounds of the St Thomas More Junior Lyceum School for Girls, was first discovered in 1961 during the construction of the school.
Subsequent excavations revealed that, in the past, the site had been the location of a thriving olive oil industry and a nearby villa. The villa probably belonged to someone ranking in the “lower-middle class” of society at the time.
“There is no mosaic as one would find in a luxury Roman villa, instead the floors are tiled and the walls are plastered with coloured stucco,” Prof. Bonanno said.
Other insights into past life are, unfortunately, scarce because the 1960s and 1970s excavations were bereft of crucial documentation.
The need to recover data in an attempt to reconstruct the economic and environmental history of the site and its environs has seen the University resuming the Żejtun excavations in 2006. The villa is one of four remaining sites in Malta that date to this period, including the Roman Domus in Rabat, San Pawl Milqi and Ta’ Kaċċatura in Birżebbuġa.
The one at Żejtun was a very important archaeological site in the south as it was the only one with potential to be visited by people, Prof. Bonanno said. He explained that four trenches were opened, incorporating parts of the 1972-1976 excavation limit as well as previously unexcavated areas. This meant archaeologists had to first dig the recent past before getting to the Roman period.
Excavation co-director Nicholas Vella said: “There are areas where we found soft drink bottles and sweets’ wrappers from the 1970s.”
Pottery findings help to date the architectural elements and the areas left intact in the 1970s. The context of the findings is of greater value than the find itself.
“The archaeological process is not just the digging. The greatest chunk of the time involves documentation, with draughting and planning,” Dr Vella said.
He pointed to a large cistern cut in the rocks unearthed recently. Would that be an ancient form of toilet? “No, that was a reservoir to collect water from the roofs of all buildings in the vicinity. Remember, in the south of Malta the water was scant, so every drop was precious,” he explained.
The excavations come to an end next week and the site will be covered up again not leave anything to the elements. The exposure over the last 30 years led to some serious deterioration.
This year sees the start of a preservation programme initiated by Din l-Art Ħelwa and the University with the help of the HSBC Malta Foundation.
The first phase of the project includes emergency conservation treatment and the erection of a temporary shelter. The programme was expected to take two years and would protect the ruins from water infiltration, invasive vegetation and exposure to the elements, Dr Vella said.
The long-term aim is to present the idea to the public in an appropriate manner. In March, the team will be taking part in a symposium organised by Wirt iż-Żejtun to present the first findings of the excavations to promote the importance of this site on a regional and national level.
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