Serious concerns have been raised by cultural heritage authorities over a proposal to demolish a Rabat townhouse believed to stand above ancient Roman remains.

Neighbouring residents have also suggested the possible existence of a freshwater spring and underground caverns similar to the nearby Grotto of St Paul, all lying beneath the property.

The dilapidated house in an alley off Triq San Franġisk is proposed for demolition to build a two-storey residence, in an application yet to be assessed by the Planning Authority.

But a site visit by the Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee revealed an underground chamber with probable archaeological burial features beneath one of the outbuildings, which may continue below the main structure.

Other caverns and catacombs were also found in the garden, and heritage experts believe a well and two other water sources beneath the same garden may lead to an ancient Roman water system.

The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage has called for a survey of the archaeological remains before commenting further but said that, in the absence of that information, the development should be refused outright.

A historic ditch could date to the origins of Mdina

Residents of the area, meanwhile, have highlighted a historic ditch known as il-Foss running through the property, which could date back to the origins of Mdina.

A structure listed on the plans as a rubble wall may in fact form part of the original ditch wall, according to neighbours, who have called for further studies before any development is approved, particularly as steel columns would be erected on top of the wall as part of the works.

The surrounding properties are all known to have a common water source. Combined with the growth of reeds on a stretch of the site in question, neighbours believe the source may be an underlying freshwater spring.

They have called for the spring to be studied and protected, as well as a geological study of a number of underground caverns close to the surface, to ensure they are not damaged during excavations.

As their own properties sit on top of a soft material such as clay, they are also concerned that the proposed development could damage their homes’ foundations unless studied further and carried out with caution.

The development itself has drawn objections from heritage NGO Din L-Art Ħelwa – who insist that characteristic buildings in village cores should be conserved – and the Rabat Local Council.

Echoing residents’ concerns about the archaeological importance of the area, the council is insisting that no excavations take place on the site.

“Although it is stated that the building is in a dilapidated state, this is no reason why it cannot be rehabilitated, and needs to be demolished,” the council added. “With this argument we can then demolish all our fortifications which are in a dilapidated state. We therefore insist that instead of demolishing this property, it should be rehabilitated.”

The areas around Rabat and Mdina, which overlie the ancient Roman city of Melite, are one of the most important archaeological areas on the island.

The protected area around the two towns was extended four years ago, and it now covers an area of more than 1.5 square kilometres.

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