Preliminary archaeological studies in St George's Square, Valletta have uncovered an undocumented network of underground passageways, which could possibly connect to the Palace.

Studies are being undertaken in St George's Square in preparation for the building of a one-storey underground car park and the subsequent embellishment of the square.

The project, piloted by the Works Division and the Valletta Rehabilitation Project, still needs to be given the green light by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority.

The passageways were discovered on Tuesday when government employees from the Works Division under architect Claude Borg dug through a wall in a small room on Archbishop Street. After clearing debris and other material, they discovered that the passageway leads to under the Main Guard portico, parallel to the Palace.

The room had been previously used by the Water Services Corporation.

Further excavation works revealed that the central passageway had a number of corridors that led to other directions. One such corridor, at right angles with the central passageway and which seems to be blocked, runs in the direction of the Palace.

Mr Borg, executive co-ordinator of the Valletta Rehabilitation Project, said that archival research and previous studies of the site did not reveal the existence of the underground passageways.

"All archives and documents never indicated any shelters or significant structures underneath, though a number of historians and residents have recalled members of their family entering shelters from one of the corners of the square. Obviously, we had to verify the claims and, on Monday, I gave instructions for the wall blocking a small room underneath the square to be removed," Mr Borg said.

It seems that the passageways used to form part of a drainage system built by the Knights of the Order of St John.

"A number of interesting features and mason marks can be seen in this tunnel, which also has two openings branching out but whose access remains blocked. Works are still under way to open all the blocked passages and clean the tunnels as much as possible to plot out what might be a network system that was previously undocumented," Mr Borg explained.

Technical people from the Valletta Rehabilitation Project are surveying and documenting the passageways.

The Knights had built the Wignacourt fountain in the square to celebrate the arrival of fresh water to Valletta.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Resources and Rural Affairs, under whose wing the Works Division falls, said tests and studies were still underway and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage was present at every stage of the clearing.

"Within the coming days, once all investigations have been concluded and all possible tunnels explored, the ministry will consult with the Superintendence on the findings and then assess its position and proposal on the embellishment project of the square," the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the environmental organisation Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar yesterday proposed that part of the passages should be made accessible to the public as an added heritage attraction and an insight into the very old civil engineering works that lay beneath Valletta's streets.

The FAA had pointed out the existence of the passageway during a meeting with Rural Affairs and Resources Minister George Pullicino, who briefed the organisation on the square's embellishment plans.

The organisation said that, while it had "strong reservations" about the excavation of the square for the provision of underground parking, it was confident that the changes to the space would not only enhance the prestige of the square facing the Presidents' Palace but would also greatly improve the enjoyment of the square.

ksansone@timesofmalta.com

(See also: http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090227/local/undocumented-network-of-tunnels-discovered)

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