Remains of Ancient Maltese Islanders Discovered in Catacombs Beneath a School
The discovery of some 2,000-year-old tombs from the Roman era in Malta have archaeologists buzzing. They say the bones are so old they can’t be called by the name “Maltese,” but the deceased were likely of Mediterranean origin, and some include the skeletons and skulls of young children.
One particularly touching human remnant was a small tooth of a baby, with no other teeth or skeletal remains that could be found, says a story about the find in TimesOfMalta.com.
“The area around Rabat is rich with remains,” The Sunday Times of Malta quotes Anthony Pace, the Maltese government’s superintendent of Cultural Heritage. “These tombs are the latest discovery we have made, with some interesting contents. … this is just the beginning of the process. Discovering a site is definitely a thrilling experience, but so too is analysing skulls in the labs, for instance. Some of the skeletons are beautiful, there’s no other word for them. We’re not crazy, we’re archeologists”.
The site is a series of catacombs underneath a school in Rabat, a Maltese town. The catacombs are underneath St. Paul’s and St. Agatha’s catacombs, says a story about the find in the Independent. What was surprising was that the skeletons and skulls were totally undisturbed by grave robbers. Cultural authorities took sightseers on a tour of the catacombs on Sunday.
Being situated in the Mediterranean Sea, the island of Malta of course has a long human history. Here is a photo of an old but relatively recent street scene in the town of Rabat, where the bones were discovered. (Wikimedia Commons photo /Fajna asia)
The tombs were found by workers on soccer and athletic fields of St. Paul’s Missionary College. Archaeologists eventually turned up the skeletal remains of at least eight people of the island and some decorated pottery, all of which will be used to unravel some of the mysteries of Malta’s ancient history.
Workers found the first chamber, and then, said Dr. Pace, the archaeologists found more and more. They are crypts apparently carved into stone, the Times article says. One of the tombs has a small shelf carved into the rock, just a few feet long and maybe about a foot deep and high, that was used to bury infants, one of several crypts used for babies, the story says.
Bernadette Mercieca Spiteri, an anthropologist who is analyzing the bones and teeth, said at the time child mortality rates were high, and the families would bury their children in these mini-tombs and plaster them shut. They would open it and put in new burials over and over again, she told the Times.
Another shot of the humans bones and skulls found in the catacombs, which are near St. Paul’s and St. Agatha’s catacombs underneath a Maltese school.
The Times asked Dr. Pace who the people were.
“‘Malteseness’ as we know it today is a relatively new invention. Malta would have been home to moving people from the Mediterranean, it would have also had settlers, and they would have considered themselves part of the empire, in this case, the Roman Empire,” the Times quoted him as saying.
The exact date of the burials is unknown, but it’s possible they’re from an era when there were many Jews on the island, a transition between suzerainty by Carthage and a changeover to Roman rule. The contents of the tombs and the location of them may indicate this era, when there were also colonial settlers on the island and many merchants.
Dr. Pace told the Times little is known about the era, but these tombs will help shed light on this mysterious period in the island’s distant past.
Top image: These are some of the skeletal remains discovered in catacombs beneath a school in Rabat, Malta. The public was allowed to go into the tombs to see these bones from about 2,000 years ago, though the precise time these people lived and died is unknown.
By Mark Miller