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Cistern found to have been ancient tomb

Studies at Limestone Heritage, the museum/park which traces the use of stone in Malta, have confirmed that a bell-shaped cistern in the Siggiewi quarry where the museum is located, is an ancient tomb of Punic or Roman origin.

The studies were conducted by Dr Nicholas Vella, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the Department of Classics and Archaeology of the University of Malta.

Entrance into the tomb is now through one of its two burial chambers but in antiquity the tomb was reached from the fields above, down a deep shaft. In later years, the shaft was refashioned into a bell-shaped cistern to collect rainwater.

The tomb was cut into the soft limestone that outcrops in this area. The 2.30 metre-deep shaft would probably have been rectangular with footholds dug on the side to allow the funeral undertaker to descend to its bottom.

Two burial chambers, one opposite the other, are found at the bottom of the shaft. They are small rooms, roughly rectangular in shape, entered through low arched doorways.

Dr Vella explained in a report that inside, to the left of each entrance, is a mortuary bed cut into the rock. The corpse would have been laid to rest on the bed with its head lying on a rock-cut pillow at the deep end of the chamber. Pottery vessels, often including plates, jugs and storage jars (amphorae), would have been placed in the chamber to accompany the corpse. The chamber would have been sealed with a stone slab blocking the doorway.

Each mortuary bed is about 1.80 metres long and about half a metre wide, indicating that only one adult would have been placed on the bed. In one corner of each burial chamber is a pilaster cut into the rock. This is the only decorative feature visible inside the chambers. Original cut marks are visible on the ceiling of burial chamber 2. These are different from those produced by a modern pickaxe on the ceiling of burial chamber 1.

Dr Vella said it was difficult for archaeologists to date the tomb because none of its contents had been preserved. The pottery containers and other objects may have been discovered when the tomb was refashioned into a water cistern, he said. Moreover, any inscriptions or decorations on the walls of the burial chambers werevno longer visible because the entire surface was covered in a waterproofing mortar made from a mixture of lime and clay.

“In the absence of such material the tomb has to be dated according to its shape and its layout. Tombs like this one, with chambers on either side of a deep shaft are common in Malta after the 3rd century BC. This would correspond to a time when the Maltese Islands were under Carthaginian domination. However, this type of tomb was common also in later Roman times up until the 2nd century AD.”

At some point in time, probably in the nineteenth century, the tomb was refashioned into a cistern to collect rainwater. Indeed, elsewhere at Limestone Heritage another example of such a cistern survives in the quarry face.

The shaft of the tomb was widened, especially at the bottom, and the rock cut in the shape of a massive bell. Part of the cistern shaft was built from stone blocks kept together with plaster. At the bottom of the shaft is a sump to collect sediment. Rainwater would have gathered here and inside the tomb chambers too. To make the surface of the rock waterproof, the builders of the cistern applied a cement-based mortar on the rock surface except on the roofs of the chambers. On the surface of the field above the cistern is a typical limestone cistern-head (ħerża). Water would have been drawn from here probably to water the crops in the field, Dr Vella said.

The tomb has been opened to visitors.

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