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Valletta was built on agricultural land, archaeological evidence shows

Mount Sceberras, the hill on which Valletta was built, was not barren wasteland but served as agricultural land in medieval times, according to new archaeological evidence.

New evidence that the hill was the site of “intense, ancient and medieval agricultural occupation” challenged the often-repeated theory that Mount Sceberras was barren and rocky, architect and Valletta Rehabilitation Project CEO Claude Borg said.

Mount Sceberras had been chosen by Grand Master Jean de la Valette as the site to build the new capital city after the Great Siege in 1565.

Described in most local history books as a barren outcrop, arid or rocky, the hill had to be levelled before construction could start in 1566 and completed with bastions, forts and the cathedral, all in 15 years.

The new evidence refuting the long-repeated theory came to light last February during the first excavations at St George’s Square by the Valletta Rehabilitation Project.

The excavations were carried out to investigate the possibility of an underground car park in the square. It became immediately evident that the square had archaeological potential that had to be studied further, Mr Borg said.

The idea of an underground car park was ditched after the discovery in March of a tunnel and a vault system that dated back to the Renaissance period.

New plans were drawn up for the upgrade of St George’s Square, which was recently inaugurated, including a water fountain, benches and lava paving. Keeping these in mind, the archaeological investigations started again in June, this time on a larger scale.

The excavations, under the watchful eye of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, revealed archaeological finds from different periods, Mr Borg said.

The oldest part of the square dates back to classical period (circa 8 AD - 395 AD) and investigations revealed rock-cut features. However, fragments of pottery dating back to the late medieval period indicated that the area was still covered by agricultural land until it was built over, Mr Borg said.

“Enough evidence was collected to prove that this was the site of intense ancient and medieval agricultural occupation. This challenges the often-repeated idea that Sceberras Height was just an outcrop of wasteland before the founding of Valletta by the Knights in 1567,” he said.

Obviously, most of the archaeological evidence found in St George’s Square dates back to the Renaissance – the time of the Knights – when it was transformed into a square facing the newly-constructed Grand Master’s Palace.

Last October, the excavations also revealed a stone slab with a hole in the middle in the centre that used to secure a pole used for the annual carnival game kukkanja (the maypole).

The excavations also revealed the exact position of a baroque fountain that stood in the square in 18th century, which was removed by the British to use it as a parade ground, Mr Borg said.

An underground system of tunnels and water channels that led to the fountain was also discovered.

All evidence was carefully investigated and documented and would eventually be published. Any archaeological remains that were uncovered were carefully conserved using an adequate covering technique, he said.

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