A Google Earth image indicating sensitive archeological zones at Salina Bay in need of special protection. Photo: Timmy GambinA Google Earth image indicating sensitive archeological zones at Salina Bay in need of special protection. Photo: Timmy Gambin

Transport Malta roadworks at Burmarrad are a threat to the flood plain for some very valid reasons other than what may be apparent on the surface.

Much of the outcry surrounding the new coast road, part of an ongoing upgrade to Malta’s main artery joining the Freeport with Gozo, has centred around lost agriculture, trees and concerns about the salt marsh ecology.

Objections to the widening and realignment of the road, slated to become an extension of the European transport network (TEN), were put forward by a number of farmers. One family claimed a 53-year-old connection to fields would be affected by the project. There they had grown wheat, on two tumoli of land, gracing the roadside landscape. Yet this picturesque and productive corner stood to be reduced to a mere 1,000 square metres by the project.

Part of the area is already a Natura 2000 site. In past years there was a freshwater spring in this area known as Ta’ Mattew, although it no longer exists. The canal (Tas-Sokkorsu) feeds fresh water to the marsh.

Since it mixes with fresh water, the salt marsh is very diverse in species and is different from other salt marshes in the Maltese islands.

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s natural heritage advisory committee met in March 2010 to hammer out its response to consultations on the project. It was noted that the proposal to widen the coast road would take up a considerable area, including garigue, agricultural land and valley beds, with parts of the new road affecting Natura 2000 sites and scheduled areas.

The committee was against recommending the application since the coast road had already been recently upgraded and, by its reckoning, no justification was provided for widening the road. Be­sides, the panel felt that other roads in a worse condition were more likely candidates for improvement.

Later on, when the project was well under way, the committee would express its regrets over not being consulted about the eventual relocation of a historic pillbox at Salina Bay to accommodate the new road. Relocating such historic features may strip them of much of their significance since both modern and ancient archaeology exist in a landscape for particular reasons, often to do with a precise alignment.

Taking a series of core samples along the proposed TEN route (as suggested by Timmy Gambin during the public consultation phase for the trans-European road network extension) would have provided researchers with an archive of sediments for research before these sediments become inaccessible.

Speaking at a recent seminar addressing the need for better management of Malta’s archaeological heritage, Dr Gambin called for more attention to the islands’ underwater cultural heritage.

The University of Malta’s archaeology department, which took part in the seminar, titled ‘Archaeology in Malta: past achievements, future considerations’, faces a number of challenges. The most notable of these is getting certain authorities to recognise the value of potential sites that have yet to be uncovered.

Dr Gambin pointed to Burmarrad’s fertile flood plain, known to have been a port in ancient times before the salt pans were built at Salina, as one such site. Anchors dating back to Roman times were unearthed when the Burmarrad cemetery was extended some years ago. The fertile basin, which today is described as ‘art babassa’ by local farmers, once contained a natural harbour used in ancient times as a port by the Romans until it silted up and became a marshland. The area is considered to have high potential since it contains layers of undisturbed sediment deposits dating back over 8,000 years.

In the sunken valley mouth, known to geomorphologists as a ‘ria’, what is today a fertile plain was once covered by sea. What is interesting is that different parts were covered at different times. At its maximum, the body of water lay three kilometres long and 650 metres wide, an attractive all- weather harbour offering the possibility of sheltering sea craft to early societies in the area. The study of marine archaeology is not restricted to the seabed and is invariably related to the surrounding landscape, equally worthy of protection.

Here, in the surroundings of what was once an extensive natural harbour, the earliest archeological traces of human impact on the landscape have been backed up by archaeo-botanical dating. Pollen, preserved in an anaerobic setting such as clay or sediment, proves to be a useful indicator.

With human activity came significant changes in vegetation, leading to a higher rate of sedimentation and a gradual silting up of the inlet over the centuries. For the land, this was an improvement, since the alluvial soils became even more fertile. Yet it was the same sediment, washed down from an extensive catchment area (Wied Qannota, Wied Għajn Rihana and Wied il-Għasel), which made the natural anchorage too shallow for use over time.

Given the area’s sedimentation, a perfect medium for preservation, the possibilities of an exciting archaeological find are promising

During Punic and Roman times the harbour was somewhat smaller than in the Bronze or Paleolithic eras. This proves another useful indicator toward dating of findings. For example, in Marsa, signs of Phoenician activity are found further inland than similar Roman remains, as the sea gradually retreated from what was once an even grander harbour than today’s modern port.

Silt provides a perfect anaerobic environment to preserve ancient port structures, artifacts and shipwrecks which would otherwise have long rotted away. The sea bed at Grand Harbour is covered in silt from centuries of sediment washing down via Wied il-Kbir. It runs to over 30 metres deep in places, an exciting prospect for marine archaeologists because of the potential of finding an entire ancient vessel in such conditions.

A precondition to such a project would be identifying suitable funding and the right expertise, but the potential is there, especially when one looks at underwater archaeological sites in waters off Naples and Ibiza. Until both these important factors can be sourced it is essential that sites showing high potential are protected. Marsa­mxett and Marsascala are other areas of interest in this regard.

Fish farms, dredging and laying of mooring blocks all pose a threat to such sites. A constant challenge is “convincing the authorities that underwater cultural heritage is a reality,” said Dr Gambin.

Sea grasses also play a part in preserving underwater heritage waiting to be discovered. Malta could benefit from the development of snorkel or dive parks around some archaeological sites underwater.

It is worth keeping in mind that placing a single mooring block on posidonia sea grass beds can mean that the entire area around it is affected as boats swing on their mooring chains. It is feared that the loss of posidonia could expose vulnerable underwater cultural heritage before we are able to preserve it, leading to its loss. Transport Malta is the authority responsible for moorings.

Over the past two summers the Archaeology Department has been working on a marine heritage site found six metres below the posidonia matte, a thick layer of fibrous material.

In an appeal made at the seminar, Dr Gambin called for zones to be set up both on land and at sea that would safeguard the archaeological potential of the Salina-Burmarrad area until it could be further investigated. A Priority 1 zone would cover the fields, with a Priority 2 zone out at sea. Given the area’s sedimentation, a perfect medium for preservation, the possibilities of uncovering an exciting archaeological find are promising.

Following up on the work done by the Archaeology Department’s shipwreck survey, the planning authority is expected to declare a buffer zone at sea for an interesting and more recent find – a World War II vessel off Dingli Cliffs.

Reuben Grima from the Built Heritage Faculty spoke on the challenges of ratifying the European Landscape Convention on which Malta has been dragging its feet. The convention is a clear and comprehensive framework for safeguarding the quality of where we live. Unfortunately, such conventions, once signed, are often viewed as “an interference to how things are done on the ground,” Dr Grima said.

The seminar was organised by the Archeological Society.

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