High up on a flat ridge and tucked away behind a secondary school in Żejtun, archaeology students are digging up the remains of an ancient Roman villa. Discovered in 1961, the site has been the subject of two large-scale archaeological investigations, the first of which was carried out in the 1970s.

Archaeological investigations were resumed in 2006 under the direction of Anthony Bonanno and Nicholas Vella from the Department of Classics and Archaeology, University of Malta.

Although known as a Roman villa, complete with an olive press, pottery findings show that the site dates back to Punic times.

This year, the archaeologists are focusing on exploring a cistern and investigating the structures in more depth, while coming up with unexpected finds: the latest discoveries are fragments of a tobacco pipe, probably dating to the 18th century.

“We are trying to identify whether or not the rest of the structure and the olive press also date back to the Punic times,” said Maxine Anastasi, one of the trench supervisors. “Everything we discover during our excavation will be forwarded to specialists to study and date the finds.”

During the first full-scale excavation in 1972, the section containing the olive oil pressing equipment was cleared. A system of flat floor slabs was also exposed.

Through further investigations conducted in 1972, archaeologists found a series of rectangular rooms paved with lozenge-shaped tiles in the residential area.

A year later two fragments of a cooking pot were discovered, which were of significant importance because one of these fragments carried an inscription written in Punic characters. This was interpreted as a dedication to Ashtart, a fertility goddess worshipped by the Phoenicians.

Similar discoveries have been made at the Tas-Silġ archaeological site, situated close by. Much more pottery was found during both excavations, including local, handmade pottery dating to the Punic period and imported red-slipped pottery from North Africa, which dates to the Roman period.

In 2006, the University decided to continue with the excavations to record the existing structures and train archaeology students.

Prof. Bonanno, who was involved in the 1970s excavations, said: “We are recording what is found in a particular layer all the way down, in order to be able to reconstruct a story… that is, how layers were deposited, how buildings were set up, how they collapsed and how eventually that same material was re-utilised at a later period for different purposes. We think that we are able to at least reconstruct a story going back a good 2,500 years, that is, going back to Punic times.”

“Vine trenches were also found below the Żejtun villa, indicating that the trenches pre-date the Roman era,” said Prof. Vella.

Archaeological evidence for wine and olive production is very important for building understanding of past economic activities.

Investigations have been carried out in Germany on artifacts found at Żejtun to establish if there was oil production, but the results have been inconclusive, Prof .Vella said.

However, comparisons have been made with other finds and excavations in the Mediterranean, and the archaeologists are confident that there was oil production on the site.

An open day at the Żejtun villa will be held on Friday, July 15, with the first tour starting at 8.30am and the last being given at 11.30am.

The site is located in the grounds of the St Thomas More Secondary School in Żejtun.

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