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Urban archaeology at Vittoriosa

The search for the foundations of the Vittoriosa clock tower, it-Torri ta' l-Arlogg, has been a success. Archaeological excavations at Victory Square are currently being undertaken by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage.

The archaeological project at Victory Square is the outcome of a close collaboration between the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, the Cottonera Rehabilitation Committee and of Vittoriosa local council.

So far, the first traces of a number of buried structures have emerged. Among these, there appear to be the remains of the tower's foundation walls themselves.

The excavations have captured the attention of Vittoriosa residents and, indeed, the entire population of the Cottonera area. For many of the residents of the Three Cities, the Vittoriosa clock tower is still very vivid in their memory. Even more encouraging is the growing interest in heritage on the part of youngsters who live in the area.

The power of landscape on memory is remarkable. It is also most welcome. Even empty spaces left behind by fallen monuments have the power to instil a sense of place and a sense of identity.

As a community phenomenon, the search for the Vittoriosa clock tower is fast becoming a rallying point. Identity focused on the possibility of revamping an important icon is a powerful quality that reflects a new sense of awareness of our heritage. It would seem that the power of memory is now emerging as a force which is stronger than memories of war damage, a bad decision to dismantle whatever remained of the clock tower and equally bad decisions of urban re-design.

The objective of the superintendence is to understand the location of the 16th century tower known as it-Torri ta' l-Arlogg. The tower was one of Vittoriosa's most prominent architectural landmarks that was partially destroyed during military action in 1942. At the time, substantial parts of the tower had survived. Old photographs are enough to rekindle the debate as to why the surviving remains were completely demolished.

During the 1950s, Victory Square was enlarged and extended westwards to include the area previously occupied by the tower. A number of old houses and shops adjacent to the tower were also demolished at this time and incorporated into the square.

The remains uncovered so far consist of foundation walls and parts of a number of tiled floors. Apart from the possible base of the tower, it appears that these features once belonged to houses that have since been developed.

The excavations have fulfilled an important objective of the Vittoriosa local council. The council originally set out to discover the foundation remains of the tower, in the hope that such ruins would give back an important element of Vittoriosa's past. The local council is clearly keeping an open mind on what should happen next.

The current excavations should lead to a wider debate as to what should happen to any discoveries. Already, mention of a reconstruction of the entire tower has been muted. Is reconstruction the best way forward? International conventions provide a clear philosophy as to when and how reconstruction should be permissible.

Should reconstruction now be given priority over other pressing needs of Vittoriosa's heritage, especially after the surviving remains of the tower had been demolished anyway? Would reconstruction simply create a sense of false identities amidst a sincere need for better urban planning and rehabilitation?

At issue here is the need for a clear dialogue to be started among authorities, professionals, the Vittoriosa local council and, of course, the residents of Vittoriosa itself. The historic urban landscape of Vittoriosa has for centuries provided an important social-cultural environment. It is this sense of place and its resonance that gives Vittoriosa a particular character.

For many years Vittoriosa may have become an alienated landscape, albeit an important one. The war of 1939-1945 changed the whole social fabric of the town, as did the introduction of heavy industry into the area. The reconstruction of damaged buildings may have even been undertaken with less sensitivity to original Baroque architectural volumes, streetscapes and massing.

But the importance of Vittoriosa for Malta's national identity remains indisputable, as the events of history have shown. The town will certainly welcome the discovery of the clock tower's foundation base.

Who knows what other treasures lie hidden beneath the surface of the town? A town beneath the town, a place beneath a modern space, a revival of memories and the iconic significance of a lost landmark.

For the time-being, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage will be continuing its research project in order for all involved to be better informed. Suggestions, recommendations or comments would be most welcome at this stage.

Dr Pace is superintendent of cultural heritage.

heritage.superintendence@gov.mt

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