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Call to preserve ancient cemetery on hospital site

An archaeologist (left) on site with Joe Cassar. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier.

An archaeologist (left) on site with Joe Cassar. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier.

Joe Cassar, the former Nationalist parliamentary secretary and magistrate, has called on the government to preserve the Bulebel site where ancient tombs were recently discovered during construction work.

The number of rock-cut tombs found on the site of the planned new Saint James Hospital, in the outskirts of Żejtun, has risen to 12 making the area a veritable Punic cemetery.

Archaeologists believe more could be unearthed as the investigations on the site progress.

Most of the tombs, that could date as far back as 600 BC, were found damaged but the more recent finds have revealed intact structures. In some of them shards of human bone were also discovered.

Dr Cassar, who is a resident in nearby Tarxien, has long maintained an interest in cultural and historical heritage.

Speaking to The Times, he called for the site's protection since it was another link in a whole chain of discoveries in the Żejtun/Tarxien area: "A site like this should be protected. It is a necropolis. There seem to be 15 tombs in this particular site alone and there may be more."

A total of 29 tombs have been found throughout the years between Żejtun and Tarxien. An interesting aspect in this particular find is the discovery of vine trenches dug up around the tombs. Whoever dug them up took great care in not disturbing the tombs, Dr Cassar said.

With the discovery of these trenches, the Bulebel site has unearthed a very rudimentary form of agricultural practice. However, it is unclear whether they were built at the same time the tombs were hewn or whether they came later.

The Żejtun-Tarxien cradle is considered to be an archaeological hotspot. In 1993, trenching works at Tal-Barrani Road uncovered an intact Punic tomb where human skeletons were found. After the site was investigated by archaeologists it was re-buried under the road.

"Even the place names give an indication of the richness of the area," Dr Cassar said.

Names such as Hirbet Landar, with hirbet meaning ruins, and Landar tat-Terraxija, terraxija meaning stone carving from which the name Tarxien is probably derived, are indications of the area's importance, according to Dr Cassar.

"Who is responsible for development should be more careful and think ahead."

But for hospital developer Josie Muscat, the find is another stumbling block in the long road to acquiring a permit for the new hospital.

"When the remains were found it wasn't good news for me," Dr Muscat admitted.

Describing the tombs as a "big obstacle", he said work on the site has been suspended since July. However, his patience seems to be running out.

"We are paying the archaeologists, who are investigating the ruins but there is a limit to how long we can continue like this especially when we don't know what will happen to this project or to this site," he said.

Dr Muscat insisted it has always been his dream to build a hospital in the south. He still wants to go ahead with the project but if he "keeps finding obstacles, interest would be lost".

Asked what he would do given a choice between preserving the site and pursuing his dream, he said: "One needs to determine what historical value the tombs have. It is true we are going back to around 600 BC but most of them are disturbed. There are two or three that could be of interest and if we find some way of preserving them I am even ready to do my part. But if the whole area is of national archaeological importance, they should just tell me and I will stop. I wish somebody would tell me what to do," he said.

The site of the new hospital had been disturbed in the 1960s when a milk factory was constructed in the area.

Watch the story of the tombs on timesofmalta.com.

ksansone@timesofmalta.com

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