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Tas-Silġ... uncovered

Archaeologists working to make ancient site accessible

Originally a prehistoric temple, turned into a dwelling in the Bronze Age, transformed into Juno’s Temple in Phoenician and Roman times, and adapted to a Christian basilica in the Byzantine period, Tas-Silġ has one of the longest histories in Malta.

Today its religious connection lingers on in its name, adopted from a church called Our Lady of the Snows (Madonna ta’ Tas-Silġ), situated some 100 metres away.

“Fifty years from the first major archaeological investigations at Tas-Silġ, we are working on preserving the site and making it more accessible to the public.

“And artefacts from the site will be displayed in a special section about Tas-Silġ at the national archaeology museum in Valletta,” curator David Cardona told Times of Malta, adding that although the site was closed to the public, it opened for group bookings.

Artefacts from the site will be displayed in a special section at the national archaeology museum in Valletta

In the meantime the site curators are hoping a road that splits the site in two is rerouted so the two sections are joined.

Set at the top of a hill, between Marsaxlokk and St Thomas Bay, Tas-Silġ is the only prehistoric structure known to be used by Phoenicians for religion.

It was initially a megalithic prehistoric temple built during the Tarxien phase (c 3,100 and 2,500 BC). Thought to be modest in size, excavations published by an Italian mission recently revealed that this smaller temple formed part of a larger structure that included the remains of at least two more temples.

However, only one of these prehistoric temples remained the focal point when it was adopted as the site for the Temple of Juno.

Writers have been speculating about the location of the temple since the 17th century, but the site was not excavated until the 1930s when a number of trenches were dug for investigation.

But the importance of the site was discovered when an Italian mission wanted to find the Temple of Hercules, and investigated San Pawl Milqi and Ras il-Wardija in Gozo, among others, Mr Cardona said. The Italian mission excavated Tas-Silġ between 1963 and 1970.

Investigations started again in the late 1990s and lasted until last year. These investigations were carried out by two separate teams: a newly constituted Italian Archaeological Mission was entrusted with the northern half, while the University of Malta carried out archaeological work in the southern section.

Nathaniel Cutajar, from the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, noted that the Italian mission and Malta University teams are currently analysing the data recovered in the process to provide the public with a full account of the work and results will be published in the coming years.

Throughout the archaeological investigations, the second largest standing fat figure relief on the island was found in the area, while clay bowls and bones – probably used for offerings – were found in a mound in a corner of the site dating back to the Punic period. Ivory and stone plaques with inscriptions from the same period were also an important discovery.

Remains of three rows of columns and opus signinum, made of tiles broken up into very small pieces and mixed with mortar, shed light on the shape of the structure in Roman times.

Coins – probably left as offerings – were found in the drain of a baptistery situated on one side of the site, which used to be accessed by a couple of steps on both sides when the site hosted a Byzantine basilica.

But the remains of the site are not just archaeological. Marcus Tullius Cicero refers to the temple in his speech against Calus Verres, who was the governor of Sicily between 73 and 71 BC. Verres was accused of stealing from several sites, including the Temple of Juno, Mr Cardona explained.

Cicero said the ancient temple was “so venerated that it has remained sacred and unviolated, not only during the Punic Wars which ravaged those places with their naval forces, but also in spite of these multitudinous pirates”.

During his speech, Cicero said King Massinissa’s admiral removed big ivory tusks from the temple and took them to Africa. But when the king learnt where the tusks had come from, he sent them back.

The site was abandoned with the Arab invasion and turned into a quarry, when stones used in the original structures were taken from site. Two medieval farms were built on top of it, and until some decades ago, it was buried under a metre of soil.

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