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Sweeping memory away - Sandro Spiteri

In 1899 Count Gerald Strickland, then Chief Secretary for Malta, decided that a road was needed to link the Rabat highland to the railway station between Mdina and Mtarfa. The quickest route was a steep cut behind what we used to call the Roman Villa, which had been discovered 18 years previously.

Strickland was warned that the whole archaeological site had not been properly investigated. It was highly likely that the road would cut through priceless information on the site’s foundations. But he forged on regardless. The road had to be built, and nothing could stop progress – or the needs of the British army. No records were kept of the excavations.

What are clearly Roman remains, probably silos, can still be seen on the side of the road behind the Domus. The British Empire and its army have gone, and so has the railway line that was primarily meant to serve them. But the gash in the rocks and in our collective memory will remain, in mute testament to Strickland’s hubris.

In the 1970s the Labour government decided to build a new wide road in Gozo from Victoria to Sannat, presumably to alleviate the heavy traffic going to and from Ta’ Ċenċ. In the excavations they discovered what were clearly the remains of an unknown Neolithic temple.

Government was advised that this new archaeological site needed to be properly investigated, and that the road would cut through and destroy priceless data. But the Labour government forged on regardless. The road had to be built, and nothing could stop progress – or the promises made to the Sannat voters. No proper records were kept of the road excavations.

What are clearly three Neolithic temple boulders can still be seen at the Victoria end of the road, decorating a roundabout just beyond Taċ-Ċawla. With burgeoning interest since the 1990s in our country’s past and its proper preservation we might have thought that 1970s’ crass disregard for history had itself been consigned to history. But the Neolithic roundabout will remain, in mute testament to Labour’s hubris.

The contractors, like a pack of wolves, sniffed the stink of ‘business-friendly’ corruption and power that is emanating from Castille

A few days ago massive excavation works in preparation for the controversial extension to St Vincent de Paul (which is not approved by the PA yet, but what difference does that make?) uncovered new archaeological remains. Unlike the 1890s and the 1970s, we now have strict laws that empower the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage to stop works immediately to protect and investigate the finds.

But work forged on regardless. A few workers were ordered by the contractors to sweep the “sensitive parts of the site”, without any external supervision whatsoever, in the process potentially destroying priceless evidence. No records were kept of this act.

In the meantime heavy machinery continued with excavations around the finds. No concern whether these might extend beyond what had been accidently uncovered. No concern that the vibrations of the excavations might further damage the remains. The extension had to be built, and nothing could stop progress – or the greed of the contractors. The Superintendent of Cultural Heritage did nothing.

What happened at St Vincent de Paul is not just a lamentable blunder or a one-off throwback to cruder times. It is part of a systematic brutalisation of the nation’s memory that is the inevitable by-product of the hubristic greed that passes for governance today. It is one with the systematic destruction of trees, those other great store of memory and identity. 

I am not saying that what happened at SVDP was consciously aided and abetted by the State. But the contractors, like a pack of wolves, sniffed the stink of ‘business-friendly’ corruption and power that is emanating from Castille. They heard about the government’s own flouting of heritage laws in the preparations for the new tunnel under the Santa Lucia roundabout.  They saw the general collapse of the regulatory functions of the State that define civilized society. And they calculated that they would get away with it.

Milan Kundera wrote that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. But what if people and power are co-conspirators? The barbarians are not at the gates. They are always already within us, our lesser selves held back like magma by a slowly forming encrustation of education and culture. It takes decades to build up, and seconds to destroy. An overwhelming majority of Maltese are ready, willing and able to vote for a government – any government – that lets them get on with building their petty nirvanas on the shattered remains of their memories.

Once they have finished building their villas and their boathouses and their gated senior communities and their monster tower blocks and their plazas and their roads, they will finally stop and look at the mirror. Perhaps, like Dorian Grey, they will recoil at the soulless horror that they would have become. But perhaps they may simply decide to change the mirror.  

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