5000-year old tombs discovered at Kercem
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Dr Chris Said, Parliamentary Secretary for Public Dialogue and Information, paid a visit to an excavation site at Kercem where two 5000-year old tombs were discovered. The tombs were unearthed during extension works at the parish priest’s house, which lies adjacent to the parish church. Pottery recovered so far place the origins of tombs in the Tarxien phase of Maltese prehistory, currently dated to about 3000-2500 BCE. The excavations are being carried out by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage under the direction of Anthony Pace.
The rock-cut tombs lay undisturbed for almost 5000 years. They may have been first encountered during the construction of the Kercem parish church, between 1846-51, which involved extensive quarrying. However the tombs did not draw any further attention and went unnoticed for another 163 years and the present development.
As the site was being cleared of debris in 2008, the tombs were exposed again. The Superintendence immediately took steps to protect the site. A temporary cover was installed to provide shelter from the rain, which came early in the autumn. The site was monitored and allowed to dry for an entire year. Archaeological excavations and anthropological investigations began in July 2009.
The rock-cut chambers have a circular plan and may have been accessed through a special shaft or a roof entrance. One of the chambers has a small annex which still contained fully articulated skeletons. The structures were unfortunately truncated down to almost half of their original height, so that only a 1m or so of the bottom part of the chambers now survives. Except for the articulated burial remains in the small inner annex, the deposits in the larger chambers were disturbed.
The rock-cutting techniques used at the Kercem tombs are reminiscent of those used at the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. The grave diggers used drilling and levering techniques to crack stone and carefully shape the burial chambers. Several drill holes can still be seen in the chamber walls, which were also smoothened down, perhaps by means of hard pebbles. A small rock-cut column, marked the entrance to the small annex whose floor is lower than that of the main chamber.
The field-work has now reached the most interesting stage of the excavation. The small annex served both as an ossuary and a place for primary burials. Primary burials were placed on stone floors, each carefully sealing older inhumations. The sides of the small chamber served as an ossuary: some older burials were pushed to the side to make way for new ones. Some individuals were buried in a crouched position, recalling the pose of the iconic ‘Sleeping Lady’.
Votive offerings accompanied the dead, perhaps as gifts or as necessities for the after-life. Pottery fragments are abundant at the Kercem tombs: these belonged to fine ware vessels and coarse ware containers. Most of these date back to the Tarxien phase, and repeat many of the designs that are known from that period. A number of blades, made of local chert, were also discovered. Small flakes of Sicilian flint were also encountered. A small sea-shell brings a personal touch. Future investigations will focus on pathology, on carbon-dating and if possible, on the more elusive DNA of the human remains.
The tombs will become the central feature of a small community museum which is now planned for the site. The Superintendence is working closely with Church authorities to design a small permanent exhibition featuring this important discovery. The idea of the museum is inspired by the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. The display will feature controlled light levels, a purposefully designed viewing platform, display cases, information panels and an audiovisual presentation. H.E. Mons Mario Grech, a frequent visitor to the site, is a keen supporter of the excavation and ongoing research.
The discovery is a rare event in the archaeology of the Central Mediterranean. The rock-cut tombs add a significant element to Maltese prehistory, and shift attention once again to the importance of Kercem in antiquity. The area is also know for older remains dating to Malta’s Earlier Neolithic, represented by the Ghar Dalam Phase (c. 5000 BCE) at Mixta and Ghjan Abdul. During Late Antiquity, Ghar Gerduf in the lower environs of Kercem served as a Christian burial ground, perhaps serving Roman Rabat.