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The FRAGSUS Field Season 2015

The 2015 field season was an extremely busy and productive time for the FRAGSUS project.  In total the team spent 12 weeks excavating at four sites on Gozo and Malta.  During the Easter season the team excavated at two Neolithic temple sites- Santa Verna and Ggantija- as well as a Bronze Age site on In Nufarra, all on the island of Gozo.  Throughout the summer the excavation focused on the Neolithic temple at Kordin III, on Malta.  These excavations produced a vast amount of material, which is currently under analysis- although the preliminary results suggest that the information gleaned from these sites will substantially add to our understanding of the culture and economy of the temple period and the subsequent periods.  The project has been the subject of several media features and engaged with a record number of visitors this year, disseminating our work to the wider public.

As always, the visiting FRAGSUS members have received generous support and assistance from our colleagues at the University of Malta, Heritage Malta, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and the Ministry for Gozo, to whom we extend our sincerest thanks.  The excavations have also included a large number of students and volunteers, who have provided invaluable assistance.  Preliminary reports are in write-up but the follow article provides a brief synopsis of the excavations.

Santa Verna

Nestled amongst small horticultural plots tended by local residents, the temple site of Santa Verna is often overlooked by tourists in favour of the more imposing temples at Ggantija.  Situated just 590m from Ggantija on the Xaghra plateau, Santa Verna has commanding views of the surrounding countryside, as well as the neighbouring islands of Malta and Sicily.  On the surface little remains of the temple save for three prominent façade stones, fronted by a section of ‘bench’- horizontally laid stones similar to those found at the entrances to Hagar Qim and Mnajdra on Malta.

Excavations at the site carried out in 1911 by the British School at Rome, under Asby and Bradley (Ashby et al. 1913), revealed many in situ stones and torba floors but failed to resolve the overall layout of the temple.  A subsequent excavation conducted by David Trump in 1961 opened up three test pits, uncovering a succession of torba floors and also undisturbed palaeosols.  Santa Verna also formed part of the later Gozo Survey (1987-1995), a fieldwalking exercise designed to assess prehistoric settlement activity on the island (Malone et al. 2009; Boyle 2014).  Based on the results of this survey, the FRAGSUS team conducted a geophysical survey and high-resolution fieldwalking at Santa Verna during the 2014 field season.  A number of geological anomalies and high concentrations of pottery were discovered in the vicinity of the temple, highlighting the potential for further in-depth investigation through excavation.

Over the Easter period 2015, the FRAGSUS team began excavating at Santa Verna (figure 1).  The field excavation was led by the Principal Investigator, Prof. Caroline Malone (Queen’s University Belfast), with additional supervision provided by Rowan McLaughlin, Stephen Armstrong, Jeremy Bennett, Catriona Brogan, Eóin Parkinson (all Queen’s University Belfast) and Laura James (University of Cambridge).  A large number of student volunteers from both the University of Malta and the University of Cambridge also assisted in the dig. The main aim of the excavation was to obtain environmental and dating material from the site, in order to build a better understanding of the temple and its contemporary environment.  The excavations reopened trenches dug by Ashby and Bradley in 1911 and Trump in 1961 and a number of additional trenches were excavated to examine some of the geological anomalies and concentrations of ceramic material identified in the 2014 field season.  These additional trenches also helped to resolve the overall structure of the temple.  Throughout the excavation a large amount of ceramics, animal bone and environmental samples were collected.

Figure 1: The temple site of Santa Verna under excavation.  The picture shows the team re-opening Ashby’s trench, which cut through the main passage of the temple
Figure 1: The temple site of Santa Verna under excavation. The picture shows the team re-opening Ashby’s trench, which cut through the main passage of the temple

While analysis is still ongoing, the preliminary results have substantially increased our understanding of the site.  The evidence shows pre-temple settlement activity on the site dating to the Ghar Dalam and Skorba periods (c.5, 000-4,100 BC).  It would appear that this initial settlement was superseded by the temple structure.  The excavation revealed that Santa Verna was a five apse temple, built on a similar alignment to that of the nearby Ggantija.  The successive layers of torba floors demonstrate that the temple was altered and augmented several times over the course of its life.  One of the most surprising discoveries of the excavation was a section of unique polygonal tiles made from globigerina limestone.  These were found placed against the interior of one of the apse walls.  Their purpose remains unclear, as they had no structural function and they were cover by the floor foundations.

As well as uncovering the main structure of the temple the team also recovered a substantial amount of material, including a vast amount of pottery and animal bone that are still in the process of being analysed.  The team also uncovered four rare snail figurines, similar to those found at Ggantija.  Throughout the excavation soils were sieved and systematically sampled.  Dr Evan Hill (Queen’s University Belfast) wet-sieved the soil samples for plant and charcoal remains and subsamples were analysed for pollen, invertebrates and other environmental indicators.  In addition a number of soil micromorphs were also taken for further analysis.

As part of the innovative approach adopted by the project, both pre and post excavation 3D terrestrial laser scans were taken of the site by John Meneely (Queen’s University Belfast), using a FARO Focus 3D scanner (figure 2).  This produced an accurate and highly detailed 3D rendering of the site, and allows for a unique approach in the analysis and presentation of the site.

Figure 2: 3D laser scan of the facade stones, near the entrance of Santa Verna temple (courtesy of John Meneely).
Figure 2: 3D laser scan of the facade stones, near the entrance of Santa Verna temple (courtesy of John Meneely).

Ggantija

Building on the fieldwork conducted during the 2014 season, the FRAGSUS team began excavation of area previously covered by the old WC block.  In 2014 Prof. Charles French and Dr Sean Taylor (both University of Cambridge) discovered intact early soils and structural features under the modern terrace in front of Ggantija temple, which highlighted the potential of this area for further investigation.

This year Prof. French and Dr Taylor recommenced work at Ggantija, assisted by a small group of student volunteers from the University of Cambridge.  The FRAGSUS team excavated two areas in front of the temple.  The first of these sites lay in the area previously occupied by the old WC block (figure 3).  The removal of this structure and its retaining wall revealed a section rich in archaeological material, including a large structural stone and many fragments of pottery, shell and animal bone.  Previous archaeological excavations carried out by La Marmora in the nineteenth century had noted the presence of a large triathlon structure in this location.  Upon excavation the remains of a large collapsed wall/ ramp were discovered, which may have formed an entrance or processional way into the temple.  Under the collapse, intact palaeosols were uncovered, which are extremely important, given the degraded nature of the soils in the surrounding area.  At the other end of the terrace, the foundations of a large, upright megalith were excavated.  This area also yielded undisturbed palaeosols as well as two unique objects- two small Neolithic cups.  These cups are unlike any other ceramics yet recovered from the island.

Figure 3: Collapsed wall/ ramp in front of Ggantija Temple (background), under excavation.
Figure 3: Collapsed wall/ ramp in front of Ggantija Temple (background), under excavation.

Aside from the cups, the excavations unearthed ceramics, animal bone and a number of lithics, which are still in the process of being analysed.  Systematic soil samples have also been taken throughout and wet-sieved by Dr Evan Hill (Queen’s University Belfast) and are currently undergoing further examination.  As already stated, these soils are extremely important as they represent a rare opportunity to directly sample intact prehistoric soils, from an otherwise degraded landscape.  It is hoped that further analysis of these soils will help to establish the prehistoric environment both prior to and during the temple period.

In Nuffara

In Nuffara was once a Bronze Age village located on top of a mesa directly across the Ramla Valley from Ggantija Temple.  The land on the hilltop is now badly eroded and there is little in the way of archaeological remains.  There are, however, a number of Bronze Age grain silos dotted along the hilltop, which provide archaeologist with intact archaeological deposits.  David Trump had previously excavated another silo on top of In Nuffara in 1961, and while it had produced lots of Bronze Age pottery, it yielded little in the way of environmental data.  With this in mind the FRAGSUS project decided to excavate a further two silos from In Nuffara in order to obtain a more detailed picture of the post-temple period culture and environment.

During the Easter season 2015, two of these silos were excavated by the FRAGSUS team, led by Dr Simon Stoddart (University of Cambridge) and Katie Buchanan Hutton, Donald Horne and Rob Barrett from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit.  Two silos on the north- western edge of the hilltop were selected for excavation- one of them looked particularly promising as the capstone was still in place.  Upon excavation it became evident that the silo with the intact capstone had actually been abandoned and refilled at a much later date.  The other silo, however, proved to be much more informative.  This large silo was found to contain successive Bronze Age, Punic, Roman and Medieval layers.  There was a particularly rich Bronze Age layer that contained substantial amounts of Bronze Age ceramic vessels, many sherds of which were analysed and rejoined by Prof. Bonanno from the University of Malta (figure 4).  The team also took systematic soil samples from the silo, which will help to build a greater understanding of the post-temple period environment and economy on the island. 

Figure 4: Bronze Age pottery sherds, excavated from a grain silo on top of Nuffara. Many of these fragments were rejoined by Prof. Bonanno-University of Malta.
Figure 4: Bronze Age pottery sherds, excavated from a grain silo on top of Nuffara. Many of these fragments were rejoined by Prof. Bonanno-University of Malta.

Upon completion of the excavation the silos, photogrammetry (Rob Barrett: CAU) and 3D laser scans (John Meneely: QUB) were taken of their interiors (figure 5).

Figure 5: Post-excavation 3D laser scan of the Bronze Age silos excavated on Nuffara. The silo on the left contained Bronze Age, Punic, Roman and Medieval material (courtesy of John Meneely).
Figure 5: Post-excavation 3D laser scan of the Bronze Age silos excavated on Nuffara. The silo on the left contained Bronze Age, Punic, Roman and Medieval material (courtesy of John Meneely).

Kordin III

Kordin III is the only one of the three prehistoric temples situated on Kordin Hill to have survived.  Originally situated in the middle of open land with views down to the Grand Harbour, Valletta, the site has now been incorporated into the urban sprawl of the town of Paola.  Both Kordin I and Kordin II were removed to make way for an industrial estate, but the site of Kordin III was enclosed in 1925, protecting it from modern development.

Kordin III has been subject to several excavation campaigns in the past.  It was excavated in 1909 by the British School at Rome, under the direction of Ashby, during which the vast majority of the site was uncovered.  Subsequent excavations were carried out in 1954 and 1961 by Prof. J. D. Evans and Dr D. Trump respectively.  These excavations succeeded in uncovering the main structures of the temple and establishing a comparative date for the temple based on the ceramic evidence.

During the summer of 2015, the FRAGSUS project undertook a four week excavation of the site.  The excavation was directed jointly by the Principal Investigator, Prof. Caroline Malone (Queen’s University Belfast) and Dr. Nicolas Vella (University of Malta), with supervisory assistance from Dr Simon Stoddart, Jeremy Bennett and Eóin Parkinson (University of Cambridge); Dr Reuben Grima and Rebecca Farrugia (University of Malta); Ella Samut-Tagliaferro (Superintendence of Cultural Heritage); and Dr Rowan McLaughlin and Dr Catriona Brogan (Queen’s University Belfast).  The team were assisted by over 20 students from the University of Malta, who were on training placements as part of their degree.  The main aim of the excavation was to help relate the temple to its surrounding landscape, collect environmental data and consolidate the dating of the temple.  During the excavation six trenches were opened across the site (including two located just outside of the boundary wall).  Many of these trenches followed the line of the earlier excavations carried out by Ashby and Bradley in 1909, although additional trenches were added in order to gather new information, and to add to the overall understanding of the scope of the site.

The excavation generated a lot of interest with regular visitors to the site, as well as a very popular open day that attracted a large number of people.  During the open day over 150 visitors were given guided tours of the site, during which they learnt about the history of the site and were able to observe the ongoing excavations (figure 6).  A private tour group of Cambridge Alumni also visited the temple as part of a wider tour of the island’s prehistoric sites.  In addition to these tours the excavation also generated a lot of media interest and was featured in the local press and in a news segment on TVMalta.

Figure 6: Principal Investigator and site director Prof. Caroline Malone (on the right) talking to visitors during the open day at Kordin III.
Figure 6: Principal Investigator and site director Prof. Caroline Malone (on the right) talking to visitors during the open day at Kordin III.

The excavation uncovered a number of new features and exposed a possible early settlement site.  Throughout the course of the excavation the team also recovered substantial amounts of ceramics and animal bone and occasional flakes of flint and obsidian from the site.  Bulk samples of soil were also systematically collected and wet-sieved by Dr Evan Hill (Queen’s University Belfast) for charcoal and plant remains and subsequently subsampled for other palaeoenvironmental indicators, which will assist in building a better understanding of the prehistoric environment of Malta.

As with the temple site at Santa Verna, 3D laser scans were taken by Jeremy Bennett (University of Cambridge) and John Meneely (Queen’s University Belfast).  These scans represent an immensely detailed record of the site and provide both researchers and the public with a unique means of visualising and studying the temple.

Figure 7: Photogrammetric section through deposits on either side of a temple wall at Kordin III.
Figure 7: Photogrammetric section through deposits on either side of a temple wall at Kordin III.

References

Ashby, T., Bradley, R. N., Peet, T. E. and Tagiaferro, N. 1913. Excavations in 1908-11 in Various Megalithic Buildings in Malta and Gozo. Papers of the British School at Rome 6, 1-126.

Boyle, S. 2014. The social and physical environment of early Gozo – a study of settlement and change. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Queen’s University Belfast.

Malone, C., Stoddart, S., Bonanno, A., Trump, D. H., Gouder, T. and Pace, A. 2009. Mortuary customs in prehistoric Malta. Excavations at the Brochtorff Circle at Xaghra (1987-1994). Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.