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Xrobb l-Għaġin and Qrendi

Owen Bonnici – (Minister for the National Heritage, the Arts, and the Local Government.)

By means of a very interesting expedition which was been happening in the last months, structures of a prehistoric nature at Xrobb l-Għaġin were uncovered in a project that is the first of its kind.

This endevour, led by Heritage Malta and financed by public funds, has identified the remains of a prehistoric structure at Xrobb l-Għaġin, more than a century after they were first investigated. This means that these remains are older than the pyramids of Egypt.

The remains will be documented and studied, and – if studies confirm the possibility – some of them may be removed and placed inside the Xrobb l-Għaġin reserve so as not to be lost as the cliff edge at Xrobb l-Għaġin is gradually wearing away.

This project marks another link in a chain of efforts leading to a new meaning for accessibility to our heritage and a new meaning to heritage itself, which should not just be admired but lived and felt because it is what forms us as a nation.

I have no words to thank the workers' dedication as all this is easier to write about than to actually perform the investigation on the ground. The site itself is literally at the edge of a cliff, so much so that a tower crane needed to be used in order to ascertain that archeologists’ safety was first and foremost all the time. This clearly shows the commitment and professionalism of our professionals.

It is a very ambitious endeavour that once again acknowledges the abilities and experience of Heritage Malta employees in their respective fields and puts the agency at the forefront of its sector. In the previous phases of the project, in-depth studies aided the precise identification of the area to be researched through remote sensing, geological analysis and seabed evaluation.

The relocated remains will be accessible to the hundreds of people visiting the park, which is in the south of the island and has a recreational and educational purpose. The plan is to have all works completed by the end of this year so that, free of charge, the public may once again enjoy this part of the place.

Some history.

Temi Zammit and Thomas Ashby first discovered the remains of a small prehistoric structure at Xrobb l-Għaġin at the start of the 20th century. When the structure was excavated, it was found to be very close to the cliff edge, and parts had already collapsed. For this reason, the few decorated parts discovered were removed, and the structure was gradually concealed again, probably through natural means.

This posed quite a challenge for the archaeologists’ safety during excavation works. From September to December 2021, the archaeologists excavated two long trenches to identify the structure’s exact location. In the preliminary phases of the project, Heritage Malta was also supported by the Restoration Directorate.

In this first season of excavations, the team identified parts of flooring and structures that could not be compared to the specific details of the structure documented by Ashby since they were only exposed in narrow trenches. Heritage Malta’s Archaeological Excavations Department, in charge of these excavations, this year, therefore, embarked on a process whereby the area bearing the most exciting elements was excavated in quadrants.

This system yielded the desired results. The structure’s remains have now been identified without any trace of doubt. They have started to be uncovered more than a century after they were first investigated so that they may be documented manually, digitally and virtually. By the end of this season of excavations, a condition assessment will also be conducted to decide which parts of the structure might be relocated to a safer spot in the park, away from the eroding cliff edge.

Our Lady of Mercy Church in Qrendi

Restoration works have recently been completed on the church of Our Lady of Mercy in Qrendi, which was built in the middle of the 17th century. During the restoration work, several elements were discovered that were not known at the beginning of the projects or that were known from cartographic documents but were no longer visible because they were hidden under other elements.

This project saw a vast collaboration between historians, architects, archaeologists, people skilled in documentation technology, restorers, and trained workers with years of experience in restoration. We have vowed as a government to reconstruct the structure completely. Due to the numerous significant finds of historical and artistic worth, the restoration project took longer than expected. We are bringing back a historical site that has increased in value; this can now be admired not just by the residents of Qrendi but also by all the locals.

Traces of the original colour scheme applied to the exterior statues and coat of arms, dating back to the end of the late 17th and early 18th century, were carefully uncovered; hence said colours could be reapplied. The original polychromatic render of the wall behind the altar and the simple trompe l'oeil (optical illusion) decorating the dome were similarly uncovered and reapplied.

The workers also found several elements of polychromatic decoration hidden under layers of much more recent whitewash and paint. Other decorative features revealed during the restoration works included the biblical inscription above the titular painting and facial and floral motifs on the sacristry door. The most interesting discovery took place during the restoration of the church's floor.

Following the 20th century, heavily damaged cement patterned floor tiles and foundations of a much older structure were uncovered - the archaeological excavations carried out by the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage strongly suggest that these are the remains of the 13th-century church known, from historical documents, to have occupied the site.

By restoring historical places and monuments, we are preserving the Maltese Cultural Heritage for generations to come whilst adding value to our localities and strengthening the competitiveness of the Maltese islands within the tourism sector.

The Restoration Directorate's professionals and skilled employees were in charge of the majority of the restoration work, with the active involvement of the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage in this project.

Together, the two departments of the Ministry for National Heritage, Arts, and Local Government unearthed and consolidated the ruins of the church that stood on the spot in the thirteenth century, as well as the polychrome decoration that once again adorned the altar today. The Qrendi Local Council was closely involved in the project as well.

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