News | Sunday, 11 October 2009

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Discovery of 5,000-year old tombs at Kercem

An excavation team at Kercem has discovered two 5000-year old tombs, 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 BC.
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 5,000 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-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.
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.
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.

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