EPC.com.mt - Malta Mellieha Computer Centre 

Phoenician, Punic and Roman Cut Tombs

Rock-cut tombs endured a number of transformations during the Phoenician, Punic and Roman periods. It began from a simple round chamber and shaft then evolved into a round chamber and rectangular shaft. The third transformation consisted of a rectangular chamber and enough space for other rooms on both sides of the shaft and in the third century AD the ritual of rock-cut tombs was changed to a one of collective burials into a hypogea.

The burial of the dead in most cases was in a crouched position. Although the above tomb is a Prehistory one, the tomb chamber is very similar to the early Phoenician tombs. Sometimes, the tomb was re-used many times and the remains of the previous buried corpses were left there. With the dead was buried also an amphora. (Source: Malta: prehistory and temples, David H. Trump).

The arrival of the early Phoenicians in the Maltese islands around 700 BC, re-introduced the burying of the dead in rock-cut underground chambers. This type of ritual had been practised constantly throughout the 1,500 years of the prehistoric Temple culture in Malta, but disappeared during the Bronze Age Period. The burying of the dead in underground rock-cut tombs was widely used in the contemporary Middle East cultures. Therefore, the Phoenicians probably brought with them this ritual in the Maltese islands.1

The Phoenicians buried their dead inside round or oval chambers, cut in the rock with access from the surface by entering in a vertical shaft. The dead person was laid on its back in an extended position and a number of pottery and jewellery items were buried with him/her. In very rare occasions the dead was buried in a specially-constructed stone or terracotta sarcophagus. Another type of tomb used by the Phoenicians was the silo pit, a characteristic of the Late Bronze Period. Cremation was practised too and it seems to have been practised alongside inhumation throughout the 7th century BC, but later abandoned to be resumed in the 4th century BC.2
In the 5th century BC during the early Punic period the tomb’s plan was changed to a round chamber and rectangular shaft. In the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, the tomb’s plan endured another transformation, where the chamber too becomes rectangular and rooms were cut on several sides of the shaft. 3

In nearly all the cases the tombs were cut in the rock to bury the remains of a dead person which was laid on a smooth platform on one side of a shallow trench which at first was positioned transversally along the entrance to the burial chamber, later at right angles to it. Probably the trench was used to put in it the pottery such as amphorae and other burial items. Another possibility could be that the trench was used to take up rain during winter which managed to enter into the tomb through the sealing slab. 4

A Punic rock-cut tomb, consisting of a deep rectangular shaft and a rectangular chamber. The dead person is accompanied by a number of pottery items.

This method of burying dead people in rock-cut tombs was not the only ritual used in this period. There was also another ritual and this was cremation and during this period it became more common, where the cremated human remains were putted into special ceramic urns which were introduced in pre-existing chamber tombs without distributing the previous tomb contents. In some minor occasions, a special type of tomb was cut out in the rock, where its plan consisted of a very small square space, which could be reached by a narrow shaft from the surface. 5
During the Imperial Roman Period the various necropolis outside Melite (Mdina) continued to grow and expand. Apart from this, older tombs some even going back to various centuries were frequently opened and re-used. These Imperial Age tombs are very easily to be recognized. This is because many of these tombs contained glass blown such as bottles and phials a new technique which was introduced 50 BC. Tombs that of the Republican and Imperial phases contain several cinerary urns covered with a plate with a lamp on top. 6
New burials were of both inhumation and cremation rites. Occasionally, even amphorae were deposited containing bone remains of children. Coins dating from the first to the second century AD occur on rare occasions. It is a probability that by the second century AD the ritual of isolated rock-cut tombs was not continued to be practised. Therefore, people were probably making increasingly wider use of sarcophagi buried in open fields or were burying their dead in more larger collective underground systems like the later Paleochristian hypogea. The ritual of burying dead people in hypogea was probably in the early 3rd century AD if not earlier. 7

1 Anthony Bonanno, Malta: Phoenician, Punic and Roman, Midsea Books, Malta, 2005, p 63.
2. Ibid, pp 63-66.

3. Ibid, p 92.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid, p 93.
6. Ibid, p 218.
7. Ibid.



Researched and Written by: Charles Debono B.A.(Hons) History

Go Back
click to enter website
©Copyright 2003-2004. All rights reserved.
All copyrights and trademarks are the property of their respective owners.
Reproduction in whole or in part is strictly prohibited.