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 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

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

References:
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

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    About the village of Mellieha

    Mellieha is a rural village and tourist resort in the Northwestern part of Malta and derives its name from the Semitic root 'm-l-h' which in Arabic means salt. The name was probably derived from the ancient Punic and Roman salt-terns; historians indicated as lying adjacent to the large sandy bay at the foot of the village.
    Mellieha has been inhabited since early Neolithic times (3000 B.C). Several megalithic remains and tombs of this era and other primitive tools and fragments of pottery were found in various localities around this area, primarily at "il-Latnija" - a natural cavity used by several stone-age peoples - and at l-Gholja tax-Xemxija.
    During the Roman and Byzantine occupations (213B.C- 870A.D.), Mellieha's valleys were inhabited by troglodytes, who irrigated the land, adopted natural caves as their dwelling places and buried their beloved ones in Punic style burial chambers. Following the Arab conquest and during the medieval period (870-1530A.D.), the area was deserted, primarily due to the continuous raids of the Muslim corsairs.
    Notwithstanding the hardship experienced by the Maltese during the Reign of the Order of St. John (1530-1798A.D.), Mellieha's medieval chapel, dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary, was one of the most venerated places on the island. Several distinguished persons, such as grandmaster's, kings and bishops visited the shrine and pilgrimages to the sanctuary from all over the island were held frequently.
    In the late 17th century, the Knights built several fortifications along the coast, so as to protect the inhabitants. This venture brought about the gradual repopulating of the area, mainly by those who wanted to exploit the fertile valleys and the new enterprise of tunny net fishing. Under the British, in 1844, Mellieha was established again as a parish and since then it grew up into a modern town, of circa 6,500 people.
    Today, Mellieha is one of Malta's most picturesque tourist destinations. The town centre boasts of its splendid hotels, fine restaurants and traditional cute shops. It has a unique primary school, a majestic baroque church (built in late 19th century) and various cultural organizations, including band clubs, sports clubs, an orchestra, various religious societies, a parish community centre and an environmental pressure group. Since 1993, local affairs are being run by the Mellieha Local Council, an institution made up of seven councilors, elected every three years by the people.
    Mellieha's main festive season occurs in the first two weeks of September and reaches its climax on the 8th September. During these days various cultural manifestations are held, such as musical concerts, fireworks, folk singing, art exhibitions and the traditional religious procession. The town's people, ''Il-Mellehin'', are renowned for their laborious nature, their ironic sense of humour, and their friendliness and hospitality. Those who visit us, no matter where they hail from, do not merely enjoy themselves but feel at home.

    As long as Mellieha preserves its great archaeological and historic heritage, its unique natural environment, and its traditions and costumes, its people, "Il-Mellehin", can look forward to a bright future.