Remains of a Roman Villa at our School
An Old Villa
by Prof. Anthony Bonanno
One of the most important sites of Ancient times in the Maltese Islands is the Temple at Tas-Silg, which overlooks Marsaxlokk Bay, and is less than two kilometres away from Zejtun. The most curious fact about this site is that since Phoenicians and Punic times, during Roman times and even during the times of the first Christians, this Temple remained isolated and was never incorporated into a nearby city. When one considers that this temple is situated on a hill overlooking the port, one would expect to find the remains of a nearby city. But, no such remains were found, despite the fact that this area is gradually being built. Therefore, the remains of an ancient Villa at Zejtun (which nowadays forms part of the land of Żejtun Secondary School) are of great importance, because these remains seem to have a connection to the temple at Tas-Silg.
In 1961, when soil was being cleared to begin the foundation of a new school, some potsherds and Roman stones emerged. But this was considered as “too little” to conduct full scale excavations. In 1964, when the work on the building of the school was still going on, more remains came to light and therefore the authorities of the Museum of Archeology were notified and requested to decide what should be done. These remains consisted of a big cistern, a row of water channels and a room whose floor was paved with tiles. The cistern was not explored because it was thought to be too dangerous; nothing more was done. It was only in 1971 when research was started by a group of foreign students working on this site voluntarily. This work continued for three consecutive summers, always under the supervision of Mr. Tancred Gouder, the Curator of the Museum of Archeology. It was in 1976/77 that I had the opportunity of conducting a small scale excavation on a part of this site.
These remains show that they were sometime part of a Roman Villa or a Roman country house. Twenty five similar Roman Villas were found scattered around Malta and Gozo. This type of Villa consisted of living quarters and an area where farming jobs could be carried out. Many of the rooms could be identified and most of them were paved with pottery tiles. One of the rooms had some type of plaster cover over the walls and its colour could still be identified. It is evident that the walls were decorated with coloured designs similar to those found in the Roman Villa at Rabat and at San Pawl Milqi. Some of the walls consisted only of two covers of mud with a mixture of soil and stone chippings in between. These are proof of the use of mud bricks (which were dried hard in the sun only; not baked) for the construction of buildings even throughout the Roman period. Also, some remains of hard cement made up of ground pottery (potsherds) and lime were found scattered around the villa.
In the part of the Villa used for farming, pieces of stones which were used to ground olives, were found. The base of an oil press and a trough were also found. This shows that probably this Villa was surrounded by lands covered with olive trees.
In one of the rooms, 44 coins were found, dating back to between 222 and 361 A.D. Therefore, it seems that this villa was still in use up to this period in time. On the other hand, Punic potsherds were found and this shows that probably there was an older Villa on the same site during the last centuries before the Roman occupation of the Maltese Islands in 218 B.C. On a piece of pottery, a part of a broken cookery pot, one can read the name ASTARTE written in the Punic alphabet. This was a goddess which was venerated at Tas-Silg. Remains of similar potsherds were found at Tas-Silg as well, which were remains of some small earthenware bowls, used to be offered to the goddess Astarte, full of food or liquids. What could have been the use of this potsherd in a private Villa, which is a good distance from the temple at Tas-Silg? Could it be that a few of these small earthenware bowls used to end up in these houses in order to cook, despite the fact that they had the name of the goddess inscribed on them? Maybe this particular earthenware bowl was in that Villa because it was used in a religious ceremonies. However, it seems more likely, that this bowl was kept there with the intention that it would be offered to the goddess at the temple, but for some reason or another, this never took place.
Location of Roman Remains at our School