Turkish slaves' cemetery discovered in Malta

Roadwork excavations in Marsa have revealed the archaeological remains of a Muslim cemetery dating back to 1675, confirming historians’ belief of the existence of a Turkish slave cemetery in the area. 

The archaeologist pointing to the human remains found at what is believed to be an old Muslim cemetery in Marsa [Credit: Chris Sant Fournier]
The find is being documented and excavated by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and an archaeologist specialising in documentation of human remains is closely following the investigation. 

The roadworks have been temporarily halted on the relevant sections until the preservation works are complete. 

Sections likely to be impacted by ongoing roadworks will be scienti-fically extracted and taken to the superintendence for further testing, analysis and conservation. 

The unaffected parts will be protected and left on site, undisturbed. 

Two archaeologists were working hard at documenting the findings yesterday afternoon. Remains ran along the chiselled rock at various points, with the occasional bone jutting out. 

“We’re working along the cross section, cleaning up the debris surrounding the bones and noting everything we find,” Marvin Demicoli said. 

Colleague and fellow archaeologist Michelle Padovani said that many of the remains were in good condition and that work was proceeding briskly, although she could not say how long they would last. 

“We’ve been working hand in hand with Transport Malta and everyone involved on the site to ensure things move as quickly as possible,” Ms Padovani noted. 

The two archaeologists pointed to the trench’s north wall – a sheer face some five metres high with scree and other rock debris at its foot – and said they had been asked by health and safety authorities to avoid working on it for the time being. 

The human remains likely belonged to slaves [Credit: Chris Sant Fournier]
Initial indications are that the remains are part of the burial ground granted to the Muslim slave community by Grand Master Niccolo Cotoner in 1675. 

The cemetery replaced an older one that had been destroyed by the Knights to make way for the Floriana fortifications. 

Slavery in Malta ended with Napoleon’s arrival in 1800 but the cemetery continued to serve as a Muslim burial place until the middle of that century, according to historian Godfrey Wettinger. 

“At the time, the British admiralty decided to extend the inlet available to Maltese boats,” he said, “but, unfortunately, in doing so they also buried the cemetery.” 

An agreement between the British and Turkish authorities soon rectified the situation. 

In 1874, Malta’s Muslim cemetery was transferred to another Marsa site very close to existing one in the area commonly known as Iċ-Ċimiterju tat-Torok (The Turkish Cemetery). 

Prof. Wettinger yesterday welcomed the archaeological discoveries as “very interesting”. They appear to confirm his long-held belief of a Turkish slave cemetery in the Marsa area, mentioned in his book, Slavery In The Islands Of Malta And Gozo. 

The human remains are oriented south-eastwards, facing Mecca. As is customary in a Muslim burial place, those laid to rest appear to have been buried with no accompanying relics or artefacts. 

Some historians had also floated the suggestion that the remains could be part of a makeshift cemetery built by the Ottomans during the Great Siege of 1565. 

The Ottomans had chosen to situate their base camp at Marsa throughout the three months of the siege. But the two archaeologists working yesterday thought the hypothesis unlikely. 

“In my opinion, these remains are too carefully laid out and spaced out to have been a war camp cemetery,” Mr Demicoli said. 

Any remains extracted and taken to a laboratory for further analysis could be subjected to a number of tests. 

Carbon dating will determine how old the remains are, confirming or rejecting the existing hypothesis that they belong to a Knight-era cemetery. 

DNA tests, which archaeology professor Anthony Bonanno described as “a very complex and complicated process”, could be used to help determine the remains’ origin. 

Author: Bertrand Borg | Source: The Times of Malta [February 11, 2012]

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