A Ground Penetrating Radar installed during studies carried out in the Malta Survey Project discovered the presence of extensive buried structures in a number of Bidnija fields, believed to be those of a farm complex, or villa rustica, of Roman date. This discovery involved the joint effort of the University of Malta, the University of Ghent (Belgium) and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage between 2008 and 2012.
The Olea Project, as it is being called, was presented by Prof Nicholas Vella from the Department of Classics and Archaeology at UM and David Cardona, Senior Curator of Phoenician and Roman Sites at Heritage Malta.
In this respect, a trilateral agreement between the University of Malta, Heritage Malta and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage was recently signed as a sign of collaboration in the study and conservation of a rural site in Bidnija with significant archaeological potential.
The Malta Survey Project was carried out to understand long-term development and exploitation of Malta’s countryside in ancient times – mainly through a field walking technique in which teams of archaeologists walked across open areas and fields, collecting artefacts, such as pottery fragments, from the surface.
Until 2012, more than 60,000 artefacts consisting of fragments of pottery, worked stone, tile, marble, plaster, and glass were catalogued. ‘Hotspots’ with high artefact densities were identified in three fields situated around the Bidnija olive grove containing trees that are at least 1800-years-old. The remains of the farm complex lie below one of these fields. Preliminary studies have also indicated another buried structure in the vicinity which seems to be a sizeable underground cistern.
For many years, this area has been known for the presence of archaeological remains, including a stone vat that was probably meant for storing olive oil. Similar vats were discovered at the well-known Roman villa site of San Pawl Milqi located just half a kilometre away from Bidnija, above the village of Burmarrad.
The Lands Authority has now transferred the title of lease of the Bidnija site to Heritage Malta in order to protect the buried archaeological remains and the olive grove, and to facilitate research as part of the Olea project.
University of Malta Rector, Prof. Alfred J. Vella, commended this agreement and said that such a project epitomises what universities should be doing; engaging with their partners in society and with important national agencies in order to generate knowledge. He also noted the introduction of a modest sum in this year’s national budget dedicated to academic research at the University of Malta. In an area dominated for so long by foreigners, he insisted that it was due time for local scholars to assert a national research agenda independently whilst drawing up external collaboration when this is required.
Joseph Magro Conti, Superintendent of Cultural Heritage, welcomed this unprecedented agreement where the three entities are pooling resources to address research questions about an archaeological landscape. He declared that such projects will lead to a better working relationship between the entities. He also advocated the setting up of a formal research agenda so that the respective entities could work towards convergent aims, objectives and deliverables in a systematic manner.
Heritage Malta CEO, Noel Zammit, explained that the Agency’s mission is to ensure that those elements of cultural heritage entrusted to it are protected and made accessible to the public. However, the real added value of this mission is the ability to do research and produce information about Malta’s cultural heritage that is disseminated to society in a timely manner. He explained that such collaborations with other entities are the way forward and more resources should be invested in support of such worthy initiatives.
Photo caption: Fieldwalkers collecting artefacts from the surface on a Bidnija field
(Credit: Nicholas Vella, University of Malta)