Deep underground in the middle of the tiny island country of Malta lies a series of ancient catacombs, communal burial grounds that date back millennia. Malta has always been a way-station on journeys between Africa and southern Europe, with extraordinary diversity in its past and current inhabitants. The catacombs were no different, revealing that Pagans, Christians, and Jews were buried side-by-side during their use as burial places.
The catacombs of St. Paul on Malta’s main island are located in the city of Rabat in an area known in the Arabic vernacular as tad-dlam or “place of darkness.” Long before archaeological excavation commenced on the catacombs in the 19th century, the local people were well aware of the dead resting several meters underground.
Historical records of Malta’s origins go back to the Phoenicians, a civilization that spanned northern Africa and the Near East. When they colonized the island in the 8th century BC, they named the city Maleth; its location high on a hill made it a natural administrative center for the island. During the Second Punic War between the Romans and the Phoenicians in the 3rd century AD, the city surrendered and was integrated into the Hellenistic province of Sicilia and became known as Melite. Its Punic culture remained, however, through the 1st century AD. After centuries of Roman colonial rule, Malta entered into Byzantine rule and then was captured and destroyed by the Aghlabids, a north African Arab dynasty, in the 9th century. In the 11th century, Malta was resettled by a Muslim community, and the city of Maleth/Melite became known as Mdina.
Originally located just outside the city walls of ancient Mdina are a series of underground tombs where the dead were buried in Phoenician and Roman times. The largest of these catacombs, now known as St. Paul’s and St. Agatha’s, cover an area of more than 2,000 square meters and are comprised of rock-cut passages and burial chambers.
The site from which the catacombs were carved originally served as a quarry. Large blocks of stone were cut out of the exposed rock, likely to form walls for the nearby city. These quarries formed terraces that have permanently shaped the landscape of Malta. The burials themselves were not made until the Late Phoenician period, around the 4th century BC, but continued to be used through the Roman period for both inhumations and cremation burials. Quarrying continued at the site of the catacombs in the 2nd century AD, destroying some of the older tombs and creating new areas for more burials. Reuse continued long into modern times, with looters stealing grave artifacts, churches using the space for worship, shepherds penning their animals in them, and people sheltering in them during WWII air raids.
St. Paul’s and St. Agatha’s catacombs were first excavated in 1894 by Maltese archaeologist Antonio Caruana, who also worked on the Ħaġar Qim neolithic temple complex and the Roman domus in Rabat, and is considered a pioneer of Maltese heritage management. Caruana was the first to note the lengthy use of the catacombs by people of various religions: “One cannot in the least doubt that the Christians used this little Catacomb. The construction of the greater part of its sepulchres perfectly similar to those of the Phænecians in Malta, and very different from the locular and arched-tomb arrangement observed in all other our Catacombs, reveals its primitive origin.”
In July, I toured St. Paul’s catacombs with Maltese bioarchaeologist Bernardette Mercieca-Spiteri of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage to learn more about the graves and what their occupants’ bones could reveal about the multicultural history of Malta. The catacombs were the resting places of families rather than individual burials, she told me. This form of underground architecture, in addition to revealing a strong family connection, appears to be an indigenous invention and not influenced by any particular occupying culture.
The displays at the museum on site, which was completely renovated in 2015 and is run by Heritage Malta, reveal how the burials were made: after the chamber was dug off of a vertical shaft, the shrouded body would be lowered down and placed in a rock-cut niche. The chamber, sometimes full of pottery or other grave goods, was then sealed up with a large stone. All around the catacombs, slightly blackened niches dot the walls, evidence of locations that family and funeral workers would stash oil lamps to light their way.
St. Paul’s catacombs, however, are best known for their burial architecture, paintings, and inscriptions – both Christian and Jewish – that draw thousands of tourists to the small city of Rabat. Mercieca-Spiteri pointed out several instances of the so-called agape, a circular table or low platform carved directly out of the rock. These tables, she explained, demonstrate the use of the catacombs at times other than a funeral, likely locations for hosting communal meals for family during festivals for the deceased.
Several of the catacombs contain Jewish symbols, such as the menorah, suggesting that Jews and Christians lived together on Malta in the 4th and 5th centuries AD and buried their dead in common ground. As modern excavations and analyses have gone forward, Mercieca-Spiteri has worked with the modern Jewish community on Malta to balance archaeological research with religious ethics.
In 2010, representatives of international Jewish communities protested in order to convince the Maltese government not to allow human bones in the catacombs to be interfered with. Whereas Heritage Malta wished to examine and record every bone, the Jewish community objected. Eventually, a compromise was reached in which archaeologists could study the bones and the remains would be reinterred per Jewish tradition. Although the identification of Jewish burials is based on the presence of four inscribed menorahs and not the bones themselves, Mercieca-Spiteri told me that it is important in her job to “work with the Jewish community rather than react negatively; we need to be more forward-thinking and less scared of interacting.”
No human remains are currently on display. In the past, several skeletons had been left in place to demonstrate what these ancient burials looked like, but unfortunately, Mercieca-Spiteri said, “people were stealing bones from the catacombs.”
To date, there is no major publication on the bones from St. Paul’s catacombs, but bioarchaeologists such as Mercieca-Spiteri are working on it. “During the Punic and Byzantine period, there are a lot of children,” she says, which fits well with the known high infant mortality rate in ancient times. David Cardona, curator of Phoenician, Roman, and Medieval sites for Heritage Malta, is also planning to undertake a facial reconstruction from one of the skulls from the catacombs.
Thanks to their excellent preservation and their amazing diversity in art, architecture, and skeletons, the Maltese catacombs have been nominated for UNESCO world heritage site status, where they would join the already-listed Neolithic remains from the island country. In their description of the importance of St. Paul’s and other catacombs around the island, the Maltese government submitted that “a remarkable feature is the co-existence of these different religions” – pagan practices along with Christianity and Judaism – “within the same locality, reflecting the actual co-habitation of these different cultures within Late Roman society. This mixed feature of the Maltese catacombs is rarely equaled anywhere else in the Mediterranean.”
About half a million people live on Malta today, densely packed onto the small island nation. As a transit country between Africa and Europe, and as part of the EU, contemporary Malta boasts similar diversity as its ancient inhabitants. While most of the current Maltese people would appear to trace their lineage genetically to Southern Italy, there remains a suggestion that up to half may carry genes representative of a Phoenician origin.
Research on St. Paul’s catacombs as well as other underground burial chambers being found around the country is ongoing. Future excavations as well as work with ancient DNA may help Maltese bioarchaeologists like Bernardette Mercieca-Spiteri better understand the long and complicated history of human settlement on Malta.
For more information on the marvelous Maltese catacombs, check out this short video from Heritage Malta: