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Eight Thousand Years of Maltese Maritime HistoryTrade, Piracy, and Naval Warfare in the Central Mediterranean$

Ayşe Devrim Atauz

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780813031798

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813031798.001.0001

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(p.185) Appendix A The Malta Project—Underwater Survey of Malta

(p.185) Appendix A The Malta Project—Underwater Survey of Malta

Eight Thousand Years of Maltese Maritime History
University Press of Florida

Beginnings of Underwater Archaeology in Malta

The people of Malta most likely salvaged goods from wrecks around the island throughout history. It is common knowledge that shipwrecks and aircraft wrecks from underwater contexts have been salvaged from the Maltese waters in the twentieth century. In addition to clearing navigation hazards such as shallow wrecks, salvage companies were also contracted to recover unexploded ordinance from World War II.1

Recovery of underwater archaeological material in Malta began in the 1960s when sport divers turned over to the National Museum of Archaeology amphoras, anchors, and shipborne artillery they had recovered. In 1967 a shipwreck in Mellieha Bay was partly excavated by a team directed by Honor Frost. The site yielded a primary cargo of mortaria2 that were almost surely manufactured in southern Italy; amphoras and glass vessels were also raised. The ship was likely a merchantman of the Severan era (circa AD 200).3

After a lengthy hiatus, serious interest in submerged cultural resources in Maltese waters was revived by collaboration between the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta and a group from Specialist Archaeology Systems (SAS) that conducted a survey in 1988 and in 1989 and excavated in two locations in the Grand Harbor, unfortunately finding only a scatter of modern detritus. In 1992, the Maltese National Museum of Archaeology began a threeyear period of collaboration with a team from France's Départment des recherches archéologiques subaquatiques et sous-marines (DRASSM). A survey, conducted December 14–19,1992, in the area around Manoel Island and the Lazzaretto in Marsamxett Harbor successfully determined the location of the iron ship Carolita. In December 1993, a joint rescue excavation by DRASSM and the National Museum of Archaeology in Marsascala Bay yielded ceramic finds ranging widely in date but having their greatest concentration in the period from the fourth to the sixth century AD.4

(p.186) INA Surveys in Malta

The Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) was first contacted in 1999 by Maltese scholars and the staff of the Museums Department to join the local efforts to carry out a survey of certain areas in the Grand and Marsamxett harbors that were scheduled for marina construction. Upon this invitation, the author took up the task of investigating the maritime archaeological potential of Malta.

The goal of the survey project was to provide information about the commercial and naval history of Malta, the ships used for trade and naval activities, and the locations of the archaeological remains of coastal settlements that could be identified based on underwater material.

The first season of the INA survey in 1999 Malta occurred in and consisted of a preliminary reconnaissance. The focus of this short project was the investigation of areas within the confines of the marina project that involved construction activities on parts of the Valletta waterfront (figure A.1), including the placement of bottom-hugging pontoons. Previous research indicated that parts of the Grand Harbor and Marsamxett Harbor slated for marina construction were likely to contain shipwrecks. Selected areas of high archaeological potential were surveyed using a high-resolution side-scan sonar coupled with a magnetometer, and unusual features noted in the sonar images were inspected by divers. Unfortunately, a coarse sand bottom covered by a thick layer of silt characterized the seafloor in most survey areas. Therefore, not only were most targets buried, but also removal of silt by divers created difficulties in identifying the buried objects, because of low visibility. Constant boat traffic, water pollution, and low visibility were the general problems with surveying in Malta harbors. At the end of the 1999 season, no find that can securely be identified as a shipwreck was found in either the Grand Harbor or Marsamxett Harbor.

In April 2000, our team returned to Malta to conduct an archaeological/ geological hazard survey around Manoel Island on behalf of the Malta Museums Department and TBA Periti Associates Architectural Corporation. The area around Manoel Island was surveyed using a high-resolution sub-bottom profiler, provided by the Malta Maritime Authority (MMA), coupled to an advanced digital data collection system and a precision global positioning system accurate to within fifty centimeters. One area of concentrated sub-bottom anomalies detected during the survey and investigated by divers later in the summer was found to contain archaeological material ranging from Roman ceramic fragments to modern debris centered on a small mound on the seabed approximately five meters in diameter and extending in depth to approximately two meters beneath the seafloor.


Appendix A The Malta
Project—Underwater Survey of Malta

Figure A.1. Map of the harbor area around Valletta.

In May 2000, a joint INA-Maltese team carried out a preliminary survey of the anchorages in and around the Maltese Islands. The work was conducted using a side-scan sonar coupled with a GPS receiver. As before, divers inspected the sonar targets within diving limits.

The first phase of the summer was dedicated to extensive research among the documents conserved in the archives of the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta. The museum possessed artifact files and annual reports dating to the early 1960s; the files offered information about the context and location of underwater materials now conserved in the museum storerooms. Reevaluation of this data, utilizing geographical and chronological criteria, enabled the team to determine the areas with higher concentrations of archaeological material. The museum curators also allowed us to examine the forms submitted by sport divers and fishermen that indicated the location of artifacts they had seen. These files provided valuable information about potential areas of artifact concentration. They also were very informative because comparisons (p.188)

Appendix A The Malta
Project—Underwater Survey of Malta

Figure A.2. Map of Maltese Archipelago showing the major modern settlements.

between earlier and more recent reports indicated the extent of looting and dredging damage to archaeological sites. A database of the information collected during the research was created, and potential sites were plotted to determine the extent of the survey areas and to establish the sites of highest priority for immediate attention that summer.

The first survey area of the 2000 season was Marsascala Bay, one of the few safe anchorages in northeastern Malta (figure A.2). The objective of our investigations was to perform a visual inspection of the area where the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta and DRASSM had conducted a rescue excavation in 1993. A lengthy diver search established that any material still on the site must be buried beneath the poseidonia grass, and no further surveying of this site seemed necessary.

Our second survey area was on the eastern shore of Salina Bay (figure A.2). (p.189) The site is characterized by a significant pile of stones that could represent the ballast of a ship. Diver inspection of the site produced two amphora fragments buried deep within the pile of rocks. The base fragment includes the toe, while the body fragment is ridged. Possible parallels pointed to a North African type common in the fourth century AD. The sherds appear to be contemporaneous with the mound of stones, indicating that these may represent the ballast of a late Roman period shipwreck. Unfortunately, there is little probability that wooden elements of the hull are preserved on the site. In two different locations, divers reached bedrock by hand fanning in and around the stones.

Our survey during the summer of 2000 also included anchorages and areas of archaeological potential. Munxar Point, Qawra Point, Saint Paul's Bay, Santa Marija Bay, San Niklaw Bay and Xatt l-Ahmar Point were all selected because of previous reports of archaeological finds. Unfortunately, none of these locations produced shipwrecks in our survey, and they were found to be largely covered with poseidonia grass, which obstructs the bottom.

The most interesting find of the 2000 season was near the treacherous entrance to Xlendi Bay, which is obstructed by a pair of submerged reefs.5 Amphoras recovered from the bay in the past forty years include examples of all of the following types: Punic, Aegean Greek, Greco-Italic, and Roman.6 Recently, a cylindrical fourth-century African amphora was recovered by fishermen near the northern reef. The INA team extensively surveyed this promising area, running one trackline into the bay itself and several tracklines parallel to the shoreline across the entrance to the bay. The lines covered the steep drop-off of the shore to a depth of approximately eighty meters. Several sonar targets were detected, but none could be investigated, because the depth of this site exceeds diving limits using basic scuba gear. The investigation had to wait for the opportunity to use a technologically advanced vehicle that can descend to this depth.

The first chance to explore the seabed off Xlendi using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) occurred in the summer of 2001 (figure A.3). The initial survey relied on the use of a scanning sonar that was part of the ROV equipment; ROV cameras immediately inspected anomalies detected by the sonar. The survey was carried out using a small remotely operated vehicle, and an amphora scatter off the entrance to Xlendi Bay was detected shortly after the vehicle descended to the bottom. The scatter consists of thousands of amphoras, representing at least seven different types (figure A.4), spread over an area of about four kilometers by one kilometer. It is not the typical amphora mound that characterizes an ancient Mediterranean shipwreck, but the depth and the nature of the site (an anomaly located at the middle of flat, sandy bottom at a depth of 100–130 meters and several kilometers off the coast) compel (p.190)

Appendix A The Malta
Project—Underwater Survey of Malta

Figure A.3. Map showing the locations of the 2001 ROV survey areas of the season in Gozo. The area to the west represents the entrance to Xlendi Bay; the one to the east is the area near the Mgarr ix-Xing inlet. These areas were first surveyed in 2000 using a side-scan sonar. Based on Admiralty Map 2537 of Ghawdex (Gozo), Kemmuna (Comino), and the northern part of Malta (1984).

Appendix A The Malta
Project—Underwater Survey of Malta

Figure A.4. Some of the amphora types represented at the Xlendi Site. Type 1 represents the actual drawing of the archaeological sample collected from the site.

us to identify it as a shipwreck site. However, whether the deposit represents a single large shipwreck site or, more likely, a multiple-wreck site is unclear.

Despite being able to identify specific amphora types represented at the Xlendi site, we were able to bring to the surface only one with the equipment available to us, and dating the entire site on the basis of a single archaeological sample is very difficult. The archaeological sample was identified as a Punic amphora of the third century BC. Other types of amphoras from the site dated to different periods. Based on preliminary visual examinations, their dates range from the fourth century BC to the third century AD. The amphora types are very common Mediterranean varieties originating from various centers of the western Mediterranean. Further study of the Xlendi shipwreck is crucial for a detailed analysis of these artifacts.

(p.192) Apart from the survey off Xlendi, our team continued to survey the anchorages of Malta. The area between Xatt l-Ahmar and Mgarr ix-Xini inlets and an area near Zonkor Point were surveyed, without any substantial archaeological results. However, a test excavation near the Quarantine Hospital in Marsamxett Harbor yielded interesting results, as Manoel Island was utilized as a quarantine center between 1593 and 1798 and as a hospital during the British period of Malta (figure A.5). The underwater slope in front of the Quarantine Hospital is littered with furniture discarded from the hospital and large boulders that tumbled into the sea when the building was damaged by bombing during World War II. In addition to containing beds and boulders, the site's charm is augmented by the wreck of the Carolita, a modern iron-hulled vessel, which attracts fish and sport divers to the area. The archaeological material observed on the surface was mostly whiteware used by the Royal Navy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, broken artifacts dating to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and a few late Roman and Byzantine ceramic sherds. Although the ceramics are still being studied, preliminary observations indicate that eleventh- and twelfth-century Islamic ceramics (possibly of North African origin) outnumber the seventeenth- to early-nineteenth-century polychrome Majolica sherds of the “Knights” period, when the Quarantine Hospital was heavily in use.

At the end of 2001, after our third season of surveying the coastline of the Maltese Islands, we reached certain conclusions. It had become clear that there were no obvious shipwreck sites in the surveyed areas, with the exception of Xlendi. The most likely area to contain shipwrecks, Grand Harbor, was silted, heavily dredged, and polluted. Heavy boat and ship traffic in the harbor made it a dangerous diving location. Also, the use of a towed vehicle for remotesensing surveys was made very difficult by the presence of obstructions such as buoys, lines, garbage, and other items cast from ships.

The only shipwreck site that we had found dated to the Roman period, which was likely a time when navigation around Malta was not as frequent as it became during later periods, such as the era when the Order of Saint John was based on the island. Thus, the shipwreck evidence did not concur with the historical record, but it did not provide sufficient evidence to suggest a revised approach to Maltese history.

At the end of our third season, it became appropriate to carry out extensive research and place our findings in a historical perspective to determine how much our work contributed to filling the gaps in Maltese history and archaeology. This in-depth analysis of the maritime history of Malta was a necessary step in determining future survey areas and also to provide a better idea about what archaeological evidence might survive and where we could expect to find it. (p.193)

Appendix A The Malta
Project—Underwater Survey of Malta

Figure A.5. Map showing the location of the excavation squares (labeled 1–4) at the Quarantine Hospital (locations of the excavated sand pockets are labeled a-h).

Surprisingly, we were unable to find a scholarly source that treated the full breadth of Maltese maritime history, which meant that this information had to be compiled first. This book is the outcome of this research project, presented as a chronological arrangement of the historical, archaeological, and ethnographic data regarding the maritime past of Malta. (p.194)


(1.) The information about the activities of a salvage company that carried out such work around the Maltese Islands was communicated to me during my dissertation defense by Dr. Filipe Castro on December,2003.

(2.) Mortaria is a type of spouted bowl or mortar for grinding and preparing food for kitchen use, with a distinct overhanging rim. This pottery type was produced in Italy from at least the third century BC and was exported to sites around the Mediterranean, France, and England. For more information about the type, see Hayes, Handbook of Mediterranean Roman Pottery, pp. 80–82.

(3.) Frost, Mortar Wreck.

(4.) Information regarding the survey results by DRASSM presented here is based on the report submitted to the National Museum of Archaeology by this team at the end of the survey season, preserved in the museum archives. In addition, the author was allowed access to examine the artifacts preserved in the museum storerooms.

(5.) The topography of the island of Gozo makes the interior of the Xlendi Inlet a dangerous anchorage, as the winds funneling through the deep valleys of Gozo create turbulence on stormy days, putting the boats at anchor between two opposing winds.

(6.) These amphoras were brought to the museum by fisherman, amateur divers, and the British navy divers who carried out their training dives in this area in the 1960s. The artifacts are not published, but they are exhibited in the National Museum of Archaeology in Gozo. The suggested dates are assigned by the author.