Malta Diary How did they die and why were they interred there? The mystery of the bones in St Gregory’s Chapel
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On 12th March, 1969, fifty years ago, work was being carried out on the transept side of the Chapel of San Girgor (St Gregory) at Zejtun. Ruben Abela was a 16-year-old youth at the time and was helping his uncle in carrying out screed roof shuttering when he came across what seemed to be a circular entry in the chapel’s roof that had been blocked.
The curiosity of youth led him to loosen the stones that were used to cover the blockage and lo and behold he uncovered a new and secret world and findings that are still very much a mystery today, 50 years later.
The Chapel of St Gregory is situated on the outskirts of the large village of Zejtun in the south of Malta, a village that is one of Malta’s oldest and has a rich cultural heritage.
It was originally constructed in the 15th Century but the coincidental impetus of Ruben Abela 50 years ago opened a whole new vista of secret passageways under the roof of the chapel and within the chapel and one particular passageway contained an array of bones and skulls that have been established to have been of males, females, children and elderly persons – the eldest of which has been estimated to have been 70 years old.
Many questions arise. Why should a country chapel have an array of secret passageways, many of them under the roof? Why are the bones and skulls there and as a consequence of what? Did they die or were they slaughtered? Was it a plague outbreak at the time that determined they should be stashed there for health and safety reasons?
In the 14th and 15th Century, Malta suffered an almost continual series of Turkish invasions from Ottoman forces with many Christian persons captured and forced into slavery and Turkish fleets mainly anchored in the south of Malta. Were the secret passages used by the local farmers and their families to remain concealed during these invasions?
The last Turkish invasion took place in 1614 and when the bones were found the theory went round these were the final victims of that invasion.
In 1979 a study was carried out by medical professionals from Malta University which established that quantities of soil were found in the bone joints and that these may have been buried somewhere else and the chapel space later used as a charnel house where bones are deposited after being exhumed from graves, a factor that also gives rise to various considerations.
Why for example had the task been undertaken to transport the bones to the church roof and be buried in its passageways and why were the bones not piled together but in fact were strewn about, while normally a charnel house is found in cemeteries or otherwise a number of graves are reserved to act as a charnel house?
It is noticeable that the secret passages contain openings that look on the towers of San Luċjan and San Tumas, which signifies that a watch may have been kept to detect signals from these towers of an impending invasion.
Curiously, dates and initials are also etched on the wall. The date etched is 1909 and the initials are of two persons on the same day. It is probable that two persons entered the passage but did not tell anybody because Malta had just experienced a plague and that the bones may have been plague-infested and they themselves could have been infested by contact.
Now bone samples have been sent to overseas laboratories for carbon dating to establish when these people were alive and cast further light on what may transpired at the time.
The chapel of St Gregory reaches its peak at Easter time. Annually, on the first Wednesday after Easter Sunday a great folk festival dating back 500 years is held in the area, extending down to the fishing village at Marsaxlokk.
A solemn morning procession from the chapel starts the day followed by a hub of activities that include popular folk singing, an abundance of food, handicraft displays of loom weaving, filigree, earthenware, glass and lace are exhibited. Children play traditional games, mostly hop-skip-and jump. For adults, continuous games of tombola are the order of the day.
However, the main traditional feature is that on the day, people take the plunge for their first spring-summer swim. Did they do this, this time round? It did not appear likely; the weather was murky, the sun hid behind the clouds and the sea was judged to be extraordinarily cold.
Ah well, roll on summer.
“Do not dirty the water you have to drink from”
A warning that you should not tarnish things and people you depend on because it will bring negative consequences. For example, if I depend on a person for my food supply I should not go out to upset that person and consequently remain without food.