Malta Diary. Evidence of Phoenician animal sacrifices found at Tas-Silġ They date back to 1,500 BC
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As happens time and time again, excavation works on a site had to be stopped after the discovery of ancient and historic remains. There are of course instances when building contractors stumble on remains, keep mum and carry on otherwise this will hinder their project.
Fortunately, the most recent discovery involved works being carried out for the country’s cultural heritage organisation, Heritage Malta, when the remains of sheep and goats dating back to Phoenician times halted a project at Tas-Silġ in Marsaxlokk, the southern part of Malta. The Agency was in the process of building a Visitor’s Center on the crumbled remains of an old farm, aided by Malta’s University.
Work immediately came to a halt because the finds shed more light on the activities, customs and habits of the Phoenicians in the Maltese Islands, including that of animal sacrifices to their Gods.
It has to be explained the Phoenicians came to Malta between 2,000 and 1,500 BC. They were not military colonisers like most foreign elements that followed them, but merchant traders and they did not establish a colony but a trading post, as they did throughout the Mediterranean and as far off as the British Isles.
Their origins were from the area that is now known as The Lebanon, Beirut currently being in a state of woe after that horrendous explosion.
“The animals were probably sacrificed, and killed according to the ritual, as well as cooked and prepared on site, and partly offered to the Gods,” explained Maxine Anastasi, an archaeologist at the University.
Most erroneously, the area known as Tas-Silg is frequently not featured highly in Malta’s historical, archaeological and heritage sites. Admittedly, it does not feature the splendid remains and significance of the Neolithic Temples, the Hypogeum at Tarxien and the Rabat Catacombs – all dating back thousands of years.
Archaeologists maintain that Tas-Silg has a long history dating back to Neolithic times and well before the arrival of the Phoenicians, in fact 3,000 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. The area was always considered to be a zone of veneration and on their arrival was adopted by the Phoenicians as their veneration point. They converted an already standing temple to serve as a brothel and place of entertainment for passing sailors and tradespersons and named it the Temple of Astarte. Much later, when the Romans arrived in Malta, they changed the name and declared it to be the Temple of Juno and used it for the same purposes.
It is believed that originally Tas-Silg was built 3,000 years before Christ. Thus, for nearly 5,000 years, the sanctuary site at Tas-Silġ lured worshippers to its idyllic island setting overlooking the blue waters of the Mediterranean, evolving and adapting as new religions emerged.
The first known construction in the zone was a Neolithic Temple but when the Temple Period came to an abrupt end at around 2500 BC and, like every other prehistoric structure on the Maltese islands, the temple at Tas-Silġ was abandoned.
It remained unused until the Bronze Age, when a culture bearing the same name as the nearby site of Borġ in-Nadur (1500-700 BC) took over the old buildings. The use of the temple during this phase shifted from a religious purpose to what seems to have been a domestic one. Recent excavations have recovered numerous broken shells, pieces of ceramic ‘anchors’, and weights in several parts of the building, all of which seem to show major exploitation of marine resources.
It was not until the early Phoenician period, in about the last quarter of the 8th century BC, that the site once again became the focus of religious ceremonies. It remained a place of worship with no significant interruption from this point on until at least the Late Roman period. Once again, Tas-Silġ demonstrated its uniqueness, being the only known example of a prehistoric structure on Malta that was used by the Phoenicians for their own religious needs.
Now, after 20 years of archaeological research is bringing this long forgotten but once influential religious centre back into the limelight, as archaeologist David Cardona reveals.
It was of such importance to the Romans throughout Europe that it was mentioned by Cicero in the Roman Senate in his prosecution speech against Caius Verres, the Governor of Sicily between 73-71 BC, describing the significance of this remote sanctuary site thus:
“Not far from the town, on a promontory, there stands the ancient Temple of Juno, so venerated that it has remained sacred and unviolated, not only during the Punic Wars which ravaged those places with their naval forces, but also in spite of these multitudinous pirates. … When one of King Massinissa’s fleets found itself in that place, the King’s admiral removed from the temple ivory tusks of incredible size.
“Taking them to Africa, he gave them to Massinissa. At first the King liked this gift, but when he discovered where those tusks had come from, he immediately sent his trusted men in a quinquereme to put them back. … [In the sanctuary] there was also a large quantity of ivory, and a large number of ornaments amongst which was a carefully and supremely crafted ancient ivory [statue] of Victory.”
Cicero may well be guilty of exaggeration – he was, after all, a lawyer in the course of prosecuting a former Governor for his wrongdoings. However, the long seasons of excavations carried out on the site at Tas-Silġ by the Missione Archeologica Italiana and the University of Malta have shown that the Temple of Juno was, indeed, not only a venerable temple throughout the Phoenician, Punic, and Roman periods, but also one of the sites with the longest use on these islands.
Writers since the mid-17th century have speculated on the exact location of the temple. The remains of ancient walls are depicted in one of Jean-Pierre Houël’s 18th-century lithographs, but the site was not excavated until the 1930s. Even then investigation was limited to a number of trial trenches.
It was another 30 years before the full extent of the site started to be understood, when an Italian Mission, led by Antonio Cagiano de Azevedo and Antonia Ciasca, was given permission to excavate. The Italian Mission excavated between 1963 and 1970, and again from the late 1990s up until 2012; meanwhile, the University of Malta carried out archaeological investigation in the southern section. Together, these seasons have uncovered a succession of structures quite unlike anything seen elsewhere on the island.
Perhaps, at last, Tas-Silġ will start to be regarded as being on a par of importance with the Neolithic Temples at Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Ggantija, as well as the Hypogeum and the Catacombs – adding to Malta’s abundance of heritage monuments.
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