Malta Diary Ruts hewn in stone surfaces part of the National Heritage of the Maltese Islands Used for planting grape vines and olive trees since prehistoric times
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Malta and Gozo have a Superintendance for National Heritage, a Government entity that at surface value appears to be as interesting as watching a newly-planted tree grow.
A job for the boys you may well think, a nice and cushy number, touring Malta and Gozo, drinking countless cups of tea and coffee and touring historic buildings to make sure nobody is fiddling around with anything. Right, yes, there are a great number of historic buildings what with prehistoric stone age temples and catacombs, loads of palaces, villas and places where the rich and famous once lived but nevertheless, these are always static and a quick look through a checklist is surely enough.
However, that is just the mere tip of an enormous iceberg. As I have often written, wherever you dig in Malta there is a 100% certainty that something historic will be excavated and the Superintendance has to be informed about it immediately. They have to inspect the finds and take crucial decisions. Easier said than done and often leading to unpleasant conflicts with the various authorities.
One such case loomed recently. The country’s Road Infrastructure Unit within the Ministry for Transport is working on an important road project termed the Central Link because it is an ambitious project that links and speeds traffic from the northern parts of Malta to the south in an island that is heavily congested with traffic and is causing great problems.
The speed of the project is essential and has already been hampered by NGO’s claiming that precious trees are being hewn down and agricultural land being ridden rough shod over. Recently, the works had to be temporarily suspended for another reason. While excavating surface soil a rock face emerged. The rock face contained trenches, canals and ruts that had obviously been hand hewn.
In moved the Superintendance and pronounced these were agricultural ruts dug by farmers to embed their grape vines many centuries ago.
Malta and Gozo are mainly soft limestone rock and soil is very, very precious and greatly liable to erosion from rain and dry winds. Up to World War II farmers used the hand-hewn ruts to fill with soil and embed their plants – a common trait around the whole of the Mediterranean region.
When such discoveries are excavated the project work has to stop until all necessary preservation measures are imposed. This naturally stunts the timing programme of the project authorities and contractors and continues to enflame the frustration of drivers jammed in traffic.
In this case a speedy solution was found. The ruts were covered in soil and where possible further development avoided, enabling future researchers to quickly locate the ruts. In other projects, such solutions are not quickly found, particularly if remains of buildings or structures are revealed, necessitating a change of project plans to distance planned building from the zone or a change of route if passageway is required.
Malta has a lengthy history of vine and olive tree agricultural cultivation, stretching back to Phoenician times in 1,500 BC. At the time olive oil and wine were worth their weight in gold (together with salt of which Malta produced tons) and this naturally attracted the trading Phoenicians who brought their cloths and dyes in exchange for flagons of oil, wine and salt.
Ruts have always been a fascination and a feature in Malta and Gozo, the more famous being the ruts at Dingli Cliffs, ruts which were not hewn for agricultural reasons. They are lengthy, deep and curiously parallel, clearly indicating they were used as a means of transport of some kind.
However, transport to where? Is it possible they stretch back to the time when Malta was connected to the North African and Italian coasts?
Were these the first train and tram lines, manually powered of course?
Despite intensive research over the decades, no concrete or feasible conclusion has been reached.
Indeed, Malta and Gozo remain islands of mysteries and therefore the Superintendence of National Inheritance has much greater weight than an initial perception would conclude.
“He sways with the wind”
Describing a person who is constantly changing their mind, depending on the way the argument is shaping and without commitment to any opinion for any length of time.