A curious play of forgetfulness and rediscovery seems to form an intriguing part of the destiny of the site of Ta’ Bistra Catacombs. A series of uses followed by temporary abandonment might have been one of the factors. Likewise, is its uncanny connection with roads. Currently located at the limits of Mosta, this archaeological site is in plain view of a very busy road and yet most of the public appears to be unaware of its existence. In an attempt to recapture the collective memory of those who remember Ta’ Bistra Catacombs and the surrounding landscape as it was in the past, on Sunday 15th September, Heritage Malta is organising an Open Day during which the public can visit and explore this site for free. This is also a significant opportunity for those who have any memories or memorabilia of these catacombs to share their narratives and leave their mark at the event ‘Niftakar Ta’ Bistra’.
A farm which was built over the catacombs in the post-war period, today serves as the entrance to this archaeological site. A certain Indrì had built this rural residence in the hope that his wife would join him but she did not want to have anything to do with this place and preferred to stay in the nearby town of Mosta. Finding himself alone in this strange abode, the man let his imagination run. Besides adjusting some of the deathly chambers to his personal use and to accommodate some farm animals, he also engraved a number of faces in different parts of the catacombs. These awkward sentinels now seem to be watching over the catacombs which managed to survive up to these days.
It seems that originally, this site was close to the main route through the Great Fault, in line with the Roman custom of placing cemeteries along the main roads, outside of the residential areas. After it was abandoned, the site seems to have remained partially exposed. It was documented for the first time by a drawn plan and a number of photos taken by E. Magri in 1886 and F. Vassalli in 1891. The site was mentioned again by E. Becker in 1913. Through descriptions left by Sir. T Zammit in 1914 and Bellanti in 1920, we know that the large quarry, which also formed part of thNIFTAKARe site, had already been transformed into arable land.
The site was archaeologically investigated for the first time by Capt C. Zammit in 1933 as part of the documentation process of four sets of burials that were meant to be destroyed by a new road leading to Burmarrad. Ta’ Bistra came back into the spotlight in 2004, when archaeological monitoring during road works rediscovered the four groups that were supposedly removed in 1933. This discovery eventually culminated in extensive archaeological excavations between 2013 and 2014. Three lamps were unearthed during the latter excavations which are now exhibited on site.
Bones are usually expected to be found in large quantities in tombs. However, in 1933, very few bones were uncovered and all disintegrated upon excavation. Remarkably, a skull which is now also exhibited at Ta’ Bistra, was reputedly recovered from this area and was donated to Heritage Malta by Dr Joseph H Vincenti M.D. Sqd Leader RAF (Retrd.) in 2014.
Ironically, this place of death is said to have served also to protect the living when it was used as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War.
If you can assist to recover more of the past of Ta’ Bistra Catacombs and its surrounding area, Heritage Malta is eagerly inviting you to share your narratives, objects and old photos of the area. Such collective memory will make it possible to truly understand Ta’ Bistra, not just as an archaeological site, but also as a cultural landscape with a meaning in the lives of those who grew around it.