Ħal Resqun Catacomb

Figure 1

Patricia Camilleri, Ann Gingell Littlejohn
Courtesy of Treasures of Malta

The authors visited Hal Resqun on the day of its rediscovery in August 2006. It was brought to light again in the course of road works in the vicinity of Gudja and is below the roundabout near Malta International Airport.  The catacomb was first excavated and the plan drawn up by Temi Zammit in 1912 (Fig.1).[1] It was investigated in 1934 when the plan was modified by C.G. Zammit.[2]  In his original report, Temi Zammit noted that the catacomb had already been disturbed during the laying of a water pipe in 1887.[3] In 1975 it was covered over in the course of road works.  Located once more in October 1978, it was sealed with corrugated iron and a concrete slab, leaving an entrance through a manhole. Unfortunately, soil was deposited over the area and the exact site of the catacomb could no longer be identified.

Access is down a short flight of steps which now lie four courses below road level. The doorway is flanked on the left by two engaged columns, one in the Doric style, the other with twisted fluting (Fig.2). Over the entrance, within an apsed arch is a carving of two birds facing each other, head to head, almost certainly a peahen and a peacock which seem to be feeding a chick (Fig.3). Since pharaonic times, the peacock has been considered a symbol of immortality. In some cultures the spots on its fan tail were seen to evoke the stars in the heavens. It is one of the many symbols which slipped seamlessly from pagan to Christian iconography.

Figure 2
Figure 3

This small hypogeum presents a number of features which are uncommon within Maltese catacomb contexts. One of these is the unusual number of fluted columns and pilasters, most of them short and in unusual positions. At the foot of the steps is a small chamber (A). Facing the entrance is a window tomb (B). Another window tomb (C) lies to the right of the entrance and a triclinium (D) is located between the two tombs.

Window tomb (B) is flanked by fluted pilasters, the lower part having twisted fluting, the upper part being of the Doric type (Fig.4). There is also an interesting circular decoration in the middle of the left hand pilaster, partly missing from the right hand side where the stone is broken off. Over the square-headed doorway is a carving which includes three fish, three heads (one upside down) flanked by outstretched arms, a fan-like design, perhaps representing a bird with open wings, and a number of animals, some upside down in a mirror image position (Fig.5). Temi Zammit, giving it a Christian interpretation, referred to the “Biblical scene of creation”,[4] the “Biblical account of God’s Creation of the World”.[5] For Zammit, the central figure was “the figure of God with outstretched arms”[6] and the “Almighty”[7].  The other two figures are referred to as Adam and Eve in 1912 and as “our progenitors” in 1934.  All three might, in fact, be orant figures. However, the tradition of the orant figure goes back to prehistory and was certainly present in Greco-Roman funerary iconography so their presence in this carving is no guarantee of its Christian connection. Over this carving is a running pattern of arrowhead design.

Figure 4
Figure 5

The tomb contains a double grave with deep U-shaped headrests. Both plans record a round hole between the headrests, no longer visible because of accumulated debris. This end of the grave is flanked by short fluted pilasters beneath a small apse. Facing the entrance to this tomb is a rectangular pottery shelf also flanked by pilasters with twisted fluting, and two lampholes. Very unusual are the fluted pilasters at the other end, flanking another apse. Both apses still show faint incisions of a scallop shell motif.

The entrance to window tomb (C) is also flanked by pilasters. It has an apsed arch over the headrests, with a clearly defined incised scallop shell, and fluted pilasters on either side of two U-shaped headrests (Fig.6). Between the headrests is a round hole. Facing the entrance is a rectangular pottery shelf with fluted pilasters, now hardly visible. There is a lamphole on either side. At the far end is an apsed arch, cut through by a modern wall and a sizeable pipe.

Figure 6

A step on the left leads up to the triclinium[8] (D) which is now truncated by a wall (Fig.7).In Zammit’s 1912 plan the rim was already missing on the left and round the back.[9] The table would seem to have been U-shaped. It has a rounded shoulder on the left, upon which there would originally have been a sharp rim. On the right, the rim is still present but the rounded shoulder is missing. This may have been removed when the seat on the right was cut into the platform. Faint parallel grooves are scored along the top of the rim, a feature not seen before by the present authors. There is no opening or channel in the rim, a feature of almost all the tables in Maltese catacombs. The familiar concave indentation in the front of the table is another common feature which is missing here. Decorating the vertical right outer edge of the table is a carving in a V-shaped pattern, never encountered before in such a context. This may have been added when alterations were made to the right hand side of the platform at some later stage. It is likely that the headroom in front of window tomb (C) was raised at the same time.

Figure 7

While seats are present in some catacombs, these are usually single or facing each other on either side of the table. In this case, the seats do not face the same direction.  The one on the left (E) faces the entrance to tomb (C), while the one on the right (F) faces the chamber. In addition, the actual seats, rather than being flat, have a depression cut into the surface which creates a low backrest. The seat on the left presents the unusual feature of carved diagonal fluting along the top and Doric fluting on the vertical edge.

Dating the Maltese catacombs is always problematic. Zammit records that fragments of glass and pottery found in the catacomb “were also of the late Roman period”,[10] which would give the latest date, though vague, for the use of the catacomb but would not give any indication of when it was originally hewn and how long it was in use. Despite Zammit’s confident assertion in 1912 and in 1934 that the catacomb is Christian, the iconography does not indicate in any certain way that it was originally cut or ever used for Christian burial.

[1] Museum Annual Reports 1912-1913, p. 7

[2] Bulletin of the Museum, 1934, p.190.

[3] T. Zammit, Archaeological Field-Notes (Notebook No. 3 1909-1912) f. 125

[4] Museum Annual Reports 1912-1913, p. 7.

[5] T. Zammit in Bulletin of the Museum, 1934, p.193.

[6] Museum Annual Reports 1912-1913, p. 7.

[7] T. Zammit in Bulletin of the Museum, 1934, p. 193.

[8] The triclinium is understood to be a raised, semi-circular, sloping platform surrounding a table with a rim, usually set within a flattened arch. The whole area is cut out of the solid rock.

[9] There appear to be some discrepancies between the plan by C.G. Zammit in the Bulletin of the Museum 1934 and that of T. Zammit in the Museum Annual Reports 1912-13. For example, in the 1934 version,  the table rim appears to be complete; the tomb cut into the back of the triclinium is missing as is the step to the left of the triclinium which is still extant today.

[10] Museum Annual Reports 1912-1913, p. 7