A prominent circle of large standing stones on the southern edge of Xagħra village attracted much attention from visitors and artists at the end of the 18th century. In the 1820s, John Otto Bayer, the Commissioner for Gozo, dug into it, revealing a temple-like structure on the floor of a cavity in the rock. However, the excavation was refilled, with two watercolour paintings by Charles Brochtorff the only record of his work. What is more, nearly all the stones of the circle were broken up and removed for building, and the site’s very whereabouts were lost, only to be rediscovered in 1964.
Between 1987 and 1994, a team under Drs Stoddart and Malone, of Bristol and Cambridge Universities, in association with the University of Malta and the Museum Department, re-excavated the cavity, confirming Bayer’s findings, or at least what was left of them, and adding a wealth of new information. Indeed, so rich were the findings - sculpture, pottery, personal ornaments, but particularly many thousands of human bones - that only now is the published report about to appear.
Clearly, the site was an underground cemetery for the community centred on the Ġgantija, a hypogeum like that of Hal Saflieni, Paola. Unlike that, it was cut in decayed coralline rock, so without the latter’s extraordinary architectural detail. Instead, a few blocks of the softer globigerina stone had been specially imported to the site to give a little monumental detail, like the altar Bayer had found. The surrounding circle, together with a great threshold step on the surface, were part of the same monumentalisation, all in the Tarxien phase, though burials may have started earlier.
The value of the site to us lies in the information it has yielded, particularly in two areas. The statuary includes the famous piece showing two figures seated on a bed, a masterpiece by any standards, and the intriguing group of nine strange ‘plank’ figures. There were many other smaller figurines and detached heads, some of them minute. Secondly, the human bones, upwards of 20,000 fragments of at least 850 individuals, are telling us a great deal about the prehistoric population of Gozo.
However, it must be admitted that the site itself, up a side alley from the Triq ta’ Ħamet within a protective fence, is a very disappointing one. The ragged cavity looks more like an abandoned quarry than a major antiquity, and only three stones of the circle survive.
Author: Dr David Trump