Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2010.

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ROBERT HAY IN GOZO AND THE LOST STONE CIRCLE

Joseph Attard Tabone*

Before the introduction of steam in the Mediterranean, European travellers heading to or arriving from the east very often had to break their journey in Malta to wait for a ship to take them to their destination. When the British took over Malta in 1800, they inherited an excellent quarantine system which made sea transport for travellers coming from the east or the Barbary Coast more comfortable and efficient. On the other hand, ships arriving from European ports, free from contagious diseases, were given a quick safety bill of health by a competent Port Authority.

On the evening of 2 September 1824, two English travellers, Robert Hay and Joseph Bonomi, boarded the Neapolitan speronara San Gaetano from Syracuse to Malta. Among the five passengers were Hay’s Armenian servant, Giovanni Carcone and his Maltese wife Maria and their young daughter Teresina.[1] From Malta, the two travellers intended to continue by sea to Alexandria.

Robert Hay (1799-1863) was born at Duns Castle in Berwickshire into a well established Scottish family. He joined the Royal Navy at the age of 13, thus following a family tradition of service in the armed forces. Unlike most boys from good families, who joined as midshipmen, Hay came up through the ranks though he was rapidly promoted. Between 1815 and 1818, he served on HMS Wasp. During this period, the ship’s tour of duty in the Mediterranean included frequent [p.74] visits to Alexandria and Malta where he became very fond of the island and of the British community. While in Alexandria he became interested in Egyptian antiquities at a time when the exploits of Giovanni Belzoni were attracting much popular attention. In 1820, when Hay’s ship was in Rio de Janeiro, he received news of the sudden death of his brother James. He returned to Scotland to take over the family estate and resigned from the Navy. He then decided to use his newly-acquired wealth to finance a journey to Egypt and Nubia.[2] Throughout his travels he kept a detailed diary, now preserved at the British Library[3] but his letters and correspondence are scattered amongst various descendants of the family and in some libraries and archives. However, his main portfolio, of Egyptian tomb and temple paintings, is in the British Library.[4]

In early August 1824, on his way to Egypt, Hay stopped in Rome. There, whilst looking for a draughtsman to accompany him, he was introduced to Joseph Bonomi, the English son of an Italian architect who had established himself successfully in London. The young Bonomi (1796-1878) had trained as a sculptor, attended the schools of the Royal Academy and studied under the famous British sculptor Joseph Nollekens. In Rome, he was looking for a wealthy patron and immediately accepted an invitation from Hay to join him on his expedition to Egypt. Later in life, in 1861, he was appointed Curator of the Sir John Soane Museum and he remained in this position until his death.[5]

By the afternoon of 3 September 1824, after nineteen hours of sailing in the Sicilian-Maltese Channel, Robert Hay and Joseph Bonomi were in Valletta where they took up residence in the Hastings Hotel. During his visits with the Navy six years earlier, Hay had made a number of good friends amongst the British. Some were in top positions in the Services or connected with the administration of the island. Soon after they settled into their hotel, Hay made contact with one of his best friends, George Ward, the Superintendent of Grain and a retired Deputy Paymaster General to the Forces in the Mediterranean. It took no time for Ward to appear and invite him to dinner at his house at 85, Strada Ponente, today West Street. In the following days, Hay was invited to dine with a number of his old acquaintances. He was even introduced to the new Governor of the island, the Marquess of Hastings, at a party at the Palace. He could hardly have imagined that, four years later. he would marry his sixteen year old Cretan slave girl, Kalitza Tsaraki, in the Palace.[6] Hastings had only been in Malta as Governor for

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Robert Hay

Joseph Bonomi

Sketch of Comino Tower by Joseph Bonomi, dated September 1824

[p.76] a few months, following the unexpected death of Governor Sir Thomas Maitland in January that year.

While wandering in Valletta, Hay paid a visit to the studios of two artists. In his diary, he remarked;

‘and afterwards went to the studio of a very clever young artist who had studied in Rome but whose talents are quite thrown away here. By his name I should think he is a German … and also to Mr … an English portrait painter who succeeds pretty well in likenesses but fails in the execution.’

Although Hay does not mention these two artists by name, undoubtedly they must have been Giuseppe Hyzler and Charles Allingham. On another occasion, he visited the Lazaretto where he was introduced by Bonomi to two English artists, Henry Parke (1792-1835) and Frederick Catherwood (1799-1854), who had just returned from Egypt with their beautiful portfolios of drawings.

For nearly two months, whilst waiting to take a boat to Egypt, Hay and Bonomi spent quite a pleasant time looking around the whole Maltese Archipelago, visiting places of interest, socialising and sketching. Hay frequently dined at Army or Navy quarters and joined sailing parties, as well as hunting expeditions to the islands of Comino and Cominotto with his friends. In 1816, George Ward and some friends had taken a lease on these two islands from the Government for eight years on favourable terms.[7] They sub-let Comino to a farmer who cultivated the scant arable land and kept a few animals and poultry.

On his way to the Middle East in 1821, John Maddox described Comino as:

‘a small island between Malta and Gozo, [where] some Englishmen have introduced a stock of rabbits, wither they and a chosen few occasionally resort pour s’amuser with the manly pastime of shooting or otherwise destroying them. A very pretty house has been built on the island, where the sportsmen after the fatigue of the day, partake of a good dinner, with iced wines, etc. and finish with what they term a quiet rubber at whist’.[8]

Some Barbary partridges had also been introduced from North Africa to form part of the game.[9]

[p.77] At that time, the Lieutenant Governor of Gozo and Comino was Lieutenant Colonel John Otto Bayer whose interest in the antiquities of Gozo was such that a few months earlier he had finished clearing the huge piles of debris from within the prehistoric Temple of Ġgantija, then known as the Giants’ Tower, and started an excavation in the middle of a megalithic stone circle in the vicinity. He financed this work from his own pocket.[10] Soon after they had been cleared, and probably shortly before John Otto Bayer’s death in July 1826, these two sites were sketched by the German-Danish artist, Charles Fredrick de Brocktorff, who produced them as a portfolio of twenty-one watercolours between 1828 and 1829 for the 1st. Duke of Buckingham.[11]

Of all the prehistoric megalithic temples in Malta, Ġgantija was the first to be exposed in its entirety to the public. Although the site was mentioned in the first history of Malta by Gian Francesco Abela in 1647[12] and later by other historians, amongst whom the Frenchman Jean Houel and the Englishman Sir Richard Colt Hoare, Hay’s was the first comprehensive and accurate description. The notes taken by John Otto Bayer, which he intended to publish, have been lost. But the Brocktorff watercolours and Hay’s description complement each other as both depict the sites soon after they were cleared. Unfortunately, I have not been able to trace the sketches and measurements by Hay and Bonomi in Gozo although I have seen a few done by Bonomi in Malta and Comino, but not of any archaeological sites.[13]

Hay and Bonomi’s mutual enthusiasm for these archaeological sites prompted them, whilst staying on Comino, to make several boat trips to Gozo. They even ventured to make the crossing in bad weather as they were eager to examine the Ġgantija remains properly, to take measurements and sketches and to discuss them with their excavator, John Otto Bayer. The collaboration of Hay and Bonomi, that commenced in Gozo, continued for some years on their Egyptian expedition.

On 19 September 1824, a shooting excursion to Comino included James Somerville, a former British Consul in Tripoli and the Collector of Land Revenue in Gozo, and Edward Francis Philips, the Superintendent of the Government Post Office. The following day, Hay accompanied Ward to Cominotto where, after shooting some rabbits, they explored some of the coast and caves of the southwest side of Comino, by boat.

On 21 September 1824, Hay and Bonomi set off for Gozo to view the Ġgantija ruins. The day started with rain and thunder and, after waiting for the storm to [p.78] die down a little, they decided to make the crossing. At Mġarr, the tiny port of Gozo, they hired mules and headed off for the ruins. On their way, Bonomi’s mule bolted and sent him to the ground leaving him with a sore backside.[14] In just over an hour they were at the temple. Hay climbed to the top of the megalithic walls from where he could get an idea of the configuration of the temple. Walking round the outside of the ruins to observe how the megaliths were fitted together without the help of mason’s tools, he looked with wonder at the workmanship, which he considered a great achievement. In his diary he describes the temple in detail. By the time the two got back to Comino it was dark and their party was wondering how they were able to keep themselves occupied for so long at the Giant’s Tower.

The following day, when returning to the house in Comino after an hour’s shooting, Hay observed a small square opening in a flat rocky surface which seemed to have been cut in the side of a small hill facing a tiny port. Descending through this hole, he noticed four or five excavations in the rock which he suspected might have been made so as to lay bodies in a catacomb.[15] Hay and Bonomi spent the whole of 26 September at the Giant’s Tower, sketching and taking measurements and once again did not return to Comino until it was almost dark.

On 29 September 1824, Hay and Bonomi were invited by Lieutenant Colonel John Otto Bayer to dine with him in Gozo and they took this opportunity to discuss the ruins. It must have been on this occasion that they discovered that they had missed an important site in the vicinity of the Giants’ Tower. So next day they hastily crossed over to Gozo again and, with the help of a soldier placed at their disposal by Otto Bayer to guide them, they came across a large circle of stones described by Hay as ‘like those druidical ones of the same kind in England’. At one part of this Stone Circle was an entrance formed of two large stones from which it appeared that there had been steps. He said that ‘in another part’ there seemed to have been a large altar. Robert Hay described the site as follows:-

‘in the centre is an excavation which was opened by Col. Otto, where we see large blocks of stone like those described at the Giants’ Tower and steps but of which no exact idea can be formed – some part is covered with masses of rock which seems to extend in a great deal throughout the whole, which has much the appearance from the forms it takes of being coagulated water, but I was sorry owing to circumstances that I could not see Col. Otto to talk to him on these remains ... Out of this excavation were turned large quantities of

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Water colour of the Xagħra Stone Circle, probably by Michele Busuttil.

Otto Bayer excavation in the middle of the Xagħra Stone Circle, as depicted by Charles Frederick de Brocktorff
(courtesy: National Library of Malta)

[p.80] human bones in a complete state of decomposition and I found a tooth and several other small bones that crumbled at the slightest touch – none were larger than the common size. Of this circle of stones we took the measurement as well as of some of the largest stones and marked them on the sketches – the form as well as I can recollect is as below… The operations were given up on account of the proprietor of the field lodging a complaint against Col. Otto for destroying his grounds, although the Col. had the permission of the tenant.’

They left the Stone Circle and returned to the Giants’ Towerbecause John Otto Bayer had informed them that opposite the temple there was an altar which had escaped their attention. They found out that it was, like the others, built into a wall. The site was opposite the main temple, about twelve feet lower in the next field. At 4.30 pm. they left the Giants’ Towerand by about 6 p.m. they were home ready for dinner.

After a week on Comino, Hay was getting anxious to return to Malta to find a vessel heading for Egypt. The next day, 1 October 1824, he left with Bonomi for Malta where they had to wait for a month for suitable transport. On the 31 October 1824, Robert Hay and Joseph Bonomi set sail for Alexandria on the British brigantine Adolfo, arriving at their destination on 8 November 1824. There, the two of them started their adventures in Egyptology.

A sketch of the Xagħra Stone Circle by Robert Hay, referred to in his diary.

This is as far as we are concerned with Robert Hay’s description of the archaeological sites in Gozo. Now we concentrate on one of these sites, the Stone Circle. The excavation was left partially exposed in the centre of the Circle as the landlord had objected to Otto Bayer continuing with the excavation. In 1826, John Otto Bayer left for London on sick leave where he died at the Grosvenor Hotel, Bond Street, on the 4 July 1826.[16] The Stone Circle still continued to remain an attraction for those visiting Ġgantija, including the 1st Duke of Buckingham in 1828. In 1834, the Reverend William Veale Hennah, Chaplain of HMS Windsor

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The site of the Xagħra Stone Circle in 1960

The archaeologists at work within the Xagħra Stone Circle during the excavations of 1987-94

Castle, sent a communication to the Society of Antiquaries of London which included a description of this stone circle, after he was critical of a short note which appeared on the Archaeologia of 1829 written by Captain William Henry Smyth. However, this communication was never published by the Society. In December 1835, Prince Pückler Muskau, the society celebrity, visited Ġgantija. Regarding the Stone Circle he remarked ‘Everything is now destroyed and when we arrived there today, we saw several men busy breaking the last two columns, which until then were preserved. Isn’t this vandalism?’[17]

Eventually, most of the megaliths were quarried to build a nearby dwelling, Otto Bayer’s excavation in the middle of the Circle was filled with earth, the field was planted with fruit trees and vines and the Stone Circle was completely obliterated except for that part which formed a common wall between two properties. At the end of the nineteenth century, the German archaeologist Albert Mayr tried to find the site but without success.

Having been brought up in Xaghra where all these prehistoric remains are situated, I was fascinated from an early age by large stones, ancient pottery and history. As a result of my interest in birds, I was well-acquainted with the countryside of Gozo, especially of my village, and by the time I was a young man, I had started noting unusual features of an archaeological nature such as megaliths and fields littered with small pieces of flint and chert and prehistoric or punic sherds. One day, to trace the nest of a Sardinian warbler, I crawled under a cluster of vegetation and prickly pear trees surrounded from two sides by rubble walls. Although I did not find the nest, I noticed that one wall was built of huge stones and partly hidden under a number of trees and ivy. This impressed me because, as far as I was aware, there was no record of any prehistoric remains in the area. I made a search in the field beyond the megalithic wall for any surface finds and, to my surprise, I collected a handful of prehistoric sherds.

In the summer of 1959, I reported this new site to the Museum Authorities and, in no time, the new Curator of Archaeology, Dr. David Trump, asked me to show him the site. More sherds were collected and Dr. Trump declared that the site belonged to the Maltese Temple Period, about 3000 BC. In the meantime, I discovered more new prehistoric sites in Gozo but, from 1960 onwards, I made a point of finding out exactly where the lost Stone Circle was situated. The main sources of my investigation were:-

(1) Published descriptions,
(2) Systematic survey of the area around Ġgantija,
(3) Surface finds,
(4) Structural remains,
(5) Inspection of the rubble walls,

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(6) Pictorial records,
(7) Archival records, and the
(8) Traditions of the local famers.

Shreds of prehistoric pottery from around the Xagħra Stone Circle

After five years of compiling and analysing the information I obtained from these sources, I was able to come to a final conclusion. Most sources were pointing in one direction: to the megaliths hidden under the trees and in the adjacent field. These were already recorded in the Museum Annual Report for 1959[18] but as a site of minor importance. At this stage, I realized that this megalithic wall was the only substantial remains of the Stone Circle. After some time, I was asked by Mr Francis Mallia, then Curator of Archaeology at the Valletta Museum, to deliver a talk on the site to the Malta Archaeological Circle. This I did in October 1965 with the title ‘The Rediscovery of the Gozo Stone Circle’. The Curator, who was also the Chairman of the Circle, concluded the meeting by saying that ‘efforts will be made to re-excavate the site sometime in the future’.[19] Mr Mallia intended to publish an abridged version of my lecture in a new publication which he planned to produce on studies in Maltese archaeology and history. In March 1969, he published the first issue of a quarterly[20] but, unfortunately, no further issues followed and neither was my script ever published. It was not untill many years later that I came across the manuscript diary of Robert Hay in the British Library which served to revive my interest in the archaeological remains of my home village.

For many years, no attempt was made by the Museum Authorities to investigate the site until in 1983 plans were made to develop the area including the building of a road which would have cut across the Stone Circle. The nearby megalithic site [p.84] at Ta’ Għejżu had already been severely disturbed in preparation for a building site when I raised the alarm with the Museum Authorities and the media.[21]

In 1985, while an international conference of pre-historians was being held in Malta, some of the foreign delegates and some local conservation societies issued statements on the urgent need to protect the national archaeological heritage of the Maltese Islands.[22] This was followed by joint agreements with learned bodies abroad to explore a plan for archaeological surveys and excavations in the threatened areas of Gozo. This became known as the Gozo Project and work on the Stone Circle commenced in August 1987 and was carried out every summer until 1994. The finds were spectacular. Within the Stone Circle there was found a burial ground which went back to 4100 BC and which culminated in a series of underground compartments by the Temple Builders for burial and funerary rituals. The remains of over 600 disarticulated corpses consisting of over 200,000 fragments of human bones were recovered and analysed and almost a ton of pottery sherds, several statues and pendants of unrecorded type were discovered, some of which are now exhibited at the Gozo Archaeological Museum. One of the conclusions of this meticulous excavation was that this site was the centre of human activity from about 4100 BC to the late Bronze Age, 1500 BC.

As for the megalithic wall which aroused my suspicion years before, it was only noticed by the archaeologists long after the conclusion of the dig when, in about 2002, a new owner bought the small field along the wall and cleared it of vegetation. Only two of the megaliths which formed the wall were visible from within the excavation site at the time of the dig. Curiously enough, no survey of the surrounding area appears to have been carried out by the archaeological team either before or during the excavation.[23]

With hindsight, we now realize what a blessing in disguise it was that the owner of the field interrupted Otto Bayer’s unscientific excavation and thus unintentionally preserved the site by filling the hole with earth. But of course we regret that, through his ignorance, he vandalized the stones to use them as building material. The analysis of the finds has now been completed and, after 15 years, the final report has been published.[24] It would have been a complementary source of information for this report if the sketches and measurements of Robert Hay and John Otto Bayer had been available.


* Joseph Attard Tabone was born in Xagħra, Gozo, in 1936. In 1960, he founded the Xagħra Cultural Centre and a year later co-founded the MOS, now Birdlife Malta, of which he is Honorary President. In 1965, he relocated the site of the Gozo (Brocktorff) Stone Circle and later discovered other prehistoric sites in Gozo. His area of research includes Maltese windmills and artists including the Busuttils and Massimo Gauci. In 2003, at a lecture at Worcester College, Oxford, he identified the sitter in a well-known sketch by Massimo Gauci in the Searight Collection at the V& A to be Thomas R. Joliffe and not William J. Bankes, an identification that has been widely accepted. In 2001, he was awarded the Medalja għall-Qadi tar-Repubblika (MQR) for services to the Archeological and Historical Heritage of Malta, especially Gozo. In 2008, Mr Attard Tabone was awarded the Ġieħ Għawdex Medal for services to Gozo and was also elected Honorary Member of The Malta Historical Society. Author’s note: An abridged version of this paper was delivered at the VIII Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East (ASTENE) Conference held at Durham University on 11 July 2009.

[1] National Archives Malta (NAM), Arrivals Register Vol. 20, July to Dec. 1824, not paginated.

[2] S. Tillet, Egypt Itself, London 1983, 6-11.

[3] Robert Hay’s Diary, British Library, Add. MS 31054.

[4] British.Library, Add. MSS 29812 - 60.

[5] Dictionary of National Biography Vol. XXV, London 1886, 275; J. Bonomi, ‘Short Memoir of the Author’ in The Proportions of the Human Figure, London 1880, 5-6.

[6] Hay’s marriage is recorded in four sources: (a) St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Valletta, Marriage Register, folio 42; (b) Lambeth Palace Library MS 1470, f.23; (c) NAM, Register of Marriages solemnized in the Islands of Malta …by virtue of licence from H.E. The Governor, 5 Feb.1821 to 30 Nov.1842, 43; (d) Privy Council, London c.1892, Special reference in the matter of the validity of certain mixed and unmixed marriages in Malta, 235.

[7] NAM, Petitions Book No. 6, June 1821-Dec 1882, 370

[8] J. Maddox, Excursions in the Holy Land, Egypt, Nubia, Syria etc., including a visit to the unfrequented district of the Haowian, in 2 vols., London 1834, Vol I, 9.

[9] C. A. Wright, ‘List of the birds observed in the islands of Malta and Gozo’, The Ibis, London, January 1864, 3.

[10] J. Attard Tabone, ‘The Stone Circle of Gozo Rediscovered’, in Facets of Maltese Prehistory, ed. A. Mifsud and C. Savona Ventura, Malta 1999, 173.

[11] Attard Tabone, 176; National Library of Malta Ms (NLM) 1161.

[12] Attard Tabone, 169, 170. 13

[13] I am indebted to the late Mrs. Vivian Betti, a descendant of Joseph Bonomi, who allowed me to view the numerous sketches of Bonomi in her possession. She later bequeathed these to the Griffiths Institute, Oxford. Amongst these I identified a sketch of Comino Tower and two of Grand Harbour.

[14] Hay’s Diary, f.31v.

[15] K. Buhagiar & C. Sagona, ‘New Archaeological Find on the Island of Comino in the Maltese Archipelago’, in Ancient Near East Studies, The Centre for Classics and Archeology – University of Melbourne, Vol. XL, Peeters Press Louvain 2003, 160-172.

[16] Victoria Reference Library, City of Westminster, London, A Register of Inscriptions affixed to the coffins deposited in the vaults at the burying ground in St. George’s Row, microfilm no. C830.

[17] Attard Tabone, 173 – 177.

[18] Published in 1960.

[19] This discovery was given prominence in the local papers: Times of Malta, 3 December 1965, 6; Il-Berqa, 8 December 1965; Il-Ħaddiem, 7 December 1965, 6.

[20] S. Mallia (Ed.), Studies in Maltese Archaeology and History, Malta, March 1969, 1-12.

[21] The Times (of Malta), 12 January 1983.

[22] During the Conference, I organised visits by three separate groups of delegates to Ġgantija and two threatened sites, the Stone Circle and a prehistoric hut which I had recently discovered on the Għajnsielem Road.

[23] C. Malone, S. Stoddart, A. Bonanno and D. Trump with T. Gouder and A. Pace (Editors), Mortuary Customs in Prehistoric Malta – Excavations at the Brochtorff Circle at Xagħra (1987-1994), McDonald I nstitute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge 2009, 188.

[24] Ibid.