Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica. [Malta Historical Society]. 7(1976)1(93-94)

VINCENT BORG, "Une Île et ses hypogées de l'ere des premiers chrétiens: Malte" in Catacombes juives et chrétiennes = Les Dossiers de I'Archéologie, no. 19 (novembre - décembre 1976), pp. 52-67.

The investigation of Malta's paleochristian catacombs or hypogea must naturally begin with a careful inspection of the existing monuments and a thorough survey of the published data, notably in the important but unsatisfactory older works of A.A. Caruana and E. Becker. The typologies of the architecture and the decoration should then be worked out in detail; thereafter comparisons can be made with Carthage, Siracusa, Naples, Rome and elsewhere, a process complicated by iconographical problems and the difficulty of consulting the foreign literature. This is the correct methodological approach followed by Mgr Vincent Borg who is undoubtedly the person best equipped to embark on such a programme. In his profusely illustrated article, which appears alongside studies of numerous Italian catacombs and constitutes an excellent preliminary or interim report on his findings, he concentrates on the Christian rather than the Romano-Punic or Jewish monuments. Briefly, the thesis is that in Malta at least seven hypogea with a mensa or "agape table" are Christian because they have Christian inscriptions or symbols, and that no demonstrably Jewish hypogeum has a mensa; therefore all mensa hypogea, of which a good number are known, must have been Christian, as were certain Christian tombs which once had mensae but have since lost them. The virtue of this argument is that it is based on the observable Maltese evidence and takes account also of parallels outside the island, where there are in fact examples of non-Christian as well as many Christian mensa cemetries. The article also studies the distribution of the hypogea; their rather scanty paintings, carvings and inscriptions; and the architectural types of their tombs — with window, with niche and vault, or with variations on the baldacchino form, one remarkable variety of which is found only in Malta.

The main point concerning the identification of the Christian hypogea [p.94] is generally convincing, though in strict logic there may be some room for further debate. The brevity and the somewhat awkward format of the publication do not a'low the author to present all the data and plans on which such a thesis should ultimately be based. The vexed and vital problems of chronology are left for further discussion, and certain other matters, for example the archaeological indications of the existence of missing mensae, would benefit from a detailed exposition. Vincent Borg is properly doubtful whether trustworthy demographic conclusions can be drawn from the internal arrangements or from the topographical distribution of the paleochristian hypogea, but a significant increase in the number and therefore of the proportion of tombs which are demon-strably Christian must affect ancient disputes concerning the extent of the Christianization of Malta. At this point other evidence is also relevant, and Borg cites en passant the publications of the Italian Archaeological Mission for a probable fifth-century dating of the Christian basilica and baptistry at Tas-Silg, for a documentation of monastic life there, and for the claim that no other paleochristian basilica or baptistry exists in Malta; but this is not the place to advance possible reservations on those points.

In the tradition of his fellow-Maltese Antonio Bosio, the Father of Underground Archaeology, Vincent Borg is making the first major contribution to this difficult subject since E. Becker's Malta Sotterranea of 1913. The bibliography and documentation are most valuable, especially in view of continuing threats to the catacombs themselves.

Anthony Luttrell