Malta Independent on Sunday, 8 February 2009, by Noel Grima
As far back as 1583, a legend existed in Gozo about Ghar ix-Xih, literally The Cave of the Old Man, but possibly also The Cave of the Sheik.

The legend is about a popular judge who used to sit in judgement on people accused of thefts.

For a long time the legend was just that, a legend, but the location of the cave has now been discovered and along with it a treasure trove of artefacts ranging from Punic to late Roman times.

A very attentive audience filled the hall of the Gozo Ministry last Wednesday to hear about the recent discoveries of the archaeological diggings at Mgarr ix-Xini and in particular about Ghar ix-Xih. The lecture was organised by the Gozo section of Din l-Art Helwa.

The archaeological investigations have been almost entirely financed by two public-spirited local councils, that of Xewkija and that of Sannat.

Anthony Pace, the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage, spoke first about the recent investigations in the valley.

The study, which has already taken four years and needs a further four to eight years of archaeological investigations to be considered complete, is investigating the cultural geomorphology of the valley and how human changes to the land have created the landscape.

The valley, a curious winding fjord, is too big to investigate, so the study focused on the upper part of the valley, from the modern dam up. The north of the dam is full of water during the rainy season but the lower part is full of vegetation and difficult to walk through. Nevertheless, it also includes very old pathways leading down to the sea.

The study focused on the many wine and oil presses found in the valley, as well as the cisterns and the rubble walls. It also came across strange holes never encountered before, and also an ancient quarry.

The ancient presses, of which no less than 15 were found in the area, are very simple to operate and are found all over the Mediterranean, from the lands of the Bible to Portugal. Although there are minor differences between the various presses, they all operate on a very simple technological principle. There is a press bed, which is contained and well defined, and nearby there is a slightly deeper hollow for the juice and its fermentation and storage.

Around the bed there are holes, which it is presumed held poles with a covering (baldakkin) to shelter the wine-pressers from the sun.

Similar wine presses are found in Italy and historians usually date them to Byzantine times. However, the ones in Mgarr ix-Xini have a number of fragments of pots and pans and ceramics that have been dated to much earlier, even to the Bronze Age and Phoenician times. Roman coins have also been found.

A further study investigated the cultural landscape of the valley by dedicating a closer study of one of the terraced fields next to one of the wine presses. Through two ditches dug in parallel in this field, it was possible to go back in time to the era when the first attempt at cultivation of the site was made. The topsoil, which was painstakingly removed, had sealed layers of past deposits. This excavation yielded a huge amount of pottery, so much so that up to six cassettes of datable material were retrieved.

A major find was the rubble wall at the end of the field, which is now dated as having been there since the 6th century BC.

The picture that emerges from last summer’s excavation is of a community that came alive in September and October, producing wine in September and olive oil in October. In other words, a mixed economy.

Access to the sea at Mgarr ix-Xini provided the nearest transport to the markets of both Malta and Sicily.

Similar wine presses have been discovered in Malta, so there was competition for the Mgarr ix-Xini wine pressers, and perhaps that is also the reason why they sought a new market in Sicily, which also produced its own wine. That the community was not an isolated one is proved by the international influence found on the pottery discovered, including a Greek form of ceramics.

Ghar ix-Xih

Professor Anthony Bonanno introduced the next theme, which dealt with the excavations at Ghar ix-Xih. He paid tribute to George Azzopardi who, quite by chance, found the cave that many archaeologists had searched for in the past but never found.

Dr Nicholas Vella, leader of the team of excavators, explained the findings.

The cave is situated at the mouth of the valley, from where a wonderful panorama of the valley, the bay, the sea and far-off Malta can be enjoyed.

Nearby is another cave, known to locals as Il-Habs, (The Prison) which reinforces the legend of the Old Man and his court and where evildoers would be imprisoned.

But… surprise, surprise… there is no cave today, just an almost sheer rock face that seems to have been sliced off.

However, the cave did exist in olden times. A study on how the cave became a sheer rock face is very interesting.

The excavation has come up with the following hypothesis. The cave began history as a cave that had a deep hollow right in front of it.

This is the area just off the dumping ground, and once again shows how so much of the historical past can be literally buried by rubbish.

A large amount of pottery has been found, two pieces from the Bronze Age, as well as Punic, Republican Roman, and late Roman.

As said, the cave began life… as a cave. The layer near the rock ground of the cave shows the normal soil deposit of a cave, the flakes that fall from the ceiling, sterile and untouched by human intervention.

Following this era, bones were deposited all over the cave floor. Today they are only found in two areas.

Then somehow, the overhang was chopped off and the cave thus disappeared, except for a small recess.

As said earlier, right in front of the cave there was a deep hollow. Last year this was surveyed with radar equipment from the University of Ghent. Two flights of steps and a well complete the area.

The excavations and radar survey show blocks of stones, maybe to support structures, and bones of red deer.

As with the Mgarr ix-Xini excavations, the rubble wall proved to be a major feature of the site. Any dating of this rubble wall will help one understand what happened so many centuries ago. A trench dug just behind the rubble wall during last summer’s excavations turned up late Punic pottery.

Maybe too the wall had collapsed at one point and was rebuilt. Carthaginian cups dating from the third or fourth century before Christ, maybe even earlier, were found.

Also found in the immediate area were the remains of a small area of a plaster floor laid on a layer of sea pebbles. The pottery found nearby is thought to be Republican Roman pottery.

There is also evidence of later use. The very flat floor also has evidence of a hearth with a large spread of ashes and with late Roman pottery. Maybe the site had to be abandoned in a hurry.

This is the area where many figurines were found. The small statues were made of terracotta, such as a pair of feet from what may have been a statue. Other remains in the topmost layer of soil include some heads of terracotta figurines. It was one such small head, an inch or so in height found by George Azzopardi in the area that led him to discover where the cave of the legend was.

One piece of pottery found has what might be letters of the Punic alphabet on it.

The pottery, together with a large amount of seashells and the animal bones are evidence of a community life near the sea.

Maybe future excavations will discover the truth or otherwise of legends that speak of a small shrine in the vicinity, a sacred activity that complements the trading activity by way of the sea.

One cup that was found (when we speak of cups we refer to fragments of cups) seems related to a cup that was found in Ras il-Wardija in Malta. The amphorae shards and cups that were found in Mgarr ix-Xini also relate to similar discoveries at Tas-Silg, thus indicating feasting and ritual use.

The topmost level of the soil was used for agricultural purposes and the site may have also been cleared for bird-trapping.