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Protecting Roman baths in Għajn Tuffieħa

The Għajn Tuffieħa Roman Baths have been backfilled with layers of a variety of protective materials in order to conserve them for future generations, in the first ever intervention of its kind by Heritage Malta.

What are the Għajn Tuffieħa Roman baths?

Here’s some history. The remains of the Roman Baths at Għajn Tuffieħa were found by chance, as they were discovered in 1929 during government works to cap a freshwater spring, to water fields in the area. This and other nearby springs may explain why the baths, which needed constant flow of water, were built at this exact site at Għajn Tuffieħa. Though the area is rather deserted today, it was heavily populated during the Roman times, as testified by burials in Żebbiegħ and Mġarr.

The baths date back to between the end of the first and start of the second century AD and though it’s not completely excavated yet, it seems the site was large, with a communal latrine and possibly a small, rudimentary hotel-like structure in which people could stay overnight. That being said, there is little left of that other than the baths themselves.

Fast forward to today and it has been decided that the site should be preserved in its current state, in order to slow down the deterioration process and ensure stability.

Structures on site provide shelter from sun and rain, however they offer no protection against heat, wind and water seeping beneath. Besides erosion caused by the elements, along the years damage has also been caused by small animals foraging in the area, plant roots, and people’s footsteps albeit the site is not open to the public except occasionally.

Plans for the conservation of the Roman Baths had been drafted for quite some time. In fact, two years ago, as a precautionary measure, a trial was conducted by backfilling a small area on site, devoid of Roman mosaic, with the same materials used in the latter intervention. Following a detailed analysis of the site, in the month prior to this intervention emergency conservation works were carried out by Heritage Malta’s restorers. These included consolidation works, plastering of cracks and plant removal. Detached mosaic pieces were put back in place so as not to be lost and so as to recreate the pattern. Every step was documented, including 3D modelling by Heritage Malta’s archaeologists.

The stratigraphy employed in the site’s backfilling is recognisable and reversible, enabling future archaeologists and conservator-restorers to distinguish the materials from the original site. Both local and imported materials were used. These were separated from the original surface and from each other through the use of geotextile.

Photo: Heritage Malta

Photo: Heritage Malta

Heritage Malta’s Chief Executive Officer, Noel Zammit, said that this is a clear and practical example of how the national agency for cultural heritage gives a future to the nation’s past.

“The current situation was not allowing the site to be preserved properly, leading us to decide to deprive ourselves of it in order to enable future generations to enjoy it instead. We cannot retrieve what has been lost from the site with the passage of time, but we can prevent further losses,” said Zammit, stressing that the backfilling is only a temporary measure and that Heritage Malta will not disregard this site but will continue to take care of its upkeep until the time comes for it to be uncovered again without any risk for the preservation of the site itself.