Recent technique used in restoring Mnajdra temples

Author: Ariadne Massa

11 April 2002

The slim white line is the reversible hydraulic lime used to restore the megaliths after last year's vandal attacks

The slim white line is the reversible hydraulic lime used to restore the megaliths after last year's vandal attacks

Despite the destructive vandalism at Mnajdra Temples last year, the temples' restoration has been completed to such perfection that it is very difficult to tell where the megaliths were damaged.

After commissioning a project plan on how best to restore the temples as well as a stone conservation report, the Museums Department opted to use a new cement-free material which blended incredibly well into the megaliths.

On April 13, almost a year ago to the day, at least three people armed with crowbars descended on the 5,000-year-old temples and dislodged and overturned over 60 megaliths, mostly in the Middle Mnajdra Temple.

The shocking vandal attack led to the one-year closure of the temples and they were only opened to the public six days ago, in a low-key way and without much pomp.

On a tour around the temples, Museums Department director Tony Pace and Archaeology Museum curator Nathaniel Cutajar said this restoration technique was only discovered 20 years ago.

The material used to restore the huge megaliths, some of which had been broken in several pieces, is a reversible hydraulic lime which, unlike cement, does not jar and is practically invisible to the naked eye.

Only those who knew where the damage was would be able to see a thin, stone-coloured line going through the megaliths.

Mr Cutajar explained that while this material was not as long-lasting as cement, it could easily be replaced and did not damage the stone.

When restoration work had been carried out by Thomas Ashby in the 1920s, the only technique available was the use of cement and today the work is still extremely evident and it snakes in long, thick lines across the stone.

"Unless some new technology is invented, the cement used by Ashby's team cannot be removed without damaging the stone, since cement adheres to it and trying to scrape it off would only scar the stone," Mr Cutajar said.

"I have to point out that at the time, this was the only known method for restoring stone and Ashby was only doing the best he could with the materials available in that day and age," he said.

Mr Pace said that the restoration practices adopted by Ashby were also used in Greece on the Coliseum and in Cyprus.

It was important for visitors to the temples not to confuse the new restoration works with the more visible works carried out in the 1920s.

"We have managed to restore Mnajdra extremely close to what it was before the vandal attacks, thanks to the good photographic record.

The attack targeted mostly the Middle Mnajdra Temple, with some damage to the Lower Temple and in areas on the outer part of the temple complex.

"I guess the vandals knew that since the stones in the Lower Temple were higher the chances of getting crushed under the stone were greater so they attacked the Middle Temple where the walls are lower," Mr Pace said.

In the majority of the cases, the stones chipped with the fall have been left to weather.

"We had two choices of what to do with the chipped stone - either stick them back together or leave them to weather naturally. We decided to use glue only in the cases where aesthetics was a major issue," Mr Pace said.

The entire restoration of Mnajdra was carried out in two months, between the end of May and July and Mr Cutajar said it was imperative that all the work was completed before the first rains.

"The rocks had become very unstable with the attack and the rain would have caused them to shift and generate more damage in the process," Mr Cutajar said.

The restoration plan followed strict parameters that are enshrined in technical principles adopted by UNESCO and it follows a three-fold strategy, under the direction of Mr Pace.

Advice on stone conservation matters was provided by Dr JoAnn Cassar from the University of Malta, while structural engineering aspects were entrusted to Prof. Alex Torpiano.

Archaeological evidence based on radiocarbon dating indicates that these Maltese megalith temples are the oldest free-standing stone monuments in the world.

Even though the work on Mnajdra was completed last year, the department could not open the temples until a new boundary fence was put in place.

A lot of care was taken to ensure that the fence did not stick out like a sore thumb and though it is now double the size of the original, it blends into the landscape.

The fence has also added more space around the temples and they are not as cooped in as they were before, Mr Cutajar said.

Whereas the original fence was just flimsy wire netting, this has now been replaced with thicker steel wiring.

Despite this, the Bondi+ team showed on TVM on Tuesday, that vandals could still get in if they wanted to and they cut through a fence and walked up to the ancient megaliths with ease.

When asked to comment on this, Mr Pace said that if people wanted to get in somewhere, they would still do so, no matter what security systems were set in place.

"Whatever we do we are never going to win, because someone will still come up with another option - we have to counter the aggression and vandalism through education," he said.

"God forbid we reach a situation where we become a military state - it would be absurd," he insisted.

Mr Pace hoped that Malta would not be affected by the 'Stonehenge syndrome' and close down all its temples to the public.

"Quite a few specialists have recommended that we close Mnajdra, but I am a firm believer in dialogue and I think that in the long run we will win over this attitude," he said.

However, Mr Pace added that CCTV security cameras still had to be installed, but even then it would still be possible for determined vandals to get in if they really wanted to.

Meanwhile, other security measures which have already been put in place include a temporary power supply for both Hagar Qim and Mnajdra and a sub-station has been built in close proximity to Hagar Qim.

The sub-station and the fence have cost around Lm40,000 each.

At the same time, the necessary studies and designs for a permanent power supply were also undertaken and the cables are expected to start being laid in the coming months.

The two sites have also been supplied with a radio link allowing open communication between Mnajdra and Hagar Qim, the Museums Department, other outlying sites and the police. A permanent telephone line has been installed at Hagar Qim.

A number of new 'watchmen cabins', equipped with essential facilities, were also placed on site at both Hagar Qim and Mnajdra.

Mr Pace said that one night of vandal attacks meant that the department lost one year of precious work, because all their efforts were focused on the restoration of the temple.

Despite the public's outrage about the Good Friday destruction, Mr Pace feels that people's patriotism was only temporary and heritage was certainly not on the public's list of priorities.

"After the spirit of the incident wore off, the public stood on a perch and started to complain and attribute fault of the break-in to the Museums Department - this is their heritage too," he said.

"Of course, there are shortcomings, but we are addressing these with very limited resources and, at the end of the day, where is the public when we offer free Sundays for entrance into museums and historical sites?" Mr Pace asked.

Mr Pace said that when this initiative was launched in March last year, 10,000 people had visited the museums in just one month, but this number dropped to just 500 between June and July of that same year.

"We do not get enough support from the public, just complaints. Let us all work together towards protecting our historical treasures" he said.

Source: Times of Malta, www.timesofmalta.com


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