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The Paleochristian heritage of the Maltese Islands rates as the fourth most important cluster of such monuments in the Mediterranean Region following those of the Italy, Israel and of the Maghreb. The most prominent feature of Malta's Paleochristian archaeology consists of an extensive concentration of subterranean burial grounds (OI catacombs) located under the modern town of Rabat and the surrounding rural districts.
The Maltese catacombs are hewn out of the live rock and the majority were originally located on the outskirts of the ancient Roman town of Melite (today's Rabat) in a period covering the mid-Third to the early Seventh Century AD - Melite being in antiquity the administrative capital of the Maltese islands.
These burial grounds developed from a tradition of simple rock-cut tombs of the Phoenician and Hellenistic eras (7th cent BC -1st cent AD). Such older tombs were composed of simple pits cut into the rock, at the bottom of which a chamber would be scooped out. In later centuries more complex solutions were attempted, resulting in the catacomb typology used in Malta during the Imperial Roman and Byzantine period. The Roman catacombs of Malta could be either accessed by means of a stairway hewn into the live rock, or else cut into a pre-existing vertical quarry face.
At Rabat - given the limited availability of space and of suitable limestone deposits - five centuries of continuous funerary activity have had to be tightly packed within a very restricted area measuring approximately X Km2. One of the solutions adopted in Antiquity to rationalise on the lack of space consisted in creating extensive, centrally- planned, communal catacombs that provided space for numerous family units simultaneously. In one instance, burial corridors were cut out on three subterranean stories. The Rabat catacombs are a very eloquent reflection of the type of urban culture and social organisation enjoyed in Roman and Byzantine Melite. The changing nature of Malta's living urban centres was in fact paralleled in the way in which these underground centres for the dead were planned out and executed. A case in point is the co-mingling of religious rites that may be identified within the Rabat catacombs, which includes clear references to Christianity, to pagan practices and to Judaism. A remarkable feature is the co-existence of these different religions within the same locality, reflecting the actual creative co-habitation of these different cultures within Late Roman society - a fact which is well documented in the ancient classical sources. This "mixed" feature of the Maltese catacombs is rarely equaled anywhere else in the Mediterranean.
In spite of their communal nature, the Rabat catacombs - such as the catacombs of St. Paul, St. Agatha and Tad-Dejr - may still be perceived as agglomerates of individual family burial units. This is a key characteristic of all Maltese catacombs, retaining a strong family connection, contrary to the general Late Roman trend of developing catacombs along purely communal considerations.
Other important clusters of small-scale family catacombs have also been discovered in outlying rural areas - such as those of Tal-Mintna, Marsascala, and Xarolla (in the south of Malta) and those of Bistra, Salina and Mellieha (in the North). These rural catacombs are our best surviving monuments to describe rural Maltese society in Late Roman times. These monuments clearly illustrate to what extent the rural communities of the time followed the cultural and religious lead of the Melita township.
Although lacking the sophistication of the catacombs of Rome, the Maltese catacombs are excellent documents of the changing cultural, artistic and social climates of the Mediterranean world in the centuries going from the 3rd to the Centuries AD. This enormous resource of archaeological and cultural information may be tapped through the proper understanding of the various art-forms, catacomb designs, inscriptions, funerary and skeletal evidence contained by such catacombs.
Some of the Rabat catacombs remained devotional foci right into the 17th Century, being converted into popular cultic centres attracting popular religious pilgrimages as from about the 12th Century AD.