Excavation reveals complex story of ancient Tas-Silġ site

Right from the first excavations carried out in the area known as Tas-Silġ, Marsaxlokk in the 1960s by the Missione Archeologica Italiana, it was evident that this was a significant archaeological site.

Excavation reveals complex story of ancient Tas-Silġ site
The current excavations revealed ancient remains beneath the floor
of a 19th-century farmhouse [Credit: Times of Malta]

Throughout the years, the site continued to unravel further discoveries and a current excavation by Heritage Malta − in collaboration with the Department of Classics and Archaeology at the University of Malta and with support by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage − confirmed once more that the ancient site has a more complex story than previously thought.

The new findings came to light when Heritage Malta and the Ministry for  Culture embarked on a new project to restore and transform a 19th-century farmhouse to serve as a small visitor centre.

“The farmhouse was never excavated and so this project offered a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of what has been hiding beneath it,” David Cardona, Heritage Malta, senior curator and Tas-Silġ project director, said.

This project also served as an opportunity to a group of students reading for an undergraduate degree in archaeology at the University who were involved in this excavation as part of their formal fieldwork training.

Excavation reveals complex story of ancient Tas-Silġ site
Finds of the latest excavations being documented
[Credit: Times of Malta]

The first systematic archaeological investigations of the site which were carried out by the Missione Archeologica Italiana had uncovered substantial structural remains of a multi-period sanctuary, ranging from the Neolithic to the Phoenician, Punic and Late Republican Roman period.  On the other hand, the University studies, which took place to the south of the main site, led to the discovery of a substantial amount of pottery fragments and animal bones.

Tas-Silġ site director and University lecturer Maxine Anastasi explained that pottery fragments can reveal much information, including the different periods when the site was in use, how the pottery was made and from where the material was obtained, how the pottery was utilised and what people were eating.

“Inscribed pottery can provide further data and these were found in their hundreds at the southern site of Tas-Silġ,” she said.

Dr Anastasi revealed that the current excavations have also yielded pottery, some of which had inscriptions, animal bones, as well as other artefacts such as Punic and Roman building materials and fragments of architectural cornices that once adorned the temple façade.

Excavation reveals complex story of ancient Tas-Silġ site
Pottery fragment with an inscription found during the current excavations
[Credit: Times of Malta]

According to Heritage Malta field archaeologist and Tas-Silġ site director Francesco Fontanelli, a strong point of this site is that it offers unparalleled insights about the various cultures that were present on the islands since the Temple Period and how every new culture interacted with their predecessors and the structures left there by them.

“Even the farmhouse forms part of this narrative and this year it was time to disclose its story,” he said.

The removal of the floors of the farmhouse has, in fact, uncovered further important archaeological remains, including a succession of floors and walls, mostly related to the extensions constructed in the Republican period.

The new discoveries have also identified a number of ‘robber’ or spoliation trenches which were dug in more modern times to exploit the good building stone of the ancient temple.

John C. Betts, senior lecturer at the University and also Tas-Silġ site director, explained that all the excavations inside and around the farmhouse were duly documented.

Excavation reveals complex story of ancient Tas-Silġ site
Newly-found pottery fragments being washed
[Credit: Times of Malta]

Photos were taken in all the areas to produce 3D models of the site during and after the excavations.

A drone will eventually also be used to produce a photographic map of the entire site and a 3D model of the area.

Asked whether the Tas-Silġ site could be far more extensive than what was discovered until now, Dr Cardona explained that the present boundaries of the site were built on the same lines of the properties which were expropriated at the time of the original 1960s excavations.

Therefore, it is possible that these do not necessarily reflect the size of the site.

“The main hindrance in understanding the site as one complex remains the road that splits the temple precinct in two,” Dr Cardona noted.

“Both sides of the road have been investigated by extensive excavations but the link between the two areas and how they both worked together within the complex religious, social and cultural processes of this important temple is still missing; buried under a road that has been present on site since at least the 1600s,” he added.

Excavation reveals complex story of ancient Tas-Silġ site
The extensive site of Tas-Silg, in the limits of Marsaxlokk
[Credit: Times of Malta]

Nicholas Vella, head of the Department of Classics and Archaeology at the University and Tas-Silġ project director, fully agrees.

He remarked that the time was ripe to consider rerouting the road so that the whole of Tas-Silġ can be enjoyed as one important archaeological site.

“It is likely that beneath the road lie the remains of the large area that served as the place where pilgrims to this sanctuary congregated in Punic and Roman times before accessing the holy precincts − a sort of parvis that we get in front of parish churches locally,” Prof. Vella said.

Heritage Malta has recently launched a long-term plan to protect, conserve and make the site more accessible to the public.

“A management brief is currently being drafted to put on paper Heritage Malta’s future vision of this site,” Dr Cardona said.

“This is being done through consultation with the different stakeholders. The restoration and transformation of this farmhouse into a small visitor facility centre is just one of many steps required to make Heritage Malta’s final vision possible.”

Author: Fiona Vella | Source: Times of Malta [July 18, 2019]



Tutankhamun golden coffin under restoration for the first time since 1922

Experts have begun restoration work on the golden-plated coffin of Egypt’s boy-king Tutankhamun for the first time since the discovery of the tomb in 1922, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities said on Wednesday.

Tutankhamun golden coffin under restoration for the first time since 1922
Tutankhamun’s gilded outer coffin; one of three that protected the royal mummy
[Credit: Nariman El-Mofty]

The coffin and the treasured collection of Tutankhamun’s tomb are expected to be the centrepiece of the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) that Egypt will open next year near the Pyramids of Giza.

British archaeologist Haward Carter discovered the tomb of the 18th dynasty king in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor in 1922. The tomb was untouched and included about 5,000 artefacts.

The ministry said the coffin was transported from southern Egypt to the GEM three days ago “in order to be restored for the first time since the tomb’s discovery”.

“The coffin has suffered a lot of damage, including cracks in the golden layers of plaster and a general weakness in all golden layers,” said Eissa Zidan, Head of the First Aid Restoration Department at the GEM.

“The restoration work will take about eight months” he added.

Egypt has previously announced that the GEM, which has been under construction for about 15 years and is partially funded by Japan, will officially open by the end of 2020.

Author: Sameh Elkhatib | Source: Reuters [July 18, 2019]



How CHEOPS will investigate planet-hosting stars

ESA — CHEOPS Mission logo.

18 July 2019

As launch approaches for ESA’s Characterising Exoplanet Satellite, CHEOPS, scientists are rounding off the observing plans for the mission, with the science themes of the core programme announced recently and proposals for guest observations for the first year of CHEOPS operations under evaluation.

CHEOPS, ESA’s first exoplanet mission. Image Credits: ESA/ATG medialab

Observing stars that are known to harbour planets with unprecedented accuracy to characterise their planetary population – this is the main goal of ESA’s upcoming CHEOPS mission, scheduled for launch between 15 October and 14 November. But how exactly is the mission going to achieve this?

«The majority of science observing time on CHEOPS is dedicated to a programme meticulously crafted by the mission Science Team, and focussed around important themes in current exoplanet research,» explains Kate Isaak, CHEOPS project scientist at ESA.

«In addition, 20% of CHEOPS time is reserved for observations by the scientific community worldwide. Between March and May, scientists submitted their proposals to the first call for Guest Observations, with the results of this competitive process to be announced later this month.»

The mission’s chief objective is to investigate the structure of exoplanets larger than Earth and smaller than Neptune. CHEOPS will do this by observing the planets as they transit in front of their host star, using a technique called ultrahigh precision transit photometry.

What kind of exoplanets will CHEOPS study? Animation Credit: ESA.

By monitoring the starlight dim during a transit and then increase again, it is possible to determine the planet’s size which, combined with the mass – known from independent measurements – provides a measure of the planet’s density. Density is the key quantity CHEOPS is after in order to start characterising the nature of these planets – for example, discerning lava worlds or rocky Earth-like planets from gas planets or ocean worlds.

Unlike previous exoplanet satellites, such as the CNES-led CoRoT or NASA’s Kepler and Tess missions, CHEOPS is not a ‘discovery machine’ but rather a follow-up mission, focussing on individual stars that are already known to host one or more planets.

«By targeting known systems, we know exactly where to look in the sky and when in order to capture exoplanet transits very efficiently,» says Willy Benz, CHEOPS principal investigator at the University of Bern, Switzerland.

«This makes it possible for CHEOPS to return to each star on multiple occasions around the time of transit and record numerous transits, thus increasing the precision of our measurements and enabling us to perform a first-step characterization of small planets – in the Earth-to-Neptune size range.»

Searching for exoplanet transits

The two major themes of the CHEOPS core science programme – which is also referred to as the Guaranteed Time Observing (GTO) programme – are centred on determining the bulk properties of planets, in particular their densities, using transit observations.

Exoplanet transit. Image Credit: ESA

About 10% of the programme will be dedicated to planets that were previously discovered via ground-based observations using the so-called radial velocity technique, but were not yet observed as they transit in front of their host star. The radial velocity technique infers the presence of a planet from the wobble it imparts on the star, allowing us to estimate the planet’s mass. Depending on the inclination of their orbit, a fraction of these planets crosses the disc of their parent star as viewed from the perspective of an observer on or near Earth, so scientists will observe their host stars with CHEOPS at exactly the times when such a transit is expected to take place.

For some planets, we have already measured both transit and radial velocity, but even in these cases CHEOPS can still make a huge difference. Knowing when and where to point, the mission can gauge the sizes of these planets with much greater accuracy, improving our knowledge of their density and enabling scientists to refine models of planet formation and evolution. With these measurements physical information about the planets’ atmospheres may be retrieved as well.  This part of the programme, taking up roughly a third  of the core science time, will focus primarily on small planets, planets with peculiar characteristics, and multiple planetary systems.

«After two decades of planet discoveries, with CHEOPS we enter the era of exoplanetology, delving into the physical and chemical properties of planetary systems beyond our own,» says Didier Queloz, chair of the CHEOPS science team, from University of Geneva, Switzerland.

Exoplanet atmospheres and other features

Understanding the true nature of exoplanets and enquiring into their potential habitability requires not only knowledge of their internal structure, but also a study of their atmospheric properties. CHEOPS is not equipped with a spectrograph to analyse the chemical composition of planetary atmospheres. Nonetheless, its observations allow for a first-step examination by studying the phase curve of a planet’s host star, or how the light that is measured changes over the full orbit of the planet.

Artist’s impression of an exoplanet system. Image Credit: ESA

Depending on the planet’s position with respect to the parent star, the total light collected by CHEOPS will include a varying fraction of light reflected off the planet – none during a phase known as secondary eclipse, when the planet is hidden from view, and some shortly before and after this phase. These data enable scientists to determine some interesting properties of the planet’s atmosphere, for example evaluating the presence of clouds. Around a fourth of the core programme will be dedicated to these observations, focussing on the brightest stars in the CHEOPS list of targets.

About 10% of the program will be dedicated to characterising special features of particular planets, such as the presence of moons and rings or the tidal stretching caused by the host star’s gravitational pull.

New discoveries and additional science

Although CHEOPS is primarily a follow-up mission that will concentrate on the characterisation of known exoplanets, it also has a significant discovery potential. Around 15% of the core science programme will be dedicated to the search for new planets around bright stars using a variety of different approaches: from targeting multi-planet systems and planetary systems hosting massive planets orbiting very close to their host star – the so-called hot Jupiters – to exploiting a technique known as transit timing variation (TTV) to find additional exoplanets in a known system via the gravitational perturbations these exert on the targeted transiting planet. It will also make it possible to search for so-called exo-trojans – small celestial bodies sharing the orbit of a known exoplanet.

Exoplanet imaginarium. Image Credit: ESA

Finally, the rest of the time, the satellite will be devoted to non-time critical observations from other research areas such as stellar physics and planetary science, each with a particular relevance to exoplanet studies.

«The ensemble of themes provides us with a comprehensive scientific programme with which to explore the diversity of exoplanets and make progress in our understanding of planet formation, evolution and the emergence of life in the Universe,» adds Queloz.

In addition to that, proposals that will be selected as part of the ESA-run Guest Observers’ (GO) programme will contribute further avenues to be investigated, advancing our knowledge of exoplanets and enabling many new discoveries to come.

«With the satellite ready and the observing programmes in great shape, we are eagerly waiting for the launch of CHEOPS and for the science harvest to begin,» concludes Isaak.

Notes for editors:

CHEOPS is an ESA mission implemented in partnership with Switzerland, with important contributions from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

80% of the science observing time on CHEOPS is dedicated to the Guaranteed Time Observing (GTO) programme, defined by the CHEOPS Science Team. The remaining 20% is made available to the astronomical community in the form of an ESA-run Guest Observers’ (GO) programme, with proposals selected via a competitive peer-review selection process.

CHEOPS: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Cheops

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: ESA/Kate Isaak/University of Bern/Willy Benz/Observatoire de l’Université de Genève/Didier Queloz.

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