Holocene sea level change in Malta
, Fabrizio Antonioli
, Sara Biolchi
, Timothy Gambin
, Ritienne Gauci
Valeria Lo Presti
, Marco Anzidei
, Stefano Devoto
, Mariarita Palombo
, Attilio Sulli
Dipartimento di Matematica e Geoscienze, Università degli Studi di Trieste, Italy
Dipartimento di Geograﬁa“G. Morandini”, Università di Padova, Italy
ENEA, Roma, Italy
Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra, Università degli Studi di Modena e Reggio Emilia, Modena, Italy
University of Malta, Malta
Aurora Trust, Malta
Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra e del Mare, Università di Palermo, Italy
Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra, Università di Roma “La Sapienza”, Italy
Available online 25 February 2012
A multidisciplinary approach has been applied to study sea level changes along the coast of Malta using
data collected from underwater archaeological remains. The elevation of archaeological markers have
been compared with predicted sea level curves providing new bodies of evidence that outline the vertical
tectonic behaviour of this region, allowing estimation of the relative sea level changes that occurred in
this area of the Mediterranean since the Bronze Age. During the Roman Age, sea level was at
1.36 0.1 m, while in the Midde Age it was at 0.56 0.2 m, in agreement with previous estimations
for the Mediterranean region. Data indicate that Malta was tectonically stable during the studied period.
The occurrence of the present-day notch along the coasts of the island indicates recent vertical stability
of the area. The lack of MIS 5.5 deposits all over the island could simply be due to high rates of erosion, as
its coasts are highly exposed to storm waves, rather than tectonic movements. However, even very slight
vertical movements could completely remove ﬁeld evidence. The relative stability of the Maltese Islands
allowed a ﬁrst attempt to provide a palaeoenvironmental reconstruction of its coasts at different time
windows since the Last Glacial Maximum. The results have been used to infer time and mode of mammal
dispersal to the island during the Pleistocene.
Ó2012 Elsevier Ltd and INQUA. All rights reserved.
Relative sea level changes along the Mediterranean coasts have
been the subject of several papers during the last decade
(Flemming, 1969;Lambeck et al., 2004a;Lambeck and Purcell,
2005;Antonioli et al., 2007,2009). Few archaeological or geomor-
phological data have been considered to evaluate sea level changes
in Malta, although both geomorphological evidence and the study
of coastal settlements could provide useful data. Although the
Geological Map of Malta (Oil Exploration Directorate, 1993) and
Hunt (1996) reported the occurrence of marine Quaternary
deposits above mean sea level in the northern part of the island, no
dating was provided. Trenchmann (1938) and Hunt (1996) reported
the presence of marine Quaternary deposits, while Paskoff and
Sanlaville (1978) and Magri (2006) suggested an absence of MIS
5.5 deposits on the island because of Quaternary subsidence and
tilting towards the northeast.
Although no detailed underwater surveying on coastal archae-
ological remains has been carried out, local researchers provide
some useful observations. Zammit (1928) and Abela (1999) studied
the Bronze Age pits at Birzebbugia, which are similar to the pits
noted at Borg in-Nadur (other local Bronze Age remains). However,
as suggested by Biolchi et al. (2011), the elevation of these pits
represents an upper limit, as they are not directly related to sea
level, although they had to remain above it. With regards to the
coastal remains from the Roman period, no scientiﬁc works have
been carried out.
Recent papers have shown that coastal archaeological data are
a powerful tool to evaluate the sea level changes and the related
vertical tectonic movements since historical times (Pirazzoli et al.,
1996;Lambeck et al., 2004b;Antonioli et al., 2007;Scicchitano
*Corresponding author. University of Trieste, Department of Geosciences, via
Weiss 2, Trieste, Italy.
E-mail address: email@example.com (S. Furlani).
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Quaternary International 288 (2013) 146e157
et al., 2008;Auriemma and Solinas, 2009). Sea level change is the
sum of eustatic, glacio-hydroisostatic and tectonic movements: the
ﬁrst is global and time-dependent, and the latter two vary with
location, sediment load, compaction and anthropic factors
(Lambeck et al., 2004a). The glacio-hydro-isostatic component of
post-glacial sea level rise has been recently predicted and
compared with ﬁeld data at several coastal sites around the Italian
coasts (Lambeck et al., 2004a;Antonioli et al., 2007,2009) and for
other areas of the Mediterranean Sea (Anzidei et al., 2011a,2011b),
providing an estimate of the rates of the current vertical tectonic
Following systematic surveying of the coasts of Malta through
direct underwater observations, this study aims at providing new
data on coastal archaeological remains and at discussing the
Holocene sea level change and vertical tectonic rates. On the basis
of the relative tectonic stability of Malta since the Last Glacial
Maximum (Lambeck et al., 2011), a palaeoshoreline reconstruction
has been provided since 20 ka BP. This can also provide an essential
key for a better understanding of the sea level changes that
occurred during the Middle and Late Pleistocene, which permitted
discrete colonization events of the island by both large and small
2. Geological framework
The Maltese Islands (Fig. 1) developed in the Pelagian Block
(Sicily Channel), a large area located between Sicily and North
Africa, where the wide continental shelves (Adventure Bank and
Hyblean-Pelagian to the north, Tunisian and Kerkenna to the south)
are separated by a gently dipping slope. The latter is cut by three
NW-SE striking deep sectors, known as Pantelleria, Malta and
The Sicily Channel is characterized by thinned continental
lithosphere (60e70 km), shallow Moho depth (20e25 km), high
heat ﬂow, positive Bouguer anomalies and signiﬁcant volcanic
activity associated with magnetic anomalies (Della Vedova et al.,
1989). The palaeogeographic evolution of the Pelagian Block is
characterized by a widespread Triassic carbonate platform resting
on a Permian shallow to deep water domain. Transtensional
tectonics opened large basins during the late Triassic-Liassic. The
area was a pelagic domain until the Paleogene, with the exception
of the Lampedusa and Malta sectors, where shallow water condi-
tions prevailed until the Miocene. In the Maltese Islands, a sedi-
mentary sequence represented by carbonate rocks from Upper
Oligocene to Upper Miocene crops out. It is subdivided in four
formations (Fig. 2): Lower Coralline Limestone Formation (Chat-
tian), Globigerina Limestone Formation (Aquitanian-Early Lan-
ghian), on which the archaeological sites are located, Blue Clay
Formation (Langhian-Tortonian), and Upper Coralline Limestone
Formation (Late Tortonian-Early Messinian) (Pedley et al., 1978).
Stratigraphic observations inferred from the Naxxar wells (for
hydrocarbon exploration; Dart et al., 1993), point out that the
unexposed sedimentary succession, more than 2800 m thick, starts
with Mesozoic (Cretaceous) shallow water carbonates (Naxxar
dolomites), probably resting on a Triassic-Jurassic sequence. The
Quaternary deposits consists of continental successions valley
loams and breccias and ossiferous deposits in caves and ﬁssures
(Trenchmann, 1938) or very thin surﬁcial deposits, such as red soils
and colluvial sediments (Pedley, 2011).
The region can be considered as the foreland of the Sicilian-
Maghrebian chain and displays a tectonic evolution, mainly
during the last 5 Ma, with the latter being a matter of controversial
interpretation. It is believed to be subject either to transtensional
(both right- and left-lateral) and/or extensional tectonics (Finetti
and Del Ben, 1986;Jongsma et al., 1987) or to rifting processes
(Grasso et al., 1993;Catalano et al., 1994). The rifting processes
could have produced two different systems: 1) NEeSW trending
faulting during the early Miocene, with 15% extension and
accompanied by crustal thinning; 2) NWeSE trending faulting,
initiated during the Late Miocene-Early Pliocene and still active,
with a right lateral component (Illies, 1981). The Malta Escarpment
is a major geomorphological feature separating the Hyblean-Malta
plateau, resting on continental crust, from the deep Ionian Basin,
believed to lie on an old oceanic realm (Catalano et al., 2000).
The Sicily Channel (Fig. 1) underwent folding during the
Miocene, probably due to a weak compressional stress ﬁeld,
responsible for the formation of large NWeSE anticlines which
collapsed along the Malta, Pantelleria and Linosa Graben (Catalano
et al., 1994). This event is coeval to the arching of the Hyblean
foreland, probably connected to the advancing of the Sicilian chain.
The graben is ﬁlled by Plio-Pleistocene deposits, which display
a deformational pattern that supports both extensional (rollover
anticlines) and transpressional or inversion tectonics.
The Malta Graben is a large basin 1600 m deep, WNW-ESE
trending, with a sigmoidal shape, which merges to the west with
the Pantelleria trough. Listric normal faults opened it after the
Messinian. It is ﬁlled by about 1500 m thick Plio-Pleistocene clastic
deposits, in which two sequences, separated by a strong angular
unconformity, can be identiﬁed. A severe downfaulting affected
also the most recent deposits.
An end-Calabrian Stage (Emilian Sub-Stage) marine surface
erosion recognized in the Maltese islands could conﬁrm that the
tectonic event responsible for both the reactivation of the Graben
systems during late Messinian-middle Pliocene, and also the uplift
of the islands, ceased well before the early Calabrian. Subsequent
minor regional uplift, sea level ﬂuctuations and subaerial weath-
ering processes contributed in shaping the present morphology of
the islands (Pedley, 2011).
The Maltese Islands are believed to have a low seismicity, linked
mainly to intraplate stress along almost vertical extensional faults
pertaining to the rifting process and subordinately to the activity of
the Malta Escarpment and the Scicli strike-slip fault (Fig. 1).
Earthquake activity is generally characterized by small magnitude
events (Pedley et al., 2002), the strongest being recorded in 1693
(Galea, 2008), while the most recent (ML 4.1) occurred April 24,
Fig. 1. Location map of the study area with major thrusts and faults (Google Maps).
S. Furlani et al. / Quaternary International 288 (2013) 146e157 147
2011. Recent GPS surveys and moderate seismicity show that this
area of the central Mediterranean is only affected by horizontal
movements due to the interaction of the African and Eurasian
continental plates (Serpelloni et al., 2007).
3. Study area
The island of Malta (Fig. 2) is part of the Maltese archipelago and
is located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea in the Sicily
Channel (Fig. 1), between Sicily (90 km northward) and the African
coasts (about 300 km westward). The geomorphology of the island
has been well-described by Paskoff and Sanlaville (1978).Itis
strongly controlled by the horst and graben system developed
during Miocene and Plio-Quaternary extensional stages. Bays
correspond to downthrown blocks, and headlands correspond to
uplifted blocks (Devoto et al., 2012). Semicircular coves, drowned
sinkholes and other karst features are spread all over the island. The
southern and eastern sectors of Malta are characterized by cal-
anques: Valletta and the Birzebbugia harbour are rias, previously
excavated by ﬂuvial processes (Paskoff and Sanlaville, 1978).
The climate of Malta is typically Mediterranean, characterized
by hot, dry and long summers, and warm and short winters.
Weather and climate are strongly inﬂuenced by the sea and by the
relatively ﬂat morphology of the island, which does not favour
rainfall. The average annual rainfall is 550 mm and rarely exceeds
800 mm. Mean temperatures range from 12
Although Malta is a continental island connected to south-
western Sicily by a submerged ridge, palaebiogeographical
evidence indicates that it remained completely isolated throughout
most of the Pleistocene. During the main sea level lowering, the
distance from the Sicilian coast was reduced to such an extent that
mammals with high dispersal ability (elephants, hippopotamuses,
deer, otter and a few small mammals) arrived on the island by
a sweepstake dispersal route. Accordingly, both the Middle and the
Late Pleistocene, still poorly known, Maltese faunas, although
encompassing taxa descendant from Sicilian species, are less
diversiﬁed and strongly unbalanced (see e.g. Storch, 1974;Zammit-
Maemple and de Bruijn, 1982;Palombo, 1986;Zammit-Maemple,
1989;Savona-Ventura and Mifsud,1998;Hunt and Schembri, 1999).
4. Material and methods
The elevation of the submerged archaeological remains was
measured following the Lambeck et al. (2004b),Antonioli et al.
(2007) and Auriemma and Solinas (2009) methods. Field
surveying consists of: 1) multiple measurements of the elevation of
the signiﬁcant archaeological markers with respect to the local sea
level at the time of surveys (see Table 1); 2) correction of measured
elevations for atmospheric pressure and tides using tidal data from
the nearest tide gauge station (Table 1); and 3) comparison of
predicted (Lambeck et al., 2011) and observed sea levels inferred
from the studied markers, which correspond to past sea levels at
each location. Errors for ages and elevations of the selected
Dated sea level markers along the coast of Malta. A) location of the site; B) kind of marker and its measured depth (m a.s.l.); C) WGS84 centesimal coordinates of the surveyed
sites; D) estimated age of archaeological markers (years BP); E) correction applied to measurements related to tides; F) corrected depth and reference (if published data);
G) functional height; H) palaeo-sea level (measured þfunctional height); I) predicted sea level (from Lambeck et al., 2011).
Kind of marker and
its measured depth (m m.s.l.)
Tide and pressure
(m a.s.l.) and reference
Birzebbugia Pits, Car-tracks (0.10 0.05) 35.8311
3200 300 0 0.10 0.1
0.6 0.7 0.1
Manoel Island Tanks (0.84 0.1) 35.9039
2000 100 0.02 0.86 0.1 0.5 1.36 0.1 1.36
Marsaxlokk Walking service
surface (0.54 0.1)
1000 200 0.02 0.56 0.2 0.0 0.56 0.2 0.56
Fig. 2. Map of Malta showing the location of the studied sites (black circles). The geological map is redrawn from Pedley et al. (2002), and Devoto et al. (2012).
S. Furlani et al. / Quaternary International 288 (2013) 146e157148
archaeological markers are evaluated. The latterare estimated from
their functional heights on the basis of the archaeological inter-
pretations, following Lambeck et al. (2004b) and Auriemma and
Solinas (2009). Particularly, age errors derived from the attribu-
tion of architectural features, whereas elevation errors from
multiple elevation measurements, tidal corrections and uncer-
tainties on functional heights.
From the archaeological indicators, an area is assumed as
tectonically stable if the elevation of the observational data falls
along the predicted sea level curve (i.e. they show the same
elevation for the same age, unless the errors shown by the error
bars in the plots). Tectonic subsidence or uplift is considered if the
elevations of the markers differ from the predicted sea level curve,
for the same ages (i.e. data fall above or below the predicted sea
Topographic measurements of the marker elevations were
collected using an invar rod during favourable sea surface condi-
tions (wave amplitude <5 cm), in order to minimize reading errors.
All measurements have been reduced to the local mean sea level
applying tidal corrections at the surveyed sites, using tidal data
retrieved at http://www.ioc-sealevelmonitoring.org/ from the
nearest tide gauge station located at Malta, La Valletta. The Medi-
terranean Sea is a closed basin with small tidal range. Tidal
amplitude is within a few tens of cm in Malta, and thus is not
critical for this study.
The bathymetric data used for the palaeoshorelines recon-
structions were derived from the General Bathymetric Database-
GEBCO Chart of the Ocean (http://www.gebco.net/data_and_
products/gridded_bathymetry_data/). This database provides
a bathymetric grid at 30 arc-second detail of system with reference
to geographical coordinates, latitude and longitude in the WGS84
Datum Bathymetry. Topography was processed using the software
Global Mapper 11 (www.globalmapper.com) in order to produce
maps at different levels of detail. Maps were suitable to highlight
the temporal evolution of palaeoshorelines and therefore the
palaeomorphology of the narrow strip of land that once connected
Malta to Sicily and the time of their detachment. The same method
has already been used in similar tectonic contexts in other areas of
the Mediterranean Sea, e.g. at Pianosa (Antonioli et al., 2011).
5. Archaeological markers
Three archaeological submerged or partially submerged struc-
tures were studied at Birzebbugia, Marsaxlokk (south Malta) and
Manoel Island (Marsamxett Harbour, southeast Malta; Table 1;
Figs. 3e5), spanning from the Bronze Age to Middle Age. These
sites, which are generally not well preserved, have been recognised,
surveyed and measured for size and depth, with respect to local
mean sea level, for the ﬁrst time. These sites are cut on soft Glo-
bigerina limestone rocks and located in sheltered zones (natural
harbours). Archaeological remains at Marsaxlokk are exposed to
storm waves of the southeastern Maltese coast (Gambin, 2003).
Additionally, the nearby Victorian Age (middle to late 1800) baths
were measured, in order to compare the elevations of ancient and
recent marine structures.
5.1. Birzebbugia pits
The Birzebbugia archaeological site (Fig. 3aed, Table 1) provides
remains of activities related to the coastal zone during the Bronze
Age (Zammit, 1928;Abela, 1999). In particular, two types of
archaeological remains occur. The ﬁrst are Bronze Age pits
Fig. 3. Collage of images and the section of underwater archaeological remains at Birzebbugia: a) location of the studied site (inside the circle); b) view of Bronze Age pits presently
partially submerged; c) cart ruts at Birzebbugia abruptly stop at the present mean sea level due to erosion; d) section of the studied site. It is possible that further pits, presently
completely eroded, once existed at lower elevations.
S. Furlani et al. / Quaternary International 288 (2013) 146e157 149
(3500e2900 BP, Fig. 3a, b). They are located close to the shoreline
and lie on the Globigerina Limestone platform, above present-day
mean sea level or partially submerged. The pits are found very
close to Borg in-Nadur, one of the main Bronze Age sites in Malta,
which lends its name to the prehistoric phase that is characterized
by settlement patterns and particular pottery types (Trump, 2002).
Many other Bronze Age villages from the Borg in-Nadur phase
contain similar features that have generally been deemed as
storage pits (Trump, 2002).
The corrected depth of the bottom of the lowest submerged pit
is 0.90 0.1 m a.s.l., while the edge is at 0.1 0.1 m a.s.l.
(Fig. 3d). They have been found up to some meters above mean sea
level. They had to be far enough above seawater in order to remain
dry. This assumption allows evaluation of their original function-
ality to at least 0.6 m above sea level. Even if they are not coastal
structures, they represent an upper limit of the Bronze Age sea
level: in particular, sea level in the studied period had to be lower
than 0.7 m a.s.l. A schematic sketch of the structures is provided
in Fig. 3d.
The second type of marker (Abela, 1999) is prehistoric cart-
tracks, which consist of two pairs of parallel grooves deeply cut
into limestone. They are almost completely eroded in the
submerged part (about 2 m a.s.l.) and almost completely covered
by coastal buildings in the emerged part (Fig. 3c). Only 2 m of the
tracks are still currently visible close to the pits site, and a few
centimeters above the present-day sea level.
5.2. Manoel Island structures
At Manoel Island, 4 submerged structures have been examined
(Fig. 4aed). Based on their shape and size, they can be potentially
dated to the Roman period. These are partly carved in Globigerina
Limestone and partly built with blocks of the same rock, but
presently are partly disconnected. The mean elevation of the
bottom of the rectangular tanks is about 1.3 0.1 m a.s.l., and the
top of the blocks is at 0.8 0.1 m a.s.l. (Fig. 4d). Although their use
cannot be exactly determined, a working hypothesis is offered in
the discussion section of this paper. Considering the mean eleva-
tion of the top of the blocks, the functional height is about 0.5 m, in
order to warrant the entrance of seawater in the tanks. Estimated
Roman Age sea level was 1.3 0.1 m a.s.l.
5.3. Marsaxlokk underwater remains
At Marsaxlokk, two previously unrecorded structures,12 m long
and 0.5 m wide, were discovered (Fig. 5aee). They are slightly tilted
toward the sea, and the elevation of their tops ranges
between 0.56 0.1 m a.s.l. inshore and 0.93 0.1 m a.s.l.
offshore. At the bottom end of these structures, the seaﬂoor is
at 1.30 0.1 m a.s.l. Despite the shape and small size of these
structures, which can be interpreted as walking service surfaces,
they are more compact than the sandy sea bottom. As they could lie
in an underwater position, functionality can be assessed as 0 m. The
structures could be built in the Middle Ages, and therefore the
elevation of the inner block is representative of the Middle Age sea
5.4. Victorian Age baths
During the late nineteenth century, the rocky coasts of Malta
were exploited again. No longer was the sea envisaged as some-
thing that was used solely for war and trade but many, especially
Fig. 4. Collage of images and the section of the submerged tanks at Manoel Island (Valletta Harbour): a) location of the studied site (inside the circle); b and c) view of Roman Age
tanks; d) cross section.
S. Furlani et al. / Quaternary International 288 (2013) 146e157150
the middle and upper classes of society, increasingly saw it as
a place for recreation. In Malta, one way in which this phenomenon
manifested itself was through the proliferation of swimming baths
along various stretches of the Maltese coastline (Fig. 6aec).
Human-made structures directly carved on rocky outcrops are very
common, because of their high erodibility. In general, these were
cut onto solid rock and were approximately 1.3 m deep so as to
allow people to stand up. Steps led down to thewater and the baths
were generally covered by wooden structures and/or canvas
awnings. Open channels or small tunnels allowed water from the
open sea to ﬂow freely in and out of the baths. Some of these baths
were built in high-energy zones, exposed to the strong northeast-
erly storms that blow in the winter. It is therefore not surprising to
ﬁnd that some sites are eroded more than others. This may give the
impression that some of the sites are signiﬁcantly older. However,
all the bath complexes were built towards the end of the 19th and
early 20th century.
English baths are generally well recognisable because of their
architectural features (Fig. 6d). Usually they are built along the
coast and are partly submerged. They were used by women to stay
in a shallow and sheltered pool containing seawater. Their depth is
about 1.3 0.05 m a.s.l. Some have a threshold at 0.8 0.05 m
a.s.l., where the seawater can pass. The size is about 2 3m.
6. Archaeological markers: their use and relationships with
the sea level
The archaeological evidence is a matter of ongoing debate,
emerged, partially, or completely submerged in sheltered or
partially sheltered areas along the coast.
Regarding the Birzebbugia site, one of the latest contributions to
this debate concentrates on what may be considered as the main
archaeological feature related to the ancient textile industry in
Malta, the rock-hewn pits in Birzebbugia. Sagona (1999) is in
a quandary as to the date of origin of the pits, asking the question
“are the vats Bronze Age features, as has long been accepted, or
Punic in date?”Sagona also states that the pits were used for an
industry based on textile dyeing. This suggestion may be dis-
counted on the basis of a lack of evidence for substantial remains of
Murex shells in this area or any other archaeological sites with
Punic layers. The use as suggested by Trump (2002) that these pits
were used as storage silos (for grain) must also be dismissed
Fig. 5. Collage of images and the section of the structure at Marsaxlokk: a) location of the studied site (inside the circle); b) view of the structure remains presently completely
submerged; c) feet of the researcher are at about 0.60 m a.s.l.; d) cross section.
S. Furlani et al. / Quaternary International 288 (2013) 146e157 151
because grain must be stored with humidity levels of less than 15
percent. The proximity to the sea of these features would not have
been conducive to the maintenance of desired levels of humidity.
Furthermore, the Bronze Age period in Malta was distinguished by
the need for the islanders to seek settlements that were defensible
from seaborne attacks. It is therefore highly unlikely that the same
people who invested so much in constructing the nearby fortiﬁed
settlement of Borg in-Nadur would have left a precious resource
(grain) in unfortiﬁed silos by the sea.
An alternative use for these pits is that these may have formed
part of a system used for the retting of ﬂax. Some of the low laying
areas around Birzebbugia and beyond are ideal, as per conditions
cited by Horden and Purcell (2000), for the cultivation of ﬂax.
Alluvium from Wied Qoton and Wied Dalam helped create and
maintain a soil advantageous to this form of agriculture, whereas
the water supply from these same valleys would have been
essential for the processing and retting of the plant.
It is therefore no coincidence that the cultivation and processing
of ﬂax on Malta during the late Middle Ages was partly concen-
trated in areas somewhat similar to Birzebbugia, such as Ghajn
Selmet, near Salina Bay, and Misede, present-day Msida. Wettinger
suggests that, “with Malta’s then very imperfect drainage system
for storm water one can easily understand the existence in such
places of stagnant water, especially at the head of the numerous
ports, bays and inlets”(Wettinger, 1982). The medieval place name
for an area between Marsaxlokk and Birzebbugia, San Gorg
tal-Ghadir, is described by Wettinger as a place “where there was
a fountain used for the retting of ﬂax”(Wettinger, 2000).
Roman Age remains are located in the southeastern and
southern sector of Malta, at Manoel Island (Valletta Harbour). At
Manoel Island, these structures are situated in the inner-reaches of
Lazaretto Creek (Fig. 4a), one of Malta’s few year-round anchorages.
This inlet is protected from the winter storms and was used by
ancient mariners as an anchorage and possibly even as a port. The
massive urban development that has taken place in the
surrounding area does not permit a detailed and accurate archae-
ological assessment. Despite the urbanization of the hinterland,
there have been a number of ancient sites identiﬁed over the past
decades. These include a burial complex discovered close to Manoel
Island and a Roman tower on a hill overlooking this harbour.
Numerous ﬁnds from the seabed, including partial amphorae and
other ceramic objects, also conﬁrm the use of Lazaretto Creek in
To date, the only Roman ponds recorded in Malta were situated
in Marsa. These were destroyed by dredging works during the
harbour extension works in the 19th century. The underwater site
on Manoel Island is dissimilar to any swimming baths datable to
the 19th and 20th centuries. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that
Fig. 6. Victorian Age baths along the Eastern coast of Malta. The soft Globigerina Limestone allowed easy carving of coastal baths that were widely used during the late 19th
Century; a, b) view of baths at Sliema; c) coastal bath at San Paul Bay; d) English plan of Victorian Age baths at promenade by sea (Sliema).
S. Furlani et al. / Quaternary International 288 (2013) 146e157152
swimming baths would have been built so close to the Quarantine
Hospital. Should these structures prove to be ancient, it could well
be that these are related to the production process of garum. There
is little doubt that garum was produced in localities not dissimilar
to Malta. For example, features such as those on the island of
Lampedusa point to the production of garum on small islands (De
Miro and Aleo Nero, 1992). On the southern coast of Sicily, tanks
of similar size (but different construction methods) have been
recorded in Poropalo (Bacci, 1985). The availability of ﬁsh and salt
coupled with the vicinity of the works to the sea seems like
a plausible working hypothesis for Malta.
At Marsaxlokk, a complex underwater structure has been
discovered, now almost completely ruined. The Phoenician temple
dedicated to Astarte on the hill dominating the bay was constructed
over earlier remains that date to approximately 2500 BP, pointing
to early use by humans of the bay and its surroundings. In ancient
times, the harbour of Marsaxlokk was utilized by mariners as
a place of refuge, trade and ritual. One of the main bodies of
evidence found at the sanctuary consists of thousands of votive
offerings to Astarte, who was patroness of seafarers. This afﬁnity
between sailors and sanctuary continued in the Roman period with
Juno, assimilating the role of Astarte.
Due to the sedimentation in the bay and the vast growth of
Posidonia meadows, it has not been possible to gather evidence for
seafaring from an underwater context. However, in his Verrine
orations, Cicero mentions the temple at Marsaxlokk as being very
rich and well-known amongst seafarers from throughout the
Mediterranean. He also suggests the possibility of the harbour
being used by pirates to winter there. In the Middle Ages, the area
was certainly used by medieval seafarers, as the Potolani such as Lo
Compasso de Navegare of 1298 (Cassola, 1992) include clear
references to Marsaxlokk.
The main difﬁculty of this harbour is its vulnerability to storms
originating from the southeast. Such storms can blow during any
time of the year, including summer. It would be difﬁcult for a vessel
to spend an entire winter in this bay without running major risks.
The present-day inner harbour at Marsaxlokk was built on the site
of large ﬁsh ponds that date back to the period of the Knights of St
John (1530e1798). It is not unreasonable to assume that these ﬁsh
ponds were built on the foundations of pre-existing harbour works.
It has been suggested that there may have existed a cothon in this
area (Bonanno, 2005).
The blocks surveyed in the course of this study are too small to
represent the remains of a mole constructed in response to rising
sea levels and/or sedimentation of the inner harbour. A more
pertinent and alternative explanation, always linked to varying sea
levels, is that of a pathway built across a stretch of low lying land to
access the sea.
7. Implications for Holocene sea level change
Holocene sea level change is not expected to follow the eustatic
curve, but varies across the Mediterranean because of isostasy and
tectonics (Fig. 7). The new archaeological and geomorphological
data presented in this study for the coasts of Malta, together with
data published in previous works, provides new evidence of the
tectonic behaviour of the island and on the timing and effects of
relative sea level change. Despite the different typologies of
archaeological sea level markers, found only in the southeastern
coast of Malta, tentative reconstruction the sea level history was
possible through comparison with other sea level markers, such as
The impact of erosion processes on the preservation of
archaeological, sedimentological and geomorphological markers
is of primary importance. Almost all the eastern and southern
coast is cut on the soft Globigerina limestones. Lowering rates
collected on Globigerina limestone shore platforms range from
0.74 mm/y to 9.16 mm/y (Micallef and Williams, 2009), one-two
orders of magnitude higher than other intertidal sheltered area
in the Mediterranean Sea (Furlani et al., 2009). High erosion rates
are due both to the exposure of the island and to the nature of
limestone outcrops. However, even human-made structures are
affected by the same intense processes. For instance, even the
recent Victorian Age baths are often strongly disturbed, and
therefore ancient structures are surely spoilt. This could be the
case for the Birzebbugia pits, where intertidal processes, both
biological and mechanical, have partially destroyed the lower pits
and may have completely removed deeper ones. There could also
be pits hidden under sediment deposits present on the seabed in
the area. At the same time, the presence of nineteenth-century
(Victorian Age) swimming pools, which are architecturally well-
deﬁned (Fig. 6) but not always well-preserved, suggests that
their position and relative poor preservation can easily cause
misunderstandings, insomuch as they can be confused with
earlier archaeological remains.
The archaeological data indicate that the island is tectonically
stable along the vertical, at least since Roman times. Roman Age
remains, despite their complex attribution concerning age and
functionality, indicate sea level change. The Bronze Age pits are not
deﬁnitive sea level markers as they are not coastal structures, but
they do represent the upper limit of sea level during the studied
period. Regarding the Manoel Island tanks and the Middle Age
walking surface at Marsaxlokk, the comparison between their
present depth, the altitude of the top of the blocks and the pre-
dicted sea level curve (Lambeck et al., 2011) suggests their elevation
coincides roughly with the elevations predicted by the model
A well carved present-day notch occurs along the coasts of
Malta on different lithologies: Lower Coralline Limestones and
Upper Coralline Limestones. No presence of MIS 5.5 deposits was
found by Paskoff and Sanlaville (1978) and in the present survey.
The absence of MIS 5.5 deposits could be due to the exposure of the
island and local weathering, preventing the preservation of rocks
and deposits, in addition to the weakness of the geological units,
generally easy to erode. However, the possible slightly submerged
position of the Tyrrhenian deposits favours the complete erosion of
MIS 5.5 deposits. This hypothesis, and the assumption that only
minimal movement of sedimentary debris over the sea ﬂoor
bedrock have occurred, allowed a palaeoenvironmental recon-
struction of this region based on the available bathymetric maps
and applying the predicted sea levels (Lambeck et al., 2011,Fig. 7)
Fig. 7. Predicted sea level curve from Lambeck et al., 2011, with the observational point
quoted in Table 1.
S. Furlani et al. / Quaternary International 288 (2013) 146e157 153
since the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM, 21.5 ka cal BP) describing the
timing of the coastal evolution at Malta.
Figs. 8 and 9 show the evolution of the palaeoshorelines in this
area of the central Mediterranean region and the limits of the land
extension for different ages. These ﬁgures provide an overview of
the spatial and temporal evolution of the land/sea extensions and
depict the existing connections with the nearby coasts, thus
roughly marking the timing of the detachment of Malta from Sicily.
The predicted sea level curve from Lambeck et al. (2011) was
used to reconstruct the palaeoshorelines of the Sicily Channel; in
particular it is identiﬁed with point 18 of Fig. 1 of that paper. Caruso
et al. (2011) agree with the sea level prediction at 130 m by
Lambeck et al. (2011), and provided the ﬁrst observational data of
the maximum lowstand (MIS 2, LGM) for the Mediterranean Sea for
a site offshore of the coast of Termini Imerese (Northern Sicily), that
is located in an area considered tectonically stable. Sea level
predictions are in agreement with observational data at 127 m,
with a radiocarbon age of 21,823 219 BP. This data allows a reli-
able palaeogeographic reconstruction, although with some uncer-
tainties, as the hypothesis is based on the existence of only minimal
and negligible movements of the sedimentary debris on the sea
ﬂoor and the absence of any tectonic movements. The continental
shelf from which Malta and Gozo rose shows considerable areal
extent and ﬂat morphology, in contrast with the steep morphology
of the continental shelves of southern Italy (Calabria, Basilicata and
Taking into account the position of the sea level during the Last
Glacial Maximum (LGM), the islands of Sicily and Malta were joined
by a wide strip of land about 38 km wide and 105 km long (Fig. 8).
Moreover, the palaeoshorelines of southwestern Sicily and north-
eastern Tunisia were distant only by about 45 km.
During the late Pleistocene and Holocene, sea level was rising,
and the island of Malta separated from Sicily between 14.5 ka cal BP
(sea level at 100 m with respect to the present level) and 13.8 ka
cal BP (sea level at 90 m with respect to the present level) (Fig. 9).
During the Mesolithic (11 cal ka BP), the morphology of the island
became similar to that of today. The 90 m isobaths suggests that
the distance between the palaeoshorelines of Sicily and Malta was
only about 30 km. The rising sea level up to the palaeoshoreline
of 70 m caused the disappearance of the small islands that were
created from the land detachment, and at 12.4 ka cal BP, Sicily and
Malta were separated by about 62 km of sea.
The rising sea level continued to change the coastline of the
rising island of Malta after its separation. Fig. 10 shows in detail the
evolution of the island during the Holocene. The palaeoshorelines,
reconstructed as a function of rising sea levels from 70 m up
to 10 m, show the marine transgression on the island of Malta,
and the appearance and submergence of smaller islands. Between
7.2 ka and 7 ka (corresponding to the palaeoshorelines 10 m
and 20 m respectively) the separation and formation of the island
of Gozo took place. Today, Malta is about 80 km from the south-
ernmost point of Sicily (Capo Passero).
9. Late Pleistocene faunal dispersals
During the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), at about 24 ka BP,
when sea level fell to about 130 m, the reconstructed palae-
oshoreline indicates that the southwestern corner of Sicily and the
Malta-Gozo insular system were connected by a land bridge.
Additionally, even during the LGM, only some of the large and small
mammals recorded in Sicily in the Castello faunal complex (ranging
in age from about 20 to 11 ka BP, Masini et al., 2008) seems to have
dispersed to Malta.
In the “Red earth layers”of Ghar Dalam cave, dating to about
18 ka (Zammit-Maemple, 1989), carnivores (Canis lupus, Vulpes
vulpes), and a bear slightly reduced in size (referred to as Ursus cf.
U. arctos), were reported for the ﬁrst time together with other large
mammals (Sus scrofa,Cervus elaphus), a bovid (likely Bos pri-
migenius) and small mammals (Terricola sp., Crocidurasp.), which
Fig. 8. Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of a portion of central Mediterranean Sea. Morphological reconstruction of Sicilian palaeoshoreline and of the spit of land connecting Sicily to
Malta during the LGM, last relative sea level rise (about 130 m).
S. Furlani et al. / Quaternary International 288 (2013) 146e157154
were present at the same time in Sicily. Other species recorded in
Sicily, such as Erinaceus europeus, Apodemus sylvaticus, Lepus
europeus, and Martes sp., apparently did not enter Malta, while the
presence on the island of Equus hydruntinus is still uncertain.
The geological and geomorphological history of the studied area
indicates that, during the late Quaternary, relative changes in sea
level signiﬁcantly inﬂuenced the connection between Sicily and the
island of Malta. The question arises as when and how they sepa-
rated. Consistent with the evidence from palaeoshorelines, the
“Red earth layers”fossil record (Zammit-Maemple, 1989) indicates
that during the LGM an emerged land bridge connected Sicily and
Malta, although it acted as an ecological ﬁlter preventing some taxa
from dispersal. Considering that in the Middle-early Late Pleisto-
cene, only fauna with high dispersal ability are present and that
a number of Sicilian species are missing (e.g. large carnivores such
as Crocuta crocuta and Panthera leo, Sus, Bos, Bison, and perhaps
even deer), there is ground to suppose that Sicily and Malta likely
acted as two independent insular systems over the Pleistocene, and
connection and faunal dispersal between Sicily and Malta were
easier during the LGM than during the late Middle Pleistocene.
Fig. 9. Morphological evolution of Sicilian palaeoshorelines corresponding to 4 representative sketches of last sea level rise after LGM: 130 M , 100 m, 90 m and 70 m.
Recognition of ranges of the depth and corresponding age of the total separation of Malta from Sicily.
Fig. 10. Morphological change of Malta palaeoshorelines during the last sea level rise from 70 m to 10 m, correspondent to the time interval 12.4e7 ka BP. The morphology of
Malta coasts is similar to present since the last 11 ka BP.
S. Furlani et al. / Quaternary International 288 (2013) 146e157 155
Relative sea level changes in Malta have been studied starting
from a detailed analysis of underwater archaeological remains
located in the southern and southeastern side of the island. These
remnants allowed estimation of the relative sea level changes and
vertical displacements of the coast of the island of Malta since the
Roman Age. Despite their complex attribution, Roman Age and
Middle Age coastal structures roughly indicate that their elevations
are in agreement with the predicted sea level curve of Lambeck
et al. (2011).
During Roman time, sea level was 1.36 0.1 m, while in the
Midde Ages it was at 0.56 0.2 m, in good agreement with
previous estimations for the Mediterranean region (Lambeck et al.,
2004b;Antonioli et al., 2007;Anzidei et al., 2011a,2011b and; Toker
et al., 2012). Geological data highlight that this area is tectonically
stable along the vertical since the last 125 ka. The lack of MIS 5.5
deposits, as reported by Paskoff and Sanlaville (1978) and here
conﬁrmed, could be due to the exposure of the island or to the
aforementioned slight vertical movements that removed any
geological evidence. The relative stability of the studied area,
together with the interpretation of the bathymetric maps, allow
a tentative chronology of the palaeoenvironmental reconstruction
of this area since the Last Glacial Maximum.
A very special thanks goes to Prof. Franco Cucchi of the
Department of Mathematics and Geosciences of the University of
Trieste and to Dr. John Schembri of the Department of Geography,
University of Malta for helpful discussions. We are grateful to Prof.
Mauro Soldati of the Department of Earth Sciences of the University
of Modena and Reggio Emilia for funding support. Moreover, we
thank Rita Auriemma for the useful archaeological considerations
and Carmelo Monaco for the overall framework of the paper. We
acknowledge SPLASHCOS Action TD0902: Submerged Research
Action designated as COST Prehistoric Archaeology and Landscapes
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