In the sacred silence of the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, you can’t help contemplate the cycle of life and death, and the marvelous fact that you are in a place dug by your ancestors some 6000 years ago.
These underground burial chambers, used between 4000 and 2500 years before Christ, in the past few months were closed to visitors in order to be given a new breath of life with the help of several Public Service employees. In a few days, the Hypogeum will reopen for visitors, who add up to some 30,000 a year. It’s no wonder that this site is much sought after, being so extraordinary that UNESCO deems it a “unique testimony to a civilisation which has disappeared”.
The Hypogeum was closed last June for conservation works. These were necessary to preserve the red ocre paintings decorating some of the site’s walls and ceilings. Due to changes in humidity levels and temperature, the salt in Maltese stone crystallizes and melts, causing the stone to flake and, in turn, the paintings to disappear. It is therefore of utmost importance that a high and stable level of humidity is retained in the Hypogeum to prevent this from happening.
Photo credit : Clive Vella
This is achieved by means of two measures. Firstly by improving conditions in the building above the Hypogeum, built in the nineties. In the past few months, the leaking ceiling was replaced with a new one having better insulation. The main wall was also insulated, while materials which could cause damage – such as carpets which in humid conditions can retain the mould on visitors’ clothing – were removed.
This alone, however, was not sufficient for the Hypogeum to have a stable microclimate. A system was therefore installed, providing constant control of humidity and temperature in the Hypogeum. At the same time, visitors’ facilities were improved by better use of existing spaces and clean materials which cause no damage.
All this was co-financed by funds from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the European Economic Zone funds 2009 – 2014.
During the 11 months when the Hypogeum was closed, Heritage Malta saw to the installation of a new interpretation system using the latest technology to ensure virtual accessibility to the site for those who cannot physically visit it.
In this extensive project, Public Service employees had several roles, from the initial planning stage and application for funds up to the implementation of the project. In the planning phase, curators and scientists analysed the environmental data which had been collected since 2012 and is still studied regularly.
The application for funds was also made by Heritage Malta employees, with the help of others from the Funds and Programmes Division of the MEAIM. A lengthy procurement process involving several tenders followed, in which employees of the Contracts Department and the related Ministry played a part, as well as many internal meetings and others with consultants and contractors to get the job done on time.
From Heritage Malta’s side, much work was also done by curators, architects, conservation workers, designers, visitors’ services employees, manual workers in different trades, and ICT personnel.