Cart-rut site updates

Updates on The Maltese Cart-Ruts: Unraveling an enigma


University of Malta

E534 N733 2011

Close to the boundary wall to the south of the University Campus, one or possibly two pairs of poorly defined ruts with a gage of 1.4m run for a short distance in a North West-South East direction.

Tat-Tarġa 2

E446 N710

This site is not far from Site 36 (Tat-Tarġa) West of Rabat. On the escarpment overlooking the Liemu valley are several pairs of ruts, all with a gauge of 1.4m. The main pair of ruts runs for some considerable distance in a general North West-South East direction. The ruts vary in depth from quite shallow to, at one point 40cm deep. The base of the ruts is also variable, at one point 30-35cm wide, and also shows signs of overrunning. A pair of ruts diverges from the main pair as if to run down into the valley below, but soon turn and run parallel with the main pair before petering out. The main pair of ruts is often interrupted by intermittent ashlar style stone extraction. To the north, another pair of ruts runs in an East-West direction close to a disused ashlar quarry. If these ruts, which diverge into two pairs as they go, continued they would descend off the escarpment into the valley; they may have once been a part of ruts noted at Site 36. There are sporadic signs of poorly defined ruts not far from a modern farm complex in the north. The ‘escarpment’ running North-South west of Rabat has many features of archaeological importance. It was at its northern end that evidence from a number of rock-cut tombs indicated it to be one of the first areas of Phoenician/Punic settlement on Malta. There are two rock-cut tombs at the northern end of this site, one of which has been partially destroyed by ashlar style quarrying. This would indicate the probability that, not only the cart-ruts but also the tombs predate ashlar style quarrying activity in the area which possibly took place during the Early Modern period.

Mater Dei Hospital

E528 N736

In common with site Tat-Tarġa 2, this site, in the vicinity of Mater Dei Hospital was known of and had been looked for prior to the publication of the Book in 2010. (That the sites were not located and recorded at the time was down to lack of diligence on the part of the author). I am, therefore, grateful to Mark Borda for kindly informing me of this particular site’s exact whereabouts. The site is situated by the side of the service road on the north side of the hospital, opposite the liquid-gas tanks. There are possibly five pare of ruts, one of which is quite broad and deep, and two pairs of ruts have a gauge of 1.4m. All ruts run in a general East-West direction, but they seem to have been curtailed and broken up due, probably, to the building of the hospital.

On the 8-11-2011, a practical experiment was put in place at two cart-rut sites, having the express purpose of ascertaining the time related rate at which stone at the base of three purposely chosen cart-ruts is, or is not, eroded by the effects of seasonal precipitation. If the ‘experiment’ has been correctly set-up, and proves durable enough so that measurable results can be obtained over time which, however, will be some considerable time ‒ years ‒ the hope is that eventually it may prove that natural dissolution of lime stone due to the acidic nature of seasonal precipitation is fundamental in explaining the existence of the cart-ruts as they presently are. The first report on the ‘experiment’ will appear if and when there is something to report.



E503 N782

This site, on rising ground overlooking Qalet Marku close to Malta’s northeast coast line, is roughly mid-way between site 7 Salina Bay (Coastline Hotel) and the (unnumbered) Wied Mejxu St George’s Bay site.  A pair of shallow ruts with a gauge of 1.4m, showing signs of being ‘overrun’ by another pair of ruts, run for a short distance over undulating ground in an East South East-West North West direction. Further to the east, there are scanty signs of ruts, however, from what can be seen they appear to be ‘historic’ ruts (ruts made by carts with metal rim wheels) having a gauge of 1.3m.

Laferla Cross Locality (continuation)

E472 N670

Strictly speaking, the ruts recorded here should have been noted as part of site 46 Laferla Cross Locality, but they were not previously seen. The ruts are on open ground confined by rubble stone walls to the north and south. Two pairs of ruts with a gauge of 1.4m, quite close together, appear from under the northern rubble-stone wall running for a short distance before petering out. The better defined, westerly pair runs in South West-North East direction. After petering out, a little further on what seem to be the same ruts reappear and meander for some distance in generally the same direction, before again petering out? The less well defined easterly pair of ruts runs in North-South direction, after petering out they reappear running for a short distance on the other side of the open ground close to the southerly rubble-stone wall.

How the Cart-Ruts Originated

Currently, there are three contentious hypotheses as to how the cart-ruts on Malta were initially formed; the ‘cut by hand’ theory, the ‘erosion of the bedrock resulting from its compression under the wheels of carts’ theory, and the ‘dissolution of the bedrock caused by interaction of acidic moisture with the bedrock under soil compressed by the wheels of carts’ theory.

The ‘cut by hand’ theory (ruts being originally formed by hand cutting with metal tools, but, not necessarily to the depth seen in many cases today) has been proposed by some very senior and respected commentators on the subject. Their argument is based on certain ‒ apparent, cut marks incised on the vertical sides of ‒ some ruts at two cart-rut sites namely, Clapham Junction and Xemxija Heights: both of which are on the Upper Coralline Tal-Pitkal Member Limestone formation.

A recently paper by Professor Derek Mottershead (part time lecturer, geography, University of Portsmouth UK) published in the ‘Malta Archaeological Review’: issue 8 has substantially refuted the ‘cut by hand’ argument. Professor Mottershead has published two previous papers concerning the formation of the cart-ruts and is the chief proponent of the, ‘erosion of the bedrock resulting from its compression under the wheels of carts’ theory. In this most resent paper: ‘The origin of Maltese cart-ruts: by wheels or tools?’, Professor Mottershead evaluates the ‒ limited ‒ supposed evidence supporting the ‘cut by hand’ theory, and, finds the apparent ‘incised cut marks’ could ‒ not ‒ have been made by metal tools, because the configuration of the incised marks shows that tools wielded by hand could not have caused such marks. Furthermore, if, as he suggests, the curt-ruts in question are over 2000 years old (which is probably roughly correct) any such marks would have been obliterated by weathering: natural erosion.

Personally, I have never understood why the obviously wrong ‘cut by hand’ theory, explaining how the ruts originated, came to be proposed by ‒ some professionally trained researchers, and alarmingly, achieved such a broad degree of acceptance. Aside from the findings disused in this resent paper, there is no rational reason for the deliberate, labour intensive cutting of what would amount to ‘track-ways’ or a vehicle (cart) guidance system. As the chief proponent of the ‘dissolution’ theory, I very much welcome this resent paper by Professor Mottershead. It is hoped that, Prof. Mottersheads’ paper will put an end to the mistaken idea that the Maltese cart-ruts were deliberately manufactured.



E482 N783

This interesting site is immediately behind a block of flats which overlook the Salina ‘salt pans’. Four pairs of cart-ruts became evident when scrub-land was cleared to the bedrock by the authorities in consideration of a development application. All the ruts have a gauge of 1.4m. One pair of ruts runs for some distance in a serpentine fashion, starting quite shallow but broad from under un-cleared soil in the south of the site. Running in a roughly North North East-South South West direction, they eventually disappear under the ‘flats’. These ruts are well defined and intermittently quite deep, 50cm in one place. In places, though, they are interrupted by what appears to be natural bedrock displacement. At their southern end, a pair of poorly defined ruts appears to branch off, or cross over, running for a short distance in a North West-South East direction. In the south of the site, at different levels (the site is on a North West-South East incline), two other pair of poorly defined (shallow) ruts both run for a short distance in a North North East-South South West direction.

It can be said with a reasonable degree of confidence that, by their direction, the ruts at this site probably constitute a meaningful link with other ruts found in the locality: sites, 7 Salina Bay (Coastline Hotel), 8 Port Burmarrad (Salina Catacombs), and perhaps 9 Burmarrad Valley. Of further interest has been the vast amounts (bucket loads) of pottery sherds collected by an archaeologist. Cursory inspection of these sherds indicates them to be of late Roman origin, possibly from North Africa and the Levant. Also the remains of two walls, one of which is of regular stone forming a right angle indicating the possibility of being part of a building. This construction, by its situation, defiantly shows it to post-dates the cart-ruts. Also uncovered, were the shattered remains of what appeared to be a ‘milling wheel’, made of imported volcanic stone.

SAN ĠWANN (Żbibu Lane)

E533 N740

In common with the Salina site (above), the cart-ruts at this site became evident when land was cleared in consideration of a development application. Confined by high stone walls, the site is one of the last remaining areas in San Ġwann not to have been built over. Running close and adjacent to the site’s northerly enclosed perimeter, a pair of well defined ruts, with a gauge of 1.4m, extends from one boundary wall to another in a North North East-South South West direction. At one point, in the west, another pair of ruts seems to run alongside but they are interrupted by the boundary wall leaving only one of the pair evident. The ruts, which at one point have been interrupted by a shallow excavation, have an unusual flat base, indicative of ‘historic’ ruts (those made by wheels with metal rims). Nevertheless, the general impression is that the ruts are ‘prehistoric’, with the possibility that they ‒ may have once related to ruts at site 24, San Ġwann. Planning permission has been granted for the Żbibu Lane site, but it is not clear whether or not the ruts will be preserved?


East of Żebbiegħ

E452 N758

This is another site that has become evident when land was cleared in consideration of a development application. Three pairs of ruts emerge from under a domestic boundary wall, running along side each other in a North North East-South South West direction. Only one pair is well defined and all three pairs peter out in a short distance. This site is close to East of Żebbiegħ sites 2 & 3 (in the Book). Although the ruts at all three sites run more or less in the same direction the ruts at this site (4) are of a narrower gauge, 1.3m as apposed to 1.4m.



E535 N709

Yet another site made evident by the clearance of soil and debris, probably, in consideration of a development application. The site is one of the geographically lowest in Malta, on the edge of the Marsa flood plane. It is also relatively rare in being situated on the Middle to Lower Globigerina Limestone Formation. The site is on an incline plane divided by terrace walls, beneath the lower of which some bedrock has been removed as part of the terracing. At the lowest and easterly point of this large area of cleared land, a well defined pair of ruts, variable in depth as they go, run uninterrupted (but, for what appears to be some modern blocks of stone) for 30 or 40 metres in an East-West curving to South-West direction, before disappearing under the sites boundary wall. At the start of these ruts, in the East, a well defined single rut branches to the South-West and after several metres becomes a pair of ruts. There is faint evidence of other ruts close by running more or less in the same direction. Also slightly unusual here is the gauge of the ruts, which as far as can be judged is around 1.2 to 1.3 metres. At a higher level on the site is a small well fashioned hypogeum with descending rock-cut steps. From its architecture it would seem to date from the late Roman (early Christian) period. Whether the ruts and the small hypogeum are contemporaneous is impossible to say, though the narrow gauge of the ruts may indicate that the two features were formed at roughly the same time