The Archaeology Of Sicily
What makes the archaeological attractions in Sicily so exceptional is the vast quantity of the remains and the quality of their survival.
Modern humans first began peopling Sicily at the height of the last Ice Age, roughly 20 – 25,000 years ago. In this period sea levels were so low that a land bridge existed between the Island and continental Europe. Early man, like later tribes of settlers and invaders, was attracted to Sicily by the extremely fertile, volcanic soils, the wealth of fish and seafood and it’s strategic position in the Mediterranean.
Sicily has been a centre of important civilizations, sometimes in it’s own right, as under the Greeks or subsequent to independence, but more often under the auspices of more powerful cultures such as the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines and Catalans to name but a few. These Peoples left evidence of their societies in their archaeological remains, many of which survive today. A great number remain visible in the landscape and can be visited by archaeologists and tourists alike.
If you have an interest in history and/or archaeology Sicily is a fabulous place to explore. Some of the most important and interesting sites are detailed below:
The most significant remains of Greek Syracuse can be found in the Archaeological Park of Neapolis, in the present-day Province of Syracuse http://www.sicily.co.uk/things_to_do/archaeological-park-of-the-neapolis/.
Attractions include the 3rd century BC Greek theatre (which still stages productions), an altar to King Heiron II, a Roman amphitheatre and associated remains and the famous Catacombs of San Giovanni Evangelista. The latter are a series of some 20,000 niched tombs and chambers dating back to the Hellenistic period. To Western-European eyes the quality of the remains is quite staggering.
A small theatre dating to the 7th century stands before the entrance of this town, founded by the Syracusans. The quality of survival is exceptional. The town also boasts the ruins of a Temple to Aphrodite and twelve statues of the goddess Cybele known as the ‘Santoni’. Akrai is a less-famous site than some of the others in this article, so you are likely to have more time to explore at your own pace.
Remains from Morgantina date back to c.1300BC and are very early indicator of Italian influence in Sicily, although the site was subsequently taken over by the Greeks and the Romans. Visible remains include a Greek theatre, early examples of Doric architecture within dwellings and/or municipal structures and an Agora or a public open space used for assemblies and markets with its dedicated holy sanctuary. The site lies within 2 kilometres of an Iron Age settlement, possibly indicating continuity of use.
Pantalica was the heart of the ancient kingdom of Hybla, dating to c. 1,200BC. Outstanding visible remains exist for the ‘Anaktoron’ or palace of a Bronze Age ruler but more famously the ‘North’ and ‘Filiporto’ Necropolises. Over 1000 tombs have been cut out of the sides of the gorges here and have been dated to the Byzantine period http://www.sicily.co.uk/things_to_do/the-rocky-necropolis-of-pantalica/ .
At the end of the gorge is the rock-hewn church of San Micidiario, again Byzantine in date. Exploring this area is a great day out, although quite a challenging walk.
Valley of the Temples, Agrigento
On a ridge around the modern city of Agrigento stand the remains of some of the best-preserved Greek temples http://www.sicily.co.uk/things_to_do/temple-valley-of-agrigento/ in the World. They originate from ‘Akragas’ a city founded by the Greeks in or around the 6th Century BC. The site itself also includes a large area of Roman occupation of late 4th century AD date and the Greek ‘Temple of Concord’, which was converted into a Christian church in the 6th century AD.
There are better preserved Roman theatres, even Roman theatres that have been converted from Greek ones. What makes Taormina so special http://www.sicily.co.uk/things_to_do/greek-roman-theatre-taormina/ is the amazing location with views not only of the sea but of Mount Etna too. The theatre is in exceptional condition and is still in use today – with classical and modern productions held for visitors.
Selinunte was founded by the Greeks in, or around, the 7th century BC. The remains of its temples have survived down to us despite earthquakes, invasions and being sacked by the Carthaginians. Many of these remains are not as picturesque as others http://www.sicily.co.uk/things_to_do/archaeological-park-of-selinunte/ (at Agrigento, for example), but the quality and shear size and effort of their construction can still be inferred and marveled at.
Catania Amphitheatre, Catania City
The remains of an exceptionally large (16,000 seats), sunken Roman amphitheatre in the centre of Catania City. In the 2nd century AD it was the third largest such structure in the Roman Empire behind the Coliseum in Rome and the Amphitheatre in Verona http://www.sicily.co.uk/things_to_do/roman-amphitheatre-2/. It was famous for hosting the ‘Naumachie’ or ‘nautical battles’ subsequent to being filled with water. Only a fragment of the amphitheatre is visible although myriad tunnels can be seen leading off into the city. It’s to be assumed that a great deal of the structure still exists under the current city development.
Piazza Armerina, Enna
Home to the largest collection of Roman mosaics in the World including the very famous ‘Bikini Girls’ or “Coronation of the Winner,” mosaic shown above. The state of preservation is again outstanding. The mosaics give us an unparalleled insight to how life was lived in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, at least amongst the wealthier classes. A must-see for anyone interested in the Roman Empire.
Pietrarossa Castle, Caltanissetta
Destroyed by natural disaster in 1567, three towers of the Castle Pietrarossa still survive overlooking the Valley of Salso. The origins of the castle are unknown, although it was certainly standing in some form in 1086AD. It has medieval elements but it is presumably much earlier, possibly Arabic. Some excavations took place in the nineteenth century but were not greatly enlightening. For Medieval enthusiasts the Castle Pietrarossa is an excellent place to explore http://www.sicily.co.uk/things_to_do/pietrarossa-castle/
To see more than half of the archaeological sites on Sicily would take you best part of a year, so if you are an enthusiast it’s best to read up first to prioritise your destinations.