One of the ancient world’s greatest tragedies, frozen in time for almost 2500 years, is at last yielding up its long-lost secrets.
Archaeologists are gradually unearthing an ancient Greek city – Selinunte in Sicily – whose inhabitants were slaughtered or enslaved by North African invaders in the late 5th century BC.
Like an ancient Greek Pompeii, the whole city remained at least partially intact, despite the tragic loss of most of its inhabitants.
At Pompeii all the houses and other buildings were interred almost instantaneously under volcanic ash – but at Selinunte they were buried more gradually by hundreds of thousands of tons of earth and windblown sand.
Archaeological excavations are now revealing how the exact moment that Selinunte ceased to exist as a major living city was preserved in graphic detail.
Buried under a collapsed roof in a building burnt by the invaders, the archaeologists have even found the half-eaten remains of meals abandoned by the townsfolk as catastrophe engulfed them. Scientists are now analysing visible food residues inside half a dozen bowls left around a hearth in that building.
What’s more, the archaeologists have also found dozens of unfired ceramic products – pots and tiles – abandoned by terrified local workers before they had had a chance to put them in their kilns.
Over the past 15 years, using geophysical techniques and sometimes excavation, the archaeological investigation has so far identified all 2500 of the long-abandoned city’s houses, all its streets, its harbour and its once-flourishing industrial zone. It’s the first time that archaeologists have been able to produce a detailed comprehensive plan of what a classical Greek city looked like. Previously, archaeologists had only been able to gain a relatively fragmentary appreciation of how such cities looked and functioned.
But the new knowledge from Selinunte has begun to transform scholars’ understanding of some of the key demographic and economic realities of the ancient world as a whole.
Because, prior to the Selinunte investigation, nobody had ever been able to count the exact number of houses in a classical Greek city, scholars had in the past not been able to confidently determine the populations of such cities.
Selinunte is also the first classical Greek city where archaeologists have succeeded in gaining a complete understanding of an ancient industrial zone, thus allowing them to more fully analyse the complex relationship between a city’s population and its economy.
“Selinunte is the only classical Greek city where the entire metropolis is still preserved, mainly buried under sand and earth. It therefore gives us a unique opportunity to discover how an ancient Greek city functioned,” said Professor Martin Bentz of the University of Bonn, Director of the major current excavation at Selinunte.
Excavations at the site are now uncovering pottery kilns and workshops complete with pottery-making equipment and even the pigments used to paint the pots.
Eighty kilns have so far been identified – including dozens of very large circular ones (used to produce thousands of roof tiles and large ceramic food transport containers) and a dozen large rectangular ones dedicated to producing giant ceramic food storage containers and ceramic coffins! Other smaller kilns were used to make fine tableware, loom weights – and small statues of gods and goddesses.
The potters even had their own religious chapel – equipped with altars dedicated to a special working class deity, Athena Ergane (Athena of the Workers) as well as to Artemis (goddess of hunting and of childbirth), Demeter (goddess of fertility and of the harvest) and the king of the gods, Zeus himself.
The archaeology of Selinunte is unique, mainly because the entire city simply ceased to exist as a major population centre in less than a day – as Carthaginian troops (from what is now modern Tunisia) punctured the defences and butchered 16,000 of the Greek inhabitants and soldiers who had been trying to defend it.
Some 5,000 more men were taken as slaves, as were many thousands of women and children.
Literally from one day to the next, the once bustling city became a ghost town.
Of the tens of thousands of ordinary people who lived there during the 219 years of its existence, only a dozen names have been recovered by the archaeologists – names scratched on the bottoms of drinking cups and jugs found in houses facing the city’s great market place.
Over the past two years, as well as excavating the city’s industrial zone, the archaeologists have started investigating its important ancient man-made harbour. Plans are now being made to try to use geophysical survey techniques to find the foundations of the great warehouses which would once have stood around it. Evidence from shops and houses near the city’s market place suggests that the harbour attracted ships and goods from all over the classical world. In some of the city’s temples and richer houses, archaeologists have found imported pottery, glass and bronzes from as far away as Egypt, Turkey, southern France and northern Italy.
What’s more, scientists are now planning to study ceramics from around the Mediterranean world to try to discover where Selinunte’s pottery exports went. It’s now estimated that in the years immediately before the city’s fall in 409 BC, some 300,000 ceramic artefacts were manufactured in its industrial zone annually – but that less than 20% of that production was for the city’s own use. Almost certainly, many of the larger ceramic products – amphora transport containers – were used to enable Selinunte to export its agricultural produce (mainly wheat and olive oil) to foreign markets.
Selinunte first began to emerge from the mists of history in the 18th century when it was an archaeologically important stop on the Grand Tour, so beloved of British intellectuals and aristocrats in the Georgian and early Victorian eras. To them the site was known as the ‘City of the Gods’.
Around 15% of the 250 acre city – mostly its temples and its acropolis – has, to this day, survived above ground. Its jumbled ruins were regarded by participants in the Grand Tour as particularly picturesque and alluring, not just because of its tragic ancient history – but also because the surviving temples had been toppled by a massive earthquake more than 500 years ago. Using their original columns and building materials, two of the temples were re-erected in the mid-20th century and have become major tourist attractions. Selinunte is now the largest archaeological park in Europe.
Two and half millennia after its horrific demise, this ancient Greek city is re-emerging as archaeologists and tourists rediscover its mysteries.