The Enigmatic Argimusco Plateau: A Glimpse into Sicily’s Distant Past
Sicily is well known for its rich and unique history. The largest island of the Mediterranean Sea, it hides a turbulent story and hosted some very distinctive ancient cultures. Before the age of antiquity and the rise of the Greek and Phoenician settlements on Sicily, this island was home to old megalith builder societies and isolated tribes that developed some truly amazing, huge and complex stone formations.
Dolmens, passage tombs, and various megalithic structures dot the landscapes of this island and give us an important insight into the ancient ages of the Mediterranean. But one of these locations is real conundrum for both historians and archaeologists. That location is the Argimusco plateau near the famous Mount Etna volcano. This plateau hosts a huge number of enormous odd-shaped stones, many of which resemble megalithic structures and strange symbols. But are they the work of an ancient megalithic culture? Or simply one of nature’s spontaneous works of art? Let’s find out.
Where is Argimusco Plateau?
The Argimusco plateau is located in the Messina province of Sicily. Nestled between the Nebrodi and Peloritani mountains, it is situated some 1240 meters above sea level. More precisely though, it is near the commune of Montalbano Elicona, known for its long history and picturesque, medieval architecture. Due to its high elevation, it has been an attractive location for cultures through the ages thanks to the opportunities it provided for observing the night skies. The Argimusco plateau lies within the Val Demona region of Sicily, one of the three valli of the island. This was the last to be conquered by the Arabs in the 10 th century and from that point on, it became a strong cultural epicenter for all Sicilians.
Contrary to the popular belief, Argimusco is not manmade. These huge stones do resemble megalithic boulders, but are in fact completely natural. What seems to be a wondrous carving made by human hand is nothing more than the work of nature. Situated on a high plateau, these boulders have been worked by the wind and the rain over the course of millennia.
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Composed of quartz sandstone, they are fairly porous, and as such are the perfect target for nature’s creativity. More precisely, these boulders are mostly made from quartz arenite, a type of sandstone that contains 90% or more of quartz. This allowed them to easily be shaped by the so-called Aeolian processes, the name given to the wind’s ability to influence and shape objects on Earth, usually over extremely long periods of time.
Nonetheless, local tradition firmly ascribes these oddly shaped stones to be the work of ancient Sicilian cultures and to regard them as megaliths or dolmens. Alas, we now understand that it is just the mischievous hands of the wind that decided to create these symbolic shapes. But that doesn’t mean that the ancient cultures didn’t use this site.
These huge stones do resemble megalithic boulders, but are in fact completely natural. ( ollirg / Adobe Stock)
The Prehistoric Inhabitants of the Argimusco Plateau
The ancient man was always attracted to natural shapes that resembled recognizable, living creatures. Scientifically, this is known as pareidolia, the natural tendency to see shapes in natural objects and occurrences, such as rocks, trees, clouds, waves, and so on. But in the case of the Argimusco rocks, this was all the more understandable, because the symbolism is clear. Nature really gave it her best shot with these shapes and the resulting similarity to animals and objects is uncanny.
Traces of the earliest inhabitants of Sicily can be found at Argimusco and in its vicinity. The plateau is at the very core of a wider region that has been frequented by ancient tribes of the Sicels and Sicanians and as such bore great importance for them. Just a few kilometers east from Argimusco is a well-known Mesolithic shelter, one of two that have been discovered in Sicily. It is called Sperlinga of San Basilio and is located at Novara di Sicilia. It is a base rock shelter, which displays signs of use up until the Bronze Age. Not too far way one can find another prehistoric shelter known as Rocca Salvatesta . This was also frequented by ancient peoples from the Neolithic up until Late Antiquity.
An Island Brimming with Ancient History
Not too far from Argimusco, to the north east, you’ll also find the Monte Bammina , the remains of a seasonal settlement that has been dated to the Early Bronze Age. In its vicinity are also the ancient necropolises of Longane and Abakanion, connected to the Sicel people of ancient times, as well as the Greek populace in the centuries after. Abakanion is known to have been a Hellenized town of the Sicel tribes, although not much of it remains except the necropolis.
The prevalence of archaeological remains in the area surrounding the Argimusco plateau tell us that this plateau was an important location on the seasonal routes of the ancient hunter gatherer communities, as well as the sedentary tribes of later ages. These included peoples who seasonally moved to hunt game in the forests of the Nebrodi and Peloritani mountains, and the peoples from the Tyrrhenian coasts who moved northwards. These migratory cultures often utilized certain zone crossings and mountain passes around Argimusco plateau, such as Portella Mandrazzi, Portella Zilla, or Portella Mattinata. In the process, they left unmistakable traces of their activity and signs of worship at the Argimusco stones.
Water’s Rock: Ritual Site for the Worship of Water
Of all the stones in the Argimusco plateau, perhaps the most iconic and important is known as the Water’s Rock. Located in the central portion of the plateau, it was most likely a central place of worship within the site. Several leading scholars propose that the Water’s Rock was an atavistic ritual site for the worship of water, most likely as the giver of life.
Numerous natural and manmade receptacles and holes indicate the altar-like nature of the stone. Water’s Rock is home to one of the primary and iconic features of the Argimusco complex. The so-called Leeches Tub is a perfectly rectangular and deep tub, which is naturally filled with rainwater. This central site tells us that Argimusco, and the people who frequented it, placed great importance on water as a bringer of life and fertility, conducting rituals for the invocation of rain from this very spot. This fact is further established by the numerous toponyms in the vicinity which are directly related to water and water sources.
A similar discovery was made on the Petra de la Mola site on Mount Croccia, not so far from Argimusco. It too shows a natural boulder with manmade holes and tubs, similar to those at Water’s Rock. From all this we can conclude that the ancient inhabitants on Sicily revered nature and worshiped it.
The Eagle is a perfectly shaped natural megalith that resembles an eagle. (Graziella Milazzo / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
When Nature Gets Creative: Iconic Features at Argimusco
The Eagle is another iconic feature of the Argimusco site. A perfectly shaped natural megalith, made up of overlapping rectangular blocks, it is exceptionally reminiscent of an eagle. Two side blocks are akin to folded wings, while an oddly shaped central block perfectly symbolizes a right facing head of the bird with a beak. In the vicinity you can also find the so-called Priest’s Rock, a formation with a symbolic human profile and a hole which resembles an eye. Nearby, the Praying Megalith is a 25-meter high formation akin to a female figure with clasped hands.
But one particular stone holds the essence of Argimusco. The tall and indomitable Tower, is located exactly to the geographical east, at 90 degrees east in azimuth. Its position seems to support the widely-accepted hypothesis that the ancient Sicels and prehistoric inhabitants of Sicily have used this plateau and its stones as a sort of astrological observatory, related to their worship of nature and the seasons.
The horizons and their profiles at Argimusco are perfectly positioned for accurate observation of sunrise and sunset. The elevated plateau offers perfect views in 360 degrees. From north to south one can contemplate the Volcano Line from Mount Stromboli to the Etna. From east to the west, both the sunrise and sunset can be observed.
1340 meters above sea level, the sharp peak of Novara Rock is a true natural observatory. ( ollirg / Adobe Stock)
Novara Rock: A Truly Natural Observatory
But, one mountain really stands out from the rest: the Novara Rock (also known as Salvatesta Rock). At 1340 meters (4396 ft) above sea level, its sharp peak contrasts with the surrounding landscape, serving as the perfect indicator of the equinoxes and ideal for observing the solstices. For example, during summer solstice ancient man would have observed the sun to the left of Novara peak. However, if the sun was seen on the right side of the peak, to the south east, it was winter.
The periods when the sun exactly rises at the Novara peak coincide perfectly with the equinoxes, making the Argimusco plateau a true natural observatory. All of these natural wonders indicate that the ancient peoples of Sicily frequented the place and used it as a sort of natural calendar, also known as the horizon calendar. The ancient inhabitants of the region could use these naturally occurring instruments to mark the changing of the seasons and to time their agricultural activities. Their worship and beliefs around nature and the changing of seasons would have been based on this calendar.
Observing the Seasons: Equinoxes Mastered
Sadly, Argimusco remains one of Sicily’s least explored ancient sites. To date, there haven’t been any significant archaeological excavations, nor has the area been the focus of sustained professional research. Our knowledge of its secrets is based on what is visible to the naked eye, thanks to the subtle traces left by ancient man both on the plateau and the area surrounding it.
For Sicily, the site remains one of the most unique and important in regards to ancient history, and is possibly the only one with an astronomical dimension on the island. Several of the megaliths at Argimusco display clear signs of human activity. For the ancient peoples of this region, the plateau must have seemed a hugely symbolic and awe-inspiring site. Positioned high above the surrounding valleys, the flat meadow ringed by tall and oddly shaped, zoomorphic megaliths must have been an almost mythic apparition.
The area perfectly connected with their complex belief system, worship of nature and the changing seasons, easily manifested through the various megaliths, especially the Water’s Rock or the Eagle. As such, Argimusco remains crucial to our understanding of the pre-Roman and prehistoric cultures of Sicily, especially the Sicels who dwelt in the east of the island. It offers us a defining glimpse into their beliefs before the rapid Hellenization of these tribes and their eventual disappearance around 300 BC.
Calling Archaeologists: Further Excavation of Argimusco Needed
The presence of ancient observatories and complex megalithic sites is not unique to this ancient civilization. Many such locations dot the continent – both manmade and natural – and have been shared by numerous cultures since the dawn of humankind. From the jaw-dropping stone circles of England and Ireland, all the way to the ingenious menhirs and megalithic observatories of Brittany, the prehistoric cultures of Europe were certainly far more complex than we assume nowadays. Sites such as Argimusco are incalculably important to help us unlock the secrets of our distant past. Sadly, this location remains largely unknown, though it certainly warrants a thorough archaeological excavation. Who knows what wonders lie beneath?
Top image: While exploring the Argimusco Plateau, you’ll come across the Eagle. Is it the work of an ancient megalithic culture? Or one of nature's spontaneous works of art? Source: ildiora / Adobe Stock
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Orlando, A. 2014. The Argimusco’s Plateau and the Horizon’s Calendar. Istituto di Archeoastronomia Siciliana.
Quatriglio, G. 2011. Sicily: Island of Myths. Legas/Gaetano Cipolla.