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The interior of what researchers call Temple E in Selinunte

Archaeologists in Sicily excavate an ancient Greek city remarkably preserved beneath earth and sand

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In 409 BC, Carthaginian troops from North Africa slaughtered and enslaved the 16,000 soldiers and residents of Selinunte, a Greek metropolis whose ruins were preserved in ancient times by blowing earth and sand. Working for many years, archaeologists have examined and excavated the entire city to find 2,500 houses, the streets and harbor and an industrial zone that produced exquisite pottery.

Archaeologists have compared Selinunte to Pompeii in the degree of preservation. Pompeii, on the Italian mainland, was buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.

About 15 percent of Selinunte, including a spectacular acropolis and temples, had remained above-ground and was visited on what the British of the Georgian and Victorian used to call the Grand Tour. They called it the City of the Gods. More than 500 years ago a temblor knocked down those buildings. Two of the temples were re-built in the mid-20 th century and have been a tourist attraction ever since.

“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,” Martin Bentz of the University of Bonn, head of excavations now underway at Selinunte, told The Independent.

This pot, which was made in Selinunte, shows a rider with a spear and an attendant.

This pot, which was made in Selinunte, shows a rider with a spear and an attendant. (Photo by Marie Lan-Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons)

Before Selinunte, scholars had found not one single entirely intact ancient Greek city and were able to study only fragmentary city plans and ancient city life. The study of Selinunte has shed much light on the ancient world and its demographics and lifestyles. Researchers never knew how many residents there were in any ancient Greek cities until Selinunte.

Archaeologists found a half-eaten meal inside a dozen bowls around a hearth in a building that burned during the invasion and will analyze the food residue. They have also found dozens of unfired ceramic pots and tiles in the city, which was a major producer of ceramics. Terrified locals apparently left these products unfired because the invasion interrupted their work.

Recent excavations have brought to light pottery kilns and entire workshops. Archaeologists have found pigments used to paint the ceramics and 80 kilns, including large circular ones for producing roof tiles and amphorae jars and a dozen large rectangular kilns for firing giant amphorae and coffins. In smaller kilns, workers fired weights, tableware and small statues of the gods. 

The ceramicists had a chapel for worshiping a working-class goddess, Athena Ergane of Athena of the Workers, and Artemis, Demeter and Zeus, the supreme deity.

A pottery piece made in Selinunte showing Artemis with a bow and arrow in front of an altar

A pottery piece made in Selinunte showing Artemis with a bow and arrow in front of an altar (Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons)

Scholars are examining pottery from around the Mediterranean to determine how much of it originated in Selinunte, which produced much more than it could use on its own. They estimate the city’s residents produced 300,000 ceramic pieces per year, but less than 20 percent of that was for domestic use. In addition, amphorae produced in Selinunte may have been used to transport the city’s surplus wheat and olive oil, The Independent says.

Researchers have been studying Selinunte’s man-made harbor and will use geophysical surveys to find the foundations of warehouses that would have been positioned around it. Artifacts in the city’s shops and houses, including pottery, glass and bronze pieces from Egypt, Turkey, southern France and northern Italy, show that ships from far and wide docked in the harbor.

The city, which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, didn’t exist for very long. Ancient Greeks founded it between 650 and 630 BC. A bit more than 200 years later, Carthage attacked and killed and enslaved its defenders and residents.

The Carthaginians, at war with Greece, besieged the city for nine days and then breached its walls and overwhelmed its defenders.

“What followed was an orgy of destruction, torture, rape, murder and looting that was considered abhorrent even by the standards of those days,” says the site Best of Sicily. “According to Diodorus Siculus, about 16,000 of Selinunte's estimated 25,000 or so civilians were butchered outright and 7,000 were enslaved. Only a scant two thousand managed to escape the bloodbath and make their way to Agrigento.”

The Carthaginians repopulated the city some, but it never regained its former power or prestige. During the first Punic War with Rome in 250 BC, Carthaginian forces destroyed the city before fleeing Roman troops.

Featured image: The interior of what researchers call Temple E in Selinunte (Photo by Evan Erickson/Wikimedia Commons)

By: Mark Miller



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Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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