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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, December 7, 2023 | Back issues
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Buried ancient city slowly emerges from Sicilian dirt

On the northern coast of Sicily, archaeologists and historians are uncovering an ancient Greek and Roman city buried by time. Their discoveries, including a Greco-Roman theater, are providing new insights into the Italian island’s fascinating history.

CASTEL DI TUSA, Sicily (CN) — It's summer and the archaeologists are back on a scrubby hilltop dotted by olive trees overlooking this quiet seaside town on the northern coast of Sicily.

Over the past 70 years, archaeologists here have revealed the contours of an ancient city that flourished for centuries in the hills behind Castel di Tusa.

This site, known as Halaesa during antiquity, is not yet often visited by tourists. But what makes Halaesa special is how recent many of its discoveries are — plus the prospect of more to come.

Just five years ago, researchers announced they'd located a Greek-Roman theater built into the flank of the ancient hilltop city. Compare that to Sicily's most famous ancient sites, like the remains of the Greek city of Syracuse, the majestic temple at Segesta and Agrigento's Valley of Temples, which have been favorite destinations for European travelers since the 1800s.

As the excavations at Halaesa continue, a clearer picture of the ancient city has started to come together. “We have the main road coming up this way and the cross streets are stepped streets like that,” said Jonathan Prag, a professor of ancient history at the University of Oxford, as he guided Courthouse News through the site this summer. He pointed to sections of street stones, first laid in the ground centuries ago.

Halaesa is one of dozens of excavations across Sicily that come alive in the dry summer months. As the spring rains stop and the island's torpid heat settles in, scholars of ancient history and archaeologists fan out across this ancient Mediterranean island in hopes of digging up new insights into its fascinating history.

It was a late July morning and the heat was already oppressive. The shrill sound of cicadas filled the hot and heavy air.

Prag and his colleague Michela Costanzi, a professor of ancient history and archaeology at the University of Amiens in France, were headed up a well-trodden path. Centuries ago, this was the city's main thoroughfare.

As the two experts described this ancient city, one could almost picture it. The massive city walls, the stone buildings, the temples and statues of deities. All the life that took place here.

These days, though, little of that is still visible. Except for an occasional section of street or structure revealed by archaeologists, Halaesa is lost or buried by centuries of landslides, earthquakes, rains, winds, fires and other forces of nature and history. 

Jonathan Prag, left, of the University of Oxford, and Michela Costanzi, right, of the University of Amiens, stand in July 2023 at the site of Halaesa, an ancient Greek and Roman city on the coast of northern Sicily (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News Service).

As they walked, Prag outlined what researchers have so far learned about Halaesa. It was founded at the end of the fifth century B.C., he explained, by native Sicilians as well as Greeks who had settled in the region.

Halaesa was here because a river with the same name (known as Halaisos in ancient Greek) flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea at this spot. The river carried waters from Sicily's interior plateaus and mountains, allowing grain grown in the hinterland to be transported to the coast.

For much of its history, Halaesa was “essentially independent” and something of a democracy, Prag explained. When Romans arrived in the third century B.C., the city surrendered “within a year.”

The city was abandoned in the ninth century A.D., during a period when Sicily was ruled by Arabs. Gradually, its whereabouts were lost.

It's unclear why Halaesa fell into ruin. Maybe it just faded away. Hilltop towns like this were often abandoned in the late Roman period because relative peace in the region made them “no longer practical,” Prag said.

“You don't need the fortified settlement,” he added: “You want to be down where the fields are.” By the second or third century A.D., Roman urban life was “based around large agricultural settlements.”


Work to uncover this city first took place in the mid-1700s under the direction of a local prince, Gabriele Lancillotto Castelli. But the first modern excavations didn’t start until the 1950s, and it’s only in the last three decades that the excavations here have gained steam, thanks to funding from universities and the Sicilian, Italian and European Union governments. 

These more recent excavations — including the discovery in 2004 of two bronze inscriptions at the site — have shed further light on this place.

Thanks to the grain trade, Halaesa grew to become wealthy, erecting massive stone walls, gigantic terraces and stupendous temples that looked out at the Tyrrhenian Sea. Marcus Tullius Cicero, the famous Roman statesman, writer and philosopher, described it as one of Sicily's most beautiful settlements.

There were drainage canals, an aqueduct to carry water from the mountains and the large theater recently discovered by archaeologists. At one point, Halaesa was home to 6,000 residents, a major settlement by ancient standards.

Jonathan Prag of the University of Oxford in late July 2023 points out where archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a terracing wall at the entrance to the sanctuary above the theater at Halaesa, an ancient Greek and Roman city on the northern coast of Sicily. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News Service)

Life in Halaesa centered around a large public market and square paved in bricks. During the Roman period, statues of gods and goddesses were placed in shrines around the square. A few of those statues are still housed in a small museum on the site.

As archaeologists have uncovered more about Halaesa, a picture has emerged of an important hub that “wanted to show off its strength” and so “built big things,” Costanzi said.

A massive Greco-Roman theater, 252 feet in diameter, appears to have had space for around 10,000 attendees — almost double Halaesa’s peak population. That’s led researchers to believe that Halaesa’s population sometimes swelled with visitors as people made the trek into the city for festivities or to visit its important sites.

Another sign of Halaesa’s relative importance lies in its temples. While researchers initially “thought there was only one temple,” Prag said, they’ve since found evidence of at least two, including a temple to Apollo and another to Zeus featuring dedications to Artemis, Apollo’s sister and the goddess of hunting.

Archaeologists like Prag and Costanzi have much more to discover at Halaesa. The theater was only first discovered in 2018, when high-tech geophysical surveys and excavations confirmed Costanzi’s hunch about where one might be. Years of meticulous work still lie ahead to dig it out from centuries of accumulated dirt.

It will be slow going for the archaeologists and historians studying Halaesa. That suits them just fine. They say they're doing their work in the way it's supposed to be done: meticulously. The site “has a lot to give still,” Prag said.

Even still, what archaeologists have discovered so far suggests the city was a significant settlement. “I think Halaesa is exceptional compared to the other cities in Sicily for the scale of this monumental combination of theater, walls [and] sanctuary,” Prag added — “all on a very big scale.”

After walking farther uphill, Prag and Costanzi stopped at a point overlooking the river valley below. The vista was dominated by two gigantic concrete motorway bridges spanning the valley below — a jarring reminder of modernity.

Costanzi pointed to a large flat spot not far down the slope. To the untrained eye, it seemed like just an overgrown natural ledge on the hill's flank.

In this July 2023 photo, a member of an archaeological team working at Halaesa, an ancient Greek and Roman city in northern Sicily, cleans ceramic that experts say is evidence of feasting or banqueting near the entrance to a sanctuary in the ancient city. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News Service)

In fact, this was where the ancient theater once throbbed with life. “There are very important structures hidden underground here because the theater is buried by up to six meters of dirt,” Costanzi said. “That means there are structures [under there] very well preserved.” 

To her, it's quite clear what lies underground. She can envision where walls were built as buttresses, where spectators sat in tiers of stone seats, where visitors entered and exited and even where the stage — the orchestra — was.

The pair carried on up the hill's ridge, where teams of archaeologists were busy exposing a large stone wall. Prag pointed to a tree in the distance, noting that the city walls of Halaesa once extended all the way there.

“What's under the soil here is something public and monumental,” Prag said, “but we don't know what, because there was a lot of soil that's come down the slope and covered it.” He speculated this excavation might uncover “a very large water system.”

They moved on toward the highest point of Halaesa, the north acropolis where temples once stood grandly looking east out over the sea and the rising sun.

Crews took measurements and dug where a large temple to Apollo was erected atop a terraced platform. Apollo, the son of Zeus in Greek mythology, was associated with the founding of colonies in ancient Greece and therefore was commonly worshiped in the Greek city-states of Sicily.

Lorenzo Campagna, a professor of archaeology at the University of Messina, was overseeing students crouched on the ground as they excavated a wall. He took a break from his work to explain what students were uncovering.

“We can imagine [the temple] was about five meters high,” he said. For now, the only visible signs of the temples are stones that once served as their platforms.

As Prag and Costanzi reached the top of the ridge, they stopped to scan the horizon.“We are now in the sanctuary,” Prag said. It was “quite heavily eroded, so there's not much to be found here.”

Still, he tried to paint a picture of what the view once looked like from here many centuries ago. “Imagine a line of columns across the front, facing that way,” he said, gesturing toward the sea. “There would have been an altar for sacrifices.” He paused for a while, taking in the sight of the shining sea and the jagged Sicilian coastline molded by steep hills and mountains.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / History, International, Science

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