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.
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.”