Ancient sailors built the largest known sacred pool in the Mediterranean

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On a small island off the west coast of Sicily, a huge pool once displayed the starry reflections of the gods.

Scientists have long believed that an ancient rectangular basin on the island of Motya served as an artificial inner harbor, or possibly a drydock, for Phoenician sailors around 2,550 years ago. Instead, the water-filled structure is the largest known sacred pool in the ancient Mediterranean world, says archaeologist Lorenzo Nigro of Sapienza University in Rome.

The Phoenicians, who adopted cultural influences from many Mediterranean societies during their sea voyages, placed the pool at the center of a religious complex in a port city also nicknamed Motya, Nigro reported in April. antiquity.

The pool and the three nearby temples were aligned to the positions of specific stars and constellations on key days of the year, such as the summer and winter solstices, Nigro found. Each of these celestial bodies was associated with a particular Phoenician god.

At night, the pool’s reflective surface, which was slightly longer and wider than an Olympic-sized pool, was used to make astronomical observations by marking the positions of stars with poles, Nigro suspects. Discoveries of a navigational instrument pointer in a temple and the worn statue of an Egyptian god associated with astronomy found in a corner of the pool support this possibility.

It was an archaeologist who explored Motya about a century ago who first described the great pool as a port connected to the sea by a canal. A similar port had already been discovered in Carthage, a Phoenician city on the coast of North Africa.

But the excavations and radiocarbon dating carried out at Motya since 2002 by Nigro, in collaboration with the Superintendence of Trapani in Sicily and the G. Whitaker Foundation in Palermo, have overturned this view.

“The swimming pool could not have served as a port, because it was not connected to the sea,” explains Nigro. He and his team temporarily emptied the basin, showing that it is fed by natural sources instead. It was only after Greek invaders conquered Motya in a battle that ended in 396 BC. that a channel was dug from the pool to a nearby lagoon, Nigro’s group discovered.

The Phoenicians settled in Motya between 800 BC and 750 BC The sacred pool, including a pedestal in the center that originally supported a statue of the Phoenician god Ba’al, was built between 550 BC and 520 BC , said Nigro. Two clues suggested that the pedestal once held a statue of Ba’al. First, after draining the pool, Nigro’s team found a block of stone with the remains of a large carved foot at the edge of the pool. And an inscription in a small pit at one corner of the pool includes a dedication to Ba’al, a primary Phoenician god.

image of a piece of stone with a sculpture in the shape of toes on top
A block with a carved foot found at the edge of the sacred Motya pool was likely part of a statue of a Phoenician god that originally stood on a pedestal in the center of the pool, researchers say.L.Nigro/antiquity 2022

The gods worshiped by the Phoenicians at Motya and elsewhere were closely identified with the gods of other Mediterranean societies. For example, Ba’al was a close counterpart to the divine hero Hercules in Greek mythology.

The ability to integrate other people’s deities into their own religion “was probably one of the keys to the success of the Phoenicians throughout the Mediterranean”, says archaeologist Susan Sherratt of the University of Sheffield in England, who n did not participate in the new study.

Maritime traders now called Phoenicians lived in eastern Mediterranean cities founded over 3,000 years ago (SN: 01/25/06). The Phoenicians established colonies from Cyprus to the Spanish Atlantic coast. Some scholars suspect that the Phoenicians did not have a unifying cultural or ethnic identity.

Nigro disagrees. The Phoenicians developed an influential writing system and spoke a common Semitic language, key markers of a common Eastern Mediterranean culture, he argues. As these sailors settled on islands and coastal regions stretching west across the Mediterranean, they created hybrid cultures with indigenous groups, Nigro suspects.

The Motya excavations indicate that the Phoenician newcomers created a distinct western Phoenician culture through interactions with people who already lived there. Pottery and other artifacts indicate that groups from Greece, Crete and other Mediterranean regions periodically settled on the island around 4,000 years ago. Metal objects and other cultural relics from different stages of Motya’s development display influences from all corners of the Mediterranean.

Although much remains unknown about political and social life in Motya, its Phoenician founders oversaw an experiment in cultural tolerance that lasted at least 400 years, Nigro says.

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