2,500-year-old ‘sacred pool’ discovered on Sicilian island

After the excavations were completed, the basin was filled with water and a replica of the statue placed on the pedestal in the center.

After the excavations were completed, the basin was filled with water and a replica of the statue placed on the pedestal in the center.
Photo: Expedition from La Sapienza University of Rome to Motya

Excavations of the ancient island city of Motya have revealed a large sacred pool that the ancient Phoenicians used for religious purposes and to track the movements of stars, according to new research.

New research in the scientific journal Antiquity presents a new interpretation of an artificial basin, known as “kothon”, on the ancient island city of Motya, in western Sicily. The authors of the new paper, led by archaeologist Lorenzo Nigro of Sapienza University in Rome, say the structure is not a military port as originally believed, but a “sacred pool at the center of a monumental sanctuary. with possible astronomical functions”. This discovery sheds new light on the ancient Phoenician culture and its connection to nature.

A map of the site, showing the sacred pool.

A map of the site, showing the sacred pool.
Picture: Expedition from La Sapienza University of Rome to Motya

The kothon (a term used by Greek and Latin authors) was originally discovered in the early 1920s and dates from 550 to 397 BCE. Archaeologists thought it was an artificial port, and for good reason; a similar structure existed in Carthage and served as a military port. The new study challenges this longpermanent interpretation, arguing that the 2,500-year-old structure is a sacred pool, making it one of the largest in the Mediterranean region.

New excavations on the site between 2002 and 2010 led to the discovery of a large building, the temple of Ba’al. The temple honoring the Phoenician deity was found along the edge of the presumed kothon. It was a strange find, as it is not the kind of building one would expect to find in a military port. This led to a decade-long effort to further study the structure, in which the team had to drain and excavate the basin, which is 172 feet (52.5 meters) long and 119 feet (36.25 meters) wide. It’s bigger than an Olympic size pool.

The “kothon” drained during excavations.

The “kothon” drained during excavations.
Photo: Expedition from La Sapienza University of Rome to Motya

The team “excavated stratigraphically, layer by layer, in order to reconstruct its complex history and as it is – unexpectedly – ​​linked to the phreatic aquifer. [the Greek term for a natural spring] we had to pump water outside all the time,” Nigro explained in an email. Indeed, as excavations have revealed, the supposed kothon was not connected to the sea and was instead fed by natural springs, so “it could not have served as an entrance to a hypothetical navigable basin”, according to the study.

Importantly, archaeologists also discovered an additional temple around the perimeter of the pool, a structure dedicated to the Phoenician goddess Astarte, and a third building titled “Sanctuary of Sacred Waters”. Funerary stones, altars, religious offerings and a pedestal in the center of the pool were also discovered. The pedestal still retained the feet of a large statue that once stood atop – a statue that scientists believe depicted Baal. Taken together, this evidence suggests that the pool was a striking centerpiece of an important religious sanctuary.

But that’s not all. A map of the pool suggests it was aligned to the stars and used to track celestial movements. As the researchers write:

The reflective surfaces of the pools could be used for astronomical observations by using poles to mark the position of stars reflected in the water, allowing observation and measurement of celestial bodies and their angles relative to the horizon. The constellations and their positions in the night sky on important dates, such as the solstices and equinoxes, are reflected in the alignments of the site’s main structures, as well as in sacred features that include carefully placed stelae in the temenos to mark the rising, zenith or setting of the stars on the horizon.

Nigro said this particular discovery excited him the most – the “fact that the ancient Phoenicians aimed to synchronize their lives with that of the cosmos/nature”, he told me, and that “their gods were stars and nature was a constant inspiring force in their lives”. Lives.”

Redefining the kothon and characterizing the religious complex further refines our understanding of the ancient Phoenicians, a civilization that lasted from around 2500 BCE to 64 BCE, when Pompey conquered Phenicia. Nigro said the new findings show us that the Phoenicians “could bring together different Mediterranean cultures in their city using this worship complex as a place to mix and exchange their traditions.” This opening, however, came at a cost, as it served to alienate Carthage, resulting in the Siege of Motya in 398-397 BCE, according to the newspaper.

At the end of the excavations, Nigro’s team filled the basin and mounted a replica of the statue of Ba’al on the pedestal. In fact, it looks very cool, offering a glimpse of what this sacred place looked like so many years ago.

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