Homesick Phoenicians Imported Plants, Animals to New Sicilian Island Home 3,000 Years Ago

DNA analysis of seeds and bones unearthed on the tiny island of Motya show that they came from the ancient Levant, brought by the Phoenicians to Sicily.

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Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

Over 3,000 years ago, as the Phoenicians spread west from the Levantine coasts of the Mediterranean to Sicily and beyond, it turns out they had not only animals on board, but plants and tableware too, bringing with them the taste of home.

Rhyton-jug with the mouth in the shape of a ram head used for libation in the Temple of Baal in the Sacred Area of the Kothon at Motya (5th century BCE).
Rhyton-jug with the mouth in the shape of a ram head used for libation in the Temple of Baal in the Sacred Area of the Kothon at Motya (5th century BCE).Credit: Sapienza Expedition to Motya

Archaeologists excavating a village the seafaring Phoenicians established on the tiny island of Motya, on the western tip of Sicily, found plant seeds and animal bones that they had brought from home, possibly the coast of today's Lebanon.

The Phoenicians seem to have first landed on Motya, an island with protected anchorage and with access to mainland agriculture, sometime in the 10th to 11th century B.C.E. By the late 9th century B.C.E., they had developed it into a proper colony, thanks to no small part to the safe harbor.

Motya Island, aerial view.
MotyaCredit: Sapienza Expedition to Motya

Pottery and inscriptions to their gods, among other things, seal the case that the town was Phoenician. 

In fact, the very name “Motya” in Phoenician meant “twisted,” which possibly refers to the ropes tied around ancient poles set into the sea-bottom of the Marsala Lagoon. Second-millennium B.C.E. anchor stones found there testify to the ancient frequentation of the island, which, crucially, also had strategic springs of fresh water.

Couscous on the main

vessels used as urns for incinerated remains of children buried in the Tophet sanctuary grouped around installations or stelas (8th-6th century BCE)..
Vessels used as urns for incinerated remains of children buried in the Tophet sanctuary grouped around installations or stelas (8th-6th century BCE)..Credit: Sapienza Expedition to Motya

Excavations carried out by students and experts from Sapienza University of Rome and the Superintendence of Trapani of Sicily since 2002 have shown that the Phoenician settlers brought typically Levantine plants, such as chickpeas, lentils, barley, wheat but also grapes, onion, garlic, sage, basil, fennel, anise, and papyrus – all typical ingredients of Sicilian cuisine today (except for the papyrus).

Grape seeds found in the early the early Phoenician layers of the western flanks of the Acropolis at Motya
Grape seeds found in the early the early Phoenician layers of the western flanks of the Acropolis at Motya.Credit: Sapienza Expedition to Motya

The provenance of the plants was proven by detailed analysis of the botany of the island, including DNA analysis.

Dog remains, similar to the breed known as Pharaoh hounds, which the doting modern Maltese have named kelb tal-fenek.
Dog remains, similar to the breed known as Pharaoh hounds, which the doting modern Maltese have named kelb tal-fenek.Credit: Sapienza Expedition to Motya

"They wanted to enjoy all the commodities and comforts they had in the east by bringing them to the west," says Prof. Lorenzo Nigro, excavation director.

Analysis of bones on Motya finds that they also brought sheep, goats and dogs, and possibly other animals with them. The dogs look like the breed known as Pharaoh hounds, which the doting modern Maltese have named kelb tal-fenek, or rabbit hound.

Despite their name, Pharaoh hounds, by the way, did not originate in ancient Egypt, or modern Egypt, and the legend has it that it was the Phoenicians who brought them to Malta in the first place. The presence of similar hounds in ancient Motya could reinforce that origin myth.

Dog remains, similar to the breed known as Pharaoh hounds, which the doting modern Maltese have named kelb tal-fenek; and a cat tooth (bottom center).
Dog remains, similar to the breed known as Pharaoh hounds, which the doting modern Maltese have named kelb tal-fenek, and a cat tooth found at Motya.Credit: Sapienza Expedition to Motya

Another find was the tooth of a cat, which had apparently long since become firmly established as a household species (archaeological evidence indicates cats were kept as pets as much as 10,000 years ago).

As for the Phoenicians on Motya, they apparently traded in salt, a precious commodity at the time that is exported from the west coast of Sicily to this very day.

Rhyton-jug with the mouth in the shape of a ram head used for libation in the Temple of Baal in the Sacred Area of the Kothon at Motya (5th century BCE).
Rhyton-jug with the mouth in the shape of a ram head used for libation in the Temple of Baal in the Sacred Area of the Kothon at Motya (5th century BCE).Credit: Sapienza Expedition to Motya
Moulds for terracottas found in the Sanctuary of the Holy Waters in the Sacred Area of the Kothon depicting a sphinx catching a young man and a veiled deity.
Moulds for terracottas found in the Sanctuary of the Holy Waters in the Sacred Area of the Kothon depicting a sphinx catching a young man and a veiled deity.Credit: Sapienza Expedition to Motya

As said, by the 9th century B.C.E., the Phoenician immigrants were already well established on their wee island. Impressive remains of temples and shrines have been unearthed. Their distinctive pottery, their hallmark ivory and their storage jars for wine and olive oil have been found all over the island.

Especially intriguing was the discovery of a circular area featuring a central courtyard, a spacious temple with a dedicatory inscription to Baal as well as standing steles and a stone obelisk, all connected to the nearby pool, the kothon.

Prof. Lorenzo Nigro, the director of the dig, recording the finding of a flute made of a goat metacarpal, a long-lasting Levantine tradition.
Prof. Lorenzo Nigro recording the finding of a flute made of a goat metacarpal, a long-lasting Levantine traditionCredit: Sapienza Expedition to Motya

Teeth to Baal

The sacred pool of the kothon, which is 52 meters in length, consists of a huge rectangular basin connected, as the Sapienza Expedition discovered, to a freshwater spring.

The kothon of Motya was first investigated by the archaeologist Joseph Whittaker in 1909. He interpreted the area as a dock for loading boats, and the basin as a harbor. (Hence the name "kothon," a Greek word which Roman authors used to designate the circular-shaped harbor of Carthage.)

Alternatively, Nigro suggests that the pool was a freshwater reservoir for cult purposes, and/or, based on the discovery of three ritual steles that he says are aligned to the stars, that it may have served in celestial observations needed by seamen, and/or worship of the sun and/or moon. 

"[Various] finds, building technique and water capture devices, as well as geological analyses have demonstrated that the pool is fed with pure freshwaters by the phreatic aquifer," says Nigro, adding that following its colonization, the area became sacred to the Phoenicians.

After drying out the pool, the archaeologists discovered a podium in the basin's middle, with the base of colossal statue on top of it.

Animal bones and sea-shells found in the early Phoenician layers of the western flanks of the Acropolis at Motya, including equids, pork, cat, sharq and numerous sheep & goat remains.
Animal bones and sea-shells found in the early Phoenician layers of the western flanks of the Acropolis at Motya, including equids, pork, cat, sharq and numerous sheep & goat remains.Credit: Sapienza Expedition to Motya

In the pool's southern corner they found an Egyptian greensand statue of a baboon. In Egypt the baboon was sacred to Thoth, the ibis-headed god of Hermopolis, master of wisdom, knowledge and writing, often associated in Phoenician imagery with astral representation. Early-morning screaming by baboons had been thought to be a secret language that only adepts (including pharaohs) could understand, Nigro notes.

Yasper and Zaghira, two Pharaoh hounds living in Göteborg, Sweden
Yasper and Zaghira, two Pharaoh hounds living in Göteborg, Sweden.Credit: William Bohstrom

Another jaw-dropping discovery was two dozen human teeth. "They ritually buried these teeth all around the circle. So far we have discovered 20 teeth, all male between the ages of 18 to 30," Nigro says.

Why these teeth were deposited is anybody’s guess. What is sure is that, in keeping with the Phoenicians' religious predilections, the island is littered with votive offerings and burials of sacrificed humans. In the Tophet alone (the sanctuary devoted to burying the incinerated remains of children, apparently sacrificed), more than 2,000 urns and stelas were found.

Fine dining and a gambling habit

The statue of the Phoenician god Melqart (or possibly the Greek hero Hercules) dedicated in the Temple to the god (also known as the "Cappiddazzu" Temple) at Motya, in about 475 B.C.E.
The statue of Melqart (or Hercules) dedicated in the Temple to the god (also known as the "Cappiddazzu" Temple) at Motya, in about 475 B.C.E.Credit: Sapienza Expedition to Motya

By the 5th century B.C.E., Motya had become a large, thriving town, surrounded by massive city walls and guard towers. Large villas several floors in height and exquisite Attic pottery attest to the material wealth of the island inhabitants.

"These are residents of rich merchants who wanted to be part of the Greek cultural sphere," says Nigro. "They showed their status by buying pottery directly from Athens, not from Syracuse, which produced imitation Greek Attic ware but of lesser quality."

The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus describes the richness of Mozia in his work, Library of World History: “This city was embellished artistically to the last degree with numerous fine houses, thanks to the prosperity of the inhabitants.” (14.48.2) 

Perhaps the most tantalizing expression of the inhabitants' wealth, and admiration of the Hellenes, is the so-called Motya Charioteer, that was unearthed in 1979. The sculpture, made of Parian marble and created between 480 and 470 B.C.E., may depict the victorious Phoenician god Melqart (equivalent to the Greek's Hercules) as he ascends to Olympus. The youthful, athletic divine charioteer is one of the finest examples of Greek sculptures preserved from that time so long ago.

But nothing lasts forever, and in the year 397 B.C.E., Dionysus I, the tyrant of Syracuse, had grown weary of the Phoenician descendants. In a campaign directed at the Carthaginian powerbase on Sicily, the island was attacked. The grim struggle went on for several days, until a Greek commando detachment, under the protection of darkness, gained strategic positions. The Phoenician and even Greek populace was slaughtered, and the city was sacked and left in ruins, which were never to be rebuilt.

Aerial view of the island of Motya from the north-west
Aerial view of the island of Motya from the north-west.Credit: Sapienza Expedition to Motya

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