luke hollis

Scavi americani

Four Weeks of Archaeology in Rural Sicily

Crimson light flooded the balcony windows as the 6 A. M. June sun rose behind the silhouette of Etna. The kitchen table in the dig house bustled with an eclectic group of researchers, volunteers, and budding archaeologists from scattered origins in Europe and America. Fresh from the stove, two aluminum espresso pots steamed on clay tiles and filled the air with the rich, acrid scent of coffee. After breakfast, we loaded ourselves, the GIS surveying equipment, and water bidone into the back of two rental cars to start digging for the day before 7:00 AM.

For the last four weeks, we lived in Aidone, a small town (population around 5,000) in rural Sicily, and were beginning to say our goodbyes. The site of Morgantina lies a ten-minute drive down the breezy summit where Aidone is beneath the crumbling remnants of an old Norman castle. A nearby hill's shade covering our trench made good conditions for photography that morning, so we hurried to sweep the dust and grass out of the bottom and clean up the sides. Jared, our trench supervisor, scaled a wobbly aluminum A-frame ladder poised on top of the nearby dirtmound and photographed the entire trench in his shots.

I applied to this dig specifically because I’d undertaken a translation of Theocritus, an ancient Greek poet who lived in Sicily and whose major work, Idylls, portrays the characters and landscape of rural Sicily. Theocritus primarily focused on elegies and singing contests of shepherds--who still are seen herding flocks to shady springs and shady meadows through the hills. His poetry was integral in founding the pastoral tradition in Western literature, and somewhere still in the hills surrounding our site, it seems almost as if you can hear Daphnis crying out for his lover Amaryllis; Polyphemus, the Cyclops, lamenting his lost sea-nymph Galatea; and Lycidas, the shepherd, teaching his songs to travellers to Demeter’s harvest feast.

Morgantina: the Ancient City

For my final lunch, I wanted to get out to photograph the diverse, thriving countryside I’d explored over my other lunch breaks. To the south, through rows of olive trees, there is an abandoned barn with two ten-foot crush-stones tipped off of their presses. A little further are the wild almond trees--the fuzzy, green fruits that we cracked with stones while waiting for our ride back to the city. Within walking distance of our trench, you can find wild pears, apricots, several types of cherries, oranges, lemons, and a plethora of varied grains and wildflowers.

Over the next slope, past sundry foundations that were residential and business districts of the ancient city of Morgantina, the agora, a once-bustling public center and gathering place of the polis, lies ensconced between two hills and opens out onto a picturesque view of the pasture and fields in the hills of Sicily continuing out to Etna and the horizon. Among other features, the agora includes a sanctuary, ekklesasterion, theater, two large granaries built to pay the rising taxes on the city as Hieron II and other rulers came to govern Sicily, and finally, a large, ruined farmhouse built and abandoned within the last few centuries.

After the agora, a single road winds across a thin ridge of hills clustered with farmhouses, pastures clotted with prickly-pear cacti and arbutus, and sundry fields, until finally rising up the Cittadella, where the most ancient (and most looted) ruins of Morgantina lie. Mostly studied now as burial grounds, the Cittadella has been a subject of much examination for archaeologists since excavation began at Morgantina, but, unfortunately, much of this area has undergone serious robbery by clandestini, illegal excavators.

Evolution of the Site: the lifetime of the city and excavation

From the best estimates, Morgantina likely began around the year 3000 BC with archaic Sikel inhabitants on Cittadella, who later mingled with settlers from the Greek colonies. After the extension of Roman power into Italy, the city was purged and given to Spanish mercenaries that had helped in the Siege of Syracuse during 213 BC. In very little time, many of the complex innovations that the Greek citizens had built, such as the complex heating and plumbing engineering of the baths, broke down and some of the Spanish mercenaries’ unskilled attempts to repair these structures have become part of what we excavate today.

Soon Pompey gained control over most of Sicily, and the ensuing wars between Pompey and Octavian left Octavian, soon to be Augustus, badly disposed toward the island. After Augustus gained control of Sicily in 36 BC, the vengeance he took on the inhabitants was particularly ruthless, and though there aren’t significant records of Octavian’s actions concerning Morgantina, it’s likely that he wasn’t friendly to the Spanish mercenaries. In the second half of the 1st Century BC, the theater at Morgantina went out of use, the potter at the House of the Official abruptly ceases production, and based on other sundry destructions, abandonments, and vandalisms, it’s likely the city went out of occupation somewhere around 20 BC.

During the ensuing period of Roman control in Sicily, there isn’t much written on the lives and livelihoods of the occupants of the farms and trades nearby the former city of Morgantina. The site sustained severe damage from illegal excavations since the 16th centuries, and artifacts are still found from these robbers. In shallow soil contexts, it’s not uncommon to find tin-glaze earthenware that was popular in Italian ceramics since the 1500’s.

Princeton University began the American excavations at Morgantina in the 1950’s and has continued work at the site intermittently to the present-day. The first excavators involved hiring nearly one hundred Italian workmen to unearth large areas of the agora in an attempt to identify the site (which wasn’t identified as Morgantina until 1958 in a study by Kenan Erim). Important research concerning the domestic and commercial lives of the Sikel, Greek, and Spanish inhabitants of the city continues to be conducted each year.

Time Off

Having finished the last day of digging, we headed to Bruno’s to get a granita--if you want, Bruno will slice a brioche in half and stuff it with two scoops of granita, which I highly recommend. Each Friday about this time, we cleaned up and prepared for our various weekend excursions: beaches, nature preserves, and myriad archaeological sites are a few hours away by bus.

On the bus to Naxos and Isole Bella my first weekend, I sat behind a group of rowdy high school Sicilians laughing and mocking lines from Shakespeare which I only recognize because of their repeating “Mercutio” and lengthening the ‘errr’ ad absurdum. The seat beside me was the last one filled on the entire bus--finally an offish, elderly Sicilian woman decided she wouldn’t rather stand--but I reflected on the fact that, as is tradition on the dig, I was sporting a poorly-grown moustache that upped my creepiness-level through the roof, so I didn’t take it personally.

At Naxos, the archaeological site was overgrown with lemon trees bent with ripe lemons up to as large as both my fists put together. They large ones are sweet like a tart orange, and famished after the long morning and afternoon of walking, I consumed two immediately. This I came to find, unfortunately, is not a wise move on an empty stomach--and centuries from now, other researchers may study the strange deposit of contemporary lemon seeds crusted onto the bottom of one of the excavated ancient bedrooms.

One Sunday, two friends and I decided it would be a good idea to walk out into the nature preserve a few miles west of town to find the pietri incantati and hiked till we were nine-tenths of the way lost, cutting through dense brush along a path following powerlines over steep valleys and forests. We finally found them and returned back (26 miles later) after the proverbial “three-hour tour” ended up taking all day.

The forests we cut through were largely composed of eucalyptus trees that had been introduced to Sicily by traders in the modern era and quickly spread over the totality of the island. Patches of old-growth cypress forest still existed though, higher than the other forest, strange in its stillness and bareness, the undergrowth coated in several inches of needles. Just such a tree as one of these would have covered one of Theocritus’s shepherds taking a break to sing together while tending his flock.


In four weeks, I’d become something near-wholly different from who I was when I arrived here. The grip strength in my right hand was, I imagined, enough to grind the knuckles of any nemesis I shake hands with back in my other life in DC. For the last five days of digging, I hadn’t even had to wear sunscreen. Though the dig had moments of pain (I’ll spare the reader photos of my hands after the better part of the day big-picking sun-hardened topsoil) and certainly was challenging, I found often that I could need less and give more--to myself and to those around me. There is a good roughness that informs us of ourselves, our strengths and shortcomings. Whether experiencing the fantastic chef at the Vecchia Aidone restaurant or doing without a shower because the cistern needed to refill, I became more of whatever it is that makes me want to get up early and translate and write.

Kant writes of the sublime as a might in nature, a boundlessness which borders on the infinite: “The sublime may be described in this way: it is an object (of nature) the representation of which determines the mind to regard the elevation of nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas.” And he continues, “The sublime is that, the mere capacity of thinking which evidences a faculty of mind transcending every standard of the senses.” It is that magnitude which reveals the greatness of our own imagination that we invoke which we try to comprehend it. I like to think that working Scavi americani in Sicily was something not completely different from this--that the deep Cypress forests and wide expanse of fields that Morgantina looks out on communicate to us, instruct us of something that underlies us, motivates our weary limbs when we feel like we can’t swing the pick even one more time.

On the far side of Cittadella, a man makes his livelihood from firing large, flat terracotta roof tiles (the likes of which litter the dig site, our trenches, and the abandoned farmhouses, the same that have worked their way into the street paving and brickwork of old buildings). His kiln is a little ways off from his house down the hill: after two millennia, the process for making these tiles is relatively unchanged. He sells them wholesale for construction of new roofs in the area still. There’s a power in a tradition that has remained that long among artisans and craftsmen. In my studies, in my writing, I hope equally to connect and continue a tradition so established--and find solace in the landscape, though it is of language, that I have come to make my livelihood from.