Sicily is an open-air museum! Let’s take a tour of the island, discovering the most important archeological sites.
Let’s start from the province of Messina: there are Villa Romana in Patti and Tindari Archaeological Park. The 1973 works on the highway Messina-Palermo brought out the remains of a beautiful Villa Romana (from the IV century AD) in Patti. The elegant house, built on the remains of a previous building, has three main centers with peristyle. An integral part of the Villa is the Antiquarium, where the finds are preserved.
On the hill that overlooks Patti, you will find Tindari. Before visiting the Archaeological Park, let’s take a break and read Quasimodo’s “Vento a Tindari” that is etched in the stone. Let’s walk among the ancient houses, their mosaics, and the remains of the Agorà. The theater, built by the Greeks (III or II century BC) and revisited in Roman era, has a view on the sea, the lagoon of Marinello and the Aeolian Islands. Let’s not miss the Gymnasium and the Museum.
The paleontological site Grotta San Teodoro in Acquedolci (Messina), takes us back many years (12 / 13,000 ) when in a natural cave, 20 meters high and 60 meters deep, a woman lived with her family. The woman’s skeleton, carefully buried under a layer of clay, was found, still in perfect condition, in the 40s.
A few dozen meters from the cave, fossils of hippos and other animals that lived 200.000 years ago in what it was supposed to be a great lake basin. A small antiquarium with some fossilized bones ( hippo’s mandibles with their large canines) and small stone tools used by men to hunt or build other utensils of daily use.
Let’s go to Taormina. The Greek Theatre was built around the III century BC by the Greeks, who manually removed over 100,000 cubic meters of rock from the mountain. What we see today dates back to Roman restoration, occurred in the first half of the II century A.D.
The Scene is the most important part of the theater but there are no remains of the columns. The unique majesty of the Gulf of Taormina and Mount Etna is indescribable. Inside the theater, there is the Antiquarian, which is a small archaeological museum.
The Roman Odeon, a smaller theater behind the church of St. Catherine, is an example of an indoors theater, along with the Odeon theatre in Catania.
Among some Roman works from the II century, there is the Naumachia in Taormina or, more properly, the Roman Gymnasium.
Let’s leave the promontory of Taormina and enjoy the enchanting Isola Bella; let’s now head towards the first Greek colony in Sicily: Giardini-Naxos. The Archaeological Park will allow us to visit some parts of the walls, ruins of houses and foundations of a large temple. Park Naxos Taormina
Let’s move to Catania, founded between 729 and 728 BC by some Greek colonists coming from the city Halkida, in Euboea.
In Piazza Stesicoro, there is a Roman amphitheater, probably built in the II century A.D., which is in the town center. The amphitheater is structurally more complex than Sicilian amphitheaters, as it is built with lava stone covered in marble; it could host up to 15,000 spectators between sitting and standing. The arena used to be transformed into a large pool for naval battles. You should also visit the Odeon, the Rotonda thermae, the Indirizzo thermae and the Achilliane thermae.
It was probably an imperial villa.
Let’s take all the time we need: you will see 3,500 square meters of mosaics counting 120 million colorful pieces. The most famous mosaic is “le ragazze in bikini” (“girls in bikinis”) playing ball or competing in other sports, or a less known is “Cubicolo della scena erotica” (Cubicle of the erotic scene).
In the neighboring Morgantina, there is an impressive and extensive archaeological site, still rising thanks to the work of archaeologists. In the Greek polis (which was brought to light), good technical skills are evident in the creation of a system of water distribution and discharge throughout the city.
The place is on a small valley between two hills: it includes the agora, the theater, and some mosaics.
Museum of Aidone – The Dea di Morgantina must be visited. The Statue, discovered in a clandestine excavation, was returned to Italy after it was illicitly purchased by the Paul Getty Museum in Malibu. Dea di Morgantina
The story of the Head of Hades of and his blue curl is fascinating.
As in the story of Pollicino, a clue, in this case a curl, and the willfullness of an archaeologist, Serena Raffiotta, resulted in a great archaelogical find: a beautiful and rare Head of Hades.
The curl had been found in a crate, among the many findings coming from the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore, located in the city quarter San Francesco Bisconti, in Morgantina.
This area was a favourite target for grave robbers. Later on, the intervention of the Superintendence led to the discovery of the site and to its identification with a sacred area dedicated to Demeter and Kore.
From a stylistic and iconographic point of view, the head recalls some types of sculptures depicting Zeus and Dionysus, dating back to the fourth century BC, especially for his thick mane of hair and beard.
The curl, which has evident traces of blue pigment, comes back to the beard.
The use of color symbolically recalls the concept of eternity for its assimilation to the color of the sky, as well as the funerary references linked to the god of the underworld.
If we asked the archaeologist Serena Raffiotta if, when she grew up, she would have loved to be a Sicilian Indiana Jones, that is an adventurous discoverer of treasure and a hunter of fraudulent art dealers, she would tell us that she already is!
GELA – Caltanissetta – The Archeological Museum of Gela, with about 5000 archaeological finds on display, is the third archeological museum of Sicily after the Museum “Antonino Salinas” and the Museum “Paolo Orsi” of Siracusa. Its collection includes a big number of Corithian and Attic vases , a Corithian , bronze helmet , the wreck of a Greek ship of the V century; a remarkable collection of coins from the mint of Gela, a large earthenware altar with “Medusa” and thirty-nine ingots made from orichalcum, a rare cast metal which ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote was from the legendary city of Atlantis, recovered from 2,600-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Sicily.
Another UNESCO beauty: Pantalica, in the area of Siracusa.
The view is spectacular. Hiking is very suggestive: you could bring a map and hike among the wonderful trails of the necropolis. You can get the chance to walk in a prehistoric site with thousands of rock-cut tombs overlooking the Valley of Anapo.
At the center of the hill, there is the Anaktoron of Pantalica, a megalithic building found in the acropolis of Pantalica, in the territory of Sortino.
Another stop is definitely Siracusa, a UNESCO heritage site. Siracusa is among the largest metropolis of the ancient Greek world and was the most important city in Sicily (the island’s capital) in the Roman and Byzantine periods.
In the water of the Fonte Aretusa, in Porto Grande of Siracusa, and along the banks of the River Ciane, you will find the only wild papireti (plants) in Europe.
In Ortigia, you will find the remains of the Temple of Apollo, the God of the Sun: the oldest Doric temple in Sicily.
The Cathedral of Siracusa, which incorporates the Athenanion – the most important sacred temple of the polis – is unique in the world: it is a pagan temple and a Christian church at the same time. It stands on the ruins of a temple dedicated to Athena and it was built in 480 BC; besides the baroque facade, it hides Doric columns still visible both inside and outside.
Let’s continue with the Greek Theatre. Housed in the hollow of a hill overlooking the sea of Syracuse, it is certainly among the most famous theatres of the ancient world. Its construction began in the fifth century BC. It was immediately known for its works: Eschilio represented the Women of Etna and the Persians.
Again in Siracusa, there is the Orecchio di Dionisio, a funnel-shaped artificial cave carved into limestone; it is about 23 meters high and it vaguely reminds of an ear that develops for 65 m in depth. It has exceptional acoustic properties: sounds are amplified up to 16 times and create a strong echo.
Castle Eurialo in Siracusa is the most important example of military architecture of the Greek era. It was built in about 400BC by the terrible tyrant Dionisio with the aim of protecting the city from the highest point of the so called Epipoli terrace, that means “above the city”.
The stop in Ragusa includes a visit to the site of Kamarina, a precious archeological heritage located on land and underwater, an important colony of Siracusa. Today there are only ruins and archaeological finds. The acropolis preserves the remains of the Temple of Athena and the agora: the excavations are still in progress. The remains of the walls are located below the hill of Heracles. The finds are preserved in the Archaeological Museums of Kamarina, Ragusa and Siracusa; also, the Regional Museum of Kamarina retains a section devoted to underwater archeology.
A reference to prehistory is Cava d’ Ispica between Modica and Rosolini.
It is a long valley that stretches to the sea, a unique natural environment and important archaeological area where traces of settlements from the Bronze Age were found. Find out more Cava d’Ispica
And now let’s take a breath: here comes the impressive Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) in Agrigento. It is one of the most important archaeological sites of classical Greek civilization; it is also the world’s largest and well-preserved archeological site, inserted in 1998 among the UNESCO sites. On a rocky ridge you will find the ruins of some Doric temples that are uncertainly attributed: from east to west, from 127 of to 70 meters of height, they may be attributed to Hera (Juno) Lacinia, Concordia, Heracles (Hercules), Zeus (Jupiter), Castor, Pollux (Dioscuri) and Hephaistos (Vulcan). Parco Valle dei Templi
Charming is the garden of Kolimbethra, small garden in the heart of the Valley.
In Trapani, human settlements have ancient origins, dating back to the prehistoric era.
According to the historians, Thucydides, the ancient Greek Segesta was founded by the Elimi, a community of Trojan refugees who settled in Trapani around the sixth century BC. In the archaeological area, in addition to the remains of the walls and the agora, you will find the Temple – one of the greatest surviving examples of Doric architecture – and the Greek Theatre.
In Mazara del Vallo (Trapani), caught in a moment of ecstasy during the orgiastic dance, there is the Dancing Satyr (Satiro Danzante). The Museo del Satiro, located in the Church of San Egidio (1500), houses the bronze statue, found in two stages: in the spring of 1997, the left leg was found and on March 4, 1998, its whole body was recovered; however, it was missing the other leg and the arms. Capitan Ciccio’s fishing boat from Mazara gave us such unique monument. In addition to the precious statue, the heritage recovered from the Strait of Sicily is also exposed, consisting of some marine finds that remind us of emigration.
Selinunte, built by the Greeks, was involved in the rivalry with Segesta, before the advent of the Romans who destroyed it around 250 BC. Its archaeological park, 1700 square meters – the largest in Europe – is divided into three areas: the Acropolis, dedicated to the worship of the deity, the Sanctuary of Demetra Malophoros, whose worship was widespread at the time, and the area of the eastern hill, surrounded by magnificent temples and shrines.
In the Island of Pantelleria particularly important is the “Sesi” civilization with the majestic stone sepulchres, the Bronze Age settlement of Mursia, the acropolis of Saint Teresa and Saint Marco from where three importants marble heads, dating back to I century A.D., have been brought to light. Two of them probabily depict Giulio Cesare and Agrippina. Pantelleria’s heads.
Let’s take a boat and cross the Saline: we are in Mozia, little island that lies in the Reserve of Stagnone di Marsala. It was a Phoenician settlement, dating back to the VIII century BC; it was abandoned at the time of Roman conquest. At the beginning of the last century, the archaeologist Joseph Whitaker bought the island and began the excavation works during which the remains of the Punic city emerged: its villages, places of worship, and cemeteries. In the museum, there is the beautiful statue of the young of Mozia, also called the Auriga di Mozia or Giovinetto.
It is a beautiful place and during sunset, it is even more impressive. Auriga di Mozia
In Marsala, there is the Baglio Anselmi, a former winery: the warehouses host a Museum that contains the fascinating wreck of a Punic ship. Outside the museum, there is the archaeological park with a Roman insula, brought to light in 1939. It is a large building with mosaic floors, a spa facility, and the imposing decumanus maximus.
The Antiquarium is an archeological collection that mainly includes amphorae dating greek-Roman and Punic eras, from the sea of the Egadi islands.
There are also strains of greek-Roman and Punic lead anchors, including a removable bearing with an inscription in greek – EUPLOIA – meaning “good navigation” – on one arm. Among the finds, there is a flask in pewter from the fourteenth century, that was found in the waters of the Blu Marino in Favignana, still containing the original wine; such wine is a rare example of bronze rostrum recovered from the waters of Levanzo. The rostrum was a lethal weapon that the ancients used to target the enemy ships. It had a main role defining Roman victory in 241 BC: in the sea of Levanzo, the first Punic war ceased with the victory of the Romans over the Carthaginian fleet.
In Partanna (Trapani) the Castello Grifeo Museum
Important remains from the Phoenicians in Palermo are visible along the city: you can see the well-preserved part of the defensive walls in Via del Bastione and Corso Alberto Amedeo. They are walls erected in Paleapolis, the first Phoenician settlement in the city. The Paleapolis quickly grew and spread in Neapolis: the boundary walls were extended and some remains are observable on the corner between Piazza Bellini and Via Maqueda. A second city was built, the Necropolis, a sacred place to bury the dead: the finds, that have been brought to light in 1746 (works are still in progress), affect a large area with hundreds of tombs, that can be visited inside the Tukory station in Corso Calatafimi.
Again in Palermo, there is the Regional Archaeological Museum “Antonio Salinas”, which has one of the richest Punic and Greek art collections in Italy, along with finds from most of Sicilian history. The museum is dedicated to Antonio Salinas, archaeologist and numismatic from Palermo: among the most valuable pieces, there are the metopes from Selinunte (Temples C and E); there are also mosaics detached from the villas in Piazza Vittoria and Villa Bonanno in Palermo (inside the villa, you can visit the remains of Roman patrician houses) and a rich numismatic collection.
The sea is also rich of underwater archeology.
In Pantelleria, Cala Tramontana and Cala Levante, there are cliffs that plunge into the sea and are a unique setting for diving as well. If you swim for only 50 meters from Cala Tramontana, you will reach the start boa and end of the trail; in that point, at 18 meters of depth, there are framments of Punic greek-Italic amphorae, pottery, and even an anchor strain of stone.
Again in Pantelleria, there is Cala Gadir, a place of cargo ship wrecks: let’s dive in the water near the first boa and proceed discovering the seabed; we will see a fragment of a wooden boat hidden in a cut in the cliffs and some Punic and Roman amphorae filmed by underwater cameras installed to send the images to the web.
In Levanzo, in the Egadi islands, there is Cala Minnola, on the eastern side of the island, where we will discover the remains of a Roman ship sank with a cargo of wine amphorae.
We will admire the wreck and the cargo of amphorae at a depth of 30 meters. For the most daring ones, there is the possibility to see the images of the wreck sitting comfortably in Favignana at the former factory Florio delle Tonnare di Favignana e Formica, as there are four underwater cameras that broadcast directly from the seabed.