Monte Polizzo: Objectives  


The Hellenization model

In 1558, Friar Tomasello Fazello published his De rebus Siculis decades duo. This focused discussion of Sicilian history on successive waves of invaders-Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, and French-and this focus has continued for the last 450 years. The dominant concept in the archaeology of Iron Age Sicily is "Hellenization." This is the theory that between the eighth century BC, when the first settlers from Aegean Greece arrived, and the later fourth century, when Timoleon of Corinth brought another major wave of immigrants from Aegean Greece, the native populations of Sicily became Greek. There are debates over the mechanisms involved: some scholars emphasize diffusion of ideas and institutions from Greeks to natives, while others see intermarriage and the gradual settlement of ethnic Greeks among Sicels, Sicans, and Elymians. But there is general agreement that what matters most about ancient Sicily is its position as the "crossroads of the Mediterranean" or the "stepping stone between East and West," and that our narratives should concentrate on the active agency of invaders. The eighth century BC (the coming of the Phoenicians and Greeks) and the third century BC (the coming of the Romans) assume particular importance.

The sea of empires

We are interested in a different set of questions. The sixth through fourth centuries BC saw a dramatic acceleration in state-formation and integration in the Mediterranean basin with the expansion of Persian, Athenian, Carthaginian, Syracusan, and finally Roman empires. This process is central to any long-term evolutionary narrative of Old World historical development; it is also fundamental to recent attempts to write histories of Mediterranean-wide connections. It cannot be understood solely by focusing on the metropolitan centers imperial expansion. Historians of the British Empire discovered in the 1970s that they needed to link what happened on the peripheries of power to what happened in the metropoleis if they were to understand the processes at work. Historians of the Iron Age should follow their lead, but can only do this through archaeology.


Monte Polizzo is perfectly placed to address this question. It lay just a day's walk from the Phoenician settlements at Motya (modern Mozia), Panormos (Palermo), and Soloeis (Solunto); and about the same distance from the Greek settlement at Selinous (Selinunte) and from Lilybaion (Marsala), the site of Dorieus' frustrated attempt to found another Greek city. It was directly between Aigesta (Segesta), the largest inland site, and Selinous. Selinous was founded in 651/0 or 628/7 BC, and seems to have pushed inland aggressively throughout the sixth and fifth centuries, expanding its arable farmland. In this period the indigenous population of the hilly inland area consistently sided with Carthage and the Punic cities of the North and West coasts against Selinous. Monte Polizzo, at the southern edge of the hilly region, was at the center of one of the most hotly contested landscapes in the Mediterranean. Diodorus says that in 416 BC

a war broke out between the Aigestans and Selinuntines from a difference over territory, where a river [probably the Mazaro, which starts on Monte Polizzo] divided the lands of the quarreling cities. The Selinuntines, crossing the stream, at first seized by force the land along the river, but later they cut off for their own a large piece of the adjoining territory, utterly disregarding the rights of the injured parties. The people of Aigesta, aroused to anger, at first endeavored to persuade them by verbal arguments not to trespass on the territory of another city; however, when no one paid any attention to them, they advanced with an army against those who held the territory, expelled them all from their fields, and themselves seized the land. Since the quarrel between the two cities had become serious, the two parties, having mustered soldiers, sought to bring about a decision by recourse to arms. Consequently, when both forces were drawn up in battle-order, a fierce battle took place in which the Selinuntines were the victors, having slain not a few Aigestans. Since the Aigestans had been humbled and were not strong enough of themselves to offer battle, they at first tried to induce the people of Akragas [modern Agrigento] and Syracuse to enter into an alliance with them. Failing in this, they sent ambassadors to Carthage to beseech its aid. And when the Carthaginians would not listen to them, they looked about for some alliance overseas; and in this, chance came to their aid. (Diodorus XII.82; trs. C. H. Oldfather)

The chance that came to their was the Athenian decision to honor an alliance made with Aigestsa in 418/7. The Athenians attacked Syracuse in 415, and the two-year siege cost 50,000 or more lives. It was a turning-point in Mediterranean history, decisively ending Athens' attempt to create a larger Greek state with Athens as its capital. In 410 Selinous attacked Aigesta again and tried to annex even more territory. Despite the collateral damage that their previous appeal to Athens had caused, the Aigestans now asked Carthage to intervene. The Carthaginians, seeing a way to get control of this piece of land for themselves, did so. The wars of 409, 406-405, and 398-396 cost tens of thousands more lives. They left Selinous, Himera, Akragas, Gela, and Motya in ruins, and dramatically escalated the state powers of Syracuse and Carthage. This was the bloody legacy of the valleys around Monte Polizzo.

Beyond Hellenization

By excavating Monte Polizzo, we want to find out how developments on the margins of Greek and Carthaginian power interacted with forces in the imperial centers to shape the Mediterranean.

Our initial impression, based on the 1998-2001 seasons, is that Hellenization is not a very helpful analytical category. Preliminary quantification shows that imported Greek pottery makes up only a tiny proportion of the overall assemblage, and is restricted to a narrow range of shapes (particularly cups). The Greek wares are found in all contexts in the sixth century, rather than being restricted to what seem to be the ritual areas of the site. Further, there is nothing to suggest that the population was coming to prefer Greek material culture to its own traditions: the local incised pottery flourishes as never before in the sixth century. Bronze Age houses in western Sicily were normally round but those of the Iron Age are normally rectilinear, and some archaeologists see this and the possibility that sites began to be laid out on regular grid plans as indices of Hellenization. However, the sixth-century houses at Monte Polizzo have few points of similarity with contemporary Greek courtyard houses. And contrary to some recent arguments, there is no reason to think that west Sicilian religion was taking on Greek practices in this period. Greek (and Phoenician) objects were used, but in strikingly non-Greek and non-Phoenician ways.

At this point, it seems that the most important sociological process going on in sixth-century Monte Polizzo was not the absorption of Greek culture, but a combination of population growth, increasing wealth, and more complex status differentiation. We suggest that the people of Monte Polizzo and the other communities that the Greeks labeled as Elymian took advantage of their position to act as middlemen between the Greek and Punic communities: class-formation, state-formation, and increasingly complex economic organization may have mattered more than ethnic boundaries. Greek material culture was available to those who chose to use it, but they did so in ways that were in keeping with native Sicilian traditions.

One of our main questions is why Monte Polizzo, and most other settlements in this area, was abandoned around 500-475 BC. Stefano Vassallo has suggested that the Carthaginian defeat at the battle of Himera in 480 broke the delicate balance of power that had sustained Elymian wealth, and caused the rural population to relocate to Aigesta for security. We are paying particular attention to the abandonment processes, and also to Jean-Paul Morel's suggestion that there may be a general problem with recognizing fifth-century activity in the west Mediterranean.


The Monte Polizzo Archaeological Project combines a large-scale excavation with surveys. We emphasize close stratigraphic analysis, digital recording, sieving and flotation of intact cultural deposits, bone and pollen analysis, and micromorphology. Precise quantification of all finds and recording of find-spots will allow us to put the Greek, Punic, and indigenous materials in context, and to evaluate different explanations for the observed patterns. We will also be able to compare directly the faunal record at Monte Polizzo with that from Selinous. Stanford's acropolis excavations focus on the ritual and perhaps administrative center of the town, which are vital to understanding the society at Monte Polizzo, but can only be interpreted in the light of the data recovered from other parts of the site by the teams from Gothenburg, Oslo, Palermo, and Northern Illinois. We publish a preliminary report on each year's work on the acropolis in the Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, beginning with the 2000 report in volume 46 (2001).



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