Archaeologists stunned by ancient sacred pool on Sicilian island aligned with stars

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The pool, which was first unearthed in the 1920s, was found among the ruins of the ancient island city of Motya, which was a bustling Phoenician port back in the first millennium BC. Phoenicia was an ancient maritime state that lived in the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean, primarily around what today is Lebanon, from around 2500–64 BC. It was originally believed that the feature was a “Kothon” — an artificial harbour — as it bore similarities to one known from the ancient military port of nearby Carthage, but reanalysis has revealed this assumption to be incorrect.

The research was conducted by archaeologist Professor Lorenzo Nigro of the Sapienza University of Rome in collaboration with the Superintendence of Sicily.

Professor Nigro said: “For a century it was thought Motya’s ‘Kothon’ was a harbour, but new excavations have drastically changed its interpretation.

“It was a sacred pool at the centre of a huge religious compound.”

In fact, previous research had unearthed at the edge of the pool a temple to Ba’al — a fertility god worshipped by several ancient middle eastern communities — much to the surprise of the archaeologists who had expected to find harbour buildings instead.

This prompted a reevaluation of the site, with the excavations that began in 2010 seeing researchers fully drain and excavate the artificial basin.

The water feature, the team said, was longer and wider than a modern Olympic swimming pool, making it one of the largest sacred pools in the whole of the ancient Mediterranean.

Professor Nigro said: “It could not have served as a harbour, as it was not connected to the sea. Instead, it was fed by natural springs.”

In addition to the temple of Ba’al that had been previously identified, the team found that the pool was actually at the heart of a much larger religious sanctuary.

The edges of the pool were flanked with various other temples, in and around which were unearthed altars, inscribed stones known as stelae, evidence of votive offering at a pedestal located in the centre of the water feature that once held a statue of Ba’al.

Together, the experts said, these features confirm that the “Kothon” was not a harbour, but a sacred pool within one of the pre-Classical Mediterranean’s largest cultic complexes.

Professor Nigro believes that the pool was constructed in around 550 BC, after Motya was rebuilt following a devastating attack from the forces of Carthage, the rising western Phoenician power that was one of Rome’s rivals.

Alongside this, the archaeologist’s analysis of the site has revealed that many of its key features were aligned with the stars that appeared in the night sky above.

Professor Nigro said: “The nearby Temple of Ba’al is aligned with the rise of Orion at the winter solstice, whilst stelae and other features were aligned with other astronomical events.

“This points to the deep knowledge of the sky reached by ancient civilizations.”

After the researchers completed their study of the site, the basin was refilled, with one difference — a replica of the statue of Ba’al has been placed on the pool’s central plinth, just as the original would have stood thousands of years ago.

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It is possible, Professor Nigro said, that the flat surface of the pool may have aided the ancient inhabitants of Motya in monitoring celestial movements, which would have aided them in keeping track of the religious holidays of various cultures.

And it may have been Motya’s role as a cultural melting pot, he noted, that sadly played a key role in the city’s ultimate downfall.

Professor Nigro added: “The cultic and astronomical role played by the sacred enclosure and pool in the origins and development of Motya, advanced here, adds another element.”

It shows, he said, “that Motya was open to cultural interactions and hybridisation, counterbalancing Carthage’s growing political and economic domination.

“It remained a flourishing free-port and, in time, developed an open attitude, especially towards Greece and the Greek cities of Sicily.

“Carthage’s disappointment with this attitude, however, was the cause of a delay in help for Motya, when the tyrant Syracuse Dionysius placed the city under siege and then destroyed it.”

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Antiquity.

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