By: Randall W. Younker and Élisabeth Lesnes
For decades Andrews University has undertaken long-term research projects in Jordan, at Hesban and elsewhere. But new challenges are necessary. So we decided to trade falafels for pasta and launched a new project in the town of Salemi in the province of Trapani in the northwestern “corner” of Sicily.
Our recent move to Sicily was partially motivated by our graduate students, who wanted to explore different periods other than the Iron Age, specifically, issues related to the emergence of early Christianity.
Facilitating this desire to “go west,” one of our Italian colleagues, Dr. Élisabeth Lesnes, part of our team in Jordan, brought our attention to an intriguing site called San Miceli. It had first been discovered in August 1893 when a local farmer found a gold coin. This naturally created a bit of excitement with locals starting to poke holes in the field in hopes of finding more treasures. Instead they found bits of a mosaic and a tomb that yielded two gold earrings. Two archaeology students from the town realized the importance of the finds and, worried about the destruction of the site, notified local authorities. The mayor contacted one of Sicily’s leading archaeologists, Antonino Salinas, director of the National Archaeological Museum of Palermo. Salinas immediately sensed the importance of the finds and organized an excavation.
From September 23 to November 2, 1893, Salinas’ excavations brought to light three superimposed mosaic floors within a basilica and explored 58 graves, of which a dozen were located within the church. The others were scattered in the surrounding land, where he located traces of various buildings from the ancient village.
The basilica was a modest building with an almost square plan, divided into three naves by two rows of five columns or pillars. The apse was centrally located at the western end of the church - not unusual for the earliest churches. The graves were in a pit with dry stone lining and covered with large limestone slabs. They typically contained a skeleton, more rarely two. The grave goods consisted mainly of hoop earrings, rings, necklaces, buckles, glass and ceramic vases. After completing his excavations, Salinas had the site reburied except for the area of the nave where he consolidated the three superimposed mosaic floors and had a wooden roof built for protection. The site remained mostly undisturbed until the beginning of our own project.
Salinas’ work at San Miceli was eventually published by Bagio Pace in 1917. Pace’s concluded that Salinas had uncovered an ancient Roman/Christian village that was eventually destroyed by Muslims. The basilica of this village was built in the 4th century, maybe as early as the 3rd - before the time of Constantine the Great! Pace also thought the basilica underwent two additional building phases, based on the three superimposed mosaic floors, for a total of three phases. These phases were dated by the inscriptions found in the middle and upper floors, typology of the jewelry found in the various graves, and a few coins. Major shortcomings, however, were the lack of any stratified context for the remains and no systematic study of the ceramics. The dating and historical context of the three phases was completely open and hotly debated for the following century.
Our interest in the site was to not only determine the actual dates for the basilica, including its foundation and destruction, but to determine the origins and occupational history of the surrounding village. Other questions we are pursuing deal with the village’s local economy, the nature of its political, social, and economic relationships with nearby ancient settlements and cities such as Alicia/Salemi (300 meters south), Lilibeo/Marsala (main port to the west), Segesta (to the north), and the ancient identity of our site. Still other questions are burial practices of the village and tracing the process of the ideological transition from Roman paganism to early Christianity as evident in the material culture.
With the gracious support of Dr. Rossella Giglio (director the archaeological section of the superintendency of Trapani) we began excavations at San Miceli in 2014 and continued in 2015 and 2016. Our international team has included professors and graduate students from Andrews University, Sicilian professors and students from local high schools and universities and volunteers from South American (Argentina, Peru, Brazil), the USA and from Germany, France, and Italy. We opened three fields: Field A to the south to explore the residential area of the village; Field B (the Basilica); and Field C (the area north of the Basilica where rooms built up against the church were located).
Excavations in Field A have revealed three rooms and courtyard of a large “villa rustica” or a farm house. The large central room was entered via a marble threshold and had a fireplace or hearth against its east wall; another room had a stone bin, animal bones and an iron knife and served as a pantry/kitchen. This “villa” seems to have been built in the early 5th century, was destroyed in the second half of the 5th century, then rebuilt and destroyed a final time in the mid-7th century. The dates for the 5th century destruction was determined by ceramic chronology. The final destruction was confirmed by crushed amphorae and two coins of Constans II. The latest coins dated to about 652 CE, suggesting the destruction was shortly thereafter. The town’s destruction may be have been a Muslim raid, a conclusion supported by both Byzantine Christian and Muslim documents.
Excavations in Field B occurred around all four sides of the basilica. To our surprise, we discovered that Salinas’ assumption that there was one church with three phases (based on three superimposed mosaic floors) was wrong; there were actually two churches. The first church had two floor phases, the first built in the mid-4th century (just after 360 CE based on the discovery of several coins of Constantine II (son of Constantine the Great) found immediately below the foundation stones. Then, 50 years or so later (beginning of the 5th century) the parishioners of the first church remodeled their floor. This church continued in use until it was completely destroyed in the late 5th century or early 6th century CE. We suspect the destruction may have occurred during either one of the late Vandal invasions or the subsequent Ostrogoth invasion - both these tribes were Arian Christians, while most people in Sicily, including San Miceli, were Trinitarian Christians.
In the 6th century a church was completely rebuilt over the ruins but with exterior walls inside the wall lines of the first church, and a new mosaic floor of smaller, finer tesserae was constructed. We were able to find an additional patch of the mosaic of this last church in the north nave (a beautiful bird made of red, white, and blue tesserae). This new church survived until the final destruction of the entire site. This occurred in the mid-7th century after 652 CE, possibly by Muslim raiders.
Significant elements found within the church included the apse on the west end of the basilica, indicating the church was build prior to the period when the Roman church decided the position of the apse was in the east. The apse would be remodeled and reused until the church’s final destruction in the mid-7th century.
We also found a baptistery immediately outside and west of the apse. While the stratigraphy was heavily disturbed by later building activity in antiquity and by Salinas’ excavations in 1893, it appears that the baptistery was constructed when the first church was originally built in the mid-4th century.
Three stone-lined tombs were found in the church compound, all covered with large limestone slabs, similar to what Salinas described for the 58 tombs he excavated. Two of the tombs were found in the courtyard at the entry of the church on the east side, while the third was found under the west end of the north nave (near the front of the church). As for the two tombs in the courtyard, one contained a male and female adult, and the other only a male adult. The female in the double burial had silver loop earrings with dangles. A ceramic jug, a finger ring and a coin (possibly a pagan rite still in use by the first Christians to cross the River Styx) were also found in this tomb. The second tomb with the male had no grave goods. In the tomb of the female burial in the north nave near the front of the church were two silver loop earrings with more elaborate dangles. Based on jewelry typology, many scholars have wanted to date the San Miceli tombs to the time of the last church (6th-7th centuries), but our excavations showed that these tombs were stratigraphically connected with the first church and cannot date later than the 5th century. Some may even date as early as the end of the 4th century.
Also in the north nave were found two shallow burials (not tombs) just under the surface of the second church (destroyed in the mid-7th century). One contained the remains of two very young children (2-3 years old). We assume that these were hasty burials by the survivors of the 7th century destruction, who quickly buried their children and then relocated to a new settlement.
North of the Church our team uncovered five rooms of a building (the North Building) built up against the north wall of the earliest church. These continued in use through the entire existence of the first church and reflected the destruction attested elsewhere on the site in the late 5th century/early 6th century. While we are not yet certain of the activities and purposes of these rooms, several were used for storage. Numerous large amphorae were found in situ under destruction debris that included burnt wood, nails, and ceramic roof tiles.
By utilizing all of the data we have collected so far, we can offer the following tentative historical reconstruction. San Miceli was originally a Roman farmhouse or a waystation between the port of Lilybaeum to the west and Segesta to the north, initially founded in the 3rd century BCE. It then grew into a small village. We estimate that it reached a population of about 495 people by the 1st century CE and maintained this level for the next few centuries. Sometime around 250 CE, Christianity penetrated inland to San Miceli - probably via a family or small group of around 10 persons. Using demographic formulas that suggest about 56% of the Roman Empire had converted to Christianity by 350, we estimate that the Christian population of San Miceli around this time reached about 280 out of 495 citizens at this time.
Some of these residents, like the wealthy lady buried near the altar in the church, were patrons of the Christian population and likely took the lead in constructing the first Christian basilica in San Miceli. This church survived until the mid-7th century when, after a devastating raid which destroyed the church and most of the village, the survivors left San Miceli and established a new home elsewhere, possible at the small Late Roman settlement of Segesta, which resisted until the end of the 7th century, or at Alicia which became Salām under the Muslims (today’s Salemi). Future seasons will hopefully both confirm this broad outline and fill in additional details.
Randall W. Younker is Professor of Archaeology and History of Antiquity at Andrews University. Élisabeth Lesnes is Research Associate in Medieval and Classical Archaeology and Professor at ITT Marco Polo in Palermo.
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