It is common knowledge that Pompeii was razed from the surface of the earth following the volcanic explosion of the Vesuvius in 79 AD, but the sudden end of Selinunte in Sicily is not less spectacular – yet unknown till now.
Selinunte originally was allied with Carthage, but after the battle of Himera (see: The Battle of Himera, a major confrontation) in 480 BC they sought the protection of Syracuse. Yet the situation in Sicily was never stable and like Selinunte other cities kept changing sides, at times with the Carthaginians and at other times against them. One such situation developed in the late 5th century BC when after a nine-day siege, Hannibal utterly destroyed Selinunte slaughtering 16,000 inhabitants and soldiers, and enslaving the 5,000 male survivors as well as many thousands of women and children. From one day to the next, the thriving city was entirely deserted.
Recent excavations have shed some light on the sudden disappearance of Selinunte. Archaeologists have found half-eaten remains of meals abandoned by the people as bowls with food residues were unearthed. Besides, they have also discovered dozens of unfired ceramic tiles and pots abandoned by the terrified workers before they could put them in the kilns. Whereas the city of Pompeii disappeared nearly overnight under a thick layer of volcanic ash, Selinunte gradually was covered beneath a thick coat of dust and earth.
Thanks to the wonders of modern geophysical techniques, it was possible to investigate the terrain and so far 2,500 of Selinunte’s houses have been identified, lining up alongside its streets, around its harbor and even inside its busy industrial zone. What’s more, we are able for the first time to have a detailed comprehensive plan of a Greek city from the classical era, where until now we only had scant and fragmentary impressions. Thanks to this study, scholars have been able to count the exact number of houses in the city and this, in turn, led to determine its population. Since even the industrial zone has been preserved, it is now possible to determine its interaction with the residential area.
No less than eighty kilns have been located so far and that includes very large ones where thousands of roof tiles and large ceramic amphorae were produced. Another dozen of kilns was dedicated to the production of giant ceramic food vessels and ceramic coffins. The smaller kilns were used to make smaller pieces like tableware, loom-weights and statuettes of the gods. Among some of the pottery-making tools traces of paint were also identified. It has been established that the potters had a place of worship for their own gods like Athena who protected the workers, Artemis who assisted in childbirth, Demeter as the goddess of fertility and harvest, and even upper mighty Zeus.
It is hard to imagine the hustle and bustle of Selinunte’s harbor and industrial zone. Special attention will now be turned towards exposing the foundations of the large warehouses that once stood there. Excavations of the shops and the houses around the agora revealed that ships and goods from all over the Mediterranean moored here. So far, pottery, glass and bronze ware from countries like Egypt, Turkey, southern France and northern Italy have been found. Selinunte’s own production in 409 BC, for instance, is estimated to have reached an annual amount of some 300,000 ceramic artefacts. It has been calculated that less than 20% of these vessels were used by the citizens themselves, the remainder evidently was destined to shipping their rich harvests of agricultural produce like wheat and olives.
In my earlier blog about Selinunte (see: More temples in Sicily to be proud of) I only spoke about the temples which, since they had not been closely identified where simply referred to by a letter. These temples were mainly disturbed by successive earthquakes or partially plundered as their building stones were reused for other structures over the centuries. There was indeed a lot of rubble laying around although a first effort was made to clear the layout of the city and its main street now revealing a number of shops (in 2014).