BMCR 2000.02.09

Sicily before History. An Archaeological Survey from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age

, Sicily before history : an archaeological survey from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age. London: Duckworth, 1999. viii, 312 pages : illustrations, maps, plans ; 25 cm. ISBN 0715627643 £14.95.

[NB: The present writer has collaborated with the author in excavations and publication of the site of Morgantina in Sicily.]

Robert Leighton, a specialist in Italian prehistory at Edinburgh, has produced a current, copiously illustrated, and informative synthesis on pre- and protohistoric Sicily, certain to quickly become a standard reference work.1 An update has long been needed to Luigi Bernabò Brea’s Sicily before the Greeks (first published in English in 1957), which covered essentially the same period, i.e. Palaeolithic to the end of the Sicilian Iron Age. Until now the most recent survey in English on Sicily before Greek (or Punic) colonization was the chapter on prehistory in R. Ross Holloway’s The Archaeology of Ancient Sicily (Routledge 1991).2 Leighton’s title does homage to Bernabò but places the emphasis on the study of local change on Sicily, “a barometer of wider processes of interaction and … a meeting-place of cultures or a crucible of interaction” (p. 2).

The introduction provides a useful overview of previous knowledge and research, from Xenophanes’s report of fossils in the Syracusan quarries, through the antiquarians of the 16th to 18th centuries and the Grand Tourists of the mid-18th onward. The pioneering and invaluable work of Paolo Orsi in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which initiates modern scholarship, receives due emphasis. The geography and geology of the island are generally discussed (and are revisited throughout the book); Leighton highlights the diversity of Sicily’s cultures in different periods and the island’s basic independence, despite its proximity to and connections with Italy. He notes that the study of Sicily thus far has not seen the application of current archaeological theory and method that Cyprus and Crete have enjoyed, though it is not the author’s intention to correct this deficit. His interests are more fundamental: chronology, settlement patterns, burial customs, subsistence, and economic and social structures. Occasionally, information taken for granted by an expert suddenly appears; here in a discussion of the significance of Copper Age developments one encounters a barrage of “Camaro figurines, the Monte Venere spearhead and the famous bossed bone plaques of the Early Bronze Age” (p. 7) without explanation (though all are found in the index).

Six chapters follow the introduction, each devoted to one or more chronological phases and themes. The initial three chapters cover the first populations on the island, human and animal, through the Neolithic to the Middle Bronze Age. The first humans arrived in the Upper Paleolithic; a Lower Paleolithic date is also possible but awaits definite confirmation. As with Sardinia, the only other Mediterranean island inhabited so early, humans followed after the animals which probably crossed over from the mainland of Italy on a landbridge in existence during the Middle Pleistocene. Visitors to the Syracuse Museum may recall the pygmy hippos among the long-vanished fauna.

The Neolithic saw domestication, exploration and colonization of nearby islands, and even sailings to Tunisia. Exchange, especially of obsidian from the small islands, flint, and ground stone axes, as well as shell, ochre, and other perishable raw materials, is the key to similarities in the cultures of Sicily, the islands, and southern Italy. In the Copper Age (also called the Eneolithic or Chalcolithic, terms which reflect the persistence of stone tool technologies), three cultural spheres develop — which, it may be added, roughly correspond to the later ethne of Sikel, Sikan, and Elymian. This new regionalism is due to a variety of factors, including increasingly complex trade, population growth and conflict. Weaponry, more elaborate burial architecture (though this is widespread in the western Mediterranean), and the pursuit of luxury materials such as amber are featured. The tradition of chamber tombs which developes in this period survives into the period of colonization. The variety of pottery styles and types, and connections with places as far-flung as the Alps, Malta, northern and central Europe and Iberia are charted (Aegeanists will note that the Camaro figures turn out to have affinities with the earliest Early Cycladic sculpture). These chapters are densely but mostly clearly written and make maximum use of the great variety of available evidence.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 will be of the greatest interest to classical archaeologists. Chapter 4 opens with the Sicilian Middle Bronze Age, corresponding to the latter part of the Aegean Late Bronze Age (perhaps 1425 to 1250 BCE). The evidence for Minoan and Mycenaean contacts with Sicily is thoroughly reviewed. Leighton is candid about research on this period: “Pottery and metalwork figure prominently in discussions of trade and interaction and yet much relevant material in Sicily’s rich museum collections is not well known or published” (p. 170). Provenance studies are especially needed: testing of apparently Mycenaean imports in southern Italy has determined that many are actually local imitations, and Leighton suspects the same is true of material from Pantalica, Thapsos and Syracuse. Leighton rightly warns against the idea of Mycenaean colonization in this period. It is likely that the indigenous Sicilians of this period were undertaking their own trading voyages, building on their Neolithic experience.3 Local products including amber, salt, pumice, and other raw and finished materials were part of this trade (add references at the end of the chapter to Sicilian amber in a tomb near Pylos, and Italian metal and pottery in Crete and the Aegean). It is possible that olives and vines were already being cultivated, though this is unverified at present. A stratified form of society, in fact a chiefdom, can be inferred from the unequal distribution of luxury items, elaborate tombs, and settlement hierarchy. Leighton also draws attention to a recent proposal that the so-called anaktoron or ‘palace’ at Pantalica (south of Syracuse), a megalithic structure often compared with Bronze Age structures in Greece, is actually a Byzantine farmstead (p. 156-157). The closing section considers Greek myths which have been taken to reflect memories of Bronze Age contacts or events (Daidalos, Herakles, Odysseus). Leighton is sceptical of them all, except for the references to Sicilian slaves in Homer.

Chapter 5 brings the book to the eve of Greek colonization. The period, divided by Italian scholars into a prima and seconda età del ferro, begins ca. 900 and in its second part is coincident with Greek colonization down to the mid-7th c. Leighton argues that the preceding phase, called Pantalica II or Cassibile after type sites near Syracuse, could have lasted longer than the 150 years usually assigned to it. If correct, as he likely is, the implication would be that many sites, including Morgantina and Lentini, were inhabited when the Greeks arrived (see on this also p. 192 and the next chapter).4 In any case, the Iron Age shares traditions with the preceding period, though some signs point to a changing social structure and new connections, via Lipari, with southern Italy in the form of Ausonian II artefacts, burial practices, architectural forms, etc. This raises again the issue addressed at the end of the previous chapter, i.e. whether myths, in this case concerning the migrations of the indigenous Sikels, are reflected in the archaeological record. (The name of one mythically migrating group, the Ausonii, has been assigned to the aforementioned Ausonian cultural assemblage.) It also introduces a question for the next chapter: how to detect ethnic identity in the archaeological record. Leighton seems to accept the possibility in this case that the legends do tell a plausible story, though he notes the Sicilian flavor in its Ausonian culture and new evidence for Ausonian influences in western Sicily, which otherwise displays a stronger continuity with the past. Leighton argues for a “less hierarchical” society and simple, instead of complex, chiefdoms or even “tribal” societies, due at least in part to the decrease or disruption of trade in luxury goods with the Aegean.5 At the same time, contacts with the western Mediterranean opened up, making this a less “dark” age than the corresponding Iron Age of Greece (which is getting brighter all the time). Early Phoenician influence sometimes seen in the knowledge of ironworking is rejected. The chapter again ends with a section on the historicity of Greek and Roman sources for ancient native peoples. Here Leighton proposes that those said to be relying on Antiochus might be based on native oral traditions, which is dubious. He concludes, however, that “it does not seem possible to distinguish with any accuracy or confidence between Ausonians, Morgetians or Sikels on a purely archaeological basis” nor can archaeology reliably distinguish between Sikels and Sikans (p. 217) — and the linguistic evidence is also inconclusive (see on this p. 221). The Elymians are an even greater conundrum, as those familiar with the architecture and history of Segesta in the 5th c. will know.

Chapter 6 bridges prehistory and history. “Several histories were now unfolding concurrently”, in fact (p. 219): Greek, Phoenician, and native. There is a lengthy section on ethnicity and historicity, and here Leighton is perhaps rather too open-minded. That ethnic identity “… is partly a state of mind” is surely right, but it is more difficult to agree completely that in the colonial period in Sicily the “boundaries [of Greek and other communities] were porous” (p. 221, but see below on women). Leighton also discusses the very difficult question of Greek foundation dates, not very effectively; one of only two footnotes refers to “several papers by G. Vallet and the excavators of Megara” (n. 4 on p. 283) without telling readers where to find them: they are not in the bibliography. “Precolonial” activity in the Bay of Naples is very much discussed these days, and Leighton reviews such evidence for eastern Sicily for a kind of ‘trade before the flag’: Greeks “who had forged links with local people and begun to settle” before colonization proper (p. 225). There are occasional misleading statements, e.g.: “Although Pithekoussai was a Greek foundation with strong commercial interests it obviously provided a home for settlers” (p. 224). It is not certain that the settlement on Ischia is Greek, and its location on an offshore island makes it incomparable to the Greek coastal communities and their larger, expandable territories. Phoenician activity is also discussed in this chapter, leading to the rejection even of contact with Sicily as early as the Early Iron Age: Phoenician influence is only conjectural before 800. Leighton suggests that Motya, the best-known and archetypal Phoenician settlement, probably involved an early collaboration with local indigenous populations on the mainland for its success. Nevertheless, as he importantly indicates, “the majority of indigenous people in western Sicily adopted Greek, not Phoenician, cultural traditions during the 6th century BC” (p. 232).

A section on the literary sources for early Greek colonization and the subsequent changes in native society updates another fundamental older work, T. J. Dunbabin’s The Western Greeks (Oxford 1948) as well as the early chapters of E. Sjöqvist’s Sicily and the Greeks (Ann Arbor 1973) with new excavations and syntheses especially in the territories of Syracuse and the Catania plain and later evidence for the impact of the colonies on the south coast. Especially noteworthy is the indigenous metalwork found in colonial graves in Syracuse, Megara Hyblaia, and Naxos, which suggests that some of the 7th c. burials were not Greek but native, and probably native women. Greek ceramics had an impact on native potters in the interior, and wine drinking was adopted in indigenous communities especially in the 7th c. Nevertheless, the persistence of chamber tombs and other factors lead Leighton to conclude that “neither the ideologies nor the daily customs of local people in central regions altered significantly during the 7th century BC” (p. 254). This justifies calling the period the seconda età del ferro (also named the Finocchito phase after its type site). The chapter (and book) ends with sections on regional developments in the west and central parts of the island and on native cults and iconography at the close of the 8th c. The indigenous figural work which emerges in the 8th and 7th c. is haunting: near the end of the line for a distinct indigenous culture, stylized human visages appear in bronze repoussé work, images from a culture soon to be thoroughly assimilated.

One of the book’s strengths is its long view. Readers who start with the later chapters will be drawn into the earlier ones to better understand the earliest history of the island and its people. A mixed blessing is the wealth of illustrations, achieved by crowding numerous small line drawings of different features and artefacts, trench and site plans, at different scales on the same page — sometimes without clear divisions between them. Some drawings and their labels are reduced so much in reproduction that they become unintelligible. The many photographs are of mostly good quality, and reproductions of drawings from old excavations are very convenient, as are the several maps and charts. Notes are helpful and the bibliography full and up to date, except for studies dealing with Greek colonization and myth; these are not the main focus, of course. Leighton delivers admirably on his goal to provide “a sense of continuities as well as discontinuities” in “a useful guide to the current state of research and an indication of the potential for new work and for new approaches in the future” (p. 9).


1. The review copy came from Duckworth: available in the United States and Canada through Focus Publishing. It is also published by Cornell University Press, for $24.95 under ISBN 0-8014-8585-1 (pb) or Sterling Pound 18.50. Hardbound copies are available from both publishers.

2. Holloway also provided a valuable study with Italy and the Aegean 3000-700 B.C. (Louvain-la-Neuve / Providence RI: 1981), whose focus is apparent from the title. In Italian, S. Tusa’s La Sicilia nella preistoria (2nd rev. ed, Palermo: Sellerio, 1992) provides comprehensive coverage up to the island’s Late Bronze Age; his more popular Sicilia preistorica (Palermo: Flaccovio, 1994) may be consulted for its color illustrations.

3. Cf the proverb, ὁ σικελὸς τὴν θάλατταν cited by T. J. Dunbabin, The Western Greeks (Oxford 1948), p. 192 n. 1. More common was the version ὁ κρὴς δὴ τὸν πόντον (Alcman fr. 164 Page), usually taken to refer to those who pretend not to know what they do in fact know; Dunbabin thought that the original meaning was “the Sikel, like the Cretan, was an islander who never went to sea”.

4. Excavations at Morgantina produced a Late Corinthian quatrefoil aryballos on the floor of an indigenous hut on the plateau below the main area of the 6th c. Hellenized settlement (E. Sjöqvist in AJA 64, 1960, 134-135 + pl. 30, fig. 43). Its date indicates the continued existence of Sikels living in wattle and daub longhouses long after the 8th c.

5. See his article “From chiefdom to tribe? Social organisation and change in later prehistory,” in R. Leighton, ed. Early Societies in Sicily, New Developments in Archaeological Research ( Accordia Specialist Studies on Italy, 5) London: University of London, 101-116.