BMCR 2010.03.26

Il santuario dei Palici: un centro di culto nella Valle del Margi. Collana d’Area. Quaderno n. 11

, Il santuario dei Palici: un centro di culto nella Valle del Margi. Collana d'Area. Quaderno n. 11. Palermo: Regione Siciliana, 2008. 423. ISBN 9788861640573. €30.00 (pb).

The sanctuary of the Palici (Palikoi) in southeast Sicily has a long history filled with a great deal of mystery. According to texts such as Diodorus Siculus and Macrobius, twin deities, the Palici, controlled the sulphur-smelling lakes that existed here, and the place was known as an asylum for run-away slaves as well as a place where oaths could be tested by different rituals. Remains of the sanctuary exist today, but, unfortunately, the town above has been badly looted, and modern exploitation of the land has eliminated the lakes.

But in spite of the vicissitudes of modern times, recent archaeological investigations have yielded important results, presented here by Maniscalco and her collaborators. The first chapter provides a useful overview of the history of the sanctuary, as recorded in the historical and other texts (discussed further in the conclusions, pp. 129-136), as well as a description of the location as a point of contact between the coast and inland.

The setting of the sanctuary includes a wide cave fronted by an open flat area holding remains of several buildings. In the second chapter the description of the different areas is arranged by identifiable features such as the Hestiaterion, edificio A, and stoa B, but also by excavation units such as saggio XX and vano B 1. Although each area is described in detail, with accompanying photographs and drawings, there is unfortunately no overview of how they relate to each other.

For ease in understanding the layout of the site, the next chapter more helpfully gives a chronological overview, starting with the Neolithic period (primarily pottery), Copper Age (pottery, terrace [?] wall), and Bronze Age (pottery, hut, tombs). The Archaic period (7th-6th c. B.C.) witnesses a sudden building activity with buildings F, E, A, D and others, preserving remains of small rectangular structures with one or more rooms. These were constructed at the same time as a rectangular building on the peak of the hill above the cave, the settlement later known as Palikè, founded by the Sikel leader Ducetius around 450 B.C. The function of the buildings in front of the cave is difficult to pinpoint, but the form suggests that they had a sacred function, for which parallels exist from other indigenous sites in Sicily.

The peak of building activity takes place in the 5th c. B.C., with evidence of a hestiaterion (dining-hall) and two stoas, B (replaced by complex P, a large terrace) and FA. The features of stoa B are described in this chapter, but for a complete analysis of the buildings, the reader needs to turn to the second half of the book which includes a section by Brian McConnell on the “Monumental Architecture in the area of the Grotto.”

Maniscalco concludes that it is likely that this site had a religious function already in prehistoric times, and that its closest parallel is the Italic sanctuary of Mefitis at Valle d’Ansanto. Although the site is mentioned only sporadically in the ancient texts (for example, the reference by Hyppis of Rhegion that the sanctuary was founded in the 36th Olympiad, that is, 636-632 B.C.), the sequence of activity, including buildings, suggests that its history is closely tied to events in the Greek colonies of Sicily, in particular to Leontinoi and Gela. It is the setting for a lost play by Aeschylus, The Women of Aetna, and reaches a new level of importance when the Sikel leader Ducetius founds the town of Palikè as the center of a federation of indigenous towns. As a result of this event, the hestiaterion and two stoas (B and FA) are erected, and the sanctuary takes on a role as a meeting place for the united Sikels. Although it is possible that the custom of sharing meals at the sanctuary dates back to the Archaic period, the monumental architectural display emphasizes the Greek influence on Sikel traditions, as shown also in the architectural terracottas from the site (discussed by McConnell in this volume, but also in “Terracotta architectural fragments from ancient Palikè,” in Deliciae Fictiles III, eds. I. Edlund-Berry, J. G. Greco, and J. Kenfield [Oxford 2006] 426-432).

In the following centuries, the town Palikè disappears from history, but the sanctuary continues to flourish, and a large terrace (complex P) is built in front of the hestiaterion. As indicated by both the archaeological remains and the description by Diodorus Siculus, the sanctuary is in use at least through the 1st c. A.D., but gradually the area becomes occupied by a farming settlement.

The second half of the book is devoted to specialized studies on a variety of topics, arranged by chronology and types of material. Valeria Motta presents the lithic objects and pottery from the Neolithic period and Copper Age, Ivana Alfina Arcidiacono the imported and indigenous pottery from the Archaic period, and Maria Randazzo the finds from stoa B. The votive terracotta figurines, including fragments of molds, are discussed by Giovanni Altamore, the variety of small finds from the Hellenistic period by Daniela Midolo, and the Roman material by Claudia Cirelli. Lucia Arcifa presents the structures and finds from the Byzantine era to the 11th century A.D., and, as noted above, Brian McConnell discusses the monumental architecture.

To complete the understanding of the evidence from the site, Elisabetta Castiglioni deals with the botanical remains, and Carolina Di Patti and Francesca Lupo summarize the evidence for the fauna. Specialized analyses of the lithic material (by G. Pappalardo and others), the geology (by Sebastiano Fazzina and others), and the plans for public access to the site (by Cornelio Tripolone) conclude the contents.

This is an important publication for anyone interested in the history of Sicily, ancient religion, and the interaction between Greek and indigenous traditions. All types of evidence are presented, and the text is illustrated with excellent photographs and drawings. No doubt future volumes on the area will add to the picture presented here, preferably organized in such a way that a reader new to Sicily will be aided by a succinct overview of the historical sources and the areas and topics discussed, keyed into the photographs and plans, with an index of names and features. Although the site has been badly damaged throughout the years, it is extremely important, and the current excavators may want to be more forthcoming in clarifying the historical and cultural significance of the location, the site, and its many centuries of religious and political activity.1


1. For additional information on the site, see L. Maniscalco and B. E. McConnell, “The Sanctuary of the Divine Palikoi (Rocchicella di Mineo, Sicily): Fieldwork from 1995-2001,” American Journal of Archaeology, 107:2 (2003) 145-180.