A small aqua-coloured glass bead is placed in the ‘analytical chamber’ of a specialised machine. It is a large piece of kit – four times bigger than those chunky photocopiers that populate workplaces – and incredibly noisy. A built-in camera allows us to watch what is happening inside. Flashing lights appear, as the bead is perforated by a laser beam that acts as a microscopic drill. The resulting hole, though, is so small that it is invisible to the naked eye. Despite this, the minute amount of material extracted during the process can be studied to tell us much about the bead. In particular, using this sample to determine the origin of the glass can help us learn more about ancient trade networks.
The bead in question was found at a hilltop sanctuary at the Timpone della Motta, near the modern town of Francavilla Marittima in southern Italy. It had been buried alongside hundreds of other glass beads, as well as fragments of pottery vessels, terracotta figurines, and bronze objects in a ritual deposit dating to the first half of the 6th century BC. Thousands of burned and heavily fragmented bones from sheep were also thrown into the deposit. Thanks to the scientific analyses, we now know that our glass bead had travelled a long distance before it entered the earth at the sanctuary.
Ancient glass and modern science
The glass bead is one of 32 such objects that took another lengthy journey after their discovery at the Timpone della Motta sanctuary. They travelled from Italy to central France, and specifically to a scientific laboratory in Orléans (IRAMAT-CEB, Institut de recherche sur les archéomatériaux, at CNRS, Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique). In this lab, 26 of the best-preserved beads were analysed using the method just described – a technique that is known to specialists as LA-ICP-MS (laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry). It allows archaeologists to determine the chemical composition of the glass without chopping off and destroying a sizable chunk of the bead. It is an ideal method for analysing small artefacts. Glass is not the only material that can be studied using LA-ICP-MS. Gold and silver coins, jewellery, and precious stones like garnet, obsidian, and emerald are also counted among frequent visitors to the lab.
The material can be analysed in the laboratory relatively rapidly, with roughly 100 samples processed in a day. This work makes it possible to pinpoint the provenance of the glass used to make the ancient object. Such information can then be combined with the results of careful visual scrutiny of the beads. These observations are just as important if we want to know more about how and when the beads were made. And we do want to know more about it! Ancient glass beads were manufactured using various different methods, which in turn required different levels of specialisation. Identifying which bead-making technique was employed can help us to link the resulting object with a particular era or culture.
Glass-making as a craft can be traced back to the 3rd millennium BC. In the Mediterranean and Near East regions, it was first practised in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The technological know-how underpinning the industry took centuries to reach Italy, with the earliest evidence for workshops producing glass objects coming from the Po valley of northern Italy and dating to the 10th century BC. Glass was a high-tech product in the ancient past, meaning that people living in southern Italy during the 7th and 6th centuries BC would have seen glass beads as exotic items. The LA-ICP-MS analyses of the beads from Timpone della Motta reveal that the glass used in these particular examples was produced in Egypt. Clearly, then, such prestige goods could come from afar, being traded or exchanged via long-distance networks. Because of this, archaeological study of the glass enables us to trace these trade routes, and understand more about the dynamics governing the ancient economy.
But what were the exotic glass beads doing in a hilltop sanctuary in southern Italy? And how did they get there?
The beads travelled from Egypt to the arch of the Italian boot. They probably arrived by ship at the Greek colony of Sybaris, before they ultimately found their way to the sanctuary at Timpone della Motta.
Today, Timpone della Motta is an isolated hilltop rising c.280m above sea level. Silver-leaved olive groves and macchia bushes speckle its summit, while the conglomerate stone forming the multicoloured bedrock peeps out from behind this vegetation. From this vantage point there is a direct view of the turquoise waters – and long row of tourist villages – lining the Ionian coast, around 12km to the east. Turning north-west reveals the barren slopes of the Pollino massif, while looking south presents a vista over the Raganello River and the Sibari Plain, which is strewn with small settlements and farmsteads.
In antiquity, this panorama would have been rather different: tall pine trees covered the exposed bedrock of the Pollino massif, while the Sibari Plain was a marshy area riddled with lakes and small streams, allowing small boats to navigate across the plain towards Timpone della Motta. We should therefore think of it as a well-connected coastal site rather than the isolated inland setting apparent today. Indeed, it was only during Mussolini’s reign that the swamps were drained, creating the current farmland character of the plain.
Archaeology on the hill
The site at Timpone della Motta is not mentioned in any of the surviving ancient sources. Its ruins were rediscovered in the 1800s, with the first archaeological excavations following in the 1960s. Since then, various projects have dug up portions of the ancient remains. From 2008 onwards, a Danish-Italian team has explored the sanctuary and an area at the southern base of the hill called ‘Area Rovitti’. This project was initially undertaken in collaboration with the Groningen Institute of Archaeology. From 2017, the excavation and research have been hosted by the Danish Institute in Rome, and the team is also examining previously unexplored parts of the hill.
Investigating the Mediterranean soil encasing the bedrock of the hill has yielded a vast range of objects: jewellery and bronze phialai (small bowls), terracotta figurines and pinakes (relief-decorated votive tablets), glass objects, spindle whorls, and loom weights, together with hundreds of thousands of complete and fragmented pottery vessels. Together with the architectural remains of wooden structures, as well as stone structures – temples, huts, and production facilities – we can learn about life and death in this corner of the ancient world, as well as religious practices and coexistence between an indigenous people and incoming settlers.
The archaeological site of Timpone della Motta is spread across several terraces. At the very top we find the sanctuary (8th to late 6th century BC), while the settlement area (16th to late 6th century BC) sprawls over several lower-lying terraces. On a plateau to the south-east, a pottery production area with workshops and kilns (8th century BC) was located near domestic housing, while further down the slope lies a large necropolis with tumulus graves (8th to 6th century BC).
The terraced nature of the hill is only visible towards the top, as erosion and landslides have altered the lower terrain profoundly. However, Mother Nature’s ambivalence for the archaeological remains has also turned out favourably for the archaeologists. Small landslides and wildfires over the last few years have provided access to areas of the hill that were previously out of reach. Recent surveys of these freshly exposed areas and finds have shown that the hill was more densely settled than previously assumed. As the various parts that make up the site are located comparatively close to each other, it seems likely that they formed part of a unified settlement.
People started living on the hill slopes in the Middle Bronze Age (around 1600 BC), with occupation continuing until the end of the 6th century BC. However, Greek newcomers arrived on the scene in the first half of the 8th century BC, after which life on the hill gradually changed. By then, the site had already grown large enough to be a settlement of regional importance.
It was a party of Greeks from Euboea – Greece’s second-largest island – that settled on the southern slope of Timpone della Motta. The place where they built their new homes is now known as Area Rovitti, after the family that currently owns this land. Excavations have revealed evidence of a ‘potter’s quarter’ with kilns and workshops, which were run by the newly arrived Euboeans. At the site, two 8th-century BC huts were revealed, with large quantities of pottery found in and around them. Although these ceramics look Euboean, were decorated with lustrous paint, and had been wheel-thrown – in sharp contrast to the matt-painted, handmade indigenous pottery – these goods had not been imported. On the contrary, clay analyses demonstrate that the Euboean-style pottery was locally produced. It has become known as Oinotrian-Euboean (because the wider region that Timpone della Motta lies in was called Oinotria by some ancient authors), with similar pottery almost unknown in southern Italy. Intriguingly, while these ceramics closely copy Greek geometric pottery, the repertoire also includes shapes popular in Italy, which were not made by the Euboeans on Euboea. Seemingly, then, the people living on Timpone della Motta had a taste for Greek-style pottery, but the supply of imported ceramics simply could not sate local demands for certain shapes. Within a century, an even wider range of Greek pottery was being produced locally on the hill slopes, while all production of the local handmade pottery had ceased.
The first Euboeans to set up shop on the southern slope of the hill were also among the earliest Greeks to relocate to southern Italy. Later on, in the 8th century BC, the Greek presence increased dramatically as more incomers settled down among the indigenous communities. Larger Greek settlements were also established: the so-called colonies. Closest to the Timpone della Motta community was the Greek colony of Sybaris, which was founded around 720 BC, roughly 12km to the south-east.
Sybaris had a profound impact on existing settlement patterns in the region. At several earlier sites, activities simply ceased, perhaps pointing to violent encounters between the settlers and those already living in the area. At the handful of sites where life did continue, the influence of Greek cultural traditions and preferences soon becomes apparent among the material culture of the indigenous people.
Timpone della Motta remained inhabited throughout this period of change and upheaval. And this is one of the reasons why the settlement is so important: it is a key site for understanding a wide-ranging cultural transformation that had a profound impact on life in the western Mediterranean. Crucially, of the few known sanctuaries from this period in southern Italy, Timpone della Motta is the only one where continuous religious activity is evident from c.800 to 510 BC, making the finds from this part of the site particularly significant. Elsewhere, most evidence for the cultural changes underway in this period comes from graves. As ritual deposits in religious centres were deposited under very different circumstances, these finds offer valuable new knowledge about the encounters between the indigenous people and the Greeks.
Thousands of objects were ritually buried within the various votive deposits made at the sanctuary. As a result, a wealth of material has come to light, with objects acting as gifts for the gods dedicated over a period of some three centuries. Who these gods were is not entirely clear. Athena is mentioned on a bronze plaque that was set up in the sanctuary by Kleombrotos from Sybaris. He won the Olympics in the early 6th century BC, and apparently had promised Athena a tenth of his prize. The honouring of his vow was engraved in bronze so that every visitor to the sanctuary could see. So, Athena was certainly one recipient of offerings made at the sanctuary, but other gods were probably also worshipped there. Numerous fragments of terracotta figurines depicting a standing female deity holding a deer were found during excavations. This type is normally identified as Artemis, a divinity who was certainly suited to a hilltop setting. Similar figurines are known from nearby Sybaris, as well as the Artemis Sanctuary in Metaponto, located some 77km north of Timpone della Motta.
As for the architecture of the sanctuary, five multiphase temple structures, one large altar, a temenos wall enclosing the sacred area, and one more building (another temple?) have been unearthed since the 1960s. The earliest structures date to the 8th century BC, when several wooden longhouses were erected. These have been interpreted as ritual buildings, which were constructed using wooden posts that were inserted into holes cut into the bedrock. The walls would have been made of wattle and daub, and the roofs of straw or wood.
Towards the close of the 8th century BC, one of these longhouses was replaced with a new type of wooden structure. It was built in the same fashion as its predecessors – with wooden posts sunk into the bedrock – but the ground plan was clearly Greek. A rectangular temple with a tripartite interior now stood in the sanctuary. Just like the pottery, then, the Euboeans seem to have been responsible for a reimagining of the religious architecture. Once again, this was just the beginning. Towards the middle of the 7th century BC, the architecture ‘turned even more Greek’. The wooden edifices were levelled, and temples with mudbrick walls, tiled roofs, and architectural terracotta decorations were raised on top of the old structures.
Ritual deposits were buried across large areas of the sanctuary, with notable concentrations around one of the temple structures (called Building V) and in a freshly excavated area associated with an altar (called MS3). Here, pits were filled with objects in the first half of the 6th century BC. Among the votive offerings were hundreds of glass beads, numerous other artefacts, and animal bones. A striking common feature is that the objects in the deposits seem to have been deliberately damaged prior to their deposition. Such ritual destruction also occurs at other Mediterranean sanctuaries, while the phenomenon is far from alien to archaeology elsewhere around the world.
On Timpone della Motta, the ritual destruction took different forms: most of the pottery vessels were smashed, but some were rendered useless by punching a hole through the bottom with a pointed instrument. The bronze phialai were bent or perforated, while the terracotta figurines were broken in half. Even so, the most consistent sign of ritual destruction emerges from studying the animal bones. All of them are fragmented, with the remaining pieces rarely larger than a fingernail. What is more, these bones had been burned at high temperatures before they were broken up. Archaeozoological study revealed that they all came from sheep – the hind parts of the animals to be precise. This might be a product of an ancient Greek sacrificial rite called thusia. During these sacrifices, parts of the animals were burned on an altar, while the remainder was prepared and consumed by worshippers. Maybe our glass beads should also be understood within this context. While it cannot be ruled out that the beads belonged to necklaces presented as votive gifts, it is striking that they always occur alongside burnt animal bones. Looking at the iconographic evidence for animal sacrifice in the ancient Greek world, we get an idea about why beads and bones might go hand-in-hand in the deposits. Figure-decorated vases from Athens, for example, show sacrificial animals bearing bands, flowers and – yes – beads. It is entirely possible that the numerous beads in the deposits once served as sacrificial accessories. As the beads were not burnt, though, this sacrificial regalia was not incinerated alongside the hind parts of the sheep.
Various different miniature vessels were also found in the deposits. These include versions of pots used on a daily basis for drinking (kotyle), carrying water (hydria), storing jewellery or wool (pyxis), or mixing water and wine (krater). Such tiny versions were unsuitable for any of these tasks, though. Instead, they were made solely in order to be dedicated to the gods. Of these pots, the hydriskai (miniature hydria) were by far the most popular votive offering for the god(s) at the hilltop in the 7th and 6th century BC, with thousands of examples deposited. The hydriskai were locally crafted, while a pottery kiln found near the sanctuary reveals that ceramic goods did not have to travel far to reach their destination. Analyses of the clay confirms that this local supply chain was well developed.
Even so, imported Greek vessels also found their way to the sanctuary in some quantity. A good proportion of the pots ferried across the Ionian Sea were votive vessels. These imports include miniature items, with kotyliskoi (miniature drinking cups) and small lekythoi (oil jugs) arriving in large numbers from the 7th century BC onwards. In the general area of Francavilla Marittima, such imported votive vessels have only been found within the confines of the sanctuary. Another significant discovery is batches of aryballoi (oil containers) that can all be traced to the same workshop in Corinth. This merchandise, it seems, was being imported with a single purpose in mind: dedication at the sanctuary.
Organisation of trade
The sanctuary of Timpone della Motta was clearly entangled in Mediterranean trade networks, as the ritual deposits and the wealth of material within them demonstrate a strict organisation of the religious infrastructure and supply of dedicatory objects. Here we can return to the aqua-coloured glass bead that later in its lifecycle travelled to Orléans. But what of the bead’s earlier journey? On its trip from Egypt to southern Italy, was the bead shipped alongside other objects destined to be offerings at the sanctuary? Should we be thinking of a stopover in Greece, with other Egyptian imports, before the next leg of the journey – from Greece to Sybaris – was completed? At present, not much is known about the import of glass objects to Magna Graecia during the 7th and 6th centuries BC. But thanks to these new investigations, we will be able to trace in more detail whether the sanctuary at the top of the hill – with its sophisticated trade and supply arrangements – acted as a catalyst for the glass trade and influenced its networks. Or whether the glass trade in turn had an impact on the sanctuary and the religious practices carried out there.
The Timpone della Motta excavations are hosted by the Danish Institute in Rome under the direction of Gloria Mittica and Jan Kindberg Jacobsen. The archaeometric analysis was carried out in collaboration with researchers at the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions at Aarhus University (a centre of excellence supported by the Danish National Research Foundation under the grant DNRF119 and directed by Rubina Raja). The authors would like to acknowledge and thank Bernard Gratuze from IRAMAT-CEB, CNRS of Orléans, who analysed the glass beads. The excavations and related research have received generous financial support from the Carlsberg Foundation and the New Carlsberg Foundation. Additional funding has been granted from Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen.