Archaeological investigations on the Phoenician island city of Motya, off the coast of Sicily, have revealed a 2,500-year-old artificial lake to be one of the largest sacred pools in the ancient Mediterranean, and found that its key cultic features are aligned with the stars.
The artificial basin was added to the city of Motya, a flourishing Phoenician port, following an attack by Carthage sometime after 540 BC.
It was rediscovered in the 1920s and excavated by archaeologist Joseph Whitaker, who mistakenly identified it as a military harbour, due to it similarities with one in Carthage called the Kothon.
Further explorations of Motya’s Kothon in the 2000s led, however, not to the discovery of the expected harbour structures, but to that of a Temple of Ba’al – a Phoenician deity associated with fertility and the rebirth of the sun.
Re-investigations resumed in 2010, with a team of archaeologists from Sapienza Università di Roma, in alliance with the Superintendence of Sicily, draining the basin.
‘This revealed it could not have served as a harbour, as it was not connected to the sea. Instead, it was fed by natural springs,’ said Professor Lorenzo Nigro from Sapienza Università di Roma, lead author of the study recently published in Antiquity.
Excavations revealed temples lining the basin, along with altars, votive offerings, and stelae. A stone block at its centre featuring an Egyptian gola (decorative moulding) and a sculpted foot was also uncovered; this corresponds with a statue of a male deity, identified as a personification of Ba’al, pulled from the Marsala Lagoon in 1933.
These finds indicate the pool was once the centre of one of the largest cultic complexes of the pre-Classical Mediterranean.
The team also made the exciting discovery that the key features and structures are aligned with the stars.
According to Professor Nigro: ‘The nearby Temple of Ba’al is aligned with the rise of Orion at the winter solstice, whilst stelae and other features were aligned with other astronomical events. This points to the deep knowledge of the sky reached by ancient civilizations.’
Phoenicians regarded the stars and constellations as gods and sacred ancestors, and it has been suggested the flat reflective surface of the freshwater pool would have served for charting their celestial movements.
A replica of the statue of Ba’al has been erected on its plinth, and the basin has since been refilled.