Archaeologists working on the Phoenician island city of Motya (modern San Pantaleo Island) – which sits in the middle of the Marsala Lagoon on the west coast of Sicily – have discovered that a large artificial basin on the southern end of the island is not a Punic harbour, as was previously believed, but a sacred pool that once sat at the heart of one of the biggest religious complexes known in the pre-Classical Mediterranean.
The rectangular, stone-lined basin is 52.5m long and 37m wide – larger than a modern Olympic swimming pool. It was first investigated in the early 1900s by archaeologist Joseph Whitaker, who interpreted it as a type of artificial inner harbour known as a Kothon. This interpretation was accepted for many years, but was challenged when excavations in the 2000s failed to unearth any of the harbour structures that would have been expected around the edge of the Kothon, and instead uncovered a large temple dedicated to the Phoenician god Ba’al. This discovery prompted a reinvestigation of the site that would drastically change our understanding of its function.
In 2006, the pool was drained and a decade of excavations began. These revealed that the basin was actually a freshwater pool, fed by three natural springs, and could not have been a harbour in the Phoenician period as it was not connected to the Marsala Lagoon – and therefore to the open sea – at any point during the city’s existence (8th-4th century BC). Excavations also identified two more large temples – one dedicated to the Syro-Phoenician goddess Astarte, and another known as the ‘Sanctuary of the Holy Waters’ – as well as numerous altars, stelae, votive offerings, and other finds associated with a religious complex. They also discovered a pedestal – now empty except for one large sculpted foot – which is believed to have once stood in the middle of the pool holding a statue of Ba’al. All of these findings indicate that the pool originally sat at the centre of a vast, circular monumental sanctuary that was in use from c.500 BC until the city’s destruction in 397/396 BC.
The researchers also determined that astronomy may have played a key role in the design of the complex, with the temples and other features deliberately oriented to face the directions of particular constellations and planets in the night sky at different points throughout the year, and the still, reflective surface of the pool used to track the movement of celestial bodies over time. This is supported by the discovery of objects such as the bronze pointer of an astrolabe, found in the Temple of Ba’al, and a statue of the Egyptian god Thoth, who was associated with astronomy, found in the north-eastern corner of the pool.
The basin has now been refilled and a replica of the statue of Ba’al has been placed on the plinth in the centre. The research has been published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.8).