Between Aphrodite-Temple and Late-Archaic House I

Archaeological Investigations into Religion and Power formation on Monte Iato in Archaic Western Sicily

Please note: This document is shorter than the German version, which was already online on our old homepage. This text here is directly borrowed from the original FWF-application. For more extensive information about the first project, please use the German version, the working papers, or our publications!


» General information
» 1. Scientific Aspects
     1.1 Hypothesis: Power formation through religion and colonial contact in archaic Western Sicily
     1.2 International research status on indigenous religions and sanctuaries on archaic Sicily
     1.3 The innovative aspect: Archaeology and Robert Bellah’s “Religion and Society”
     1.4 Goal of the project: new insights into the interdependence of religion and power in a pre-global contact area
     1.5 Implementing the project’s goal 
     1.5.1 Status of preliminary research: Placing the gods on Monte Iato
     1.5.2 Planned archaeological fieldwork
              a) Sondage I
              b) Sondage II
              c) Archaeobotanical and archaeozoological studies
    1.6 Methods of analyzing socio‐archaeological finds

General Information

FWF-Projekt (P 22642-G19) 2010-2013

Principal Investigator:

Dr. Erich Kistler


ATRIUM - Zentrum für Alte Kulturen - Langer Weg 11

University/Research Institution:

Institut für Archäologien
Fachbereich Klassische und Provinzialrömische Archäologie
Leopold-Franzens-Universität Innsbruck

Approval date:






Scientific field(s):

6523 Archaeology (50,00%)
1911 Archaeometry (2931) (20,00%)
5434 Sociology of Religion (6427) (15,00%)
5929 Ethnology (15,00%)


1.1 Hypothesis: Power formation through religion and colonial contact in archaic Western Sicily

In view of the current debate on globalization, there are increasing attempts similarly to consider the archaic Mediterranean world and its movements of people, ideas, technologies and goods as a pre‐global world system. In that scenario, the Mediterranean is considered to be an inland sea connecting the coasts, and thus creating the conditions for a trans‐Mediterranean network of movement and interaction. The western tip of Sicily acts as a central intersection in this scenario. The prevailing winds and currents as well as the conditions for shipping at that time meant that main connecting routes converged on the axes from east to west and north to south . In the Early Iron Age, this resulted in the interaction and parallel contact of Indigenous peoples, Phoenicians, Greeks and Etruscans, thus fostering the process of cultural exchange and trans‐Mediterranean intercultural contact.  From the mid‐6th century BC, this ‘pre‐global’ process also left permanent traces on Monte Iato in the middle of Western Sicily and brought forth entirely new mechanisms of the interdependence between religion and power. The present proposal is for a project to investigate this causal link between colonial contact, the enhancement of local rule and religious power establishment on Monte Iato in the light of the archaeological evidence. 

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1.2  International research status on indigenous religions and sanctuaries on archaic Sicily

The growing social relevance of religious historical research underpins the increasing focus of archaeology in Sicily on the question of the forms of religious practices of indigenous peoples and their this approach is the recent publication transformation through colonial contact. An ideal example of the congress “Ethne e Religione della Sicilia Antica”. The title alone suggests a methodological programme: religious customs are elevated to a cultural identifying feature of ethnic group affiliation. This ‘religious fingerprint’ is then used in the attempt to describe Sicily’s indigenous ethnic peoples, as recorded by Thucydides (4.2), and archaeologically in terms of their territorial expansion. The period prior to the arrival of the Phoenicians and Greeks attains central significance. Since the late Bronze Age, the indigenous peoples of Sicily – largely without the influence of the former two key players in the archaic Mediterranean world – formed a unique cultural physiognomy of a religious nature. The aim is to clarify and define this religious form with reference to precise material and cultural artefacts, and in contradistinction to the religion of the Phoenicians and/or Greeks. Only after the completion of this process can an intercultural mutual exchange between the indigenous populations and Greeks (or Phoenicians) also be exposed through archaeological research in the field of ritual rites and religion. This ethnic‐oriented approach has been commonly used in research on Sicily since T. J. Dunbabin’s in 1948. In the “The Western Greeks” appeared wake of the “postcolonial turn”, merely the paradigms and associated labels have changed. Relevant terms are now no longer “Hellenization” and “Civilization”, but rather “Selective Acculturation” and “Indigenization”. The latter concept is also understood in terms of world systems, that is, as a “Local Response” to pre‐global cultural and trading flows in the ancient Mediterranean world. Sanctuaries play an important part here. As interregional centres, contact with the foreign culture is under the protection of the altar that first enabled a peaceful negotiation of common forms of communication and cultural standards. 

Robert Leighton has repeatedly questioned this ethnic‐cultural interpretative model. In particular, in his widely acclaimed book, “Sicily Before History” (1999), the Edinburgh archaeologist attempted to consider the link between religious rituals and the social development of Sicily’s indigenous peoples in isolation from forms of colonial influence associated with them. In Leighton’s view, such an emic perspective highlights how on inland Sicily, during the 6th and early 5th century BC “the elaboration of cult practice and its physical manifestations in the form of shrines and cult objects was encouraged by the development of more complex social and political formations”, while in the ninth and eighth centuries, he suggests, indigenous religion was archaeologically invisible. Associating his ideas with the focus on how chiefs came to power, Leighton evaluates the increasing material visibility of cult and religion as a typical archaeological index of a “Formative Phase”. During this phase the installation of a central redistribution figure leads to a permanent settlement and to forms of proto‐urban live as well as centralization of cults and religious authority. This process of concentration of religious and political activity is undoubtedly a form of endogenous development. Nonetheless, such activities developed substantially quicker due to successful contact with Greek or Phoenician partners, and could accept forms of cultural practice from a foreign culture.

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1.3  The innovative aspect: Archaeology and Robert Bellah’s “Religion and Society”

The present project aims for a position in‐between the above mentioned methodologies that characterize archaeological research about Sicily – that is, between the ethnic‐cultural and social archaeological approach. On the one hand, the fact that the oldest cult building as an independent architectural structure on Monte Iato – the Aphrodite Temple – was constructed by Greek builders can only be explained as a consequence of political power that was established with the aid of Greek partner allies. Here, reference to the theory and model structure of the “Archaeology of Colonial Encounters” is undoubtedly relevant. On the other hand, however, alongside these exogenous factors, the endogenous processes of power and elite formation on Monte Iato are to be more closely examined, insofar as these led to this centralization of religious authority in the form of the Aphrodite Temple. In this respect social archaeology and the study of chiefdoms offer adequate analytical tools and models in theorizing . 

Each of these approaches, which consider endogenous developments or exogenous influences respectively, finally is to be integrated at a superordinate level. Subsequently, these can be considered as complementary perspectives and then studied in terms of the interplay of the society and religious system. Robert Bellah’s typology of religion and society is highly relevant here. In Bellah’s view, it is important to differentiate between four types of religious formation and social organization: “primitive”, “archaic”, “historical” and “modern” religion or society. For archaeology, the first two types are primarily relevant. “Primitive religion” is specifically applicable to segmented societies and where, as yet, no religious specialists are evident. There is no subdivision of the life world into sacred and secular areas. Similarly, there is no Olympus – no Gods. The world of myth is the expression of the religious symbol system. Ancestors represent powers, which may exceed human capacities, but they by no means possess the Numic powers of the Gods. In contrast, “archaic religion” is distinguished precisely by genuine cult with Gods and houses of worship, with priests, sacrifices and possibly Gods or priests as royalty. These attributes lead “archaic” religion to be regarded as typical of chiefdoms. To apply Bellah´s model means finally to leave the well trodden paths and to try to rewrite the History of the Indigenous in Archaic Western Sicily.

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1.4 Goal of the project: new insights into the interdependence of religion and power in a pre-global contact area

Bearing in mind this background based on Bellah’s sociology of religion, the archaeological invisibility of religious activity on Sicily during the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, as identified by Leighton, becomes a typical identifying feature of the “primitive religion” stage. Conversely, the greater intensity of its archaeological visibility in the form of material traces of ceremonies, which took place on special days, of festival sites and sacred buildings becomes a typical symptom of the formation and establishment of a cult at the level of “archaic religion”. Thus, it is possible to establish a direct link with the formation of a chiefdom. As the Aphrodite Temple on Monte Iato is a record of Greek sacred and colonial architecture, the influence of colonial partners played a decisive role in this endogenous development process. This is precisely the reason why archaeological research into the formation and transformation of the Iaitinic sanctuary promises to yield new insights into the causal interplay of religion, power and the emergence of colonial partners within the context of an indigenous community settlement that was in the process of evolving from a segmented to a hierarchical society.

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1.5    Implementing the project’s goal 

1.5.1 Status of preliminary research: Placing the gods on Monte Iato

Evidence of the indigenous population on Monte Iato is found in the partially widely dispersed cultural layers and discoveries of settlement remains from the 8th to the early 6th centuries BC. These document how people lived together in extended families and households, dispersed in compounds and hamlets across the Iato hillside plateau. Round huts, which were often in a slightly more central location within these hut complexes, served as inner‐family meeting centres. Here, under the leadership of the head of the family, rites were also performed in honour of the ancestors. As a result, in the context of these compounds and house‐societies, the separation of sacred and secular was as equally unheard of as any form of religious specialization or priesthood: “Il sacro non è ‘segnato’ ”. Thus, clearly the “primitive” stage of religion is indicated that is primarily established on the basis of honouring the ancestors and forefathers . Additionally, this may also be confirmed by partly theriopomorphic and anthropomorphic handle decorations engraved on ceremonial pottery – this was a typical symbol of the presence of ancestors at feasts. By the latest at the end of the 6th century BC, the change to the stage of “archaic religion” was complete on Monte Iato. The unmistakeable material evidence for a place of sacrifice outdoors, yet one that was also inside the settlement is an altar (1.62 x 1.2m) made of limestone blocks. Thus, sacrifices to honour the ancestors were not only made within the family’s own culthuts. A new development was the sacrifice of animals on the altar and outside in the open air. Sacrifices took place in the middle of the settlement. From the mid‐6th century BC, this settlement had completely changed its form of living and social organization. The remains of wall tracts, floors and pavement levels indicate a shift from living in extended families as house‐societies in hut complexes to more concentrated dwellings of small families in rectangular houses. In the middle of this proto‐urban style of living “among neighbours” is placed the Aphrodite Temple and altar as the heart of the common Cult. However, it is unclear whether this sacrifice site inside the settlement and the associated “sanctuary building” was already consecrated during the 6th century BC to the Greek Goddess, Aphrodite. What is clear is that a divine power was at least worshipped here whose rank was above the ancestors of the individual families. Hence, the entire community settlement was under the protection of this divine power. However, it is questionable as to whether in archaic times this “oikos”‐temple already contained a (non‐)iconic cult image. Deposits of the remains of sacrificial meals inside the temple appear to show that this sacred structure was at least temporarily also used as a festival and meeting house. It remains to be seen to what extent participation in the ceremony of sacrifice – either inside or outside the temple – was also an indication of the hierarchical separation of the festival community into a privileged ‘in‐group’ and a less privileged ‘out‐group’. At the latest, with the construction and use of the banqueting house complex on the late archaic building’s upper level, this kind of hierarchical order of an elite and a non‐elite group did occur within the settlement and cult community. The elite group enjoyed the privilege of participating in sacrificial meals in the magnificently decorated banqueting rooms and also protection from outside weather conditions. The non‐elite group, on the other hand, had to make do with a place outdoors in front of the banqueting house complex. In contrast to the elite group inside, those taking part in the sacrifice festival outside did not drink imported wine out of precious imported pottery, but instead consumed a local brew out of locally produced pottery. This was rarely decorated, mostly unglazed and of a visibly poorer clay and fired quality. The extent to which the elite circle inside the banquet rooms is to be equated with the group of religious specialists and ritual ceremony masters must at this stage remain an open question. However, as shown by comparative ethnologicalstudies, this kind of scenario would be perfectly plausible following the establishment of religious power by regional leaders. In the case of the indigenous settlement on Monte Iato only further, targeted archaeological research can give clear indications of whether or not this actually occurred. 

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1.5.2  Planned archaeological fieldwork

a) Sondage I

Excavations between the late archaic house and Aphrodite Temple uncovered the northern group of rooms of a building dating from the Hellenistic period and constructed around 300 BC as part of the construction of the temple terrace wall. This building’s southern group of rooms also connects with shops and workshops at the northern perimeter of the antique road. Current examinations at this location reveal how the northern rooms were integrated into the cultural layers of the archaic settlement, and that its interior was almost completely cleared as far as the bedrock. In contrast, outside this Hellenistic structure – as well as to the north of the contemporary terrace wall – the archaic layers of the settlement were left standing. Overall, the hope is that Sondage I (4 x 20m) – in this post‐archaic no longer occupied area – will give a more precise explanation of the cultic topography and integration of the late archaic house with its banqueting rooms within the sanctuary around the Aphrodite Temple. 

Goal: A clear explanation of how this cult was integrated is essential for understanding the socio-religious function of the main late archaic house. On the one hand, the ground level with its loam and screed floors and its finds of exquisite household pottery is undoubtedly to be allocated to the area of representative living, and thus seen as part of the daily life in a wealthy household. On the other hand, the upper level with its banqueting complex, which reveals no signs of internal connection to the lower level, is a building that seems to have been relevant beyond the household. This structure must be directly connected with the sacrifice festivals in the sanctuary around the Aphrodite Temple.   In autumn 2009, the autopsy of various indigenous and Greek sanctuaries revealed that these banqueting houses are also well‐known in other archaic Sicilian settlements within close proximity of temples situated inside the settlement – in Greek and non‐Greek sites (Caltabellotta, Morgantina, Palike, Selinunte and Megara Hyblaea). However, only in the case of the late archaic house on Monte Iato is this also linked to a structural integration of this banqueting house with a richly equipped living wing on the lower level. The two‐storey large house therefore represents a unique special solution, which can neither be explained on the basis of a hybrid Greek and indigenous building typology,nor a specifically local cult practice. This special solution appears to have evolved out of a specific need of the residents that probably arose from their local installation as rulers over the cult in their immediate vicinity within and at the site of the Aphrodite Temple. 

b) Sondage II

Sondage II is to examine the outside level directly to the north and in front of the banqueting house complex along its north and eastern flank. Previous investigations of this outside level have courtyard. Evidently, this was used shown that this was quite probably the site of an open‐air festival by participants at the sacrifice celebrations inside the settlement, and by those who had no access to the banqueting rooms on the building’s upper storey. The anticipated confirma‐tion of this hypothesis is crucial in order to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms of the cult and festival policy in the sanctuary and around the Aphrodite Temple as a way of establishing power and local rule.  The first stage of the work is to define more precisely the north and eastern boundaries of this outside level and to outline any possible perimeter structures. Sondage II (measuring 4 m wide by 8 m long) is to be excavated as far as the planning and infill layer dating from the Hellenistic and Roman period that is above this (late archaic) outside level.  The second stage is to facilitate closer inspection and removal of the exposed late archaic outside level in terms of its function as a festival site. Ultimately, a third stage beneath the removed outside level is to examine the history of the local settlement before the construction of the late archaic house. In 2006, in the corner, which is formed by the L‐shaped layout of this house, it was already established that beneath the level of the late archaic outside level, an even older building existed dating from the early or mid‐6th century BC thus, the north‐eastern corner of this older structure was revealed. A second room was revealed on the site of the previously excavated room. The N/S wall of this room is clearly visible in the soil profile layers. As is also clearly revealed in these profile layers, the eastern wall sloping eastwards of Room 1 borders on this N/S wall. Furthermore, to the east of the N/S wall is a pavement level that ends after approx. 2 metres. Beneath the N/S wall and the pavement level of this older archaic house is a loose collection of stones. These are probably the remains of a wall plinth from an even earlier hut dating from the 7th century BC. 

Goal: Overall, this area beneath the late archaic outside level presents the unique opportunity to examine a vertical sequence of different living and subsistence forms on Iato before the building of the late archaic house and the associated process of the concentration of cult activities around the older Aphrodite Temple. This would yield a local reference scheme that could be used to classify the other older archaic settlement finds in the western district of the later Hellenistic city. Here again, this is a key aspect of the investigation that is to correlate the time periods of the development population’s dwelling and lifestyle on Iato with those of the formation and trans-phases of the local formation of the cult site at the Aphrodite Temple. Only this type of correlation can archaeologically reveal the causal links between the transforming structure of society and the changing religious system on Monte Iato.

c) Archaeobotanical and archaeozoological studies

All archaeological layers, canals and backfills from the archaic period that surfaced in and around the late archaic house, and those still to be appearing shall be sampled systematically. Thereby new in‐sights about the environmental conditions as well as the acquisition of food and commodities on Monte Iato can be obtained. But primarily the focus will be on organic remains, that in association with ceramic and other finds can provide increased information about the ritualised consumption habits of food and drink in the archaic sanctuary. Additionally, alongside archaeobotanical evaluations, in particular, archaeozoological assessment will yield key data for the analysis of consumption behaviour in the rooms of the upper‐storey banqueting complex, as compared with those on the festival courtyard outside.

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1.6 Methods of analyzing socio‐archaeological finds 

In addition to methods of archaeological fieldwork, which are now standard, this project will also use both the following analytical procedures in order to address the superordinate aspect focus on the sociology of religion: 

a) Activity areas analysis: So‐called activity areas analysis consists in identifying recurring activity patterns by charting artefacts in relation to each room or space. During the process of excavation, and for publication, this means recording data not in terms of vague artefact categories with no con‐text (such as architecture, fine and everyday ceramics, lamps, tools etc.). Rather, the categories are ordered into a series of everyday activities (such as textile production, storage, cooking, festivals etc.). However, only in the case of “Pompeii Premise” is a specific localization possible of these everyday activities inside and outside specific rooms and on the basis of the complete contextual inventory record of all the finds. In other words, archaeological finds are suddenly ‘frozen’ as a result of the sudden impact of a catastrophe. It is more usual, however, for ‘disruptive factors’ such as cleaning a house, removal of recyclable material as well as disposal of waste in abandoned rooms to permanently impair the archaeological picture of the finds. These ‘disruptive factors’ already need to be identified during the prework, because such processes of formation and transformation of the archaeological project should be accordingly taken into account during analysis of the activity areas.

b) Presence/absence analysis: The aristocratic and elitist ambiance in the banqueting rooms on the upper storey of the late archaic house is sufficiently exposed in the magnificent internal decor with plastered walls and coloured floors. The upper storey area with banqueting rooms therefore served as a platform of conspicuous consumption for privileges and delicacies that the elite used during sacrifice ceremonies to distinguish themselves from their social inferiors. This is primarily evident from what was consumed inside the banqueting house complex and outside.


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