University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Summer in Sant’Angelo Muxaro – Braden Cordivari


By: and Braden Cordivari

October 9, 2018

Sant’Angelo Muxaro lies on top of a large gypsum outcrop, the slopes of which hold an Iron Age necropolis. Part of this is visible as the pale excavated rectangle at the bottom of the slope. Photo by author.

The town of Sant’Angelo Muxaro sits on a rocky crag above the Platanis River Valley in south-central Sicily, about an hour drive up into the mountains from the famous temples at Agrigento. I visited the site during a weekend trip away from excavating at Morgantina as part of Dr. Alex Walthall of University of Texas Austin’s Contrada Agnese Project, a continuation of the longstanding American Excavations at Morgantina. Driving up through the valley, I was immediately struck by the town’s impressive location in the landscape, one of the main reasons I wanted to visit.

Besides its natural beauty, the town is also famous as an important Sicilian Iron Age archaeological site, with remains stretching back well before the coming of Greek and Phoenician colonies to Sicily. In later traditions, it is associated with the mythical kingdom of Camicus, where Daedalus was said to have landed on his flight from Crete. In fact, the site of Heraclea Minoa at the mouth of the Platanis River is named so since it was believed that Minos was buried nearby after dying in pursuit of Daedalus. On the way up to the top of Sant’Angelo Muxaro, a large modern metal sculpture pays homage to the wings of Daedalus as well as a beautiful gold bowl discovered at the site in the 18th century, now in the British Museum.

Sculpture on the road leading up to the top of Sant’Angelo Muxaro with feathers alluding to Daedalus and one of the gold bowls discovered at the site. Photo by author.
Finds from the necropolis on display in the museum. Photo by author.

In the early 20th century, remarkable artifacts began to surface from Sant’Angelo Muxaro, including numerous vases and a number of chamber tombs. Paolo Orsi’s pioneering excavations in 1931 demonstrated the presence of an unlooted Iron Age necropolis cut into the base of the cliff, which archaeologists returned to dig again in 1976-7 and 2006-7. The tombs were in use between the 12th and 6th centuries BCE, and many of the tombs were reused more than once, perhaps by family groups. They contained large amounts of pottery, as well as gold, bronze, and other metal artifacts. I knew that the site was relatively well-known for its ceramics, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a new museum with attractive displays of the finds of the necropolis and information presented in both Italian and English. Although many of the objects are divided between the museums in Palermo, Agrigento, and Siracusa, there is still an impressive display in Sant’Angelo Muxaro itself.

Besides the museum, the necropolis itself is accessible from a visitor path along the base of the cliff. A stairway down the side was a little intimidating, but led to a large rock-cut tomb known locally as the Tomb of the Prince. The two chambers were carved into beehive-shaped domes, leading the initial discoverers to call it a “tholos,” like the famous Mycenaean examples. The path around the rest of the necropolis is an easy walk and has good signage on the various notable tombs, many of which have their findings on display in the museum up the hill.

The entranceway (dromos) to one of the tombs in the necropolis. Photo by author.

In all, Sant’Angelo Muxaro is both a beautiful modern town and a fascinating archaeological site and makes a worthwhile detour a bit off the beaten path on a tour of southern Sicily.

The author at Morgantina. Photo by Alex Moskowitz.

Braden Cordivari graduated in 2018 with a B.A. in Classical Studies and Anthropology. This summer he returned to work at Gordion in Turkey before excavating at Morgantina on Sicily.

 


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