Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Diederik Burgersdijk, Richard Calis, Jorrit Kelder, Alexandra Sofroniew, Sebastiano Tusa and René van Beek (ed.), Sicily and the Sea. Zwolle: W Books, 2015. Pp. 204. ISBN 9789462581159. €24.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Laura Pfuntner, University of California, Davis (

Version at BMCR home site

Front matter

This volume was produced to accompany the exhibition Sicily and the Sea, a collaboration between the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam, the Soprintendenza del Mare in Sicily, and several other European museums, research institutions, and organizations.1 Sicily and the Sea joins the recent Getty exhibition ("Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome," 2013-2014) and the current British Museum exhibition ("Sicily: Culture and Conquest," April-August 2016) in presenting the art and archaeology of pre-modern Sicily to a broader audience than ever before. Many of the objects in Sicily and the Sea come from smaller, less-frequented museums in Sicily and have never been shown outside the island.

The scope of the volume (and the exhibition) is ambitious, tracing Sicily's multifaceted relationship with the Mediterranean from prehistory to the present day. After the Preface and Introduction, eight chapters give a roughly chronological overview of this relationship. The shorter essays within each chapter provide valuable historical and cultural context to the exhibition for a non-scholarly audience. Readers especially interested in ancient Sicilian history and archaeology—and in underwater archaeology more generally—will appreciate the short articles on shipwrecks that conclude Chapters 3-6, as well as the catalogue entries of objects in the exhibition that are scattered through Chapters 2-6. Assessment of each of the 50 sub-chapters is impossible in this space. Especially for those unable to view the exhibition as it makes its way around Europe, this review will highlight recent Sicilian maritime archaeological research as reported in the volume.

Most of the articles on shipwrecks reflect underwater research conducted in the last two decades, only recently (or not yet) published. The earliest shipwreck included is Gela I, from the early fifth century BC, whose small cargo—excavated in two separate campaigns in the 1990s and 2000s—included wine amphorae from Magna Graecia and the Aegean (Nicolò Bruno, pp. 72-3). Two third-century wrecks are also described: Capistello—a vessel carrying Greco-Italic wine amphorae from Campania to Sicily or North Africa—found in 1967 and currently being re-examined (Adriana Fresina, pp. 75-7); and Panarea III, discovered in 2010, which carried Greco-Italic and Punic amphorae from Southern Italy to Sicily, perhaps in support of Roman naval operations in the Second Punic War (Roberto La Rocca, pp. 78-81).

Chapter 4 ("Carthage and Rome") concludes with articles on imperial-era and late antique shipwrecks. Giovanni Di Stefano provides an overview of the three well-known Camarina wrecks (pp. 112-113), while Roberto La Rocca reports on recent research on the fifth-century AD wreck in the port of Scauri on Pantelleria (pp. 114-115). Even more recent is the discovery of the wreck of a Roman merchantman by the Egadi Islands Survey Project. The Levanzo I sank in relatively deep water in the late third century AD2 as it carried a cargo of foodstuffs and construction material from Tunisia to Italy, perhaps as part of the annona (Jeffrey Royal, pp. 116-119). Chapter 5 ("New Powers") ends with a description of another late Roman shipwreck, found off the beach at Marausa in 1999—one of several underwater finds (including Hellenistic and Roman imperial-era amphorae and pottery) in an area of the western Sicilian coast that saw heavy maritime traffic between North Africa and Italy throughout antiquity (Antonella Testa, pp. 140-2).

Numerous medieval shipwrecks reflect the island's continued connectivity with the wider Mediterranean under Arab and Norman domination. Fabrizio Sgroi (pp. 143-5) provides an overview of the Cala Galera wreck, a twelfth-century "Arabo-Sicilian" ship that sank in deep waters off Favignana with a huge and well-preserved cargo of ceramics. The Cala Galera wreck was discovered in 2000 and, because of its depth, was explored with an ROV. Philippe Tisseyre summarizes four wrecks from the Norman period: Mondello, Marsala A and B, and San Vito Lo Capo, discovered in 2005 and studied using Differential GPS survey methodology (pp. 146-9). The last wreck described in the volume is the Parissona Grossa, a large Genoese merchantman that foundered near Sciacca in 1581, perhaps as it awaited the onloading of grain from the port. The ship was rediscovered in 1992, and underwater exploration began in 2004. Eliana Mauro's summary (pp. 166-7) raises more questions than it answers¬, since it is not obvious (at least to this reader) why a merchant ship commissioned to transport grain the relatively short distance from Sciacca to Palermo would also be carrying a cargo of almost thirty French, Italian, and Spanish cannons!

Scattered through Chapters 2-6 are catalogue entries that provide fascinating insight into the military, religious, economic, and cultural facets of Sicily's relationship with the sea. A bronze statuette of Reshef and a limestone Egyptian torso, both recovered from western Sicilian waters, reflect the island's earliest historical engagement with the Eastern Mediterranean via the Phoenicians (Francesca Spatafora and Rossana De Simone, p. 37). The diverse objects from the archaic, classical, and Hellenistic Greek eras include a terracotta Gorgon's-head antefix found in 2012 in the sea near Gela, and probably produced in one of that city's ceramic workshops (Adriana Fresina, p. 49); a hand-moulded and painted ceramic boat—perhaps a votive or toy—found in a late third century Syracusan tomb (Agostina Musumeci, p. 50); a lead anchor inscribed in Greek euploia, found off Favignana in 2004 (Francesca Oliveri, p. 54); and 39 oricalchum ingots from the late sixth century found in the cargo of a shallow shipwreck off Gela in 2014 (Philippe Tisseyre, p. 74).

Objects from the Roman period include one of the six Montefortino helmets recovered from the sector of sea near Levanzo identified as the site of the Battle of the Aegadian Islands (241 BC) (Antonella Testa, p. 84), along with the famous bronze ship rams described in Jonathan Prag's overview of the Punic War period (pp. 83-6). The seas around Sicily have also yielded works of art, including a bronze elephant's leg, perhaps originally part of a public monument, found in deep waters between Tunisia and Sicily in 1999 (Rossella Giglio, p. 95); and a late Hellenistic marble sculpture of Hercules grappling with Antaeus, found in the harbor of Catania in 1927 (Maria Turco, p. 95). Objects related to maritime commerce include a first century BC lead ingot originating from Spanish mines, part of a group of twelve found near Capo Passero (Philippe Tisseyre, p. 96); and a thin lead "commercial label" with a Greek inscription found off San Vito Lo Capo (Francesca Oliveri, p. 96).

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a selection of architectural elements from the sixth-century Marzamemi "Church Wreck" (Gabriella Ancona, p. 127). Less monumental, but just as evocative of the diversity of cargoes (and peoples) traversing Sicilian seas throughout history, are a fifteenth-century tin pilgrim's bottle found by recreational divers near Favignana in 2000 (Rossella Giglio, p. 138), and a blank codex from the seventeenth or eighteenth century with shagreen pages made from the skins of South American stingrays that was recovered in fishing nets in the Strait of Sicily (Ailbhe Turley, p. 161).

Some of the thematic sub-chapters also highlight recent archaeological discoveries from Sicilian waters and shores. Francesca Oliveri's overview of submerged ancient port structures mentions a "magnificent building with a portico" found off Sottomonastero on Lipari in 2008 (pp. 24-5). Roald Docter's provocative essay on Carthaginian war booty from Sicily cites archaeological data as diverse as the cargo of the Porticello shipwreck and the large fragment of a lion's head marble spout found on the Byrsa in Carthage (pp. 87-90). Roger J.A. Wilson discusses several imperial and late Roman maritime villas, as well as archaeological evidence for large-scale agricultural production and maritime trade in the Roman era, including the large grain storehouses at Piazza Armerina and Gerace and the kilns that produced Dressel 21/22 amphorae for the transportation of garum (pp. 107-111). Particularly insightful, though of less direct relevance to classical archaeologists and ancient historians, are Asker Pelgrom on Sicily's ambiguous relationship with the Risorgimento (pp. 162-5), Arthur Weststeijn on cinematic depictions of Sicily (pp. 173-5), and Maurizio D'Atri's ethnographical account of commercial tuna and swordfish fishing in Sicilian waters (pp. 193-5).

The 50 short sub-chapters are highly variable in quality, and despite the considerable credentials of many of the contributors, none can provide more than a brief overview of his or her topic. Moreover, some sub-chapters seem tangential to the theme of Sicily's maritime interactions, and the authors' attempts to make connections between their topic and this theme can feel forced, especially in the final three chapters on Early-Modern and Modern Sicily, since the vast majority of the archaeological contexts and exhibited objects described in the volume date to the pre-modern period.3 Although the volume's broad chronological coverage is admirable, its overall cohesion and utility would have benefitted from the inclusion of fewer, but more detailed, contributions.

The volume's short Further Reading section (pp. 200-201) lists only "books and papers of general interest." It refers to a "more extensive overview of the available literature" on the Allard Pierson Museum's website that, as of May 2016, no longer appears to exist. Otherwise, the high production standards––particularly the many high-quality color images of shipwrecks and objects recovered from Sicilian waters––make the volume a desirable acquisition and an especially impressive editorial achievement, given the large number of contributors and the range of nationalities and academic specialties it encompasses.


1.   After Amsterdam, the exhibition moves to the Ashmolean Museum (June-September 2016), the Maritime Museum in Palermo, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen (2017), and the LVR-LandesMuseum in Bonn (2017/8).
2.   The wreck was originally dated to AD 350-75, but the recent typological reassessment of amphorae in its cargo (specifically, the re-identification of a single Keay 52 vessel as type Ostia I, 455) has resulted in a re-dating to 275-300. The initial publication of the wreck is Jeffrey Royal and Sebastiano Tusa, "The Levanzo I Wreck, Sicily: a 4th-century AD merchantman in the service of the annona?" IJNA 41 (2012): 26-55; see Jeffrey Royal, "The Levanzo I Wreck and the Transfer of Technology by Sea in the Late Roman Mediterranean," in Deborah N. Carlson, Justin Leidwanger, and Sarah M. Kampbell (eds.), Maritime studies in the wake of the Byzantine shipwreck at Yassıada, Turkey (College Station 2015), 127-45, esp. 127-9, for the revised date.
3.   Only one of the ten underwater archaeological sites described (the Parissona Grossa wreck, pp. 166-7) post-dates 1500.

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