Space and Identity in Ancient Motya

a Multi-Sensor Remote Sensing Survey of a Punic City in Western Sicily

When Phoenician voyagers established a settlement on modern day Isola San Pantaleo in the 8th century BC, they were attracted by this island’s advantage of in a protected harbor where they could interact with the local people from a protected position. What was originally an unfortified trading post grew over the next two centuries to cover the entire 45 hectares of the island, hosting as many as 15,000 inhabitants at its height in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. This dense Punic urban center known as the city of Motya included residential houses, sanctuaries, public buildings, a market area and industrial workshops, possibly interspersed with open spaces that functioned as plazas and gardens, surrounded by a massive fortification that followed the contours of the coastline and was marked by four gates, more or less oriented according to the cardinal points.

During some of the first intensive scientific archaeological investigations at Motya, the archaeologist BSJ Isserlin hypothesized that the urban layout of Motya was organized on a unified plan around a central road that linked the causeway to the mainland via a gate in the north (Porta Nord) with the Cothon, once considered a port and dry dock and now interpreted as a sacred pool at the south of the island. These investigations established a rough framework for the urban plan, but the layout of the city lacked much detail since excavations were mostly limited to monumental contexts.

We carried out a geophysical survey in 2017 and 2018 in an effort to intensively map the arrangement of architecture at the site. Our results comprise the largest ‘exposure’ of domestic structures at Motya and provide a picture of the general urban plan and new dimensions to our picture of life during the 6th to 5th century BC. They show that buildings at Motya were set on a gridded plan oriented to major landscape features at the site. Consistency in the shapes, sizes, and orientations of structures demonstrate that there was a coordinated effort in arranging these 6th century BC spaces, similar to what has been called a ‘Hippodamian’ plan elsewhere in the Mediterranean basin. Such a gridded plan was once thought of as a Greek innovation, but is now better understood as evidence for top-down settlement planning shared by people across the Mediterranean during the first half of the first millennium BC, with roots in the second millennium BC Levant.

Move the slider to switch between the ground surface and the map of magnetic intensity.
Left: orthomosaic of the NW quadrant of Isola San Pantaleo. Right: magnetic gradiometry results.

Looking more closely, the results of the geophysical survey seems to show that individual segments of the domestic complexes were constructed independently within standard lots. This evidence, taken with parallel studies on ceramic forms, the diversity of ritual iconography, and ancient DNA samples from contemporary sites reinforces the idea that descendants of Levantine people lived side-by-side with the indigenous people at Motya and in similar Mediterranean cities.

The combination of an overarching residential system with foreign roots occupied by people using objects with local cultural affiliations has led us to hypothesize that this pattern of urban planning is part of a system by which local people are integrated into colonial Phoenician and Punic life. Could this be evidence for an allotment system for new urban settlers? Or a system to bring local people from the hinterland into Punic urban spaces? Either would demonstrate  that the people of Motya held some power to construct and define parts of the urban spaces that they occupied. Upcoming research in this domestic quarter of the site can help us to test this idea by answering basic questions about the settlement such as: When and how was this neighborhood established and how were people organized within it?  Who were the occupants? What role did these occupants play in Motyan society? The answers to these questions will not only tell us who was living in these quarters, but engage the wider conversation about the Phoenicio-punic identities and colonialism. 

At the core of our research is the question: What can the archaeological record tell us about how the use of space was negotiated between the settlment’s architects and its occupants? The answer will help us understand how the built environment of settled spaces reflects the identities of urban residents in the Phoenician and Punic world, and help us to move beyond the dichotomy of colonizer and colonized. 

Further field research, to hopefully take place in 2021, will include additional geophysical surveys led by PI Jason Herrmann. Fortunately, most of the 6th and 5th century BC archaeological remains at Motya were not covered or obliterated by subsequent phases of settlement. The 2017 survey area will be revisited with an electrical resistance survey and with a frequency-stepped multichannel ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey. Multi‐channel GPR systems offer remarkable improvements in vertical and horizontal resolution over traditional monostatic surveys by arranging multiple transmitter and receiver antennas into one single array. A collection of antennas creates a number of closely spaced parallel profiles of the subsurface and produces a near-3D image of buried materials. The combination of a wide swath covered by multiple antennas and GPS integration also provides the benefit of rapid survey coverage, enhancing overall efficiency of data collection.

Test excavations, led by PI Paola Sconzo will be carried out in the open parcel where the 2017 survey was conducted. Our objectives will be to verify the interpretations from the geophysical survey, to recover material evidence in the architecture or the artifacts that may reflect the communities of which the residents of this domestic quarter were a part, and to collect material that can be dated radiometrically.


Dr. Jason T. Herrmann, Co-Principal Investigator. Kowalski Family Teaching Specialist for Digital Archaeology, Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM), Penn Museum and Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania 

Dr. Paola Sconzo,Co-Principal Investigator. Post-Doctoral Researcher, Institute of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen 

Prof. Gioacchino Falsone, Archaeologist. Retired Professor, Department of Culture and Society, University of Palermo

Prof. Aurelio Burgio, Archaeologist and Permit Holder. Associate Professor Department of Culture and Society, University of Palermo


Gerda Henkel Foundation (awards AZ 26/V/17 & AZ 19/V/20)

Whitaker Foundation

Soprintendenza di Trapani 

Partners and Collaborators

University of Palermo

University of Tübingen