The aim of the SicTransit project was to study the lives of Sicilian farmers, merchants and their families over seven hundred years of the Middle Ages (550-1250). Historical sources tell us that during this period the country was governed successively by Byzantine, Islamic, Norman and Swabian rulers. But the interest of our project lay with the people that history seldom mentions, those who farmed the land, sold and delivered its produce, lived, worked, married and died in its villages and towns. Who were these people, where did they come from and how did they fare in good times and bad? Some were Christians, some were Muslims, others Jews – how far did the faiths intermingle? What made Medieval Sicily a peaceful or a turbulent society?
These questions are important for us today as we face the widespread movement of refugees, issues of religious tolerance and military and economic insecurity. Medieval Sicily provides a proving ground for their investigation: a large fertile island located between continental Europe, North Africa and West Asia, it was open to influences and predation from each quarter.
Our objectives were to combine history, archaeology, bioarchaeology and biomolecular archaeology to investigate life in town and country, the focus of agriculture, the thrust of trade and the trends of spirituality amongst the people under the four successive regimes.
Design and Implementation
The design of our project identified three sources of evidence, a rescue excavation at Mazara in the south west, a multi-period cluster of sites at Castronovo in the centre and human remains from 22 previously excavated cemeteries across the island.
Samples were studied by the partner universities in 11 work packages each representing a specific programme of analysis, together leading to new accounts of early medieval agriculture, trade and demography.
At Castronovo, on Monte Kassar, the combined team redefined Sicily's best preserved Byzantine fortress, locating buildings inside its 90ha enclosure and re-interpreting the site as a military camp for mobile forces. At Casale San Pietro on the Platani river below Monte Kassar, an area excavation revealed a multi-phased stone built waystation, and finds of a seal box, a touchstone, a stylus and glass jetons suggested a place of administrative control. To the west of this complex, multiple field surveys mapped an extensive occupation that peaked in the Byzantine and Islamic periods.
New farming methods attributed to Muslims were detected on the slopes of Monte Kassar, where spring water was canalised to fountains in the town and watered terraces and drove mills before discharging into the River Platani. These discoveries were assisted by on-site collaboration with researchers from the ERC Project TERRACE. The church of San Vitale was discovered to be converted from a Norman keep.
Plant analysis showed that new varieties of flax and beans had been introduced in the Byzantine period, while exotic plants such as aubergine, melon, spinach and cotton were identified in Islamic Mazara and represent the most ancient finds in Europe.
Through organic residue analysis we discovered that wine was exported from Islamic Palermo. Examining the traces of food surviving in the walls of cooking pots revealed pork fat, dairy products and wine in Islamic-period Castronovo, in contrast to contemporary urban Palermo.
Faunal analysis showed that Muslims increased the size of sheep by selective breeding. The predicted Islamic veto of pork was confined to urban sites (Palermo, Mazara), while at the rural site of Castronovo, pigs were farmed. Chickens were reared for meat in the Islamic period, but were later focused on egg production, with raised levels of nitrogen indicating a more intensive husbandry (fed on scraps).
External trade in the middle ages was mapped by tracking the petrology of amphorae identifying the sources of grit in their fabrics. Amphora finds in 7th–9th century levels filled an important gap in the record of overseas trade which experienced substantial transformations, but with an overall continuity.
In the Sicilian cemeteries the religions of individuals were distinguished by their burial rites, and 151 of them were dated by C14. Christian burial continued through periods of Islamic governance and vice versa. Both Islamic and pre-Islamic people shared genetic affinities with modern Near Eastern, North African and sub-Saharan African populations. European genetic affinities were noted only in Swabian Segesta, where Christian and Islamic burials had few ancestries in common, implying that intermarriage did not occur. Dietary differences within a region did not corelate with faith or biological sex, but differences between regions across Sicily were noted, reflecting the varied baseline faunal values.
One monograph and thirty-three scientific papers were published in the life of the project, with completed research awaiting publication in a further two monographs and ten articles. 66 presentations relating to the project were delivered to conferences or public meetings between 2016 and 2023. We were invited by the British Ambassador to Italy to a party in Palermo to celebrate the Queen's birthday.
Towards the end of the project we created this website, containing a virtual museum, accounts of our results and how they were obtained, films and artworks and a virtual tour of Castronovo. This is aimed at schools, students and lovers of archaeology and Sicily everywhere.
Beyond the State of the Art
Novel methodologies were developed in the field at Castronovo, in particular the application of multispectral drone survey to find hidden traces of buildings. In the laboratory at York, the use of stable isotope analysis for determining diet was enhanced through single compound analysis. Advances were made by organic residue analysis in distinguishing food products trapped in the walls of amphorae and cooking pots. A more secure method for distinguishing amphorae carrying wine was worked out and led to the discovery of a wine export trade in Islamic Palermo. At Lecce the team developed a new method of identifying plants from charred fragments. The Lecce team also hosted a major international conference of Palaeoethnobotany in 2019, presenting much new research from 300 delegates.
The SicTransit project broke new ground by harnessing history, archaeology, and archaeological sciences to chronicle the experience of medieval Sicilian farmers, merchants and their families during four successive regimes. Although regime change was usually executed with violence, social equilibrium was common until the mid 13th century, when the deportation of Muslims was enforced by the Swabian government. The Sicilian towns remained centres of population and defence, but the landscape was refurnished with new kinds of settlements, as shown at Castronovo. The Muslims were agricultural innovators and brought notable prosperity to the island, especially in the 10th century with increased productivity and trade, both in imports and exports.
Thus the prosperity of Sicily in the 10-12th century correlated with close relations between Christian and Muslim, a result with implications for us today.