This was SICTRANSIT’s most comprehensive investigation, which followed on from early work by the Soprintendenza in Palermo led by Stefano Vassallo who invited us to continue the research. Find out more about the project's field methodology in our In the Field section.
The area of interest was spread over the countryside, focused on the Platani valley where the River Platani was crossed by the ancient routeway connecting Agrigento and Palermo. The area of archaeological interest lies between this road and river and the steep and massive rocky promontory of Monte Kassar.
In this area lie four sites, from lowest to highest in altitude:
Casale San Pietro
Casale San Pietro is an agricultural zone located near the River Platani. It was studied by means of an extensive survey and an intensive excavation of 900 meters square and 1 metre deep.
It was occupied by the Romans from at least the 3rd century AD, and on an even bigger scale by the Byzantines between the 5th century and the 8th centuries. They built a large establishment next to a bridge over the river with a number of rooms and a courtyard. A tax collector’s seal [?] showed that it was a government control point for the region, likely a mansio: a place to stop on the journey, eat and change horses, not unlike the nearby Esso service station.
In the Muslim period (9-11th century) the complex was adopted and reworked, but likely retained the same function. A hearth of North African type was discovered, indicating a Muslim influence. However, the archaeological evidence suggests the community as a whole continued to eat pork, indicating that a strong Christian presence continued to farm the area while serving the new Muslim government in Palermo. Pottery from Palermo flooded into the area, along with coins: this was a time of prosperity.
By the 12th century, Muslim control of Sicily had been relinquished to the Normans and Casale San Pietro reverted to being an agricultural centre. This way it has stayed - today it has a thriving sheep production industry and there are olive groves and an olive oil factory next to the site.
In view of Casale San Pietro to the immediate north is a low rocky ridge studded with numerous rock-cut tombs dating to the Byzantine period (5-7th centuries). This is Capelvenere. The tombs were cut into the top surface and were marked by clumps of wild asphodel. They had been excavated before and largely emptied, but the SicTransit project revisited a small area of graves and discovered a few remaining bones that were subsequently radiocarbon dated.
Castronovo di Sicilia
The road circles up beyond Capelvenere to the present town of Castronovo di Sicilia, our home during the excavation campaign. This town was probably founded in the Muslim period - the newcomers using their well-developed engineering skills to canalise the water from the mountain above to water terraces and drive mills. The town has surviving medieval churches, but there is so far no evidence of mosques. However, historical documents tell us that this was indeed a multi-faith town in the 10th-11th century.
Colle di San Vitale
The Colle di San Vitale is a rocky ridge above the town, below the main peak of Monte Kassar, where the Normans built a castle in the 12th century. With its narrow platform and steep sides, the ridge was to continue as a fortified place containing many churches. These were studied by building survey and an excavation beside the church True Justice where we found the grave of a medieval knight. At this time the road up was probably lined with traders stalls, and today it is a popular destination for the citizens and pilgrims.
Monte Kassar is the highest point in the landscape and an important landmark. It takes the form of a promontory about 90ha in area and roughly level at 1000m or more. It has precipituous sides to south, east and west, and a more gentle approach on the north side. The Byzantine government built defensive structures here in the 7th or 8th century, with a wall 3m thick equipped with 11 towers and two gates. This was just before the Arab invasions which were happening all round the eastern frontiers of the Byzantine Empire.
Within the walls of Monte Kassar and up against it, small dwellings were built, probably to house members of the garrison. Next to the one we excavated was an assembly area and a set of steps running up within the wall, probably to a parapet where they could defend the fort. However, most of the upper part of the wall was missing: it had been pushed inwards crushing the 'soldier's house'.
Surprisingly, in spite of extensive surface and drone survey there was little sign of life within the 90 ha enclosed space in the 8th century. However, there were five places which had remains of buildings and could have been used as look-out points connected by line-of-sight.
One of these buildings, dubbed the 'casermetta', was well preserved and had a key position where it could see much of the wall and the east gate. It had a tower to increase its overview and may have been a military headquarters of some kind. Three other places were likely look-out points marked Int 13 (looking east) and Int 14 (looking west) on the plan. The look-out point on the south end was probably the peak called 'Pizzo della Guardia.' It is clear from other examples elsewhere in the empire that rapid communications were vital. It is likely that in Sicily too line-of-sight signal points extended over the whole island.
Castronovo di Sicilia has a vivid new history. Situated at a nodal point between roads and river it reflects some of the wide story, through war and peace of the island as a whole.