Mazara del Vallo

The excavations at Mazara del Vallo in 1997. Click to enlarge

Alessandra Molinari directed a rescue excavation inside the north-east corner of the old town in 1997, but due to a lack of funding it only became possible to write it up in 2016 when the SICTRANSIT project began. The basic sequence of activity was worked out from the stratification, but it was not until she retrieved the boxes of material from the store that it became clear what a bonanza awaited analysis: great quantities of pottery and animal bones and - better still - plant remains that had remained intact.

A Byzantine phase was clearly present but there was a huge advance in status and activity contemporary with the arrival of Muslims. Mazara, located on Sicily’s south west corner, is the nearest point to reach from North African (specifically the modern-day coast of Tunisia). This was already occupied by the armies of Islam, who were recorded as arriving in force in Sicily in 827. However, it was during the successor regime - the Kalbid dynasty - that the town really took off, in parallel with Sicily’s Islamic capital of Palermo - an equivalent port on the north-west corner of the island.

This development included the construction of rows of houses with large latrine pits and rubbish pits lining the street frontage. It was from those sequences that pottery and animal bones were retrieved, along with glass and a model camel fashioned out of lead.

The animal bones came mainly from sheep, red deer and pigs but their presence in the pits was not continuous. The pigs in particular disappeared with Muslims and only came back with the Normans in the 11/12th century. Sheep and deer were also found to have increased in size through the Islamic and the Norman regime. Sheep eventually were allowed to grow old by the Normans, showing they were used mainly for their wool. The Normans loved to hunt deer and eat pork. For more information, see Aniceti & Albarella, 2022.

The farming of sheep, deer and pigs varied during the Islamic and Norman periods. Click to enlarge
Clear differences exist in pig production between the Islamic and Norman periods. Click to enlarge

In Muslim times, the countryside continued farming but gardens and orchards also began to cluster round the town. The most important finds in the pits were probably the seeds of exotic plants that here at least arrived with the Muslims. Muslim expansion from the 8th century had gone both east and west, and the conquering caliphs liked to give each gifts relating to Islam’s new territories, perhaps especially plants.

Andrew Watson, a Canadian scholar, had noticed that many of the new plants coming into Europe had Arabic names and suggested this was because that they were brought in by the Arabs. In Mazara, Girolamo and Milena found remains of aubergine, spinach, watermelon and cotton - all new to the area and consistent with Watson’s idea. There is little doubt that the production of vegetables and fruit expanded significantly during the 10th century. This included sugar - a Sicilian passion to this day - and cotton, a cash crop that served the expanding market of those from the arid east who wore it.

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) Iranian aubergine (Solanum melongena)
Rice (Oryza sativa) Melon (Cucumis melo)
Sorghum (Sorghum sp.) Durum wheat (Triticum durum)
Sugarcane (Saccharum officina rum) Citrus (Citrus)
Elephant ear (Colocasia) Bananas (Musa sp.)
Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) Coconut (Cocos nucifera)
Mango (Mangifera indica) Black mulberry (Morus nigra)
Cotton (Gossypium sp.) Watermelon (Cytrullus lanatus)
Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus)  

The expansion of Islam in the Mediterranean led to the introduction of new plants of oriental and tropical origin to Sicily (Watson, 1983).

The huge consignment of pottery was studied by Antonino Meo and Paola Orecchioni, and the glass recovered from the excavations was analysed by Francesca Colangeli.

Additional scientific investigation into the pottery's contents was undertaken by Jasmine Lundy via Organic Residue Analysis (see our In the lab section) It proved possible to associate the types of pottery with the animal bones and the organic residues in the pots to open a window on daily life in Mazara. To find out more about the what was discovered, see the Food and farming section.

Examples of pottery recovered during the Mazara del Vallo excavations. Click to enlarge