Sicily’s people

Warning: this page contains images of human remains.

The archaeological study of the Sicilian population in the 5th to 13th century was focused on cemeteries, where people without history had been buried by their friends and relations in the way they thought best. These special places told us about the population in many different ways. Sicilian archaeologists furnished us with data and samples from 26 cemeteries from different parts of the island [map to be created]. Our team of bioarchaeologists were then able to study the people who were buried there to deduce their health, diet, ancestry and when they died.

The location of the cemeteries showed which communities they represented. Some were in towns but others were where people had lived before but had fallen into ruin - for example at Agrigento, where burials were found in deserted houses. At Villa del Tellaro people were buried in the grounds of a Roman villa next to a former Roman mausoleum. Some were on previously occupied high places that had previously been the site of Greek towns, such as Monte Iato. These locations showed where people were living – or places that they regarded as sacred in some way.

In each cemetery there was a set of tombs or graves that varied greatly and yet they endured over long periods. Cemeteries of the Phoenicians, Greek and Romans who had a powerful presence in Sicily before the middle ages, had a great variety of tombs: graves cut into walls within an arched niche (arcosolio), burials in underground rooms (ipogei) or corridors (catacombs), burials in stone coffins (sarcophagi), burials inside amphorae (enchytrismos), graves with stone linings, graves with roof of tiles (cappuccina). All these survived into the middle ages, remembering the past peoples - some of whom were regarded as ancestors. In Agrigento, graves were cut into the rock next to the Temple of Concordia during the 5th-8th centuries - the temple was converted into a church in the 6th century.

The Temple of Concordia at Agrigento with rock-cut tombs in the foreground.
An aerial view of insulae at Agrigento showing the locations of burials within disused houses.

In the Quartiere Ellenistico-Romano, large free-standing stone-walled tombs were erected in the rooms of former houses. They often contained several generations of the same family. The memory of these grander multi-occupation tombs gradually faded, but even in the 12th century people were still buried in stone-lined graves and stone coffins, including the specially elaborate sarcophagi in red porphyry used for the remains of the great Norman and Swabian leaders, Roger II and Frederick II and their close relatives.

Inside the tombs the body of the deceased was laid out in one of two ways: on the back with the arms folded or down by the side (supine) and mostly (but not always) orientated with the feet to the east. These are typical of the practitioners of the Christian faith. The others were laid on the right side with the legs slightly, with the head to the south west, and the face looking south-east toward Mecca. These were the signs of members of a Muslim community.

Examples of stone-lined graves found within disused houses at Agrigento.

The bones that remained were studied in a number of different ways by a special team of scientists:

  • Osteology - Malin Holst, Francesco Galassi and Elena Varotto
    The size and character of the bones provided information about the age, sex and stature of the individual.
  • Morphometrics - Efi Nikita
    The shape of the skull gave an indication of which anthropological group the person belonged to.
  • Calculus - Giuseppina Mutri
    Bits of food stuck in the teeth showed what the person had been eating.
  • Radiocarbon dating - Derek Hamilton
    The relative quantity of the carbon 14 isotope indicated the length of time since the individual was buried, providing a comparative date.
  • Stable isotopes (C and N) - Michelle Alexander and Alice Ughi
    The relative quantities of carbon 13 and nitrogen 15 isotopes provide an indication of an individual's diet, especially meat and fish.
  • Stable isotopes (O and Sr) - Efi Nikita
    The isotope signatures of oxygen and strontium can help identify where a person lived or had come from during their lives, indicating their lifetime mobility.
  • Nuclear DNA - Aurore Monnereau, Camilla Speller and Nathan Wales
    The aDNA and nuclear shows how an individual descended through both the female line (mitochondrial) and male line (Y-chromosome and best matched modern populations).

For more information on the project's scientific approaches, see In the lab.

The data from 253 individuals across 26 cemeteries was put together by the team of archaeologists and scientists at York to paint a picture of the population and how it interacted and changed through time. The population in the Byzantine period proved not to be European, as might be expected from the main locations of the empire, but largely matched that the Berbers and Jews of North Africa. This might have come from earlier occupants of North Africa, the Phoenicians of Carthage who invaded Sicily and the workers in the olive trade who who exporting large quantities of oil in amphorae that continued to arrive until the 8th century AD, by which time they were certainly Christian.

9th/10th century amphorae recovered from Yenakapi harbour, Istanbul.
Image: U. Kocabaş, 2008

Their descendants continued to thrive in Sicily, practise as Christians and bury in the Byzantine manner all through the Muslim centuries that followed. It is likely that the majority of these Christian burials were in or around churches, where archaeologists rarely get the chance to dig. This may account for the fact that most of the burials we studied were found by chance and were of the Muslim faith.

Sicily's earliest Muslim burials were found near the harbour in Palermo [66], but later burials can be found at deserted Greek and Roman monumental areas. By the 13th century, Muslims shared their settlements - but not their cemeteries - at both Segesta and Monte Iato.

An aerial view of Segesta, showing the locations of Muslim and Christian cemeteries.
Image: Molinari et al., 19??
An aerial view showing the hilltop medieval and Archaic Greek settlements on Monte Iato.
Image: Nicole Mölk

The separate Muslim and Christian cemeteries at Segesta overlapped in time, but there is very little evidence that the two populations intermarried. aDNA showed that the Muslims had North African subsaharan and near eastern affiliations, but the Christians comprised a rare and new contingent of people from western Europe. The members of the two faiths seemingly kept themselves apart, although they had the same diet and enjoyed the same state of health. At Monte Iato the cemeteries were separate but here Muslims and Christians seem to have made common cause against the rule of the Swabians.

Burial in the Muslim manner continued long after the period when Muslims were in charge (9-11th century). The dates showed the Muslim population endured in numbers until the 13th century. It is recorded that Frederick the Great had large numbers deported and settled in Calabria in 1246 – this probably spelt the end of Muslim populations in Sicily.

A single late medieval cemetery at Corso dei Mille outside the walls of Palermo seems to have been Jewish. But it is likely that the Jewish population was long significant, especially in the towns, since they are recorded as exceptionally successful merchants.

The burials of Medieval Sicily offer an independent narrative concerning the people without history. Genetically they have strong affinities with the peoples of North Africa from before the arrival of Islamic forces. At that point they are joined by peoples from sub-Saharan Africa and the Near East. Only in the 13th century are they joined by people from Western Europe. The single example of this is from Segesta from the time of Frederick the Great. However most of the most of the people we examined, especially after AD 800 came from Muslim cemeteries. There were many Christians living in Medieval Sicily of course but their cemeteries were often associated with churchyards and difficult of access today. Those have been encountered right up to the 13th century continued a long tradition of burial in sone lined tombs. Muslim buried outside Palermo in the second and later generations seemed to have adopted abandoned Classical ruins as their location of choice; those at Segesta and Monte Iato particularly chosen the outer rim of the Greek theatre as the Muslims’ burial ground. Muslim burial rites and therefore Muslims remained an important demographic feature until the 13th century.

The picture we get both before and after the arrival of Islam is of an ethnically mixed southern and eastern Mediterranean society which were inhibited in both marriage and career opportunities by religion. However we only know the religion that was signalled at the time of death, and it is always possible for farmers, merchants and their families to manouvre under the political radar to obtain the best advantage in life.