New discoveries excavated on the acropolis of Selinunte, Sicily, reveal how the early inhabitants of ancient Selinus worshipped a female cult as far back as 630 BCE.

photo of an archelogical site
Iron spearheads, offerings to the female goddess Demeter, excavated at the IFA's archeological site on the on the acropolis of Selinunte.

Archeologists from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts recently made significant new discoveries on the acropolis of Selinunte (Western Sicily), revealing not only how the early inhabitants of ancient Selinus worshipped a female cult but also shedding light on the site’s first generation of Greek settlement dating back as early as 630 BCE.

Over the course of the summer, the interdisciplinary team of scientists and IFA students opened a trench in the main chamber of Temple R, believed to be a temple dedicated to Greek goddess Demeter. The uppermost layer found in the trench consisted of a fill made in ca. 300 BCE, which was rich in materials related to the use of the sanctuary in the Archaic and Classical periods, including architectural terracottas, painted vessels, and the forearm of a marble kouros. This fill completely sealed the earlier phases of use of Temple R, including votive donations that were placed in the foundations immediately before laying the floors associated with the various phases of use of the building, providing some of the best evidence to date of offertory practices employed in the construction of Greek temples.

“The foundation deposit that we have identified in Temple R is one of the best preserved of its kind in the ancient Greek world,” said Clemente Marconi, James R. McCredie Professor in the History of Greek Art and Archaeology and director of the IFA Excavations at Selinunte. “Our most sensational discovery came from underneath the foundations of Temple R, where we unearthed a layer associated with the first generation of life of Selinus that has no parallel in the Greek West – in particular three iron spearheads planted blade first into the ground, two of which crossed. These were clearly offerings to the warrior deity of the future Temple R, but also served as a clear symbol of appropriation of the new land by the first generation of colonists.”

The site of Selinunte, where the Institute’s archeologists have been working since 2006, is unique in that it was inhabited between 630 and 250 BCE and then abandoned and never fully reoccupied. As a result, the ancient city is preserved in its entirety, with its fortifications, temples, houses, and necropoleis, which have been only partly excavated. Selinus itself is notable for its large-scale building program carried out between 590 and 420 BCE, which was particularly focused on monumental sacred architecture. Besides being monuments of religious piety, the temples of Selinus were emblems of the wealth and power on the frontier of Greek settlement in the West.

This new foundation was presumably meant to take advantage of the arable land still available in Western Sicily and of the excellent position of Selinus as a staging point for navigation towards both Spain and Carthage,” said Marconi. “The objects we’ve unearthed provide valuable insight into the nature and method of worship of the goddesses. We also uncovered a large number of animal bones, related to blood sacrifice, which aid us in reconstructing not only local sacrificial practice but also provides insight into the ecosystem of this part of Sicily and its development over the centuries.”

Selinunte is one of four ongoing archeological sites sponsored by the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, which also include Abydos in Egypt, Samothrace in Greece, and Aphrodisias in Turkey. The Selinunte excavations are supported by the Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation, the 1984 Foundation, the Kress Foundation, the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation and private individuals. For more information on archeological programs at the Institute of Fine Arts, visit our website.

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