Public Archaeology and Prehistory in Sicily

By Giannitrapani, Enrico | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Public Archaeology and Prehistory in Sicily


Giannitrapani, Enrico, Antiquity


Archaeology in Sicily is definitely important, since almost 40% of the Italian cultural heritage is Sicilian, in a country which is one of the richest nations of the world. The presence of ancient towns undoubtedly plays an important economic role through tourism. The towns are often well preserved and extensively explored (e.g. Selinunte, Camarina, Morgantina), or have been inhabited for more than two-and-a-half millennia after their foundation by Greek colonists (e.g. Syracuse and Agrigento). If we look at the most recent advertising campaign promoted in Italy and abroad by the regional Assessorato al Turismo, Sicilian archaeology is always well represented with in, ages of temples, theatres and other ancient monuments.

It is true, however, that this same richness of resource is also a problem for the region, in terms of conservation, preservation and public use of these monuments. If one of the main problems in Italy is the difficult relationship between the public and the authorities, caused by the slowness of bureaucracy, the lack of economic and human resources and the inefficiency of many of the public structures, all this is even more evident in Sicily. The autonomy enjoyed by the region for the last 50 years has not been a stimulus for development, but a main cause of bad administration. Archaeology in Sicily, an important element of the social and cultural constitution of its public life, has clearly suffered.

Academic institutions have not contributed to the development of an appropriate relationship between the public and the rich cultural wealth of Sicily. This is not the place to discuss the many problems of Italian academia (a good overview of this issue was presented at TAG 1997, held at Bournemouth (UK)). It is enough to say that the important current discussion in Britain and other European countries of the role of public archaeology and its relationship with the everyday life of people is completely missing from the academic agenda in Sicily. Paradoxically, a growing interest in issues such as who owns the past, how relevant are past histories for the constitution of the present, how the use and exploitation of such an important and vast cultural heritage can contribute, for example, to solving the problem of unemployment comes from outside academic circles, and is to be found among local authorities, associations and, more interestingly, the so-called 'third sector' (e.g. co-operatives, non-commercial companies and charities).

A great part of the economic and cultural resources, especially in the last decades, have been invested in Classical archaeology, leaving aside other periods of Sicilian history, such as prehistory or the Middle Ages. It is true that the greatest part of the visible cultural heritage is Greek and Roman. Furthermore, the public is naturally attracted by the possibility of a visit to the Valle dei Templi of Agrigento, or to the Roman villa of Piazza Armerina with its famous mosaics. The general view held by the thousands of Italian and foreign tourists that visit Sicily every year, and of many Sicilians as well, is that Sicilian history starts with the arrival of Greek colonists in the first half of the 1st millennium BC, with a great part of Sicilian history obscured and hidden from the public. It is in these sites that a great part of public money has been spent, and it is on the classical past of Sicily that there is the greatest academic effort, leaving very little for research on what happened before and after the Greek and Roman periods. For example, there are very few prehistoric archaeologists working in the Sicilian Soprintendenze, and even fewer specializing in medieval archaeology. Furthermore, in the three universities of the region, Palermo, Catania and Messina, there is no chair of Prehistory or of Medieval Archaeology, with only a secondary course on Sicilian Paletnologia held at the newly established faculty of Conservazione dei Beni Culturali of Agrigento. …

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