Selinunte: Site of ancient massacre yields the secrets of a lost Greek city

Around 15% of the 250 acre city has, to this day, survived above ground

One of the ancient world’s greatest tragedies, frozen in time for almost 2500 years, is at last yielding up its long-lost secrets.

Archaeologists are gradually unearthing an ancient Greek city – Selinunte in Sicily – whose inhabitants were slaughtered or enslaved by North African invaders in the late 5th century BC.

Like an ancient Greek Pompeii, the whole city remained at least partially intact, despite the tragic loss of most of its inhabitants.


At Pompeii all the houses and other buildings were interred almost instantaneously under volcanic ash – but at Selinunte they were buried more gradually by hundreds of thousands  of tons of earth and windblown sand.

Archaeological excavations are now revealing how the exact moment that Selinunte ceased to exist as a major living city was preserved in graphic detail.


Buried under a collapsed roof in a building burnt by the invaders, the archaeologists have even found the half-eaten remains of meals abandoned by the townsfolk as catastrophe engulfed them. Scientists are now analysing visible food residues inside half a dozen bowls left around a hearth in that building.

What’s more, the archaeologists have also found dozens of unfired ceramic products – pots and tiles – abandoned by terrified local workers before they had had a chance to put them in their kilns.

Over the past 15 years, using geophysical techniques and sometimes excavation, the archaeological investigation has so far identified all 2500 of the long-abandoned city’s houses, all its streets, its harbour  and its once-flourishing industrial zone. It’s the first time that archaeologists have been able to produce a detailed comprehensive plan of what a classical Greek city looked like. Previously, archaeologists had only been able to gain a relatively fragmentary appreciation of how such cities looked and functioned.

But the new knowledge from Selinunte has begun to transform scholars’ understanding of some of the key demographic and economic realities of the ancient world as a whole.

Because, prior to the Selinunte investigation, nobody had ever been able to count the exact number of houses in a classical Greek city, scholars had in the  past not been able to confidently determine the populations of such cities.

Selinunte is also the first classical Greek city where archaeologists have succeeded in gaining a complete understanding of an ancient industrial zone, thus allowing them to more fully analyse the complex relationship between a city’s population and its economy.




The archaeology of Selinunte is unique, mainly because the entire city simply ceased  to exist as a major population centre in less than a day – as Carthaginian troops (from what is now modern Tunisia) punctured the defences and butchered 16,000 of the Greek inhabitants and soldiers who had been trying to defend it.

Some 5,000 more men were taken as slaves, as were many thousands of women and children.

Over the past two years, as well as excavating the city’s industrial zone, the archaeologists have started investigating its important ancient man-made harbour. Plans are now being made to try to use geophysical survey techniques to find the foundations of the great warehouses which would once have stood around it. Evidence from shops and houses near the city’s market place suggests that the harbour attracted ships and goods from all over the classical world. In some of the city’s temples and richer houses, archaeologists have found imported pottery, glass and bronzes from as far away as Egypt, Turkey, southern France and northern Italy.

— Eleni


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