As reported by London’s Independent newspaper, archaeologists unearthing the lost ancient Greek city of Selinunte on Sicily’s southwest coast have found a city frozen in time, little different from the day 2,500 years ago when it was suddenly attacked and its residents massacred and enslaved.

The allure of Sicily’s beauty is nothing new. Around 650 B.C. the Mediterranean island seduced a band of colonists from the port of Megara in ancient Greece who settled near the mouth of a small river on the southwest coast. The colony—named for the wild celery (“selinon” in Greek) that grew in the surrounding hills overlooking the sea—grew into a prosperous trading port. Ships from across the ancient world sailed into its harbor. Residents of the city of 30,000 at the far western edge of ancient Greece purchased goods from Egypt, Turkey and France with coins imprinted with images of celery leaves. With its commercial wealth, the city erected mighty temples to a pantheon of Greek deities.

Ancient plan of Selinunte.
Ancient plan of Selinunte.

Approximately 2,500 years ago, however, the glory days of the city the Greeks called Selinus came to an abrupt end. In 409 B.C., an estimated force of 100,000 troops from Carthage traveled across the sea from modern-day Tunisia and laid siege to the city. After Selinunte held out for 10 days, the Carthaginian invaders breached the city’s walls and massacred approximately 16,000 residents and soldiers who tried to defend the city. Another 5,000 residents, mostly women and children, were taken as slaves. The once-thriving city became a ghost town after the attack. Carthage’s attempts to repopulate Selinunte never took hold, and it finally razed the city around 250 B.C. during the First Punic War.

What the Carthaginians started, nature finished. Earthquakes caused the enormous Greek temples to crumble to the ground, and wind-blown sand and dirt eventually entombed 85 percent of the ruins of Selinunte.

More than 2,000 years later, archaeologists unearthing Selinunte have found not just a well-preserved relic from ancient Greece, but a city frozen in time. Just as excavations at Pompeii have revealed snapshots of the precise moment in A.D. 79 when Mount Vesuvius buried the city in hot ash before many could escape, archaeologists have found evidences of lives suddenly interrupted when the Carthaginians stormed the city.

Dig site at Selinunte. (Credit: University of Bonn)
Dig site at Selinunte. (Credit: University of Bonn)

According to the Independent, archaeologists have discovered the half-eaten remains of food presumably left behind by terrified residents fleeing for their lives. Dozens of unfired pots and tiles waiting to be placed into kilns that were abandoned by workers also speak to the city’s precipitous demise.

“Selinunte is the only classical Greek city where the entire metropolis is still preserved, mainly buried under sand and earth. It therefore gives us a unique opportunity to discover how an ancient Greek city functioned,” Professor Martin Bentz of the University of Bonn, who is directing the current excavation at the 250-acre site, told the Independent.

After 15 years of work at Europe’s largest archaeological site, researchers have been able to identify all of the city’s 2,500 houses. As the Independent reports, archaeologists working at Selinunte have for the first time been able to develop a comprehensive plan of an entire ancient Greek city and accurately estimate its population.

Aerial view of the archaeological site at Selinunte.  (Credit: Folco Quilici/Folco Quilici © Fratelli Alinari/Alinari Archives/Alinari via Getty Images)
Aerial view of the archaeological site at Selinunte. (Credit: Folco Quilici/Folco Quilici © Fratelli Alinari/Alinari Archives/Alinari via Getty Images)

The well-preserved ruins have revealed that the ancient Greeks mimicked modern-day city planners in organizing their settlements. In Selinunte, they developed a street grid system and dedicated certain neighborhoods as industrial zones. Archaeologists have discovered a specific pottery-manufacturing district on the city’s outskirts. According to the Independent, Selinunte’s potters made approximately 300,000 ceramic artifacts a year in a sector that stretched more than a quarter mile along one of the city’s outer walls. The segregation of the pottery district to the periphery of the settlement prevented the smells, noise and smoke from the manufacturing process from assaulting the senses of residents and minimized the possible threats from accidental fires.

Archaeologists have found workshops with pottery-making equipment and even pigments for painting the pots. Among the 80 kilns uncovered are dozens of large circular ones for making roof tiles and ceramic containers to transport food such as wheat and olive oil. One kiln 17 feet in diameter is the biggest ever uncovered in an ancient Greek city. Smaller rectangular kilns baked food storage containers and even coffins, while others were used to create tableware and small terracotta statues of gods and goddesses. According to the Independent, archaeologists have even found a chapel used by the potters to pray to the deities, including the working-class goddess Athena Ergane.

The newspaper reports that archaeologists next want to examine Selinunte’s man-made harbor. They hope to use geophysical survey techniques to detect the foundations of warehouses that once encircled the thriving port more than 2,500 years ago.