Secrets of Sicily

Each summer, a classics professor leads a crew of volunteers, including UT students, on a quest to uncover the past on a sunny Mediterranean island.

The little town of Aidone sits on a hillside in central Sicily, about 35 miles from the Ionian Sea. Its old buildings clamber up the rocky incline like a tangle of terra-cotta vines. The Italians living there today are the successors to a stunning array of cultures that have set up shop on the island off Italy’s southwestern coast. Arabs, Normans, Romans, and Greeks all set their sandals in this soil. And now, so do a few lucky Longhorns.

Alex Walthall is one of them. A professor in the Department of Classics, he leads the Contrada Agnese Project (CAP), focusing on a mile-and-a-quarter ridge near Aidone that once housed an ancient Greek city called Morgantina. Americans have been excavating the site for archeological valuables since 1955, but Walthall revived work at the site in 2013 with an aim to use new research methods and technology—think drones and computer mapping—alongside the traditional brushes and trowels. Each year, archeology undergrad and graduate students from around the U.S., including UT students, volunteer to spend a summer at the site, working in the Mediterranean heat, soaking in Sicilian culture, and boosting their field experience.

“It’s difficult to overstate the academic value of the site,” Walthall says, “either as a classroom where students get hands-on education, or for wider scholarly audiences.” Not only have excavations at the site helped pin down when the common Roman coin known as the denarius (worth—and please do not laugh—10 asses) was introduced, given greater clarity to ethnicity and culture in the ancient world, and contributed to court cases regarding the return of artifacts, it also provides a vast amount of data for volunteers hoping to do their own research.

Since coming to UT, Walthall has recruited 17 Longhorns to work the site, and will bring seven more this summer.

Even after 60 years of excavation, the site is still revealing the long-buried secrets of history, thanks to the location’s tumultuous past and immense size. “Morgantina is an entire ancient city,” Walthall says, “so we have this amazing window into ancient urban life.” Each morning, volunteers, split into groups called trench teams, fan out over the site alongside trench supervisors, and begin digging, measuring rock layers, and logging all their finds on iPads. Drones buzz overhead, mapping the landscape, and volunteers kneel in the red dirt. Recently, they have found new evidence of an unexpected ancient delicacy: sea urchins. “Which is amazing, considering how far from the coast the site is,” Walthall notes. “Even today it’s considered strange to eat seafood in Aidone.”

This isn’t the first time a UT professor has unearthed an ancient city. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, professor Joe Carter spent two decades excavating a well-preserved site in Crimea called Chersonesos. His work uncovering the ancient colonial Greek city led to a World Heritage Site designation from the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2013, the same year the CAP project began 900 miles away in Sicily. CAP has also worked with the geography department’s Soils Lab, and they expect to build on their connections around UT in coming years.

Walthall first learned about the Morgantina site while attending the University of Virginia as an undergrad. At the end of a course called “The Greek City,” his professor mentioned he’d be working at Morgantina that summer. “I applied, went to Sicily, and never looked back,” Walthall says. When he came to UT in 2014, he brought his exploration of Bronze Age and early Roman excavations to the site with him, and started recruiting students like Regan Talley.

The bounty of historical evidence means there’s no end in sight for the project. After all this time, the site is only 10–15 percent revealed. Walthall turned 21 in Aidone, and he’ll turn 35 there this year. For students who return year after year, it’s become a kind of second home.

“Sicily is landscape and history and culture,” Walthall says. “I have grown up in the town, and think of the Aidonese as a large, second family.” Many of the volunteers stay with locals, meaning they’re often inundated with pastas and pastries courtesy of friendly Sicilians who have housed Americans for decades. “It’s not an uncommon thing for students to return home after a workday,” he says, “and find a fresh plate of cookies or an enormous bundle of local oranges, figs, or plums awaiting their arrival.”


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