B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


The inaugural B.C. Archaeology tour of Malta and Sicily took place from the 22nd March to the 12th April 2014. The tour was well subscribed and included the following participants: Rosemary Brooker, Gayle Burr, Robert and Mara de Jongh, Lynn Ellis, Jennifer Finlay, Helen Fletcher, Karen Hoare, Rachel Hole, Angela la Loggia, Veronica McKervey, Deborah Russell and John and Sybil Wong. The tour was led by the author Dr Michael Birrell. On Malta we joined by Liz Asquilina and on Sicily by Julian Holland.

I left Australia a week early to get over jetlag and to have a look at a few things in Rome. I stayed in the Hotel Miami which is very comfortable and conveniently located on Via National, a short walk from the Forum. Some of the group had also arrived early including Mara and Robert de Jongh and later Helen Fletcher. On my first morning I walked down to the Forum and then round the edge of the ruins, enjoying the view across to the Palatine Hill. It was a wonderful clear spring morning and the Forum was looking very green. I then walked down to the Arch of Janus and saw the monuments along the edge of the Tiber. I enjoyed a walk along the river stopping to have a look at the ruins of the Testaccio Hill (the accumulated mound of broken amphora storage vases) and the Porticus Aemila, a monumental complex where goods were off-located after being brought up the Tiber from Ostia and Portus. I then walked along the walls of Rome which run up from the Tiber, stopping to see the Pyramid of Cestius and the Ostia gate of Rome. I then walked up to the Circus Maximus which is under excavation – they have uncovered quite a bit more of the substructure since my last visit to Rome.

The Forum of Rome
The Temple of Portus near the Tiber

The following day, on the morning of the 17th March, I walked across town to the Basilica of St John Lateran. There I saw the wonderful antique doors of the basilica and the stunning monument that rises up over the crypt. Outside I saw the impressive obelisk of Tuthmosis III in the square. I then had a look at the baptistery of the basilica which was built by Constantine the Great in the 4th Century. This is a wonderful rotunda with the baptismal font in the centre of the room. I then walked down to the remarkably well preserved Late Roman Gate which preserves its upper levels of fortifications which were designed to keep out the Goths. I walked along this well preserved section of the walls until I got to the Amfiteatro Castrense. This is a remarkably well preserved arena which dates to the Severan Period (early 3rd Century) within a military camp. The arena was later incorporated into the walls of the city – today it is part of the gardens of the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. I went in to see this very early basilica which contains a number of relics. I continued my walk around the walls of Rome to see the aqueducts which leave the city near the Porta Maggiore gate built by the Emperor Claudius.

Walking the southern walls of Rome
Piazza Navona

The following day I walked down to the Piazza Navona. This wonderful space is built on the ruins of the Stadium of Domitian, and today is dominated by the famous Fountain of Bernini. A stunning Roman obelisk rises up from the monument surrounded by personifications of the 4 main rivers of the world. Nearby it is possible to see the excavated portions of Domitian’s Stadium. I went from here to the wonderful Palazzo Altemps Museum which has been stunningly restored. It houses an impressive collection of Roman art with the most remarkable piece being the sculpture of the barbarian Gaul committing suicide. I also visit the Barracco Museum, a Renaissance palace with an interesting collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman artefacts. I also saw the nearby Palazzo Braschi with a fascinating collection of Renaissance paintings and drawings of Rome.

Church of St John Lateran
Santa Maria del Angli

On the 19th March I joined Mara and Robert for a visit to the Palazzo Massimo Museum. This is my favourite museum in Rome and contains an unparalleled collection of sculpture, frescoes and mosaics. The Imperial period house frescoes from around Rome are wonderful, and the Hellenistic bronze sculpture of the exhausted boxer is remarkable. From here I went for a walk to the Baths of Diocletian where I saw the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, re-worked by Michelangelo from the frigidarium of the baths. I then explored the main collection of sculpture in the Muse delle Terme. Inside the apodyterium was a temporary exhibition of sculpture by Rodin which I found cold and unappealing. The following day Mara, Robert and I went by public transport to the ruins of Hadrian's palace at Tivoli. It was a stunning beautiful spring day which made for a very pleasant stroll around the ruins. The extensive collection of buildings includes bath complexes, library, residential quarters and the stunning Canopus pool with its dining hall.

Hadrian's villa at Tivoli
The Pantheon in Rome

The next day I went to the Crypta Balbus Museum adjacent to the Republican Temples in the Largo Argentina. This wonderful Museum has been expanded since my previous visit. The Museum concentrates on Rome after the Roman Empire, looking at what happened to the city after the collapse of Empire. The displays are incredibly detailed and there is an astonishing array of artefacts and physical remains to look at. Afterwards I went for an obligatory look at the Pantheon which as usual was crowded with tourists, but never fails to impress. Not far away there was a good exhibition of pre-Raphaelite work with an emphasis on the romantic works of one of my favourite artists, Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Working in the 19th Century artist he recreated scenes of ancient life in rich architectural settings.

The Republican Temples in Largo Argentaria
The walls of Valletta

On the 22nd March I took myself off to the Monastery of the Cappuchin Monks located near the Triton Fountain. The Museum of the Cappuchini was full of interest with artefacts belonging to famous monks. But the drawcard, of course, was the subterranean crypts of the capuchins which contain the remarkable artworks made from the skeletal components of the monks. It is not every day that one sees a lightshade made of human scapulas! From here I walked to the nearby Spanish Steps and then went for a long walk along the northern walls of Rome almost as far as Praetorian Camp. The walls of Rome are impressive, built by 3rd Century Emperor Aurelian to keep the barbarian hordes out of the city.

Ghar Dhalam cave
Marsaxlokk Harbour

The following day, the 23rd March, we made our way to the airport where we met up with the rest of the group for the onward flight to Malta. We arrived in the middle of the day and were transferred to our hotel in the suburb of Sliema. A short walk in the afternoon took us down to the harbour of Marsamxett where we had a look across to the fabulous 16th Century walls of the fortified city of Valletta.

Hagar Qim Neolithic Temple
Valletta harbour

The next morning we headed by bus to the south of Malta to visit the prehistoric cave of Ghar Dalam. This natural formation preserves a rich heritage of dwarf elephants and rhinoceroses from Palaeolithic times. The small museum contains an interesting array of artefacts found at the site. We then drove down to nearby Marsaxlokk Harbour to have a coffee and walk along the bay. It was a very clear morning and the harbour was full of fishing boats, richly decorated - each was protected by a magic eye, a wonderful remnant of the Phoenician heritage of the island. We then headed to Hagar Qim and Mnadjara two impressive megalithic temples of the 4th Millennium BC. These monumental structures, made with colossal worked slabs of limestone, are a testament to the skills of the ancient architects who fashioned them without metal tools. In the afternoon, we went for a cruise around Valletta Harbour while we snacked on fresh cheese and pea pastizzi. The water was rough for our departure into the open ocean but the views of Grand Harbour with its numerous forts and battlements were stunning. In the evening we went to a local restaurant and many of us tried the local delicacy of rabbit in tomato sauce.

Mdina - fortified city
Roman mosaics

On the 25th March we headed to the centre of Malta to visit the city of Mdina. This was the ancient capital before the arrival of the Knights of St John in the 16th Century. The fortified old city is very impressive from a distance with its massive battlements. We saw the Museum of Roman Antiquities which is built over the ruins of an ancient Roman villa, preserving the mosaics floors in-situ. The collection of artefacts comes from a variety of sites across the island and includes glass, pottery and statues.

Gozo Island
Tarxien Temples

We had a much needed coffee and sweets in the main square before descending into the ancient Roman catacombs. Hundreds of graves and impressive carved rock features make this an atmospheric place. We went for a walk into the old city across the dry moat. The views form the fortifications are stunning - we had lunch in a restaurant overlooking much of the island. In the afternoon we went to see Bronze Age cart ruts, so intricate that the site is called 'Clapham Junction'. We stopped to see some glass blowing (Mdina is known for this product) and also had a look at the enormous dome of the Mostar Church, famous for being hit by a bomb during WWII which did not explode.

The following morning we headed by bus through scenic countryside to the western side of the island to catch the ferry to the nearby island of Gozo. On the way we passed the small island of Comino which is dominated by a 17th Century fortress. Our first stop was the ancient site of Ggantija, a Neolithic Temple from the 4th Millennium BC. The newly built museum at the site has an excellent display of artefacts. The temple with its twin shrines is impressive in scale. From here we went to Calypso's Cave, supposed venue from the Odyssey. From here we went to the southern coast of Gozo to see the wonderful rock formations. In Victoria, the main fortress on the island we had some lunch and saw the old quarter.

Basilica in Victoria
Fort St Angelo

On the 27th March we drove down to the end of Senglea Peninsula for a stunning view over Grand Harbour of Valletta. The fortifications built to guard against the Ottomans are remarkable for their scale. The group then split into two groups so we could see the impressive Neolithic temples at Tarxien and the underground burial chambers known as the Hypogeum. The burial chambers are finely carved and descend through numerous galleries. Afterwards we drove into Valletta’s walled city stopping at the Upper Baraka Gardens to see the magnificent view across the harbour towards Fort St Angelo. The military put on a show and fired cannons out towards the bay. We had a walk through the historic quarter. After lunch in a wonderful 19th Century café we visited the palace of the Knights of St John where we saw the arsenal with its impressive collection of weapons from the 16th Century onwards. We also saw the Co-Cathedral of St John, a baroque extravagance with every surface richly carved and gilded. Two Caravaggio paintings are on display in the Oratory including a 'Beheading of St John'.

The Co-Cathedral of St John in Valletta
The palace of the Knights of St John

The following morning we went back to Valletta to explore the Palace of the Knights again. We saw the stunning tapestries and the main state rooms of the Knights. In the National Archaeological Museum we saw the fascinating collection of artefacts, including objects of the Neolithic, Phoenician and Roman eras. We had a pleasant lunch in the town centre before heading to the airport for our flight to Catania on Sicily - we were all sad to say farewell to Liz Asquilina who had been such a wonderful local guide on Malta. On arrival in Sicily a short bus ride on the motorway took us from Catania to Syracuse, our base for 3 nights. On the 29th March we visited Ortygia Island, the ancient heart of Syracuse. We walked across the bridge onto the island and stopped to see the ruins of the 6th Century BC ancient Greek temple to Apollo. We then walked to the duomo, the Cathedral of Syracuse. This is actually the remains of a Greek temple of the 5th Century BC. The images of St Lucy are somewhat surreal – she has a dagger protruding from her neck and she holds two eyes in a bowl (this is her 'eye-con'!). We walked to the beautiful Spring of Arethusa and had some lunch overlooking the grand harbour of Syracuse.

The amphitheatre of Syracuse
The duomo of Syracuse at night

In the afternoon we went to the archaeological park where we saw the enormous Altar of King Hieron II, built for massive sacrifices to Zeus, the underground galleries of the quarry, the enormous Hellenistic theatre and the impressive roman amphitheatre. In the evening we came back to Ortygia Island to enjoy the atmosphere of this beautiful Renaissance square.

Morgantina Hellenistic ruins
The Roman villa at Piazza Armernina

The following day was free time. Ortygia Island has much to offer for anyone just wandering the atmospheric side streets, I went to the Museum of Archimedes which has replicas of the various machines designed by this famous 3rd Century BC scientist, together with explanations of his natural observations. Others went to Palazzo Bellomo, an impressive villa with numerous examples of Renaissance art. I caught up with some of the group and had lunch near the Cathedral. We saw the ruins of the 6th Century Ionic Temple, today buried under an office complex.

On the 31st May we packed our bags and headed north along the motorway. Mt Etna was erupting in the near distance and we could see plumes of smoke rising from the summit. We headed inland into the mountains to the small village of Aidone. After a much needed coffee we visited the local Museum with a remarkable collection of artefacts from the nearby Hellenistic site of Morgantina. Most impressive were the acrolith statues of Demeter and Persephone and the silver treasure hoard repatriated from the US. We had a sandwich in the main square of Aidone and then headed to Morgantina itself. The ruins are spread over a wide area of a mountain ridge with stunning views in all directions. The Hellenistic houses preserve a number of mosaics in situ.

Piazza Armerina mosaic
The hill town of Enna

We then headed south to the remarkable Piazza Armerina Roman villa. This enormous complex dates from the early 4th Century AD and preserves some of the most remarkable mosaics in the world. These are spread over most rooms and used an estimated 200 million tesserae tiles. The subjects are diverse with the wild animal hunt being perhaps the most memorable. We checked into our very comfortable hotel (the Frederick II Hotel) - no one wanted to leave in the morning!

The group at the Temple of Concord at Agrigento
The Temple of Concord, Icarus and friends

On the 1st April we explored the hill town of Enna. We went to see the site of the Temple of Demeter with expansive views over the island. In the far distance Mt Etna was still erupting with great clouds of smoke ascending from its snow-capped cone. We then explored the Castle of the Lombards, an impressive medieval royal castle enlarged over many years. We went for a walk through the old quarter of the city where we saw the Cathedral and bought a sandwich at the local deli for just 1.20 euro each. In the afternoon we drove down to the coast to Agrigento. Before heading to the hotel we drove around the edge of the site of Agrigento to get a view of the stunning Greek temples perched on the edge of the escarpment. The Temple of Concordia is remarkably well preserved, and looks beautiful amongst the spring flowers. We checked into the Hotel Colle Verde - the wonderful terrace looks down across the archaeological site and it was very nice to get a drink and enjoy the view. That evening we had a pleasant pasta meal - Rachel enjoyed her squid ink spaghetti and was left with a big black smile!

The Temple of Castor and Pollux
Lunch in Agrigento

The 2nd of April was dedicated to exploring the many wonders of Agrigento (ancient Akragas). We entered the site near the Temple of Hera which is perched on the cliff edge with sweeping views down to the sea. This and other temples at the site were erected mainly in the 5th Century BC when the Greek city was at its peak of wealth and prosperity. We walked along the edge of the escarpment to the splendid Temple of Concord. This is remarkably well preserved as it was converted into a church in mediaeval times. There is an enormous modern sculpture of Icarus who is said to have fallen to earth at this place when the wax holding his wings together melted. We saw the catacombs, the Temple of Heracles and after a much needed coffee we went to see the ruins of the Temple of Zeus once decorated with enormous standing statues of the titans. The nearby Temple of Castor and Pollux has wonderful views over the excavations.

The Temple of Hera Selinunte
The harbour at Marinela

We went up to the new town to have some pasta and then went to the Archaeological Museum with its impressive collection of Greek sculpture and pottery. In the afternoon there was some free time to relax and enjoy the view across the site from the hotel terrace. The following morning we checked out of the hotel and saw the well preserved Roman houses at Agrigento - they have a number of mosaics preserved in situ. Robert offered to drive the bus, and Gayle and Jennifer offered to navigate - somehow we still got to the site of Selinunte (ancient Selinus). We drove over enormous mafia built viaducts which rise to great heights over river valleys. When we got to the site we saw the massive temples on the eastern edge of Selinunte. Most impressive is the Temple of Hera, a Classical era shrine built over the ruins of an Archaic structure. Two nearby ruined temples were also explored, the massive columns of the Temple of Zeus lying in ordered piles where an earthquake toppled the structure - it would be so worthwhile putting the entire temple back together again as most of it lies exactly where it fell. The spring flowers were out in profusion providing a stunning natural setting to the ruins.

Windmills at Motya
Punic ruins at Motya

We then drove up to the main city where we saw 4 smaller temples and walked the ancient city streets to see the well-preserved Punic houses and the enormous fortifications on the north side of Selinus. This included a moat and very well preserved city walls. Some of us walked over to the isolated Sanctuary of Demeter which is perched on the opposite side of a stream. We had a good lunch down by the harbour of Marinella –a great antipasti selection. The Mediterranean Sea was very rough and the nearby harbour provided a still anchorage for the local fishing boats. We drove across the island to the port town of Trapani which would be our base for two nights.

The misty streets of Erice hill town
The theatre at Segesta

The following morning, the 4th April, we headed south along the coast to Motya, an island in a shallow bay which was once the location of an impressive walled Phoenician city. We saw the numerous windmills along the shore which are used to move water in the vast salt pans along the coast. We took a ferry over to Motya Island and saw the site Museum with its enigmatic 'Statue of Charioteer' and numerous Punic grave stones and pottery. We then walked around the excavated areas on the island which include a tophet, a cemetery for sacrificed children. The northern walls of the ancient city are very well preserved, but they could not save the settlement from being sacked by the Greek tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse in the early 4th Century BC. In the afternoon we drove to Marsala where we tried some marsala, had some lunch and visited the site museum of the ancient Lilybaeum. This preserves the wrecks of an ancient Punic ship from the time of the 1st Punic War (3rd Century BC) and the cargo of a number of other wrecks. We wandered the ruins of Lilybaeum which include a number of Roman houses with mosaics, paved streets and a bath house.

The Temple at Segesta
The Norman Palace in Palermo

The following morning was wet and misty, our only inclement day on the tour. We drove from Trapani to the hill town of Erice which was shrouded in mist. The Norman Castle at the end of the hill was wreathed in mist and the attendant had clearly decided to go back to bed since the doors were firmly closed. We found our way to a café where we enjoyed a snack and a coffee. The duomo (cathedral) of Erice was a retreat from the rain. We then drove eastwards until we got to the site of Segesta, an ancient town with some wonderful Greek monuments. We had some lunch in the café and when we ventured out the rain had ended and the sun was coming out. The 5th Century BC Temple of Athena is located in an impressive landscape with a deep gorge behind the monument. We then took the small site bus up to the acropolis of Segesta to see the theatre, built into the side of the hill and with stunning views over the agricultural fields towards the sea. We continued on our way arriving into Palermo in the afternoon and checking into our hotel (the Mercure) which would be our base for 3 nights.

The royal apartments in the Norman palace of Palermo
The Palatine Chapel in Palermo

On the 6th April we explored some of the wonderful Norman buildings in Palermo. The Normans invaded the island in the mid 11th Century and stayed for 2 centuries, building a multicultural society with diverse Italian, Byzantine and Islamic elements. We saw the Cathedral of Palermo with its royal tombs, the most spectacular being that of Frederick II. We then walked to the Norman Palace, a keep which was built around the time of the Tower of London. The palace complex today incorporates the Parliament of Sicily. We saw the royal suite, with their stunning gold mosaics, and then explored the opulent Palatine Chapel, the private shrine begun by King Roger II in 1132. The combination of Byzantine mosaics and Islamic woodwork and painting provides an overwhelming sense of luxury. We then went to see the catacombs of the Cappuchins. This rock cut crypt, carved out of the native limestone, naturally mummifies the dead. The bodies of the monks, still dressed in their clothes, are hung in galleries.

Zisa palace
The Monreale monastery cloister

The next day we visited the Norman palace of Zisa, today surrounded by cheap housing but originally located in a hunting estate outside the walls of Palermo. Zisa was a fortress used by William I as a retreat from court. It contains a number of Islamic elements and is today used to house superb examples of Islamic craftsmanship in metal, pottery, wood and glass. From Zisa we drove up into the hills behind Palermo to Monreale where Norman King William II established his splendid Cathedral in 1174. One of the greatest buildings of the age, it contains more than 6000 square metres of gold mosaics with scenes of the Old and New Testaments. In the apse there is a rare representation of St Thomas Becket created by those who had met him. Some of our more energetic tour members made their way up the stairs onto the roof of the Cathedral for a view over Palermo.

Monreale basilica
The ruins of the Monastery of St Giovanni

The Benedictine Monastery associated with the Cathedral has a splendid cloister, the columns decorated with Islamic style inlays while the capitals are fashioned with a riot of Romanesque style carvings showing a wide variety of subjects. We had some lunch in the main square and then headed back down to Palermo. We stopped to see the picturesque ruins of the 12th Century Monastery of San Giovanni Eremiti. Our final stop for the day was to visit the Norman Church of San Cataldo, and nearby the Martorana Church which contains stunning gold mosaics including one representing Christ crowning King Roger II.

Exploring Solunto
Lunch at Himera

On the 8th April we left Palermo and headed along the coast. Our first stop was the ancient site of Solunto which is located on a dramatic peninsula. The well preserved Roman houses rise in terraces along the edge of the headland and have surprising good preservation of their mosaic floors and painted fresco walls. The most interesting of the mosaics had the representation of an armillary sphere, a rendering of the solar system. The local Museum has an excellent collection of artefacts from the site. We then drove inland, stopping to see the 5th Century classical temple of Athena at Himera. The local site museum has an enormous collection of finds from the area with a highlight being a solid gold offering bowl weighing about 1 kg. We had an excellent lunch in the local café before heading off through the centre of the island. The road system, with its raised viaducts, meant that we could travel at an almost constant pace. We headed for Catania where we checked into our final hotel.

The summit of Mt Etna
Castello Ursino in Catania

The next day we ascended Mt Etna. The mountain rises up dramatically behind Catania and was still covered in snow during our visit. We headed up to the chairlift but this was out of action and we took special snow buses up to the summit. Near the crater we could see the fumaroles belching out sulphurous fumes, and just the week before there had been a flow of lava down the side of the mountain. The scenery was dramatic and included views down towards Syracuse. We then made our way back down and headed to the centre of Catania where we had some lunch in front of the Cathedral. We had a short walking tour of the old quarter of the city stopping first to see the remarkable Roman theatre. This has only recently been excavated out from below houses to reveal an enormous underlying structure with well preserved passageways for moving crowds. We then walked to the Castello Ursino, a squat 13th Century castle which originally guarded the harbour of the city. When Mt Etna erupted spectacularly in 1693 the lava flowed down to the castle and filled up the moat, extending the land out much further into the sea and leaving the castle inland rather than at the shore side. Inside the castle, which is stunningly well preserved, is a good collection of artefacts from the local area and an impressive little collection of Renaissance art - I particularly like the Jose de Ribera painting entitled 'Prophet'.

The main square in Catania
The Roman theatre of Taormina

We started the last day of our tour with a quick visit to the Cathedral of Catania. This contains an impressive fresco of the 1693 eruption of Mt Etna, drawn by an artist who witnessed the event first hand. We then drove along the coast to Taormina - we took the cable car to the summit and then walked through the old city to the stunning Graeco-Roman theatre. This looks out over the bay and has sweeping views of Mt Etna, which on this day was covered in clouds. We had a walk through the town to the old church and enjoyed some shopping time. At the end of the day some of us went down to the seashore to put our toes in the Straits of Messina. In the evening we enjoyed our 'last supper' with very pleasant Italian food. We could look back on three weeks touring wonderful monuments evoking by-gone days. I think we all have fond memories of our experiences of exploring two wonderful islands: Malta and Sicily.

The beach at Taormina
Our last evening in Catania

Michael Birrell

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