Gerace 2016 – Summary of the Results of the UBC Excavation
The third campaign of the UBC excavations at Gerace in central Sicily lasted four weeks, from May 9th to June 4th 2016. In Area A, the small late Roman villa first identified by surface clearance in 1994, work in 2016 concentrated exclusively on the south corridor, where the surviving geometric mosaic pavement, 14.25 m long, was exposed in its entirety for the first time. It consists of two main parts: one of rectilinear bands of laurel leaves intersecting in swastika pattern, and the other (the more easterly) of intersecting spiral bands of laurel enclosing circular medallions with rosettes (fig. 1). Both designs are unique in Sicily but are paralleled in Tunisia. The mosaic was heavily encrusted with a hard lime deposit that will require many more hours of painstaking work in the future to remove completely. The mosaicists had problems adapting their design to the fluctuating width of the corridor (caused by irregularity in laying out its north wall). An unusual feature is the motif that greeted the visitor at the entrance to the corridor at its south-west corner (fig. 2): it looks like a metal tie-rod used for holding large blocks together, but, as it is 29.5 cm long, it is more likely to represent a measure, indicating the length of one Roman foot (29.6 cm). A mosaic at Kourion in Cyprus shows a personification of Ktisis (‘Foundation’) holding one such measure (as do other representations of Ktisis in Antioch and in the Metropolitan Museum in New York). The depiction at Gerace may be intended to symbolize the orderliness and strength of the building being entered, and is perhaps also a statement of its owner’s preference for a Roman unit of measurement (see below). As an emblem of ‘greeting’ in the mosaic-laid entrance to a house, it is to my knowledge unique in the Roman world. The mosaic in all likelihood belongs to the last third of the fourth century AD, and was probably laid by a Sicilian workshop in close imitation of African designs.
The large basilican store-building (horreum) nearby, probably of the second quarter of the fourth century AD, used a Greek unit of measurement, in contrast to the later villa to which the corridor mosaic belongs: it measures 150 ‘Samian’ feet by 52 feet (the Samian foot is 34.8 cm long). Partly excavated in 2013 and 2015 (Area B), it was further investigated in 2016 along the presumed line of its south wall. The south-east corner of the building was located, and the curious and unexplained use of a double thickness for the building’s east wall was confirmed as continuing right to this point. Further west the south wall had been robbed after its destruction by earthquake, probably in AD 361/3, and a feature, perhaps of early Byzantine date, was built later over its line. A third trench demonstrated that the south-west corner of the store-building had been completely lost through erosion and ploughing.
In Area E, newly opened near the south-east corner of the horreum, part of the outline of a circular kiln, the presence of which had been indicated by geophysical research, was located but only briefly investigated (through lack of time). The upper part of its fill produced fragmentary bricks, probably intended to serve for use in a hypocaust (there are characteristic finger-marks in the form of a X on the underside). They bore the ligatured monogram of Philippianus (fig. 3), who is believed on the basis of our previous excavations to have been the owner of the Gerace estate c. AD 360/400. The bricks are distorted kiln-wasters, demonstrating that they were produced on site – probably in this very kiln, the waste debris being back-filled into it when it was decommissioned. In superficial clearance close by, two examples coming from the same die of another stamped brick product were found, also with letters in relief: they record a certain Cn(aeus) [ . . .] Cylin[drus] (fig. 4). This is the first time that a name other than Philippianus has been recorded at Gerace, and represents a cognomen previously unknown in Sicily. Given the prominence of the inscription on the brick, he may have been an earlier (or later) owner of the site. It is interesting that once again his name is, like Philippianus, a Latin transliteration of a Greek one, which causes no surprise in bilingual Sicily.
A major object of the 2016 campaign was to investigate a zone further north from where work was conducted in 2013 and 2015; geophysics research in 2012 had suggested that other structures lay buried there, but their details were unclear. Two new excavation areas were opened in 2016. In one (Area C), an irregular building of Byzantine date was uncovered, probably built circa AD 500 and destroyed before the end of the sixth century. A pi-shaped wall enclosed an area with well-preserved large-slab paving, assumed to be a courtyard open to the sky (fig. 5). The wall which defines its east side, extraordinarily poorly laid out, had a staircase ramp built up against it, implying that the sixth-century building was of two storeys. Parts of two rooms were excavated on the east side of this courtyard.
Also found in Area C was evidence for earlier structures on a slightly different alignment. One was a small piece of walling, using substantial amounts of white mortar and tile, that had been truncated on both sides and incorporated into an east-west wall of the sixth-century building. On the same alignment is another structure, of uncertain purpose (1.94 m x 1 m: a ‘safe deposit’ chamber?), that also used much lime in its construction. The fill inside it contained a lamp made sometime between AD 450 and AD 500, which provides a terminus ante quem non for the construction of the Byzantine structure above (fig. 6). Also of great interest for our knowledge of the commercial contacts that our site enjoyed with other parts of the Mediterranean world, especially in view of Gerace’s distance from the coast, is the presence in an adjacent deposit to the north of a fifth-century amphora which imported wine from the Greek island of Samos, and another which had brought wine all the way from Gaza on the coast of Israel.
Also part of this fifth-century, pre-Byzantine activity is an irregular structure of uncertain purpose at the north end of Area C. It incorporates a small stone basin in its midst, and had been completely sealed by a tile fall (fig. 7, foreground). An adjacent area of burning associated with evidence for possible metalworking, including an ingot of lead and bronze items (such as the stem of a wine cup), probably intended for recycling, was also sealed by the tile fall. The tiles, later cut into by the Byzantine wall-builders, included several stamped with the name of Philippianus, which, as noted above, should belong to the late fourth or early fifth century (the tile-stamps relating to this production, in eleven different dies found in three seasons of excavation, now total 190, of which 54 were found in 2016). The buildings of this phase of c. AD 400 were demolished and partly removed when a new phase of building activity in this part of the Gerace estate commenced in the sixth century AD.
In Area D, 20 m south of Area C, the principal discovery was part of an extraordinarily well preserved bath-house, the walls of which were still standing 2.30 m high – even though no hint of its existence was present on the surface, nor had any clue been revealed by the geophysical research (fig. 8). A heated apse, internally 2 m wide (east–west) at its north end, was completely uncovered, together with parts of three other rooms, of which two certainly were heated. The fourth room, at the north-east corner of the trench, may have been another pool. On decommissioning the baths were completely stripped: in the apse, for example, all the flue-tiles (tubuli) on the walls were removed, leaving only their impressions in the plaster that had anchored them to the wall. In addition the horizontal brick that had once roofed the furnace opening in the apse’s east wall had been pulled out, leading to instability in the wall structure above; and the floor of the hot-water pool (piscina), which had originally occupied the apse, had been smashed to pieces to gain access to the sub-floor area. The largest piece of the floor to survive, which consisted of small limestone pieces set in white mortar, was 16.5 cm thick. In the hypocaust basement of the apse, all the pilae that once supported the floor of the pool had been removed except for one, although impressions on the concrete floor indicated where others had once been. The one that remained was in fact not a conventional pila but a tubulus filled with mortar, serving as a pila. An outflow drain in the curve of the apse marked the position of the floor of the basin; a ledge on either side of the furnace flue and along the apse’s north wall (interrupted by an under-floor flue allowing heat to pass to the adjacent room) also indicated the level of the bottom of the hot-water pool. The whole of the basement of the hypocaust was lined with a thin, black tar-like layer, probably the result of firing too much damp wood in the hypocaust furnace in order to heat the bath.
The apse was roofed with vaulting tubes (fig. 9), a method of roofing invented in Hellenistic Sicily and then forgotten about until it was re-introduced from North Africa, where it was common from c. AD 150/200 onwards. The minimum number of these tubes that survived in whole or in part throughout the various levels of the fill totalled 335, of which 214 were intact (fig. 10). Some of them had been distorted by over-heating in the kiln, which might suggest that they were manufactured on site, specifically for this and possibly other buildings.
Both the room next to the pool (the caldarium) and an adjacent room to the west were also heated with hypocausts (the pilae were made of round bricks in the former and square in the latter), and both had geometric mosaic floors of which fragments were found in the debris (fig. 11). The caldarium also had marble wall veneer, of which six types were identified from fragments found in the fill: they include imported marbles from Greece and Asia Minor (fig. 12). A furnace arch in the south wall of the more westerly heated room shows that it had its own furnace (fig. 13), suggesting that it might have been a laconicum for dry heat, rather than a moist-heat tepidarium, which usually did not have its own independent furnace. As with the apse, the other heated rooms on decommissioning were systematically stripped for the recycling of ceramic materials: the floors were smashed, in order to extract the large bricks spanning the gaps between the supporting pilae beneath, and flue-tiles from the walls were also removed. The pilae themselves survived to varying heights, as they too had been partially robbed.
After abandonment, there is no evidence that the structure had lain open for any appreciable length of time, for there was no accumulation of discarded garbage. Probably immediately after stripping, therefore, the building was systematically filled in with huge quantities of earth and clay. The few datable finds in these fills all belong to the second half of the fifth century AD. There was no direct chronological evidence to indicate when the baths were built, but a date of circa AD 400 is a possibility, giving them a working life of 50 years or so. The structure was clearly a luxury building designed for use by the owner (dominus): the presence of mosaic and marble makes it unlikely that it was designed for use by farm workers only.
The discovery of the new bath-house also raises a major question about its relationship with the late Roman villa further down the slope to the south (Area A), which is likely to be contemporary with, or a little earlier than, the new baths. Is the apparently incomplete nature of the Area A villa (with its south corridor mosaic-paved, in stark contrast to a west corridor with only an earth floor) a sign that its builder, perhaps the Philippianus of the ubiquitous tile stamps, changed heart in the middle of its construction, and opted to build a grander establishment up the hill? The bath-house located in 2016 is unlikely to have stood alone: is a grand villa still awaiting discovery alongside? Only further research will tell.
My first thanks go to the proprietor of Gerace, Signora Antonella Fontanazza Coppola, without whose permission to enter her land in order to conduct the excavation, this research would not have been possible; nor would it have been without the award of an Insight Grant made by The Social Studies and Humanities Research Council of Canada, to whom my debt is profound. Great gratitude is further due to the Regione Siciliana, and in particular to its Direttore Generale dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana, Professor Gaetano Pennino, who granted UBC the honour and the privilege of a concessione di scavo through the good offices of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Culturali di Enna. I would particularly like to thank the Soprintendente of Enna, Arch. Salvatore Gueli, and the Director of the Sezione Archeologica, Dottoressa Pinella Marchese, for their constant help and encouragement. Dottoressa Enza Cilia Platamone, currently Director of the Centro di Restauro at Palermo, the first excavator of Gerace in 1994, has been a tower of strength throughout – an inexhaustible source of support, friendship and advice. Maurizio Stellino and Saida Crea, together with their sons Alessandro and Marco, were as ever our wonderful hosts at Agriturismo Il Mandorleto. Their next-door neighbour Dr Carmelo Fontanazza was also a source of constant encouragement, help and practical support. Dr Salvatore Burgio was our first-class conservator, and I thank him for his skill and also for his congenial company. Both Dr Tomoo Mukai, our pottery expert, and Sally Cann, who drew the finds, demonstrated exemplary skill and unending patience and good humour. Antonietta Lerz and Dan Waterfall were our site supervisors, whose service was as always sans pareil. The whole project owes more to them than words can express, and I am truly grateful for their outstanding skill as excavators, their unceasing hard work, and their brilliance as teachers too. Last but far from least, I was exceptionally lucky to have the outstanding dedication, determination, tireless energy and ceaseless good cheer of a wonderful student workforce (fig. 14): Marco Aldrovandi, Julia De Paula, Daniel Dompierre-Outridge, Yijing Gu, Madolyn Goodall, Kevin Lam, Constantin Pietschmann, Paul Treschow, Dani Tsimbaliouk, Benton Walters, Nelly Wang and Finlay Wood (who also most ably served as pot-shed supremo). Without the superhuman efforts of the entire team, Gerace would not have yielded up once more such a rich amount of new information. I am truly grateful to them all.
R. J. A. Wilson
26 August 2016
• R. J. A. Wilson, ‘‘Tile-stamps of Philippianus in late Roman Sicily: a talking signum or evidence for horse-raising?’, Journal of Roman Archaeology 27 (2014), 472–486
• R. J. A. Wilson, ‘UBC excavations of the Roman villa at Gerace, Sicily: results of the 2013 season,’ Mouseion 12.2 (2012) [published 2015], 175–230
• R. J. A. Wilson, Caddeddi on the Tellaro: a late Roman villa in Sicily and its mosaics [Bulletin Antieke Beschaving Supplement 28], Leuven 2016, 15–21
• R. J. A. Wilson, ‘UBC excavations of the Roman villa at Gerace, Sicily: results of the 2015 season,’ Mouseion 14 (2017), in press
• R. J. A. Wilson, ‘Philippianus and his rural estate in late Roman Sicily: recent excavations at Gerace’, in P. Higgs and D. Booms (eds), Sicily: culture and conquest. Papers given to a conference in the British Museum, 24th–25th June 2016, London: British Museum, forthcoming