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Dr. Giovanni Polizzi

Institut für Klassische Archäologie

Humboldt-Forschungsstipendium für Postdocs

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Where there is limestone there is water. Traces of ancient springs at “anhydrous” archaeological sites.


A reading of the geological substratum of an ancient site might well provide useful information regarding choice of settlement, urban planning and the design of buildings. Consequently, research that integrates archaeology, hydrology and geology might clarify important aspects regarding the occupation of the territory, especially with regard to water, which must have been basic to locating settlements.

A growing interest in hydrological research in archaeology is corroborated by the most recent international research initiatives carried out by several European countries. These include a research programme on water management of ancient cities carried out within the frame of the Excellence Cluster Topoi in Berlin. The University of Aix-Marseille has carried out two research projects focusing on the interdisciplinary study of water supply in ancient societies: Hydrωmed and Watertraces- A*Midex.

Through joint research activity, I was able to enhance my field research experience and become more familiar with environmental disciplines.

During my PhD studies, focused on Solunto, a Punic city in western Sicily, founded in the 4th century B.C. on Mount Catalfano, I discovered that the mountain, as in other Mediterranean locations, functioned as a large water distributor, especially after heavy rain.

The study carried out at Solunto has been successfully applied to other sites in the Mediterranean, demonstrating the potential need for further study of other sites, notably Cosa, Norba and Morgantina. During surveys of these sites, carried out for my doctoral research, I determined that certain ancient settlements, which had traditionally been considered to be poor in water resources, actually enjoyed a reliable water supply coming from the subsoil, leaving, as at Solunto, evident traces of its presence.

My main objective, through the study of selected sites (Cosa, Norba, Morgantina), is to examine the nature of water resources in the Mediterranean and the strategies adopted by local societies to exploit and manage them. The era in question spans the 3rd and 1st century BC, the period of greatest prosperity for the sites under examination, during which there were already the hydrogeological and socio-economic conditions necessary for the creation and operation of specific infrastructure (public and private) regarding the use of water, i.e. public fountains and bathing establishments.

The sites of Cosa, Norba and Morgantina, possess all the characteristics necessary for studies my study: they are inhabited areas that flourished between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C., founded on hillsides that are apparently inhospitable from the point of view of water resources, but endowed with significant public and private infrastructure connected to the supply and utilization of water. No water sources have ever been identified on these sites, and from a hydrogeological point of view they now find themselves in a critical situation. On the other hand, clear evidence in the field shows that in the past the situation must have been quite different and that water would probably have been obtained from a number of springs.

On the basis of an evaluation of the geological and the archaeological evidence, I will be made to identify the sources of the water and the way in which it was used.

The study will focus on an analysis of this kind of structures, for which the identification of water supply is crucial. In fact, for all three sites, rainwater has always been considered the main source of water, whereas my studies show that, in addition to this, the sites benefitted from natural springs. In-depth research into water management may therefore provide new research perspectives for an interpretation of the history, urban-planning and architecture of these three sites.

A holistic approach will be used, bringing together in an innovative interdisciplinary approach the methods of history and archaeology (bibliographic research, analysis and study of archaeological evidence) and the methods of environmental, geo-archaeological sciences and territorial analysis (hydrogeology, seismology, aero-photogrammetry, GIS data management).

Therefore, with the proposed project I would now like to assess the insights and results of my fieldwork at Cosa, Norba and Morgantina. A comparative in-depth study of three (with Solunto four) currently anhydrous hill-side settlements will allow to clarify the dynamics of water supply in challenging locations, its sustainability or lack thereof, in a long-durée perspective. Thus, I attempt to explain why cities, founded on sites now devoid of water, managed to survive by exploiting a sustainable utilization of this resource. Today, none of these sites enjoy an adequate water supply, despite the fact that excavations have uncovered evidence of densely populated cities boasting opulent buildings with abundant access to water.

This discovery prompted me to propose this comparative study in order to extend the research to other similar contexts from a paleo-geographical point of view. In this case, the study aims to analyse the dynamics of water supply that have not yet been explored, that is to say, the coincidence between the presence of hydraulic infrastructure and limestone concretions; these are a sign of a hydrogeological situation that has changed over time (lowering of the aquifer) and the depletion of springs due to natural causes (earthquakes) or human action (excessive exploitation of the aquifer).