Agrigento, Sicily

European Archaeology - The Top 10 Sites to See

Susan Langley|June 8, 2016|Blog Post

Susan Langley is the State Underwater Archaeologist for the Maryland Historical Trust. She received her B.A. in anthropology from the University of Toronto and her M.A. and Ph.D. in archaeology from the University of Calgary. Her long-standing interest is updating international and national heritage protection legislation, to which end she often consults and advises UNESCO. Below, Susan's favorite archaeological sites in Europe. 


Being asked to choose one’s favorite European archaeological sites is a little like being asked to choose one’s favorite color, or favorite food. While there are perennial categories, the individuals shift with season, mood, and surfeit. In order to exercise a little self-control, the following are offered since they fall within the ramblings of three of my favorite expeditions, and are largely Classical in flavor.


Valley of the Temples Agrigento, Sicily

What a show-stopper! While technically the temples surmount a ridge, the entire complex is in a large valley below the modern city of Agrigento. There’s no difficulty seeing why this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site—founded as the Greek colony Akragas under the Tyrant Thero, the five Doric temples were positioned to be seen by mariners approaching the coast. It is best visited by starting at the Temple of Hera at the top of the ridge and following the city wall pocked with rock-cut tombs. Plan to stop at each of the Temples of Concord, Hercules, and Olympian Zeus, the largest Doric temple of Greek Antiquity and a veritable archaeological banquet! The temples are largely intact and impressive in size, scale, and number. Near the base augment your visit with a stop at the Museum of Santa Nicola, which houses many of the pieces from the temples of Agrigento, as well as other important archaeological sites in the region. Join us on Circumnavigation of Sicily!


Selinunte, Sicily

While I normally wait for a “postcard” shot with no visitors in sight, this site begs for someone for scale. In addition to the huge covered area and a number of nearly intact temples, some of the fallen structures are so massive they look as though a giant’s petulant child has swept them away with a blow; the individual drum segments of columns and their capitals being easily three times the usual diameter. Another Greek settlement, this huge city boasted 100,000 inhabitants at its peak in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Destroyed by Hannibal after a nine-day siege, its recovery was threatened by imminent Roman invasion and the residents were evacuated down the coast to Lilybaeum, modern Marsala. (The latter reference is a cheat in order to reference the museum in Marsala that houses the only known remains of a Punic warship; Museo Archeologico Regionale Baglio Anselmi, which is near and dear to the heart of this maritime archaeologist.) Join us on Circumnavigation of Sicily!


Butrint, Albania

Although it was inhabited since prehistoric times, Butrint, or Buthrotum, is another of those Greek settlements that saw subsequent occupation by Romans and survived into the Christian era. Although fortified since the 6th century BC, the city reached its apex in the 4th century, with an amphitheater and theater near the base of the walls of massive stones encircling the Acropolis. The city fell into decay under the Romans, saw prosperity under the Byzantine Empire and Venetian rule, but was abandoned in the Middle Ages when marshes encroached. Preserved by mud and marsh, the site was rediscovered and excavated in the early 20th century, becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. 

A walk through this compact and charming city takes one past the theaters, public bath complex, shops, and to the early Christian baptistery with its extensive mosaics, well covered for protection, and the large basilica where it may be possible to see, uncovered, a small area of the mosaic floor. From here the trail climbs gently to the top of the hill, skirting massively built Cyclopean walls with the famous gate surmounted with the relief of a lion killing a bull. Viewpoints overlook Lake Butrint and modern aquaculture pens before reaching the summit and the small, well organized museum. The scent of the pines, as well as the chatty jays, make this a very rural and peaceful day in the country.


Tower of Hercules, La Coruña, Spain

A functioning Roman lighthouse—how cool is this?? Built in the first century AD and known as the Farum Brigantium, it may have been modeled on the Pharos of Alexandria.  The tower of this UNESCO World Heritage Site stands more than 111 feet, atop a 187-foot high rock. One of the oldest functioning lighthouses in the world, it continues to guide ships through the sea the Romans called Finisterra, or the end of the world; while the Spanish called it, La Costa da Morte—the Coast of Death—for the frequent shipwrecks it was built to reduce. In addition to great views, both from the tower or the base if you aren’t into the climb, there are Iron Age petroglyphs and a sculpture park at the site. Join us on Discoveries of Coastal Europe or Iberian Peninsula!


Istanbul, Turkey

I have to confess—this is my favorite city. I know I’m biased, but Istanbul is one giant archaeological site whether you’re walking the city walls, enjoying the cool and mood-lit subterranean cisterns, sipping a coffee in the sculpture-decked garden at the National Archaeological Museum, exploring the Hippodrome, or visiting any of the multitude of small bijou museums around every corner. Of course, at some point, one should visit Topkapi, just as one should visit the Crown Jewels. (And here’s a tip: tucked away in a bazaar behind the Blue Mosque is a delightful mosaic museum that I have never had to share with more than a handful of visitors!) Towers and facades and buildings are interwoven throughout the fabric of the city, a city that held up a major rail hub for more than seven years in order to correctly excavate an entire harbor of 39 vessels, which pushed settlement in the area back to 8000 BC. Gotta love it!


Piazza Armerina / Morgantina, Sicily

These two sites are easily visited in a single day and provide the opportunity to travel through the rural farmland known as the breadbasket of Sicily. If mosaics are your thing, head first to Piazza Armerina, founded by the Normans in the 11thcentury, and the nearby Villa Romana del Casale. This extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage site is believed to have been owned by Maximianus Herculeus, co-emperor during the reign of Diocletian (AD 286-305), which explains its size of nearly an acre and sumptuous, well-preserved mosaics. This is the site of the famous mosaics of women wearing what appear to be relatively modern bikinis and playing beach ball; but they are the tip of the iceberg.  Room after room is carpeted in elaborately bordered mosaic images of all aspects of life and beyond—beasts, hunting, shipping…prepare to contort yourself to try to obtain the best photos!

The archaeological site of Cittadella Morgantina is another Greek colony, founded in 850 BC, before falling under Rome after supporting the losing Carthaginians in the Second Punic War. It was excavated in the 1950s by Princeton and spreads over two hills and the intervening valley, providing a lot of room to ramble, test the acoustics of the theater, taste the bitter almonds growing over the site, and climb some of the rises for better views of the excavated structures. It is well worth stopping at the small Aidone Museum in the village of Morgantina, where one is able to see the contentious statue of Aphrodite, returned by the Getty Museum in 2011 when it was determined to have been looted. Join us on Circumnavigation of Sicily!


Anatolia, Turkey

A start at the newly renovated Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara is perfect preparation for wherever one roams thereafter. If you can’t visit the actual site of Çatalhöyük in the south, there is an excellent recreation of it at the museum. Make a point of visiting the adjacent sites of Hattuşas and Yazilikaya en route to Cappadocia, to see what the Hittites were really about. (If you’re into preparation for such ventures, PBS has an excellent two-hour program, The Hittites, that’s well worth watching.)

Nowhere compares with Cappadocia; from its underground cities capable of housing thousands and to its wind-sculpted volcanic pinnacles housing hundreds of rock-cut homes, churches, and chapels. Nearly 40 subterranean cities that sheltered 6th- and 7th-century Christians have been found and are continually explored with sections opened to visitors. These extendalmost 1,000 feet deep and for miles horizontally. Kaymakli is one amazing example, able to house 3,000 people with rooms for wine production, as well as kitchens, chapels, and residential sections! Nearby the Göreme Open-Air Museum exemplifies the other extreme with dozens of beautifully painted churches and chapels cut into what are often called Fairy Chimneys. Outside of the museum, some of these are still privately occupied with ownership proudly handed down through generations.  Absolutely the best introduction is to photograph the area at sunrise from a hot air balloon. Magic!


Neapolis Archaeological Park, Syracuse / Ortygia, Sicily

Considered by Cicero to be the most beautiful city in the ancient world, Syracuse drew the luminaries of its day including Livy, Archimedes, and Plato. Settled by colonists from Corinth, it reached its zenith in the 4th century BC. Vestiges of its glory days are evident in the large theater, and the massive Altar of Hieron II on which as many as 100 bulls were sacrificed at a time. The enormous quarries are not immediately evident, as they are filled with fragrant citrus groves and flowering trees; but once you see the column that used to support the ceiling of the massive pit and enter the remaining cave-like Ear of Dionysius, you’ll see—the scale is mind-boggling! This park is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, boasting both a Greek theater and a Roman amphitheater; the former is huge and still used to stage Greek tragedies in the summer. Following a familiar pattern, it was founded by the Greeks and subsequently dominated by the Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, and Saracens, then fell into a decline until the unification of Italy and Sicily in 1865. 

It’s definitely worth supplementing this visit with a stop at the Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi, named for the premier archaeologist of the region. You can wander the many galleries dedicated to geology, archaeology, ancient art, and Greek Theater, as well as an excellent coin and jewelry collection.

The heart of the city is the charming island of Ortygia, the original Greek settlement and so much a part of the city that it is not readily perceived as an island. I love strolling through the picturesque lanes, dedicated to the various crafts that have been practiced here—especially maritime-related ones like rope-making—past the ruins of the 6th-century BC Temple of Apollo, and emerging in the central plaza, the Piazza Del Duomo. There, the Cathedral only thinly disguises the former Temple of Athena which first occupied the site, incorporating the Doric columns into the walls. Join us on Circumnavigation of Sicily!


Split, Croatia

In the heart of Croatia’s second largest city, it is possible to stroll literally for blocks along just a portion of the façade of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s retirement palace, built between AD 295 and 305. You can even explore the warren of rooms that comprise the basement level of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. (This is the most continuously complete section since homes of the 3,000 modern residents occupy the areas of the former upper levels.) Some vestiges remain of the main body of the palace in the mausoleum of Diocletian, which was converted to a church and a temple that was turned into the baptistery. This is another of those fascinating places where daily life continues to flow through an archaeological site.


WWI Centenary Sites

Although there are many cemeteries, museums, and both historic and archaeological sites that record the First World War, visiting them now and over the next few years is especially timely. As the world commemorates the centenary of The Great War and the United States prepares its remembrances of America’s entry into WWI (April 1917), there are many places hosting special events. There are too many to name but especially significant and evocative ones include the battlefield at Ypres and the In Flanders Fields Museum near Brugge, Belgium; the military harbor and National Maritime Museum in Brest, France; and Gallipoli on the Dardanelles, Turkey. Join us on Discoveries of Coastal Europe!


I feel like a bad parent who has admitted to having favorite children at the expense of others—but there just isn’t room for them all, each with their various strong points and intriguing attributes. Histria near Constanţa, the oldest town in Romania; Chersonesus on the coast of Crimea; the megalithic temples of Malta and Gozo—these are just as beloved.


When We Go

Circumnavigation of Sicily | September 22, 2019 | Aboard the Serenissima
Iberian Peninsula | April 18, 2019 | Aboard the Ocean Adventurer

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