Terracotta effigy of the goddess Astarte found in Motya


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The excavation campaign recently concluded in Motya by the Sapienza University of Rome and the Superintendency of Cultural Heritage of Trapani has brought to light an important find depicting the goddess Astarte, the Great Phoenician and Canaanite Mother, wife of Adon, linked to the night sky, fertility, fecundity and war and connected with Babylonian Ištar. The main centres of worship were Sidon, Tyre and Byblos. She was also worshipped in Malta, Tharros in Sardinia, and Erice in Sicily, where she was identified with Venus Ericina. Also in Sicily, the name Mistretta, a village on the Nebrodi mountains, derives from the Phoenician AM-ASHTART, or city of Astarte.

Terracotta effigy of the goddess Astarte found in Motya
The face of the goddess Astarte/Aphrodite with the bright white pictorial decoration
on the complexion, red in the curls that protrude from the golden diadem
[Credit: Department of Cultural Heritage of the Sicilian Region]

The terracotta figure found in Sicily has a shiny white face and red, curly hair. Nearby, a relief rosette with traces of gilding was found: this is one of the most widespread and popular symbols in the East and the Mediterranean, which confirms that it is definitely the Phoenician goddess. The excavation campaign was directed by Lorenzo Nigro and a research team comprising several young researchers and students. The figure can be dated to between 520 and 480 BC, i.e. at least a century before the attack by Dionysius of Syracuse that destroyed Motya in 397/6 BC, it was ritually hidden just outside the sacred enclosure, in an easily identifiable and well-protected area.

The figure of the goddess was restored in recent days by Salvatore Tricoli. “‘What we are experiencing is a truly exciting season for the richness of the finds that ignite enthusiasm throughout Sicily for the discovery and bring universities and experts from all over the world back to our land,’ said Alberto Samonà, Regional Councillor for Cultural Heritage and Sicilian Identity. “We have set our sights on the resumption of archaeological excavations in Sicily in what we like to call the ‘springtime of archaeology’ on the island”.

Terracotta effigy of the goddess Astarte found in Motya
The various items found in the votive pit with the terracotta effigy of the goddess Astarte/Aphrodite
[Credit: Department of Cultural Heritage of the Sicilian Region]

Astarte’s head was found inside a circular votive pit about one metre in diameter, next to two other objects, also made of terracotta: a disc representing a rosette in relief and a mould depicting a dolphin with a large naïve eye. The effigy was in the centre of the pit, laid, upside down, on the layer of ochre. The face, which is of great beauty and grace, represents an astral goddess (as indicated by the golden rosette) and marine goddess (as indicated by the dolphin with the large naïve eye), Lady of life, fertility, love, but also of the sea and navigation, of fresh and sea water. The terracotta is Greek, probably produced in Sicily, in Selinunte or Gela; this is usual among the Phoenicians of Motya who were accustomed to using Greek art to represent their gods and heroes.

“The discovery took our breath away,” said Prof. Lorenzo Nigro, Professor of Archaeology and Art History of the Ancient Near East at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”, who has been coordinating the excavation campaigns of a mission of the University in Motya since 2002. “After so many years of excavation,” explains Nigro, “the continuity of archaeological research has borne fruit. The goddess has been revealed to us in all her splendour, ten years after her temple had been excavated and it was clear, first from the finds and then from two inscriptions, that it was dedicated to Astarte/Aphrodite.”

Terracotta effigy of the goddess Astarte found in Motya
The sacred area of ​​Khoton. Astarte’s effigy was just outside this [Credit: Department of Cultural
Heritage of the Sicilian Region]

The discovery was made in the southern part of the island a few metres from the wall of the Tèmenos, the enclosure of the sacred area of the Kothon, in the area at the base of which there was a very ancient anchor, recognised by Sebastiano Tusa as being of a type from the 2nd millennium BC. 

Nigro adds, “It is precisely from this unusual monument that it was decided to resume investigations in the 2021 campaign. Exactly in front of the anchor, a votive pit was discovered, about 1 metre in diameter, bordered by red bricks. In the centre of the pit, overturned on the layer of ochre, was a female terracotta protome representing the face of the goddess Astarte/Aphrodite: resplendent, luminous, as defined by the epithet Aglaia found inscribed on the bottom of a vase offered in the temple and as it was shown to us a few days ago by the expert hand of the master restorer Salvatore Tricoli, with the painted decoration in shining white flesh, flaming red hair curls and gold in the large divine diadem.”

“The goddess is Phoenician,” explains Professor Nigro, “which is revealed by the disc with the rosette, one of the most widespread and popular symbols of Astarte, attested throughout the Near East and the Mediterranean up to the golden specimens in the Tesoro del Carambolo in Andalusia. The archaeological investigations conducted by the Mission of the University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’ and the Regional Superintendency of Trapani in the southernmost area of the island of Mothia since 2002 have completely revolutionised our knowledge of Sicily’s oldest Phoenician city: the large rectangular pool, 52.5 m long, was not a port or naval installation, but the centre of a large sacred area, bordered by a circular Tèmenos 118 m in diameter, with three larger temples arranged radially around its perimeter. The area was dedicated to the god Baal, the main Phoenician deity, lord of the sea and underground waters, god of the storm and fertility, and to his companion, the goddess Astarte, to whom a small but very ancient temple was dedicated, built in the northernmost sector of the sacred enclosure, in the direction of Erice, where the great sanctuary of the same goddess Astarte/Aphrodite/Venus stood. It is from there that the search for Astarte of Motya began again, the great Phoenician goddess who, having arrived in Sicily with the Phoenicians, had merged with the goddesses of the peoples who already inhabited this land’.

Source: MeteoWeb [trsl. TANN; October 26, 2021]

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