Whose tomb would you like to find?

Temple at Eraclea Minoa
The Tomb of Minos at Eraclea Minoa?

Archaeology Magazine are run­ning an inter­est­ing poll at the moment:

The tombs of so many of history’s great lead­ers are lost.
Which other ruler would you most like to see discovered?

That’s an easy one to answer I know which unseen tomb I’d like to find. It’s more dif­fi­cult if you spe­cify that the leader should already be dead, but I think I have an answer for that too.

The photo above is one of the few usable pho­tos I have of Eraclea Minoa, a Greek city between Selinunte and Agrigento on the south coast of Sicily. It was prob­ably ori­gin­ally known as Minoa, and took the Eraclea pre­fix after being col­on­ised by set­tlers from Cefalù, who had a thing for Hercules. The Minoa part of the name is explained by Diodorus Siculus (16.9.4). Minos was the king who had the Labyrinth built for the Minotaur. The per­son who did the actual design was Daedalus, who was locked in the Labyrinth with his son Icarus after the escape of Theseus. To escape Daedalus built wings, which ended badly for his son, but car­ried the father to Sicily and the court of Cocalus, King of the Sicanians (Pausanias 7.4.6). Minos pur­sued Daedalus to Sicily and found him. He deman­ded Cocalus hand him over, and Cocalus agreed, but sug­ges­ted that Minos have a relax­ing bath first, dur­ing which Cocalus’s daugh­ters killed him. The bones of Minos became a shrine to him and his fol­low­ers built the city.

It’s a nice story, but there’s not a shred of archae­olo­gical evid­ence to back it up. Oddly Eraclea Minoa is one of the places in Sicily where you don’t find Mycenaean or Minoan pots. There’s noth­ing dat­ing from before the 6th cen­tury BC there. So whatever this build­ing is, it’s not the real tomb of Minos. That’s not a prob­lem for me, because the story doesn’t mat­ter as his­tory. What it does is say how the Greeks who lived there thought about their past and the build­ings in the city, one of which they thought was the tomb of Minos.

The descrip­tion of the build­ing from Diodorus Siculus (4.79.3) is:

Thereupon the com­rades of Minos bur­ied the body of the king with mag­ni­fi­cent cere­mon­ies, and con­struct­ing a tomb of two storeys, in the part of it which was hid­den under­ground they placed the bones, and in that which lay open to gaze they made a shrine of Aphroditê. Here Minos received hon­ours over many gen­er­a­tions, the inhab­it­ants of the region offer­ing sac­ri­fices there in the belief that the shrine was Aphroditê’s.

I like the idea of Minos nick­ing Aphrodite’s offer­ings but it’s not that help­ful in examin­ing the remains on the ground. What I saw were two small temple-like build­ings. The more north­erly faced sun­rise in the winter, the more south­erly faced too far south to point to any sun­rise. Neither looked like two-storey build­ings. So what are they? One could be a temple to Aphrodite and the other to Minos. Another pos­sib­il­ity is that at least one of them could be a treas­ury. They would be places to store valu­ables, pro­tec­ted by the God and so sac­red spaces, without being temples. It’s likely that this kind of misat­tri­bu­tion has happened at other sites. For instance a small temple at Eloro, which would have poin­ted too far north to face a sun­rise, is now thought to be a treas­ury. It’s pos­sible that this is a sim­ilar situation.

This is import­ant with what I’m work­ing on. So far I’m find­ing that almost all temples to Greek Gods in Sicily face sun­rise at some time dur­ing the year. If the more north­erly facing temple is the temple of Aphrodite then this would be true at Eraclea Minoa too. Yet I can­not identify the build­ings on the basis of their astro­nom­ical align­ment because it’s this very assump­tion I’m test­ing. I must admit I don’t have too much emo­tion­ally inves­ted in the answer either way. I should, because the res­ults are work­ing out almost per­fectly, but real life is rarely that per­fect. It makes me won­der if I’m build­ing in some assump­tions of my own which are influ­en­cing the res­ults I get. It’s another reason why I’m try­ing to remove as many assump­tions as I can from my work. However, in this case, I’m includ­ing them both as temples in my thesis as includ­ing them does more dam­age to my hypo­thesis than exclud­ing them.

It’s pos­sible that there’s an excav­a­tion report which clears this up, but so far I haven’t found it. A lot of the research at Eraclea is focussed on the theatre at the moment, which is beau­ti­ful but in danger of fall­ing apart. And if you’re vis­it­ing that last link then do your­self a favour and browse the other Sicily pages at the Classics Site. It shows why so many people fall in love with the island.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. Jania says:

    What would you find in a Tomb?

  2. Alun says:

    Well in the case of the tomb above I think some­thing like an inscrip­tion say­ing “This is the tomb of Midas”. That’s prob­ably not going to hap­pen. If a tomb’s vis­ible in Sicily then it’s been robbed out.