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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.