Our trip to Marsala began and ended with a two-hour bus drive through scenic mountains, beaches, vineyards, farmland, and goats. Before we arrived to the archaeological museum, we reached the westernmost tip of the Sicilian island. We then got off the bus and explored the outdoor attractions of the archaeological museum because the indoor museum was closed for restoration. Therefore, we couldn’t see the Punic Ship which is the earliest warship discovered in the archaeological record. However, we were still able to see a lot of interesting excavated sites.
We first encountered something called a decumanus which was the equivalent of a main street in the Roman period. It was a few feet below the modern ground surface due to sediment layering over time. The decumanus was constructed from marble and in the past it had shops on either side of it. Many of the Roman cities that we will visit were most likely built on top of decumanuses.
Our next stop was at the ruins of a Roman bath inside of a villa. There were mosaics throughout the structure that depicted images of exotic animals such as tigers and geometric patterns. There were terra cotta pipes and water channels built around a water pond within the villa to carry the water to baths. Inside of the bathrooms, there were small pillars on the ground that, in ancient times, supported a floor. The gap between the ground and the floor was pumped with hot air from a furnace to create a heated floor called a hypocaust. This bath in a private villa is a sign of prestige and the owner likely allowed guests and his clients (as part of the ancient Roman patron-client system where wealthy patrons supported clients politically, socially, and economically and in exchange the clients acted as social capital for the patron) to use the various rooms.
The next area we explored was an underground church. We walked down into a cave where there was a small opening centered on a baptistery. Toward the back of the cave was a sculpture of Jesus and on the floor, was worn mosaic tiles. The underground area was originally a sibyl cave where fortunes were told and advice was given. After the Roman conquest, however, the cave was converted into a Christian church.
We briefly went into a church in downtown Marsala where a service was being held. It gave us a sense of the community and how sacred spaces are a part of everyday Italian culture.
Throughout our exploration of Marsala, it seemed as though Garibaldi could be seen every time we turned our heads. Marsala was the city where Garibaldi first landed with his ship of a thousand. The people of Marsala were welcoming of him and he soon took over with help from the nobility and volunteers. His presence can still be felt there today with sculptures and stores named after him.
Our last stop (and maybe the most exciting of the day) were the salt flats. Salt has an important legacy in ancient Rome because Romans used a lot of salt in their diets especially to make fish sauce called gurem which they put on almost all foods. In addition, they thought salt had medicinal value and would use it in religious ceremonies. Soldiers were even paid a portion of their salary in salt. In fact, the term “salary” is derived from salt and the phrase “worth your salt” comes from this practice. Therefore, with widespread use of salt, whoever controlled the salt mines controlled the people. The government used salt as social capital to maintain control of its citizenry. The salt flats that we saw, powered by windmills, were laid out in grid patterns with piles of salt scattered throughout the flats.
Marsala is a beautiful city filled with rich history and amazing landscapes. Today concludes our stay in Palermo and tomorrow we will be travelling to Agrigento. Can’t wait for what is to come!