For a century it was thought that an artificial lake in Motya, an ancient city on an island off the coast of Sicily, was a military harbour similar to one in the nearby Phoenician city of Carthage.
But new analysis has revealed it was a sacred pool at the centre of a huge religious compound.
The basin was first constructed around 550 BC, when the ancient island city was rebuilt after an attack by Rome’s ancient rival Carthage.
When it was discovered in the 1920s, centuries after first being built, archeologists concluded it was an artificial harbour because of its structural similarity to a military port in Carthage.
However, the results of new research at Motya published Wednesday in the journal Antiquity, reveals that the basin was bordered by temples with a statue of the Canaanite deity Ba’al on a plinth in the centre.
In Canaanite lore, Ba’al was the ruler of Heaven as well as a god of the sun, rain, thunder, fertility, and agriculture.
When the site was mapped by professor Lorenzo Nigro and his team from Sapienza Università di Roma with the Superintendence of Sicily, it was revealed to be aligned with the stars, which were important for locals for navigation and religious holidays.
“The nearby Temple of Ba’al is aligned with the rise of Orion at the winter solstice, whilst stelae and other features were aligned with other astronomical events,” said Nigro.
“This points to the deep knowledge of the sky reached by ancient civilizations.”
The recent excavations by researchers Sapienza Università di Roma at Motya are part of a multi-decade endeavour. Instead of the predicted harbour structures, previous study had discovered a Ba’al Temple on the outskirts of Motya’s Kothon.
The Kothon was re-investigated in 2010 as a result of this unexpected discovery.
Nigro and his colleagues drained and dug the basin during the following ten years, which revealed that it could not have served as a harbour as it was not connected to the sea.
“Instead, it was fed by natural springs,” said Nigro.
Importantly, the crew discovered several temples flanking the Kothon, as well as stelae, altars, votive offerings, and a pedestal in the lake’s centre that once housed a statue of Ba’al.
The basin has been refilled, and a replica of Ba’al’s statue has been reinstalled on its pedestal.