While some of the most famous ones were, not all ancient star-tracking structures like Stonehenge were made of stone. Archeologists studying what was once thought to be an ancient artificial harbor on the Phoenician island-city of Motya off the west coast of Sicily have recently determined that it was actually a sacred pool inside a temple that was not only used for religious ceremonies but also to track celestial movements. Could this be the perfect place for a pool-oriented vernal equinox spring celebration?
“The ‘Kothon’ at Motya was first explored in the early 1900s by the Anglo-Sicilian pioneer archaeologist Joseph Whitaker. Whitaker mistook a channel leading from the basin as a means of accessing the sea, consequently identifying the basin as harbour, which he labelled a “Carthaginian cothon”.”
The seafaring Phoenician culture began around 2500 BCE in the eastern Mediterranean region of Western Asia in what is now Lebanon and parts of Syria and Palestine. At their peak power between 1100 and 200 BC, the Phoenicians ruled the Mediterranean from Cyprus to the Iberian Peninsula. While well-researched by archeologists such as Joseph Whitaker, a new study published in the journal Antiquity points out that early assumptions about the maritime culture led to incorrect assumptions about a basin found in Motya on San Pantaleo Island. At the time it was discovered, archeologists used its resemblance to an artificial military harbor in Carthage and decided the Phoenicians did the same.
“The renewed exploration of the Motya basin followed the excavation, between 2002 and 2010, of a large cultic building—the Temple of Ba'al—that was in use from c. 800 to 397/396 BC Further excavations between 2009 and 2021 revealed the temenos wall, 0.7–1.5m wide and 3m high, which encloses the ‘Kothon’ and the Temple of Ba'al within a circular, 118m-diameter area.”
Doubts about the pool being a ‘Kothon’ began with new research in 2002 which uncovered a base in the center that belonged to a statue of Ba’al, which was both a generic name for gods and a reference to the fertility god Hadad. Further digging uncovered walls around the water, leading researchers to a new conclusion – this was not a harbor but a larger-than-Olympic-sized pool in a temple. While more digging indicated the pool had religious purposes, its positioning disclosed an amazing function.
“The reflecting surfaces of pools could be used for astronomical observations by using poles to mark the position of stars reflected in the water, allowing the observation and measurement of celestial bodies and their angles relative to the horizon. The constellations and their positions in the night sky on significant dates, such as solstices and equinoxes, are mirrored in the alignments of the main structures at the site, as well as through sacred features that include stelae carefully placed within the temenos to mark the rising, zenith, or setting of the stars over the horizon.”
That puts the function of the newly identified “Sacred Pool of Ba’al” on par with Stonehenge. In fact, the research indicates the temple became a central gathering place for not only Phoenicians but other neighboring cultures – a fact that made some jealous and led to the siege of Motya by Carthage in 398-397 BCE and the ultimate end of Phoenicia in 64 BCE when it was conquered by Pompey.
Gizmodo reports that archaeologist Lorenzo Nigro, who made the discovery and authored the paper, and his team have refilled the basin and placed a replica of Ba’al on the pedestal in the center. Now all it needs is a vernal equinox festival.