Motya: Unearthing a Lost Civilization
Rich archaeologists are different: they have more opportunity. That is true at least of archaeology’s heroic age, in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Heinrich Schliemann, the excavator of Troy and Mycenae and the father of modern archaeology, used the vast wealth that he had accumulated in the first half of his life to fund his activities (which included paying off the Turkish authorities for finds that he had illicitly removed). Gaia Servadio’s Motya and Joseph Alexander MacGillivray’s Minotaur are very different kinds of book, but they have this in common, that they are both concerned at least in part with Englishmen who were able to conduct important excavations because they had money. And both, as it happens, were uncovering the remains of ancient civilizations which lay on the fringes of the classical Greco-Roman world.
Motya was a Phoenician, or Punic, settlement on an island in a lagoon at the western end of Sicily, excavated by the amateur archeologist Joseph Whitaker in the early years of the twentieth century. Servadio’s book is an agreeable mixed salad of reminiscences of visits to Motya over forty years, memories of alfresco meals with local characters, potted extracts of ancient history, angry descriptions of mafia corruption and environmental degradation, and, most interestingly, an account of the Whitaker family. Anthony Powell has described
the “third generation” type, [the last in] that trio of descending individuals in which the grandfather makes the money, the son consolidates the social position, and the grandson practises the arts (or sometimes merely patronises them) in some “decadent” manner….
Remove the decadence, and the pattern fits Joseph Whitaker well enough. An ancestor had prospered originally in the wine trade during the Napoleonic Wars. Later generations of the family developed into Anglo-Italian merchant princes, and Joseph Whitaker, a sweet and gentle soul not much interested in business, was able to use his inheritance to buy Motya, erect a hideous “castle” on it, live there the life of an Edwardian gentleman, tweeds, teacups, and all—and dig. He had two daughters, one of whom never married, while the other was widowed young; Servadio has an elegiac description of them decaying in a gloomy villa in Palermo, reminiscent of the Prince’s spinster daughters in the last chapter of The Leopard. Her book is a fascinating and quietly melancholy case study in social history.
The Phoenicians were a Semitic people who were originally from the eastern end of the Mediterranean but sprinkled colonies over the sea’s western areas. Their most famous settlement was Carthage. They have not always received a good press. Rome and Carthage were to fight their power struggle to the death, and Rome won. “History to the defeated/May say alas but cannot help or pardon”—and sometimes it does not even bother to say alas. The Romans represented the Carthaginians as treacherous and cruel. Undeniably, they practiced child sacrifice. They were also said to have invented crucifixion (which became, however, the Roman method of judicial execution).
From Homer on, the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.