Photo Research in Action Brian E. McConnell, Ph.D.

Special Edition: Explore Ancient Sicily Live

Brian E. McConnell, Ph.D.
Professor, Art History and Classical Archaeology,
Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters

Are you curious to know what is inside the grotto itself?    

Early on in the 1990s, we explored the grotto for its archaeological potential. The stratigraphic deposit is covered by very large chunks of the roof that collapsed onto the floor of the grotto – a more recent chunk can be seen on the right (eastern) side (although that likely fell long ago in antiquity, too). Whatever was in the deposit is covered and hard to access. It is likely that the strata pertain to the site’s early prehistory – the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods, which have been found further out from the ‘dripline’ at the edge of the grotto and in various places along the slope below. Generally, early populations live along the dripline of caves and rock-shelters, although here the grotto itself is not that deep. There once was a spring on the left (western) side of the grotto, and that was likely used in antiquity. We think, generally, that the hestiaterion was the highest construction on the slope.

Do you take non-academic groups to the site?   

Our work at Rocchicella is regulated by a Memorandum of Understanding between Florida Atlantic University and the Sicilian Regional government (Assessorato per I Beni Culturali e l’Identità Siciliana). This agreement facilitates research and educational programs for faculty and students. We were honored during our 2019 summer program to have a visit that included FAU President (John) Kelly and his family, Michael Horswell, Ph.D., dean, Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, and supporters of FAU.

Will students once again join you in your on-site research?   

Student participation is integral to the FAU mission at Rocchicella di Mineo. Our summer program, Exploring Ancient Sicily at Palikè, runs for five weeks in the early summer (mid-May to mid-June, when the summer weather is temperate), it includes not only four days per week of archaeological fieldwork, but also visits on the fifth day of the week to important sites and museums around the island with weekends free for personal exploring. We were ready to go with a group this past summer (2020), although caution for the pandemic led to that season’s cancellation. As soon as it is deemed safe to run travel programs abroad, we will be ready to return to the field. The safety and well-being of our students is our first priority. Keep in touch with the program by checking the Facebook page Exploring Ancient Sicily at Palikè.

[I] also did the field school at Kampsville. You brought back fun memories!   

The field research run by Northwestern University in Kampsville, Ill., along the Illinois river is one of the classic examples of a holistic archaeological study of a region. I first visited the massive Cahokia site, and then Kampsville in 1973 and then the next spring, when I was just a junior in high school. I went together with a friend from my school in New Jersey to join a group from Aurora, Illinois High School, that Northwestern was hosting at Kampsville for a week. The experience was exhilarating and eye-opening – we each got to excavate a small area of a site in a flat field (I recall discovering post-holes of a wooden structure), and I also enjoyed discovering parts of the (very) quiet river town in the late afternoons. At Rocchicella di Mineo, too, school groups have come to learn hands-on what it is like to do an actual archaeological dig. The Soprintendenza per I Beni Culturali ed Ambientali di Catania (Superintendency for Cultural and Environmental Resources of Catania) has an outreach coordinator that works with middle schools and high schools in this regard and even goes to schools to make presentations and conferences. Dott.ssa Maniscalco had this responsibility, and I, too, have participated in several of these presentations.

You mentioned that visitors are allowed on the site. Are there specific travel tours that are available, after COVID of course.    

The site is open to visitors year-round from Tuesday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. with a full day (9 a.m. to 6 p.m.) on Wednesdays. There is no entrance fee (nota bene – the site is currently closed, due to the pandemic). Information about access and future programs at the site can be obtained from the Parco Archeologico e Paesaggistico di Catania e della Valle d’Aci (Archaeological and Landscape Park of Catania and the Aci Valley), Via Vittorio Emanuele, 266 95100 Catania, Italia. (As Rocchicella is a new addition to the park, at the time of writing, there is no direct link from the park’s official homepage; see also, the park’s Facebook page here, Parco Archeologico e Paesaggistico di Catania e della Valle dell'Aci @regione.sicilia .it. The site of Rocchicella has its own Facebook page ( Area Archeologica di Palikè ). Official tour guides licensed by the Region are available for tours to various locations around the island (for more information, see below in response to a later question). The site is a destination for day-trippers, and sometimes it is stop on cycling tours and related sporting events. Access from the main Catania-Gela highway (Strada Statale 417) is currently blocked by repairs to the bridge across the Margi river following heavy flooding in October 2018, so it is best to go via the historic Strada Statale 385 along the eastern side of the valley and the cross-valley access road, Strada Provinciale 110.

What studies have been done on the people who lived at the site?    

I assume that this is a question about physical anthropology. Our research focuses not simply on the physical remains that are on-site, but also the social, political, economic, religious, and other implications that they have for the people that frequented the location over the millennia. In terms of human remains, there was a burial of an infant (perhaps a fetus) of the Mesolithic period almost miraculously preserved despite later construction high on the slope and to the side, just below the point where the path in front of the Hestiaterion meets the stairway to the summit (Maniscalco 2008: 38 - 39). The historical burial of an adult and an child (possibly 10 years old) possibly of the 11th century C.E. was found early on in deposits lying on top of the Hestiaterion and the later Byzantine chapel (Maniscalco 2008: 29 - 30). Burials of the Roman era have been found, instead just below the western flank of the hill (for the Roman transformation of the Hestiaterion, see C. Cirelli in Maniscalco 2018: 293 - 295; studies on the Roman burials, respectively by Claudia Cirelli and Sebastiano Lisi, are in press currently with the journal Cronache di Archeologia). So far, no other remains, including those related to the prehistoric rock-cut tombs or the Sanctuary of the Divine Palikoi has been recovered.

Was the big cave behind the hestiatorion been used for something?    

As I discussed earlier, we have seen that the archaeological deposit in the grotto is buried under massive portions of rock collapsed from the grotto ceiling, and therefore it is not really accessible. Water was collected at one time from a spring on the left (western) side of the grotto (and I have to say that water from this site, which we can collect from a running spring on the opposite side of the hill is very clean and tasty). When we first came to the site in the early 1990s, the grotto was used as a sheepfold, and a massive clean-up effort, including the removal of surface soil and boulders and disinfestation, was made by the Soprintendenza even before actual excavation could get underway.

Is it possible to visit this site by reservation with a guide (after travel restrictions are lifted)? I live near Modica.    

Official guides licensed by the Sicilian Region are available for hire. Here is a link to the list, updated as of last July (2020).

See below for reference to the IZI-Travel website.

What is the most expensive thing in your mind, [the thing] worth the most you have found?    

As archaeologists, we don’t really think in terms of monetary value. As I said in response to an earlier question, the monetary value of anything is simply what a person is willing to pay, in order to have it. Instead, we find satisfaction in understanding more about things and in special, ‘ah-hah’ moments. I remember the thrill of realizing that the road in front of the Hestiaterion related to the stairway that leads to the summit and in seeing the form of the chapel on top of that of the Hestiaterion at the time it was being excavated. I like to see different landscapes hidden in those before our eyes. Objects and even structures are all part of a bigger picture that we value the most.

Are there ways for FAU employees to travel to the site?    

FAU employees are able to enroll in the summer program, just as any other course at the university. Our participants have ranged in age from college sophomores to those in their 70s. Undergraduate and graduate credit is available that can fit a variety of academic programs, and we also welcome non-degree-seeking students.

Hello, this is Paola, I am an art history student in Catania, do you think in future there will the possibility to visit and help you with excavations? Compliments for your great job.    

We are eager to know new people, so please get in touch (; n.b., the email address has only the single ‘l’ of my last name, although there are actually two). Participation in our activities is based on the academic program, and we have welcomed students from several universities and a variety of academic programs onto our team. Art history and classical archaeology are closely related fields, and I like to think of field excavation as a kind of studio art – you must know tools and materials, you must have a comprehensive plan for what you wish to obtain and how you are to present it and how you are to conserve it, and like the famous saying attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti, who ‘liberated’ the sculpture that was already in the rock matrix, we, too, free the structures, objects, scientific materials for botanical, faunal and other analysis, and especially the information that an archaeological deposit holds.

Is Dr. McConnell the only scholar/FAU the only university working on this project?    

All work at any site in Sicily is authorized and supervised by the agencies of the Sicilian Regional government, which also has direct management of field projects. The first projects in the 1990s and early 2000s that Dott.ssa Maniscalco directed -- the ones that succeeded in bringing to light the major buildings and the culture-chronological sequence that we know today -- were, in fact, direct operations of the Regional government. The university projects today – both that of FAU and that of the University of Catania under the direction of Prof.ssa Lucia Arcifa, which focuses on the later, Byzantine and Arab remains of the 6th through the 9th centuries C.E., have grown out of earlier participation in these first, major undertakings. In the course of all projects, many scholars have been involved in the excavation and study of archaeological materials – see the specialist studies in Maniscalco 2008 and Maniscalco 2018 listed in the next response.

Can you recommend a good history book about Sicily?    

Here are some initial recommendations for reading:

Robert Leighton, Sicily Before History: An Archeological Survey from the Paleolithic to the Iron Age, 1999. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Franco De Angelis, Archaic and Classical Sicily, A Social and Economic History, 2016. Cambridge et alii: Cambridge University Press; ISBN-13: 978-0195170474, ISBN-10: 0195170474

Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome, 2003 show publication edited by Claire L. Lyons, Michael Bennett, and Clemente Marconi. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum; ISBN-13: 978-1606061336, ISBN-10: 160606133X.

John Julius Norwich, Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, 2015 Illustrated Edition, New York: Random House; ISBN 13: 978-0812995176, ISBN-10: 0812995171.

John Julius Norwich, The Normans in the South, 1016-1130, original edition 1967 with many reprints by several publishers.

John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, 1130-1194, original edition 1970 with many reprints by several publishers.

Books and articles specifically about Rocchicella include:

Laura Maniscalco and Brian E. McConnell. “The Sanctuary of the Divine Palikoi (Rocchicella di Mineo, Sicily): Fieldwork from 1995 to 2001,” American Journal of Archaeology, 107 (2003), 145-180.

Laura Maniscalco with several specialist contributions. Il Santuario dei Palici, Un centro di culto nella Valle del Margi, Collana d’Area, Quaderno n. 11, a cura di Laura Maniscalco, Regione Siciliana, Area Soprintendenza per i beni culturali e ambientali di Catania, Assessorato Regionale BB.CC.AA. e P.I., Regione Siciliana, Palermo, 2008.

Laura Maniscalco with several specialist contributions. Il Santuario dei Palici, Le ricerche del secondo decennio, a cura di L. Maniscalco. Palermo: Regione Siciliana. Assessorato dei beni culturali e dell’identità siciliana, 2018. This publication is available free of charge in PDF format through the this link.

There is a school-oriented publication with extensive illustrations that is available free of charge from the Sicilian Regional government at the site Arca dei Suoni (the website is currently under revision): Laura Maniscalco with educational materials by Michela Ursino, Alla riscoperta della terra dei Siculi: il santuario dei Palici nell’area archeologica di Rocchicella -- Volume 1, Il sito e la sua storia, Volume 2, L’Antiquarium - Apparati didattici - L’ambiente naturale . Regione Siciliana: Palermo, 2009:

[download link] [alternatively]

Two other publications by Brian E. McConnell are also relevant to the study of the area:

a) B. E. McConnell, Agli Albori del Viaggio Moderno in Sicilia, Il Grand Tour di Thomas Cole e Samuel James Ainsley nel 1842. Catania: Domenico Sanfilippo Editore, 2014. This is the story of the twenty-four day trip through Sicily by the famous American painter Thomas Cole together with his British traveling companion, the artist Samuel James Ainsley (who would become famous for his later explorations and site illustrations in the land of the Etruscans, north of Rome) in 1842. Cole made a variety of drawings in the area of the Rocchicella site, which he and his sister Sarah later transformed into paintings. The full text of Cole’s travel journal is included in English, and the text in Italian discusses both the significance of the journey to Cole’s professional development and the early process of cultural resource development that was underway in Sicily during the reign of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, prior to the formation of the modern Italian State.

b) B. E. McConnell, Wall Illustrations from the ‘Grotte’ di Caratabia (Mineo, Sicily), Supplementi a <<ΚΩΚΑΛΟΣ>> 22. Pisa - Roma: Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2015. This is the full presentation and analysis of incised wall illustrations, most likely of the 7th century B.C.E. found in two rock-cut heroa (tombs that were visited as ‘hero’ sites) in the hills east of the town of Mineo.

How long will Dr. McConnell be there working on this project?    

Archaeological fieldwork is an extended process both for the logistics of organizing and executing fieldwork and for the time it takes to analyze and reflect on the results of the excavation. Our projects are regulated by the agreement discussed above. The current agreement is set at six years, and it is a renewal of a prior, five-year agreement. For a further discussion of our work at the site, check out B. E. McConnell’s interview with Michael Horswell, Ph.D., dean of the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, in the series ‘In Conversation’ (look for ‘Exploring Ancient Sicily at Palikè, Brian McConnell, Ph.D., RPA).

Wasn't the cave the site of the oracle?    

The grotto certainly is an attractive location for oracular activity, but the cult of the Divine Palikoi was directly associated with the Boiling Lakes out on the plain below the grotto. It was the ‘boiling waters’ (they did not actually boil from thermal activity, but rather they were an ebullition primarily of carbon dioxide gas) that were the manifestation of the phenomenon, and it was the waters that gave oracular response to serious questions regarding capital crimes, which are discussed by the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus (Universal History, written in the 1st century B.C.E.) Book XI, Chapter 88, Section 6 through Chapter 89, Section 8; see the text of Chapter 89, Section 5 and portions before and after, for example, at the Perseus website

I love that ancient value, great answer. Do the old ceramics have a mineral or element we don’t normally see in today’s ceramics?    

Ancient ceramics and contemporary ceramics are both complex creations. Ceramics is one of the oldest technologies in the world, and yet it is amazingly relevant today. Through careful study of the materials that went into ceramics and the kilns and other archaeological features that are relevant to ceramic technology, we know what went into ancient pottery and ceramic sculpture. You may be surprised to see the recycling of pottery through temper in clay bodies of the Bronze Age, and the skill required to make very thin-walled vessels even earlier in the Neolithic period. Dott.ssa Maniscalco pointed out several Attic black-glazed ceramics (Attica is the geographical region where the city of Athens is located in Greece), and until recently it was almost impossible for potters to replicate the fine, hard black glaze that coats the surface of black-glaze vessels. The nuances that specialists in Greek pottery have seen both in terms of glaze composition, which changed over the centuries, even in antiquity, and of course in the marvelous painted decoration of Greek pottery, which even has a sculptural quality all its own, remain unique, even in our own time.

Do we know where the Sikels came from?    

Ancient historians, most notably the 5th century B.C.E. historian Thucydides in the first portion of the sixth book about the origins of the Peloponnesian War, state that the Sikels originally were a people of southern Italy, who migrated to Sicily during what we now call the Final Bronze Age or the Iron Age, between the end of the second and the beginning of the first millennia B.C.E. Undoubtedly, there was movement of peoples in this time that many specialists refer to as ‘proto-history’, when there is clearly an historical progression but no truly discernible events (even the Trojan War lies somewhere between legend and archaeological fact), nor distinct personalities, but we should probably stand back and simply regard the Sikels as the Greeks’ notion of non-Greek, indigenous folk that were part of the social and economic landscape at the time our historical sources were written. As I mentioned in the discussion earlier, Thucydides’ distinction of Sikels and Sikans (he says that the Sikans came originally from Spain and once lived throughout Sicily, but that they were pushed to the western regions of the island by the arrival of the Sikels) is as much a matter of geography as it is anything else. There is a distinct difference between what we know of the ‘Sikel’ language, which was like Latin, and the language of the Elymnians that occupied the northwestern region of Sicily around the city of Egesta (the modern archaeological site of Segesta), and ethnic differences among the peoples of Sicily and their heritage were even codified in the epic verse of the Roman poet Vergil in his story of the travels of Aeneas, whose legendary descendants, Romulus and Remus were to found the city of Rome.

Is the site accessible to tourists in a guided tour format?    

There is a convenient, on-line introduction to the site (and to many museums and archaeological sites throughout Italy and elsewhere) on the IZI-Travel website. This is a convenient app that one can download to a cellphone or other device. Check out the tour for Palikè under ‘Mineo’ (the texts are in English and Italian; FAU has prepared, as well, a Spanish language version, which will be uploaded soon).

Do we still use the same techniques when glazing these items?    

Glazing technology has changed over the centuries, due to technological advances, increasing globalization, the inventiveness of ceramic artists and craftspeople, and personal tastes. Ceramic clips that one can find on Neolithic pottery, Greek black glaze, and Roman red ware all involve the vitrification of clay during firing. Lead- and tin-based glazes are another kind of surface coating that develops under the Roman empire and later on in the Middle Ages, particularly in the Near or what today we call the Middle East. Further developments in Iran, Central Asia, and the true globalization of ceramics through contact and trade with China and the Far East, not to mention the rich ceramics traditions of North and South America, have given ceramicists a wide range of techniques to choose from. A thorough ceramics program, such as the one we have at Florida Atlantic University, teaches clay and glaze science in its full breadth, and ceramic technology, including glazing is an integral part of engineering programs at many institutions around the world.