Northern Illinois University

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Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

March 23, 2004

In search of the lost city of Alicia

DeKalb, Ill.--NIU archaeologist Michael Kolb will lead a field-school expedition this summer to Sicily, where more than a dozen NIU students will explore ancient Greek and Roman ruins in pursuit of the lost city of Alicia.

On previous trips, Kolb and his students have uncovered tantalizing clues that indicate Salemi, a scenic hilltop village in west-central Sicily, may have been the site of Alicia more than 2,300 years ago.

Cicero, the great Roman statesman, and two Greek historians, Thucydides and Diodorus Siculus, write of the settlement as a place of wealth and strategic importance, occupied by the Elymian peoples. However, the exact location of Alicia, known in Greek as Halikyai, has been lost through the ages.

"Salemi has long been reputed by local townsfolk as being Alicia, although the city's location has never been confirmed," says Kolb, a professor of anthropology. "The ancient Greek and Roman writers speak of it quite highly as a prosperous community located on a hilltop over a beautiful river."

Salemi today has a population of about 12,000. Along with its scenic views looking down upon two rivers, the village boasts a captivating medieval quality, complete with ornate cathedrals and a hilltop castle. In 1968, however, an earthquake devastated the village, and many of the damaged houses remain abandoned.

"The archaeology that we're doing here is a very important part of the reconstruction efforts of the community itself," Kolb says. "Not only do they hope to rebuild their houses and damaged buildings but they also want to put the community on the map to a certain degree in terms of its cultural significance."

Over the past two decades, Salemi officials noted some old pieces of Greek pottery turning up during roadwork and water and sewer projects. Kolb began excavations in the town three years ago with his Italian colleague, Pierfrancesco Vecchio.

Excavation sites have ranged from abandoned houses to a public plaza to an ancient monastery. One dig site along a narrow public street yielded the floors of three separate dwellings, one on top of another, dating from the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries B.C.

Kolb and his students have unearthed numerous artifacts, including a bronze spearhead, more than two dozen Phoenician coins, 36 loom weights stamped and painted with ornate designs, vast amounts of table ceramics, evidence of cooking and furnace technology and a ceramic vessel shaped like a Greek goddess.

"We're piecing together the trappings of a complex economic civilization," Kolb says. "From all indications, Salemi was indeed the site of Alicia."

But most of the evidence is circumstantial. The tableware would have been imported from Greek colonies, suggesting affluence. The vessel shaped like a Greek goddess, perhaps a perfume bottle, indicates the presence of a sanctuary, which would only have been found in a prominent place, Kolb says.

"In order to say without question that Salemi and Alicia are one in the same, we need the smoking gun," Kolb says. "That might be remnants of public structures, where you would hope to find inscriptions with the town name."

This will be the sixth consecutive year that Kolb has run the Sicily field school, which has proven to be a goldmine for students. The Sicilian research has produced six master's theses, four honors theses and one pending Ph.D. dissertation.

"The experience is invaluable," says 22-year-old Bill Balco, a senior anthropology major from St. Charles. "You learn more in four weeks in Sicily than you can learn in probably two or three years of classroom work. The archaeology covers such a broad range of material, from the Iron Age to medieval times. And you get a chance to meet other students and researchers from all over the world."

Students are encouraged to develop their own research pursuits. Balco, for example, is conducting an analysis on the loom weights.

"We really try to immerse the students in a research environment," Kolb says. "Not only do they get to see and learn about the everyday aspects of what it means to be an archaeologist--that is digging in the soil, making interpretations as you excavate, analyzing artifacts--but they also get to see the entire gamut of a research project.

"The students challenge themselves on so many different levels that, to a certain extent, I view the Sicily field school as an Outward Bound experience," he adds. "They're learning quite a bit more about themselves."


What: NIU archaeological field school in Sicily.

When: May 23 to June 20.

Objective: To teach archaeological skills in a research environment.

Anthropology credits: Up to six credit hours for undergraduates and three credit hours for graduate students undertaking independent study.

Accommodations: Participants will reside in a dormitory. Sicilian cooks provide 17 meals per week.

Highlights: Salemi is located less than 30 miles away from 15 ancient and medieval archaeological sites, and six outstanding beaches.

Cost: $3,300 (excluding airfare).

More info: See