Sicily, one of the world’s great crossroads of culture, is the subject of the British Museum’s latest must-see exhibition, Sicily: Culture and Conquest. Curators Dirk Booms and Peter Higgs take us behind the scenes, telling the story using five of their favourite objects from the displays.

1. Gold libation bowl decorated with six bulls, Sant’ Angelo Muxaro, c.600 BC.

Sicily sits in the centre of the Mediterranean, its history and development being the product of thousands of years of settlement and conquest. The island’s allure sprang from its fertile soils, fuelled by the volcanic activity of the dominant Mount Etna, and its natural riches drew waves of successive settlers from all directions, including Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans.

With its wealthy and diverse cultural history, it was challenging for us, the two exhibition curators, to find the right story to present. However, we knew from the start that we would focus on Sicily’s two golden periods, when it was a world power, and dominated the course of Mediterranean history: namely the periods under Greek and Norman rules (respectively 7th to 3rd century BC, and 12th century AD). At these times, Sicily was envied and admired from afar. It flourished in a large part because it was ruled from courts based on the island, rather than being governed remotely, and thanks to the tolerant multicultural milieus that emerged. We then linked these two pre-eminent periods with a section on the successive Roman, Byzantine, and Arab conquests of the island.

This exhibition is the culmination of years of research and numerous trips to the island, its historical sites and superb museums, and discussions with obliging and knowledgeable archaeologists, historians, museum curators, and directors, as well as our collaboration with the Assessorato dei Beni culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana (the Ministry of Culture). While some objects come from our own collections, most are generous loans from numerous museums in Sicily, Italy, New York, and the UK, as well as libraries and private institutions. Here are our personal highlights.

2. A blend of Greek and Phoenician styles: terracotta altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull, from Gela, Sicily, c.500 BC.

The gold bowl (image 1) was used to pour offerings. Decorated with sacrificial cattle, it was made about 600 BC in a workshop influenced by Cretan, Rhodian, Cypriot, Phoenician, Greek, and ‘local’ styles and techniques. It was found in one of the rich domed ‘tholos-like’ tombs in the necropolis of Sant’Angelo Muxaro, in southern Sicily. The wealth associated with these burials marks a gradual increase in both private wealth and a hierarchical social structure.

The bowl helps to illustrate how earlier peoples of Sicily had been developing their own cultural identities, and how contact with the Phoenician traders and Greek settlers led to an acceleration of technological activities and advances. The different regional origins of the newly established Greek settlers on the island’s south and east coasts generated hybrid styles, as exemplified by the gold bowl, but after this gradual process of acculturation, the Greeks eventually dominated the island’s political affairs.

About a century after the bowl, around 500 BC, comes this striking and large terracotta altar (image 2), from an abandoned building in the emporion, or trading centre, on the coast near the Greek settlement of Gela. Apparently founded by a mixture of Rhodian and Cretan emigrants, Gela was famous for its terracotta workshops. The altar shows a scene of a lactating panther, devouring a bull, while the three female figures, which blend Greek and Phoenician styles, might represent the Greek goddesses Demeter, Persephone, and Hekate, all associated with fertility, the cycle of the seasons, and the underworld.

3. Bronze rostrum (battering ram) from a Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily, c.240 BC.

In the second half of the 3rd century BC, the Roman Republic – now the new Mediterranean superpower – had set its sights on Sicily, and by 211 BC had conquered the whole island through several battles. One decisive sea victory took place on 10 March 241 BC, when the Romans slaughtered the Carthaginian fleet by the Egadi Islands, off Sicily’s west coast. Over the past decade, underwater archaeologists have been finding the remnants of this battle, such as helmets and weapons, but also the rostra, the bronze battering rams that were fitted to the front of ships to ram and sink the enemy vessels. (For more on this story, see our cover story in CWA 65.) The rostrum (image 3) introduces our section entitled ‘Conquest’, a period of 1,300 years during which Sicily was fought over and conquered again and again, by successive waves of people, including the Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs.

Sicily’s second rise to glory

4. A marble tombstone in four languages, Palermo, Sicily, 1149 AD.

After the Normans conquered Sicily (between 1061 and 1091), King Roger II (1130-1154), rather than imposing a foreign culture, deliberately chose to create an entirely new way of life that emphasised the different cultural elements already present on the island. Unique forms of art and architecture emerged, blending Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic styles. Multilingualism became a hallmark of his new kingdom, and public inscriptions were frequently in two or three languages, especially if linked to the royal court. This tombstone for Anna (image 4) is written in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew script), Latin, Greek, and Arabic. The texts are not literal translations of each other, but respect the four cultures and religions. For example, the date is variously given as the Christian year 1149; the Hebrew year 4909; the Byzantine year 6657; and the Muslim Hijri year 544.

5. Multicultural coin of King Roger II. The date on this coin is written in early Arabic numerals, introduced from India during the Arab conquests, while Christ is shown on the reverse.

Roger’s court, as well as those of his son and grandson, his successors, became a place for learning and scientific advancement, which was specifically encouraged through multicultural collaboration and religious tolerance, and where the king, rather than just patron, was an active participant. Roger seems to have taken a specific interest in mathematics and cartography, and at his court the new Arabic numerals that were only just being introduced in Europe (and which eventually evolved into the numerals we use today) were used frequently. Roger also minted the first coin (image 5) to show a date in the new numerals, but rather than showing the Christian year, it records the year 533 according to the Islamic calendar. Yet the reverse shows a bust of Christ. These are our personal highlights, but there is much more to tempt you, so do visit if you can.

Dirk Booms is a curator of Roman architecture, sculpture, inscriptions, and glass. Peter Higgs is a curator of Ancient Greece, Greek sculpture, and Greek terracotta. Both work in the British Museum’s Greece and Roman department.

This article appeared in issue 77 of Current World Archaeology.