Marsala (Trapani), August 23
Archaeologists have unearthed 40 sarcophagi in what was once the sacred Phoenician burial grounds of Birgi, near the ancient colony of Motya .
The tombs were discovered by chance by a group of construction workers excavating the foundations of a house close to the westernmost tip of Sicily near Marsala, culture officials said .
Archaeologists said the sarcophagi were made of simple stone slabs and resembled those found on display outside the museum on the neighbouring island of Motya (present-day Mozia), site of a prosperous Phoenician colony .
"The tombs were of different dimensions, including several used to bury children, and spread apart in irregular order," archaeologists said .
Although they failed to find objects inside the sarcophigi, archaeologists unearthed several vases of different sizes and shapes in the field .
"The vases were most likely used during propitiatory rites just before the burial took place," the experts said .
According to the experts, the tombs had clearly been ransacked by tomb raiders or perhaps by Joseph Whitaker, an archaeologist related to a noble British family that produced and exported Marsala wines from Sicily in the 19th Century . Whitaker, who was responsible for the rediscovery of Motya, built a house on the island and moved all his finds there in 1908 . His house now serves as the archaeological museum .
Motya - whose name means "wool-spinning centre" was founded in the 8th century BC, about a century after the foundation of the most famous Phoenician colony in the ancient world, Carthage in Tunisia .
Greeks also began to colonise Sicily at the same time as Motya's foundation and conflicts broke out between Greek and Phoenician settlements . The Greek tyrant ruler of Siracusa, Dionysius I, destroyed Motya in 397 BC . Half a century later, Rome's intervention in the Greek-Carthaginian conflicts led to the Roman conquest of Sicily, which became Rome's first province .
The Phoenicians were a trading people who formed a massive commercial empire across the Mediterranean from their bases in modern-day Lebanon . Among the Italian cities they founded is today's capital of Sicily, Palermo . Other colonies included Cadiz and Malaga in Spain, Tangiers in Morocco and Tripoli in Libya .
Late last year, archaeologists announced they had found the remains of an ancient Phoenician temple off Motya, saying it was "unique" in the West . "You have to go all the way to Amrit in Syria to find a similar one," said Lorenzo Nigro of the Rome University team, who headed the digs . The temple came to light after a portion of a lagoon surrounding Motya was drained . The pool began to fill up again and a fresh-water spring was found - a fact Nigro believes proves it was used as a holy place .