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Géoarchéologie littorale

On the tracks of the ancient harbour of Tindari (NE Sicily)

Sulle tracce dell’antico porto di Tindari (Sicilia NE)
À la recherche du port antique de Tindari (Sicile du nord-est)
Carla Bottari, Maria d’Amico, Monica Maugeri, Giuliana d’Addezio, Stefano Urbini, Marco Marchetti and Biagio Privitera
p. 69-74


Historical sources testify to the flourishing maritime activity at the ancient town of Tindari, mentioning a harbour but not supplying information on its location, size or configuration. Because a town as important as Tindari must have had a landing place for ships, we examined new sources of information with the aim to localize traces of the harbour. Holocene uplifted and submerged notches, identified along the Tindari promontory, and the mooring iron rings, testify to past sea level changes. These elements are used to reconstruct the palaeotopography of Tindari Cape and the Oliveri coastal plain in the 4th century BC. The reconstruction reveals a safe landing place southeast of the Tindari Cape suitably protected from prevailing winds.

Des sources historiques témoignent d’une activité portuaire florissante de la ville antique de Tindari et mentionnent un port sans préciser sa localisation. Comme la ville de Tindari a possédé un point d’abordage sûr et fonctionnel, nous avons recherché des indices de localisation du port antique. Nous avons identifié des encoches immergées et submergées ainsi que des anneaux d’amarrage en fer le long du cap Tindari qui témoignent de variations récentes du niveau de la mer. Ces éléments permettent de reconstruire la paléo-topographie du cap Tindari et de la plaine d’Oliveri au 4e siècle avant Jésus-Christ. Cette reconstitution permet de mettre en évidence un abri côtier bien protégé des vents dominants au sud-ouest du Cap Tindari.

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1In Antiquity, the important town of Tindari must have had a harbour, considering its strategic location in the Mediterranean Sea that allows it to hold a prominent military and trading role (Reddé, 1986; fig.1).

Fig.1 - Geomorphological reconstruction of the coastline between Elicona to Tindari Cape based on IGMI Istituto Geografico Militare Italiano maps between 1865 to 1968.

Fig.1 - Geomorphological reconstruction of the coastline between Elicona to Tindari Cape based on IGMI Istituto Geografico Militare Italiano maps between 1865 to 1968.

The position of the historical buildings, as well as the position of iron rings numbers 1 to 4, are also indicated.

2Due to its position, on a steep slope 280 m high, Tindari dominated and controlled the maritime traffic for many centuries. Unfortunately, the harbour remains have been lost over the centuries and historical sources, despite describing the different naval wars in the waters facing the ancient town, do not yield any information on the harbour location, its size and configuration. Polybius (I, 25) reports that in 257 BC the Carthaginians observed some of the enemies who were still embarking, while Atilius Regolus, the Roman Consul, was anchored off Tindari. Under the rule of Verres (73-71 BC), Tindari sided with the Romans providing them with a ship against pirates (Cicero V, 86).

3In the past, harbours were usually “natural”, located in favourable geographical conditions, such as sheltered bays near capes or peninsulas, at river mouths, inside lagoons or deep coves, where short breakwaters were often sufficient to supplement the natural protection (Marriner and Morhange, 2007). Harbours were generally close to high peaks easily visible from the sea, and spaced at 40-50 km intervals (about 20-30 nautical miles) to supply safe day-by-day transfers for sailing coastwise at a speed of 3-5 knots. Simple anchorages were also frequent for temporary stopovers or for mooring smaller boats (Franco, 1996). Therefore, also a beach sheltered from the sea storms or the bight of a river, could have offered a safe landing to the ships.

4Both the Greek and Roman ships were quite small and their size and modest draught permitted to haul and beach the vessels on the seashore (Harrison, 1999).

5Despite its predominant military nature, Tindari mirrored the characteristics of the Greek colonies as trading and economic centres, especially with regards to maritime activities. It seems likely, therefore, that trade was one of the most important mainstays of Tindari’s economy. Its position was also strategic for the transport of goods (Consolo Langher,1977) especially for the inland centres, which exported wheat. Tindari was one of the Sicilian cities that probably had to pay the 5% portorium to Rome; this maritime tax was usually applied on goods moving in and out of ports (Scaramuzza 1937). Archestratus of Gela (VII, 302) remembered the tunas of Tindari as the best of Sicily.

6Today, next to the coastal plain that bounds Tindari, there are no visible signs either of a harbour or of an inlet that could offer a safe haven for ancient ships. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that the ancient harbour was located in the internal part of Oliveri bay, southeast of the Tindari Cape promontory.

1 - The ancient Sicilian road system and relationships with the Tindari harbour activity

7The main street of northern Sicily was the Consular Valeria Street (Parisi, 1948), which comprised a functional road for the control of the calls on the Tyrrhenian Sea. At that time, the road system was strictly linked with the economic activity of the harbours: the goods transported by ships were sorted in inland localities through the road network. The Consular Valeria Street, departing from the Trajectus of Peloro Cape, passed south of Milazzo up to the mouth of the Elicona stream and reached Lilibeo Cape (Itinerarium Antonini of the 3rd century AD, theTabula Peutingeriana of the 4th century AD, Charta Rugeriana of the 12th century AD). Its path is uncertain in the Tindari area because of the morphology of the promontory. An outline of the local path is inferred through the cartographic documentation reproducing some tracts and through the information deriving from the course of the regie trazzere, an 18th century regional road network, which closely followed the Roman consular streets (Von Shmettau, 1720-1721; Smyth, 1823).

8Until the last century, some segments of the Consular Valeria Street were still visible near the Carruba Valley. Such a street most likely crossed the site of Locanda. According to Puglisi (1987) and Arlotta (1996, 2000), it could be the ancient statio of Tindari, a fiscal structure linked with the maritime traffic and with the portorium. However, statio was often confused with another structure named mansio. Indeed, the Itinerarium Antonini mentions Tindari as one of the four most important Sicilian mansiones. The towns with these kinds of structures were important trading sites, and they assumed a greater importance for their harbours. In particular, the harbour of Tindari was considered a faster alternative than Messina as a stopping point for ships en route to western Sicily, as well as a place for disembarking (Uggeri, 1982-1983).

2 - Archaeological findings and location of the Tindari harbour

9The foundation of the Greek colony went back to 396 BC and it was located on the homonymous promontory. Its strategic position allowed to control the maritime traffic on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Different buildings were erected during the Greek domination such as a large theatre, the fortification walls bounding the town, the quadrangular towers. Other buildings of the Roman period were also built at the site such as a complex named Insula IV, the building identified as basilica, etc. In the coastal lowland located southeast of the Tindari promontory, the remains of a Roman villa with a mosaic floor and a probable horrea were uncovered at the site of Oliveri (data from G. Scibona). In addition, a notable quantity of amphorae, pottery and coins of the Roman period were uncovered. The findings primarily interested the locality of St. Leo, placed in the Oliveri neighbourhood, uphill of the present Tindari-south filling station.

10During the construction of the Palermo-Messina motorway, an ancient wall was also found. It included some iron rings of about 30 cm of diameter and at least 2.5 cm thick, similar to those used in the Roman period to moor ships. Other iron rings of the same diameter and thickness were still visible a few years ago at the base of the Oliveri castle and at St. Leo about 6-8 m a.s.l. At least three other rings could be currently buried under Ràs Cape, about 6-8 m a.s.l. (fig.1).

11Al-Idrisi (1100-1165a) and Spannocchi (1596) prove the activity of a harbour in the same area from the 12th to the 16th centuries AD. In addition, Al-Idrisi describes the Castle and the Oliveri harbour: “… it is beautiful and it has a pretty castle on the sea shore. It also has a beautiful harbour in which tuna fishing is well developed…” (Al‑Idrisi, 1100-1165 b).

12These archaeological findings and the historical documents allow us to identify the ancient Tindari harbour in the inward area of Oliveri bay, and more precisely between the Castle and the Ràs Cape. According to this hypothesis, the ancient settlement at Oliveri could have been an integral part of the structures linked to the harbour activity.

3 - Morphological evolution of the Oliveri shoreline

13In the last four centuries, the combined actions of coastal and fluvial dynamics produced a progressive and conspicuous growth of the coastal plain fed by intense sedimentation, mainly coming from the Timeto (next to Patti) and Elicona streams (fig.1). The progressive widening of the Oliveri coastal plain started after the 16th century in agreement with the coeval historical sources that placed the rock of the Oliveri Castle on the seashore (Omodei, 1560; Fazello, 1574; Camilliano, 1584; Spannocchi, 1596). Nowadays the Castle is located about 800 m from the seashore. The progressive infilling of the basin and the progradation of the shoreline is attested by the state and the position of some partially buried historical buildings. The portal named Casa Forca, located on the plain near the Elicona stream (fig.1), has been dated to the second half of the 18th century (data by A. Principato) and it is currently buried up to 2-2.5 m by sediments. Another building of the beginning of the20th century, located in the centre of Oliveri village (fig.1), is partially buried by up to 1.5-2 m. This evidence shows that the shoreline moved ahead several hundreds of meters with respect to the ancient shore between the Oliveri Castle and the Carruba Valley (fig.1).

14Fig.1 shows an outline of the morphological evolution of the Oliveri coastline and the Marinello lagoons from 1865 to 1985. In particular, the Marinello lagoons system, comprising a sandy-gravel formation oriented NW-SE and characterized by shallow brackish waters (Leonardi and Giacobbe, 2001; Leonardi et al., 2006), has developed since the beginning of the 19th century. In historical and recent maps, this system is indicated as the “Natural Harbour of Tindari” or “Port Madonna”(Manganaro, 1808; Smyth, 1823; IGMI maps, 1865-1968). Navigation guides of the 19th century describe the Marinello lagoons as a safe landing place for a limited number of vessels. It was, however, affected by significant variations in the position of sediments when strong sea storms occurred that often caused the landlocking of the port (Bianchini, 1841).

15Evidence of uplifted and submerged Holocene notches, which indicate past sea level changes, is still noticeable along the promontory of the Tindari Cape. In particular, we found two notches higher than the modern one (fig.2). The most prominent one is about 5 m a.s.l. and could be related to similar features outcropping on the north-eastern Sicilian coast dated 5 000 yrs BP (Stewart et al., 1997; Rust and Kershaw, 2000).

Fig.2 - Holocene notches observed along the northern part of the coast (located on the aerial photograph).

Fig.2 - Holocene notches observed along the northern part of the coast (located on the aerial photograph).

(a) notches at 5 m a. s. l.; (b) notches at 6 m a.s.l.; and (c) notches at 2 m below sea level.

4 - Palaeotopographical reconstruction of Tindari Cape and Oliveri bay

16A Digital Terrain Model using the IGMI maps was carried out by GIS software in order to verify whether the reconstruction of ancient topography between Tindari Cape and Oliveri could indicate an inlet suitably wide and well protected by sea storms. The model takes into account sea level changes that occurred between 5000 (value obtained by dating the Tindari marine notches) and 2500 yrs BP (dating referred to the Tindari foundation). The simulation is based on the assumption that at 5000 yrs BP sea level was 5 m higher than present. Such a value was achieved by the height of marine notches that are distributed along the coastline and relative to an elevation of 5 m. The model assumes that between 5000 yrs and 2500 yrs BP, no important climate changes occurred and that the elevation of the iron rings is consistent with a sea level about 5 m higher than the modern one. This assumption is in agreement with the uplift rate data (Antonioli et al,. 2006) and sea level changes in the Tyrrhenian Sea for the Late Holocene (Lambeck and Purcell, 2005). For the Milazzo Peninsula, an average tectonic uplift rate of about 1.7 mm/yr has been estimated, and a predicted sea level rise of about 3.5 m in the last 5000 yr. An uplift of 8.5 m in 5000 yr and a sea level rise of 3.5 m correspond to a 5 m rise relative to present. Considering this value in the DTM, the Oliveri coastal lowland disappears and the Oliveri plain is reduced to a small strip of sand. The obtained DTM demonstrates that the coastline was located further back in relation to the present one. Besides, the reconstruction outlined shows: 1) an inlet suitably wide to shelter the ancient ships; 2) the reduction of coastal lowland of Oliveri to a thin strip of land; 3) the location on the seashore of the Oliveri Medieval Castle; and 4) the area occupied by Marinello lagoons disappears completely (fig.3). Moreover, the mooring rings surround the inlet shaped by the DTM (fig.3). These elements support the hypothesis that, in the past, the ancient port of Tindari was placed in the Oliveri bay between the Oliveri Medieval Castle and the Tindari promontory.

5 - Data analysis and concluding remarks

17The results indicate that in Greco-Roman times Tindari owned a harbour or an inlet sufficiently wide and well protected from prevailing winds. It could offer a safe landing place to the ancient ships since the foundation of the town (4th century BC). Otherwise, the flourishing trade, which was a key element of its prosperity, could not be explained, nor could the detailed historical references to naval wars that occurred in the waters facing the ancient Greco-Roman settlement. In antiquity, Sicily represented an important maritime crossroads. The roads and harbours constituted a unique network of exchange between the island and the centres of the Italian Peninsula and Magna Graecia, as well as North Africa, Egypt and Greece. Consequently, the existing mansiones and stationes in the Consular Valeria Street (the main Roman road on the northern part of the island) had been correlated with the ancient harbour of Tindari. It is likely that the Locanda site, which is still easily reachable from Oliveri bay, could have been the ancient fiscal structure (statio) linked with the maritime traffic and with the portorium tax.

18The survey regarding the location of the harbour structure was carried out within the context of the geomorphological evolution of the Oliveri seashore and the palaeotopographic reconstruction of the Tindari promontory and Oliveri coastal lowland.

19The mooring iron rings, which were visible at the base of the Oliveri hills until a few years ago, represent an archaeological marker of past sea level. In addition, the position and the altitude (between 6 and 8 m a.s.l.) of these rings are consistent with a sea level referred to 2500 years BP as 3-5 m higher with respect to the recent one. All of these elements support the hypothesis that the harbour of Tindari was placed southeast of the promontory. Furthermore, the palaeotopographic reconstruction of the Tindari promontory is consistent with the description of Al Idrisi (12th century) and Spannocchi (1596) who, describing a harbour sited between St. Leo and Carruba Valley, report that the inlet reconstructed in the DTM was used for harbour activities until the 16th century AD.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig.1 - Geomorphological reconstruction of the coastline between Elicona to Tindari Cape based on IGMI Istituto Geografico Militare Italiano maps between 1865 to 1968.
Caption The position of the historical buildings, as well as the position of iron rings numbers 1 to 4, are also indicated.
File image/png, 390k
Title Fig.2 - Holocene notches observed along the northern part of the coast (located on the aerial photograph).
Caption (a) notches at 5 m a. s. l.; (b) notches at 6 m a.s.l.; and (c) notches at 2 m below sea level.
File image/png, 465k
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Bibliographical reference

Carla Bottari, Maria d’Amico, Monica Maugeri, Giuliana d’Addezio, Stefano Urbini, Marco Marchetti and Biagio Privitera, “On the tracks of the ancient harbour of Tindari (NE Sicily)”Méditerranée, 112 | 2009, 69-74.

Electronic reference

Carla Bottari, Maria d’Amico, Monica Maugeri, Giuliana d’Addezio, Stefano Urbini, Marco Marchetti and Biagio Privitera, “On the tracks of the ancient harbour of Tindari (NE Sicily)”Méditerranée [Online], 112 | 2009, Online since 01 January 2011, connection on 07 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Carla Bottari

Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia - Via di Vigna murata 605 - 00143 Roma

Maria d’Amico

Osservatorio Sismologico - University of Messina

Monica Maugeri

Osservatorio Sismologico - University of Messina

Giuliana d’Addezio

Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia - Via di Vigna murata 605 - 00143 Roma

Stefano Urbini

Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia - Via di Vigna murata 605 - 00143 Roma

Marco Marchetti

Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia - Via di Vigna murata 605 - 00143 Roma

Biagio Privitera

Provincia Regionale di Messina

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