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main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry Aug 2015

Submerged Monolith Discovered in the Sicilian Channel

In the sense of “fair use for the purposes of a brief review” I have cited or paraphrased material found in the original article found on-line here. The original report on the Sicilian channel monolith appeared in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 3, September 2015, Pages 398–407. The report was entitled “A submerged monolith in the Sicilian Channel (central Mediterranean Sea): Evidence for Mesolithic human activity". The authors are Emanuele Lodoloaan of the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics in Trieste, Italy and Zvi Ben-Avraham, of the Department of Earth Sciences, Tel Aviv University, Israel.

The monolith was discovered about where the word
'shoal' is in the image; that is, between the Italian
island of Pantelleria (lower left quadrant) and the
main body of the island of Sicily (upper right).

Some popular reports on the submerged monolith recently discovered in the Sicilian Channel called it a "mini-Pompeii" and others jumped on a “Stonehenge” comparison. They missed the point. There is no comparison. This thing is more interesting. As fascinating as Stonehenge is, it is at the most 3,000 years old, and there is no doubt that the freestanding circle of stones in Wiltshire, England, served some sort of a religious or astronomical function. One quibbles about the technology used to erect them, but very few scientists believe they were levitated into place by aliens. Hydraulic technology—that is, human sweat plus pre-Brit pugnacity, toil and tears—no doubt did the trick.

This is different. The Sicilian monolith is, so far, just a single piece, broken in two, but it is 9000 years old! That is well before what we have typically regarded as the age of monolith builders. The salient points are these:

photo: National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics, Trieste, Italy

  • A submerged 12-meter long monolith was discovered at a water depth of 40 meters, in a shallow bank of the Sicilian Channel, located 60 km south of Sicily. The area is called the Pantelleria Vecchia Bank, now referred to in the literature as PVB. The monolith rests on the sea-floor. It may have been upright at one time. It is broken into two parts and has three regular holes: one at its end which passes through from part to part, the others in two of the sides.
  • Morphological evidence, underwater observations, and results of petrographic analysis testify that the monolith is man-made.
  • This monolith suggests a significant human activity in the area of PVB, a former island in the Sicilian Channel.
  • Seawater inundated the PVB 9,350 years ago ± 200 years, presumably forcing inhabitants to leave.

Some speculation is offered as to a possible function of the object; the authors write:
There are no reasonable known natural processes that may produce these elements... Most likely the structure was functional to the settlement. These people were used to fishing and trading with the neighboring islands. It could have been some sort of a lighthouse or an anchoring system...

Interpreting what the discovery means in terms of what we thought we knew about the past is the thrust of the article:
The discovery of the submerged site in the Sicilian Channel may significantly expand our knowledge of the earliest civilisations in the Mediterranean basin and our views on technological innovation and development achieved by the Mesolithic inhabitants...[the object in question] required cutting, extraction, transportation and installation, which undoubtedly reveals important technical skills and great engineering. The belief that our ancestors lacked the knowledge, skill and technology to exploit marine resources or make sea crossings, must be progressively abandoned...recent findings of submerged archaeology have definitively removed the idea of 'technological primitivism' often attributed to hunter-gatherer coastal settlers....The vast majority of marine geophysicist and archaeologists have now realised that to trace the origins of civilisation in the Mediterranean region, it is necessary to focus research in the now submerged shelf areas.

Speculation about the origin of the builders is that they were from Sicily. Specimens discovered in some Sicilian caves testify that the island of Sicily was permanently colonized by Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers (approximately 13,500 years ago). The migration from mainland Europe to Sicily likely took place between 27,000 and 17,000 years ago, thanks to the emergence of a rocky continental bridge between the Sicilian coast and the Italian peninsula.

How might land bridges emerge? (Or submerge?)
Land can move or appear to move. If it really does move, rise and fall, it is due to the very slow and powerful process known as plate tectonics, a process that brings massive crustal plates of the earth into collision causing, above their collision points, entire mountain ranges to appear. For our purposes we might as well call all of Italy the Apennine Mountains since that chain is a direct result of just such a collision directly below. That particular tectonic crunch started about 20 million years ago. (More in the general entry on geology.) If land only appears to move, it is an optical illusion caused by the rise and fall of sea-levels, an illusion brought on by many periods of glaciation, that is, the locking of sea water into ice at the poles (in which case, sea-levels fall around the world) and then the melting of the ice and subsequent release of water into the seas of the world (the sea-levels rise). That is a faster process than plate tectonics, but it is, in human terms, agonizingly slow. Five million years ago (!) the land bridge connecting Africa to Europe at Gibraltar broke and the Mediterranean started to fill up again after a long period being a dry salt flat. There were then many periods of glaciation with successive periods of water being locked in ice and then being released again, producing variations in sea-level. So coastal shelves emerge and submerge over long periods of time and if one of those periods coincides with the coming of age and intelligence of an entire species, you are going to get many such cases of "mysterious" structures at the bottom of the sea.

[Other, much quicker, geological processes such as local volcanism and bradyseisms can and do produce new land. I have purposely skipped over these as not relevant to this discussion. There is information in the general entry on geology, linked in the above paragraph.]

The ruins of Göbekli Tepe     image: Wikipedia
This discovery is important but not unique. There are similar submerged ruins (not quite as old) off of the island of Malta (a few miles to the right (in the image, above) in the Sicilian channel. But, especially, this find forces us to think about the even older, truly amazing site of Göbekli Tepe (image, right), a monumental temple complex (on dry land) in southeastern Turkey, carbon-dated to about 11,600 years ago. Just think that over two hundred large pillars, each weighing up to 20 tons, were erected and topped with huge limestone slabs. Hunter-gatherer societies were not supposed to be able to do that. Göbekli Tepe has revolutionized our understanding of early cultures of the Middle East. It shows that building such a monument complex was within the capability of hunter-gatherer societies, although it is not clear exactly how its builders managed to mobilize and feed a force large enough to complete the project. Not only does the Göbekli Tepe site contain the oldest art involving stone structures ever found anywhere in the world, including numerous reliefs of animals, but the surviving structures are older than pottery, older than metallurgy, and older than the invention of writing or the wheel! They were built before the so-called Neolithic Revolution, i.e., that is, before the beginning of agriculture and animal husbandry around 9000 years ago. The construction of Göbekli Tepe implies organization of an advanced order not hitherto associated with stone-age hunters and gatherers.

The lesson here is that a species that can conceptualize and use symbolism and abstraction such as found in the magnificent cave art examples in France and Spain, some of which are likely to be 40,000 years old (!) can get a lot done in the following 20,000 years, a lot that is hidden from us due to the shifting sea levels of the Mediterranean. So it's not that the PVB monolith is a 2001 Space Odyssey type of monolith put there by aliens; it's more interesting that than. We have our own aliens—ourselves—and there's a lot about us that we don't know.

[I am indebted to Ruth Trimble for calling my attention to this material.]