Paolo Orsi’s Potsherd Mysterium

A major hazard of travelling, especially travelling where you barely understand the language, is feeling confused a lot of the time. Admittedly, mystery has its appeal; it’s a pleasure to mull over possible answers, stalking meaning as it shies away from you through the shady thicket of doubt. You live for that exhilarating moment of victory, the sense of pride when you finally figure out that a tissue is a ‘fazzoletto’, or that what the man said was ‘the second street on the left’. There is, conversely, some irritation, not to mention rage, when you fail to understand something that should (you feel) be simple.

Sicily seems more confusing than other places. I’m not sure if that’s because I expected it to act more like mainland Italy, or because I have a cold or because the place is just fatally incomprehensible. Navigating this environment takes me back to my bewilderment as a tone-deaf student of music theory; there are nuances that I am simply unable, even after extensive effort, to get.

Take the bus system, for example. Our first week here in Sicily, we spent several hours (this is not an exaggeration) waiting for the bus. When you stand by the side of a road in a strange town waiting for a bus that never comes, it does something to you. You shrivel up inside. You wilt. You start looking cock-eyed at the world.

In the first place, it’s physically hard. There’s nowhere to sit, hardly even any room to stand. Backyards are defended by high concrete walls bolstered by spiny plants, so you can’t lean. Between the wall and the edge of the road there is a mere half-metre gap. The sun blazes down. A dog across the street stares at you through a fancy gate, intermittently barking. Cars zoom by.




You notice annoyingly insignificant details; a bougainvillea has managed to grow all the way up a lamppost and is now waving in the breeze; a ridiculous cat is padding stealthily towards a hedge as if it’s a panther; ants bustle about carrying off the dismembered parts of some winged insect. To escape these depressing trifles, your thoughts turn inwards. There are things you could have done differently—renewed your driver’s license, for example. Done a little more research about the location. Figured out how to use a phone. Things that take up so much time and mental effort.

It’s a relief when a couple joins you. They’re tall and have ironed clothes and a breezy holiday attitude. Maybe some of it will rub off on you. Twenty minutes pass, an expression of doubt flickers across their faces, the cheery breeze deflates.

“Excuse me, do you have a copy of the bus schedule?” the woman asks. You show it to her, and you can tell by her frown that it’s the same as hers, taken from the official website. And your collective schedule is not right because the bus was due twenty minutes ago.

Another ten minutes pass and shoulders droop. Anxiety builds. The couple starts to get testy with each other. You’ve seen it all before.

“Go and ask the shopkeeper,” she hisses to him.

“Why me? I did it last time!”

But the man goes into the shop, asks the shopkeeper. She will say, as I know from experience, that the bus arrives every hour at quarter past, a lie.

After an hour, the couple leaves, defeated, muttering sharp words. You’re still there, stoic, determined to stick it out all day, all week, until the end of time if necessary. You will stay until cockroaches go extinct and the sun shrivels to a red pinprick just for the satisfaction of telling the bus driver he’s a lousy bastard. Five minutes later, the bus arrives, screeches to a halt and barely stops long enough to let you on before speeding away again. And you’re so relieved that the bus really does exist and that you are now on it, that you are filled with elation and gratitude; the agonizing minutes of waiting vanish. The driver’s a good man, really, it’s not his fault if the company neglects its responsibilities. Besides, there was an article in the newspaper yesterday about how there are frequent assaults on bus drivers. In the latest case, in Catania, a bus driver honked at a guy parked at a bus stop. The guy ignored him, the bus called a towing company. The driver of the car got out of his car with a large stick and started whacking the bus and the driver too.


Artist's impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri
Waiting for the bus in Sicily, Year 9878 (actually artist’s impression of Proxima b )


I have since learned that the bus company changed the schedule without updating any of its posted timetables except one: the sheet of A4 printer paper stuck to a pole on Via Onorevole Dottor Giuseppe Rubino.

A similar thing happened with the trains last week. I wanted to go to a mall in the northern part of town. The internet said a train went there. The ticket vending machine said it was a valid destination. I bought a ticket, got on the right train…and ended up in a town 30 kilometres away. The train never stopped at my station. Perhaps that station doesn’t even exist. Who knows?

Anyway, now that we are privy to the top-secret real bus schedule, we decided to go to Siracusa and visit the Archeological Museum. This building, containing a huge collection of artefacts, is named after the archeologist Paolo Orsi (1859-1935), who studied pre-Hellenic peoples of Sicily and discovered several important temples, necropolises, walls, tombs, coins and remains. Here he is, with his perfect moustaches:


Struggling to remember which ones were the Sicels and which ones were the Sicani…


The archeological museum was a twenty-minute walk from the bus station past the Syracusan forum, along to Euripides Plaza and up a hill to the lovely gardens of Villa Landolina. The Landolinas were (are?) one of Sicily’s oldest aristocratic families, arriving with King Roger and the Normans. That’s one of the disorienting things about Sicily—in one twenty-minute walk you have allusions to and remnants of all the disparate peoples who have lived and breathed on this soil. Neolithic, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Norman, Arab…Everyone has left their fragments, but you can’t quite tell how all the pieces fit together.

The garden was a park of trees of numerous varieties (all carefully identified on a sign near the entrance). Ancient artefacts such as massive millstones and huge amphorae were arranged along the path like garden statuary. The leafy setting reminded me of a beautiful lonely place John and I visited in Albania called Butrint—the ancient city of Bouthroton, where the ruins are overgrown with ivy and grass, nestled in a leafy wood of laurels and pine. Seeing a ruined city in a natural setting, up close, under the blue sky, is a wonderful experience, and echoes of that visit rang in my memory now.

We were both enthused and strode towards the museum entrance full of hope, barely glancing at the headless statues called, so the sign said, ‘togati’ or ‘the toga-wearing men’.

The ticket price was quite reasonable—six euros each. The lady at the cash register explained in English that there was a certain order to follow. First we must go downstairs to see the coins. Then we should come upstairs and see galleries A, B and C. OK, that all seemed clear.

We walked down the stairs, following a sign that said ‘medaglie’.

‘Is that coins or not? Are we in the right place? The door’s locked,’ I tried the handle.

‘Um, I think it’s closed,’ said John.

‘But she said it was down here!’ I insisted, and then saw a switch with a bell on it. RING BELL. I couldn’t help thinking of the instructions in Alice in Wonderland  to DRINK ME EAT ME.

‘What are you doing?’ John cried as I rang the bell.

‘It says there to ring the bell,’ I pointed out.

‘But…someone’s coming!’

A staff member with long blonde hair, the kind of woman who sells high-end cosmetics in a department store opened the door, ushered us in and explained that here was the coin collection showing coins, weapons and jewelry from ancient and medieval times. The door closed behind us and we noticed that behind the glass door an armored door about a foot thick stood ready to slide shut and lock into place.

John had not really come here to look at mere coins, so he found a comfy armchair in which to muse as I pored over the shiny things. Admittedly, I usually skip coin exhibits, but this was more than usually engaging. Maybe it was the locked door, giving it an exclusive feel? Or maybe the lighting helped me see the things better.

The coins were surprisingly fat and three-dimensional. Starting from when city of Siracusa minted its own coins up to the tyranny of Dionysius I (405 BCE), the biggest kind of coin kept the same distinctive design elements. On one side was the ‘quadrigia’ (four-horsed chariot), which referred to the city’s aristocracy; on the other was the head of the nymph Arethusa, the nymph associated with the city’s freshwater spring, surrounded by dolphin’s to indicate the city’s location on the sea.




When the coins ceased to delight me, I moved to the jewelry, some of it ancient, some of it not. Here are some of the most striking pieces:


Earring from the second half of the second century BCE


Snakey ringsesss


signet ring sant angelo muxaro
Signet ring found at Sant’Angelo Muxaro


Other eye-catching bits were Roman carnelian rings with intricate intaglio portraits that resembled holograms when backlit; a golden ring in the shape of a frog, a beautiful ivory bracelet featuring a stag where the material had been into a network of tree branches; thin golden leaves that had been part of a wreath; a cameo of Diana in some luminous milk-white stone. John, meanwhile, was drawn to a collection of very thick, very sharp iron ax heads and spear points.

Aware of how much more of the museum we still had left to see (galleries A,B and C), we decided to leave the coin room.  We didn’t know we had to wait for the polished blonde woman to let us out. She was busy chatting to another couple of museum viewers and as we started pounding on the door, not a little claustrophobic, she rushed to let us out.

We climbed upstairs and entered gallery ‘A’. This took us all the way back to the island’s geological formation, through the sad march to extinction of amazing island fauna, to the first hominid scratchings. We jogged past all of it  way, past the Neolithic, the Copper Age, the Bronze Age, the late Bronze Age…One of the few things that made John stop and stare was this strange item from Thapsos 1500-1200 BCE




And that was mainly to point and mutter something about that sneak-thief Picasso.

‘When do things get Hellenistic?’ he added, with a hint of desperation.

‘It must be here somewhere,’ I said. ‘Let’s keep going.’

We kept going, and going, and going led on by arrows along many more dark corridors. We passed so many glass cabinets containing inscrutable terracotta figurines, bronze tools and bone ornaments that everything started to look the same. Finally, we came to a dead end. Everything was roped off.

‘Where’s Section B?’ John said, looking around in confusion.

‘Oh my god,’ I said, ‘We have to go back the way we came! The sections don’t link up with each other!’

So, we hurriedly retraced our steps. Now and then we’d end up in a little cul-de-sac and had to rescue each other by finding the right way. By the time we realized we were near the door, we nearly cried from happiness.

Back in the main connecting corridor outside, I scanned the vast building and in the distance, to the left, saw Section B.

‘OK, there it is!’ I called to John, who’d gone to look in the other direction.

We went in and immediately realized we were into the Greek colonization period. But, just as I let my guard down, the same old Confusion started clouding around me again. I tried reading the English translations of the signs provided but, between the technical jargon and the unnatural phrasing, none of the information stuck. While brain fog is a normal condition for me, even John was puzzled.

‘It’s not chronological. They’ve organized everything by town,’ he said. ‘Naxos, Messina, Syracuse…as if they’re completely unconnected. And they don’t even seem to mention the war with the Athenians. I mean, it was probably the most important battle of the Peloponnesian War!’

‘Oh, here’s a passing reference to it,’ I pointed out contrarily.

‘Three words. Three words, for that battle!’ he threw up his hands in exasperation.

Let down, we decided just to saunter through the rest of gallery B with lowered expectations, stopping where we felt like it. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of potsherds, statue fragments  labelled with numbers that were often difficult to match the signs, because there were two sets of the same numbers next to each other. So many tantalizing ancient mysteries were staring out from behind the glass, like the urn containing the charred bones of a man and a woman, but they were crowded out by a modern mystery: why should a museum be so hard to visit? We’d actually felt enthusiastic when we went in, but by the time we left gallery B we were tired, defeated and confused.


Snub-nosed Sicilian kore laughing at me


Sighing, we listlessly browsed the books on display near the ticket counter. One book on the Pelopponesian War, but it was only in Italian. There was a whole set of Montelbano mysteries—the beloved detective series by Andrea Camilleri that showcases the Sicilian way of life. There was also an English translation of Il Giorno Della Civetta, The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia. I was struck by the coincidence because I’d just watched the film version starring Claudia Cardinale and Franco Nero the previous night.  I promptly bought it and we set off homewards, with a short stop at the supermarket near the station.

The supermarket was closed.

‘Is it closed for lunch?’ John asked hopefully, and I understood. He wanted a reasonable explanation, something solid to hold onto.

‘No. The sign says here it’s open right through every day except Sunday,’ I said in a faint voice. There was no explanation. Not even a piece of paper scrawled with ‘closed for family reasons’ or ‘back in an hour’. Nothing.

Luckily, the bus was on time. I started reading my book; I wanted answers. Riffling through, I stopped on a conversation between Captain Bellodi and a woman talking about Sicily:


‘What’s it like?’

‘An old town with plaster-walled houses, steep streets and flights of steps, and at the top of every street and flight of steps, an ugly church.’

‘And the men; are they very jealous?’

‘After their own fashion.’

‘And the mafia, what’s this mafia the papers are always going on about?’

‘Yes, what is the mafia?’ urged Brescianelli.

‘It’s very complicated to explain,’ said Bellodi, ‘it’s just incredible.’


Pretty good excuse to include a picture of Franco Nero

2 thoughts on “Paolo Orsi’s Potsherd Mysterium”

  1. this is disconcertingly familiar… but of course fun, like going to the movies to see one’s private tragedies as comical

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