On the discovery of the artifacts:
While on my backpacking across Sicily, I decided to stop at an inn for the night in the city of Syracuse. The inn, which was more of a bed and breakfast by American standards, was in an old annex to an even older house. I’m not one for architecture, but if I had to guess, it was built during the baroque period, with some parts perhaps even earlier, but knowing how homes in the older parts of the world had a tendency to be rebuilt many times, it was difficult to say.
I was the only guest for the evening, and the older couple who ran the establishment put out their nightly assortment of rich Mediterranean pastries and gave me a unique beverage that tasted of honey and vinegar. Not wanting to be rude, I accepted the drink and cookies without question, and joined them at their table. Meeting locals make these journeys more enjoyable, with the exception of course, being the language barrier. My Italian was shaky at best, the same with their English, but I learned that the drink was an ancient recipe, one that would revitalize me after my long day of backpacking through the city. After some additional language struggles, I did manage to communicate the purpose of my trip.
“I’m studying to be a classical archaeologist, and I enjoy trekking through ancient regions.”
The couple became incredibly excited, and without a beat, asked, in perfect form, “Can you speak Greek?” The conversation officially began.
The couple, named Marco and Maria, claimed they had a fine collection of artifacts they wished for me to look at. They explained that Maria’s family had roots in the Byzantine Empire, and Marco’s had hailed from a town in Thrace. They had sought refuge in Italy when the Ottoman Empire sacked Constantinople in 1453, bringing only what they could carry. I was intrigued, and yet somewhat unsure if these older Sicilians were simply trying to pull a joke on me. One can never be too cautious when traveling alone. Reluctantly, I agreed to view their so-called collection.
Maria took my hand gently, and we followed her husband into a parlor, where he slid several modern cedar chests into the floor. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was expecting, but I do know that when they were opened, I nearly stumbled back. These weren’t just any artifacts; these were museum-quality heirlooms that spanned generations. Jewelry, silks, pearls, Bibles, manuscripts, this was an unbelievable haul of personal, priceless treasures that had been preserved lovingly to protect a lost cultural identity.
Maria reached into one of the chests, and removed a few items that were gingerly wrapped in stained ancient silk. She placed them out before me: A mosaic with a dolphin on it, a necklace of gold, garnets and pearls, and an Orthodox icon of the Archangel Michael. I sat and blinked. These were not the typical goods of a poor, refugee family.
“My grandmother told me as a young woman that these are the oldest.” Maria began, “From before the Crusades. Her name was Anna, and she was part of the imperial family in Constantinople.”
I knelt down to get a closer look, and she lifted the necklace for me to see. “I was told that when my ancestors fled the city after it had been destroyed by the Turks, they had to save what they could from the old homes and graves. Looting had already begun by the infidels, so they had to hurry. The necklace they were able to save from Anna’s grave. The icon was in the family crypt, and the tile was once part of a large floor in the palace apartment that Anna was said to have lived in. Dolphins are a symbol of our family, you see, and also the old symbol of Syracuse before the times of Rome. My family goes back before the times of Alexander.”
I was unsure of the provenance of anything, but I promised Maria that if she would let me take pictures, I could bring them home and do research, then send her all the information. She agreed, and then I proceeded to go through the rest of their impressive collection. I turned in for the night as my mind reeled on what it would have been like to have been the last of the Byzantines, fleeing with what bits and pieces I could from the crumbling remains of the once glistening empire.
The next morning, as I prepared to leave for my journey, Maria and Marco saw me off with a small package of leftover pastry and a cup of strong Italian coffee…and a small box with the artifacts of the life of Anna, Maria’s eleventh century ancestor. Despite my protests, she urged that I keep them as a gift. She had no daughters of her own to pass them on, and this way I could study them, and perhaps place them in a museum for the rest of future generations to enjoy. The final parting gift was a small bottle of vinegary smelling syrup. Marco told me this was called oxymel, the beverage they had served me when I arrived, it was to be diluted in water, and used just as the Romans and Byzantines did centuries ago.
I placed the goodies into my already-full backpack, but allowed myself to take on the additional burden for these people who had allowed me, a stranger, into their home and hearts for nothing more than a night.
I present for you these artifacts today.
Angela L. Costello
University of Rhode Island