Project: Archaic Ascoli Satriano


Dwelling and Death at Archaic Ascoli Satriano


While Southern Italy has long been credited as having an important role in the development of supra-regional Mediterranean networks as a stepping stone for many different eastern cultures that set out for the west, the understanding of the indigenous inhabitants of the region is often rather vague. The interest in the foreign cultures, paired with the low visibility of the local communities impeded a thorough study of the latter, mainly represented in their cemeteries whereas settlements are scarce. Especially Archaic structures of the residential areas have only rarely been documented. A holistic approach to understand the lifeways of the inhabitants of Archaic southern Italy has never been attempted.

Instead, research mainly tackled two different themes, each limited to a certain kind of evidence: Either architecture or graves. Studies carried out so far on Archaic indigenous architecture, its structure and development and possible socio-economic implications are rather few. It is essential to study contexts providing the opportunity for an in-depth analysis of dwelling situations on a larger and well-attested setting, enabling to solve questions regarding the construction and function especially of Archaic huts. Survey activities added much to the understanding of settlement genesis, site distribution and settlement hierarchies, but were not suited to gain information on the construction and function of the basic architectural units. In terms of internal organization, Archaic southern Italian settlements often consisted of only a few structures. The typical type of dwelling in 8th century BC southern Italy is the relatively small hut with oval or circular layout. From the 7th century on the huts were often built with an apsidal layout. The walls of these dwellings consisted of organic materials (wattle and daub or cloth), the roof was either of cloth or covered with reed or the like. Still lacking is an evaluation of the social meaning of the early settlement situation: Questions concerning the inhabitants, their economic basis and social organization of the settlements were rarely addressed.

More effort was devoted to burial studies. The typical type of tomb in Archaic southeastern Italy was the inhumation of crouched individuals in simple pits. Remains of superficial markers are lacking almost everywhere, although the famous Daunian stelai probably served this purpose. The composition of grave offerings suggests that stratification took place at least from the 8th century BC on, locally articulated in variably strong ways.

Most of the cemetery sites either lack contemporaneous settlement evidence or both types of contexts did not receive equal scholarly attention. Thus, a holistic analysis of a site, taking into account both important types of evidence and putting them into direct connection within a diachronic perspective still is a desideratum.

Ascoli Satriano is located at the passage from the mountainous hinterland to the fertile coastal plains. These two areas are in Archaic times characterized by different material cultures – while west of Ascoli pottery of the so-called Ruvo-Satriano ware predominates, at the site itself and further east the so-called Ofanto-Subgeometric (or “Daunian”) ware prevails. Pottery of both origins indicates that the site was embedded in a wider regional network and subject to influence from the coast as well as from the hinterland – or frequented by people migrating between these zones. At the plot of the so-called Giarnera Piccola, situated on the slope below the local hilltops, settlement traces and tombs of the 8th to the 4th century BC were found. The project will focus on the Archaic remains, specially abundant in the southwestern area of the trenches.

The already identifiable structures can be described as follows: In the north-eastern part of the excavated area four postholes placed in a curved line are likely forming the rear apsis of hut (hut 2). Smaller postholes placed in a straight line within this quarter-circle served as an inner wall, separating the apsis and possibly different activity areas from the front part of the large structure (with a minimum size of 32m²). Both within and in the direct vicinity of the structure contemporary graves were placed.

In the southwestern sector the so-called hut 1 equally shows an apsidal plan composed of large postholes leaving an opening in the southwest. Directly adjacent to and under the walls of this structure measuring some 40m², four graves of young individuals are located, two of them as enchytrismoi. Tomb 8/13 even contained remains of several corpses, arguing for a close relationship of the deceased. While settlement burials are often regarded as “deviant”, reflecting nonstandard rites (‘building sacrifice’) or individual fates this almost certainly not applies to the local situation.

Thus, Ascoli Satriano offers the ideal opportunity to study in detail the connection between dwellings and graves – and possibly calls for a revision of traditional assumptions like the solely domestic use of huts. The connection between architecture and tombs is becoming even more apparent in the 4th century BC, when impressive pebble avenues lead towards large tombs and rather small rectangular stone buildings probably used in burial cult. Contexts like hut 1 indicate that this was an early phenomenon, locally continued and developed well into the Classical era, showing the special character of the close interrelation between the spheres of the living and the dead in the regional setting.

Hut 1 also reveals that the very same spots were re-used for hut erection. A number of smaller and deeper postholes indicate the existence of older huts below the structure. While the floor level of hut 1 was erased by modern agricultural activity, a linear deposition of burnt clay within the area of hut 1 that can be connected with these smaller postholes marks the level of a building or floor horizon of an older structure situated slightly differently but on the very same spot. Some of the old postholes might even have been reused by the later structure, refilled not only by stones but also older wall debris still displaying  traces of straw and branch meshwork of older dwellings as also found within the layer of burnt clay mentioned above. This allows for the investigation into the construction principles and potential lifespan of hut architecture, an issue yet largely unaddressed because of the scarcity of evidence regarding huts that could be identified as having a multiple-phased history.

A number of large pits seem to mark the limits of the Archaic settlement. These might not just be the final destination for domestic waste but reflect much more complex activities: The composition of pottery sherds within is not a mere mapping of the average broken pottery to be expected from a settlement, but frequently only certain vessel parts, mostly diagnostic pieces like rim- or base fragments of fine wares seem to have been deposited. This points to the conclusion that they were selectively and purposefully placed, reflecting some kind of ritual (possibly connected to a celebration of seasonal arrival or departure or the like).

Detailed research is able to add to our knowledge of the function of, the life within and the meaning of the local Archaic southern Italian communities. By a meticulous study of all the available evidence, it will be possible to gain a much better picture of the use of the architecture. Departing from this, the inclusion of the associated burial evidence will allow for inferences surpassing the domestic and economic level. This is crucial not only for a comprehensive understanding of the communities itself but also for the evaluation of much larger cultural phenomena like the so-called “Greek colonization”. On the basis of minute excavation and state-of-the-art analyses the different responses of the indigenes to the new cultural setting and their local peculiarities and traditions will be worked out. For this aim, investigations have to take into account the whole settlement, not just single structures, to understand how the society was spatially, socially, economically and (spi)ritually organized. Thus the project takes a bottom-up approach: first trying to understand local and everyday life before drawing conclusions concerning the wider regional context. The purpose is to produce a ‘thick description’ of indigenous Archaic settlement and burial activity, hitherto never attempted in this time and region on such a broad basis.

The importance of the clarification of settlement/site history and development during the Archaic period also taking into account the directly associated ritual or religious aspects (like the graves) in southern Italy lies in the fact that this body of evidence can provide hints regarding the general structure, organization, economy and ritual/religious concepts of the indigenous communities of that area in the time of the so-called ‘Greek colonization’. Detailed excavations on a site where indigenous presence stretches back into the 8th century will add much to the knowledge of the primary genesis of the germ cells of southern Italian (sedentary) life. Further investigations will try to give an overview of the whole range of indigenous settlement activity in Archaic southern Italy. Thus, different preferences in architectural design might be discerned between different regions or, departing from carefully investigated examples at Ascoli, be ascribed to certain uses or practices. The higher amount of work needed for the erection of rectangular stone or mudbrick buildings compared to round or oval hut-type constructions of perishable materials is worthwhile especially for permanent dwellings that were to be inhabited long and continuously – and preferably of members of the builder’s family or lineage. In the case of dwellings that could quickly be erected (and be abandoned or dismantled) seasonally, neither the effort of time nor work for the construction of a stone building would pay off.

It has to be stressed that the investigations of the envisaged project might as well suggest that some huts served as cultic buildings only or combined the functions of dwelling and disposal and cult of the dead. This makes them visual markers both of the living as well as the dead society – namely its basic unit, the small, family-based household. Thus, Archaic architecture might not just have served as simple dwelling units, but rather encompassed a much wider range of embodied symbolic meanings still to be unravelled.