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Prehistory and proto-history in the Upper Agri Valley

by Salvatore Bianco, Ada Preite, Elena Natali


The Agri Valley goes through Lucan Apennines following the direction northwest-southeast for about 50 kilometers.

In the initial part it is wide and open, in correspondence of the lake basin of Pleistocene era, while in the middle part is narrow and winding, in correspondence of the current artificial lake of Pertusillo; it expands, gradually, through the formations of “hills of Matera”, in the part of middle-lower river course to flow into Ionian coastal plain of Holocene era. Agri river is an ancient natural way of linking Tyrrhenian and Ionian sides, used since the prehistory as way of trades as well as cultural and commercial exchanges.

Satellite geophysics of river valleys in Basilicata. In a prominent place, in green, the Upper Agri Valley (graphic elaboration: Ada Preite, Elena Natali)The Upper Agri Valley, geomorphologically correspondent to the Pleistocene lake basin, is a wide hollow of elongated oval shape. It is bordered by mountains (calcareous-silicon-marly), nowadays bare, but in the past covered by woods and places of settlements perched, located in a strategic position to control the valley and transport links with adjacent hydrographic basins.

The Upper Valley, occupied by man since ancient time and now intensively cultivated because of the presence of water and the fertility of soil, noticed the settlement of many rural villages since the middle of last century, organized according to the model “spread and linear”, that overlapped on small hamlets and farms of eighteenth and nineteenth century. Archaeological researches, carried out during the realization of the oil pipeline Mount Alpes-Taranto, allowed to redefine the chronological and cultural frame of the prehistoric and proto-historic  human settlement in the Upper Agri Valley, highlighting the strategic and economic role already played in so ancient times. This allowed the inclusion of this area in all ideological, cultural and material manifestations that characterize with different aspects and results the prehistoric and proto-historic stages in Basilicata.

Diachronic table of populated areas in Upper Agri Valley during Neolithic, Eneolithic and Bronze Age (elaboration: Ada Preite, Elena Natali)

The Upper Agri Valley is occupied by humans already since Paleolithic, but a more intense human settlement begins just from Neolithic onwards. Remains of fossil fauna of big pachyderms (Straight-tusked elephant), are known from the territory of Grumento Nova; similar to species of other lake basins of the region (Venosa, Matera, Atella, Mercure), these remains are dated to Middle Pleistocene, period in which the climatic oscillations still permitted the life of its faunal sets, then extinct.


Archaeological site 14. Location Porcili (Viggiano, Potenza). Anse Diana and lytic instruments of flint and obsidian. Late Neolithic (Photo by E.Natali - Superintendence of Archaeological Heritage of Basilicata photographic archive) The presence of man in the upper valley is testified only during Middle Paleolithic, of which are referred lytic industries on flake and blade of Levallois technique, found in the areas of Paterno, Moliterno and Marsiconuovo. Lytic instruments refer to activities of hunting and harvesting wild plants and shellfishes from ground and from fluvial-lakes, then to human groups dedicated to an economy of natural resources exploitation. The climatic improvement, already present during the sixth millennium B.C., permits the diffusion also in Upper Agri Valley of models and ideologies coming from the eastern Mediterranean and from the Balkan world. This contributes to the development of Neolithic cultures, different from the previous Paleolithic and Mesolithic for the adoption by the human of an economy of production based on agriculture and breeding, which gradually replaces, even if never completely, the economy of exploitation.

From the ancient era to the final one of Neolithic (about sixth-fifth millennium B.C.), the man settles in the upper part of the valley, taking advantages of hills and valleys areas of Marsiconuovo, Marsicovetere, Paterno and Viggiano.


Location Porcili (Viggiano, Potenza). Barrow tomb N. 145. Antique bronze (Photo E.Natali - Superintendence of Archaeological Heritage of Basilicata photographic archive) In these areas are documented living settlements with remains of huts (holes for post, pits for combustion, trellis/plaster, fireplaces, etc.), remains of clay pots made to hold and preserve solid food such as wheat and barley, and liquids, such as milk and water, millstones and stone pestles used for grinding grains, lytic instruments (flint and obsidian), bones and faunal remains such as meal and butchery remains both of domesticated species, which refer to farm animals (sheep and cattle), maybe subject to brief transhumances, and wild species, subject to hunting.

Rarer were the funerary spaces, at the moment documented in the upper valley just from some burial places accompanied by ceramic and lytic kit.

The trade with other cultural and geographical places is documented by the presence of non-autochthonous material, such as obsidian, coming from Aeolian Islands and/or from Calabria.

Neolithic religion, better known in other areas of Basilicata (Melfi, Matera, Middle Agri Valley, Ionian area) is based on the cult of land/man’s fertility and agricultural cycles with offers of vegetables and/or animal sacrifices. The Mother Goddess, symbol of fertility, is represented with idols depicting the woman with breasts and pelvis protrusive. Moreover, refer to fertility beliefs the profiles of human face, reproduced on the edges of pots from early and middle Neolithic, and heads of animals (anatidae, rams, bulls, dogs) applied on the handles pots from middle-late Neolithic from culture of Serra d’Alto.


Location Porcili (Viggiano, Potenza). Ceramic kit of barrow tomb  N. 145. Antique bronze (Photo E.Natali - Superintendence of Archaeological Heritage of Basilicata photographic archive)The beginning of Metal Age (about late fourth millennium B.C.) is marked both by the arrival of Indo-European nomadic groups, which fit in with the local Neolithic society, and by convention, by an important economical and social change: the use and circulation of metals. The exploitation of minerals and the adoption of metallurgical techniques require knowledge and handmade specializations more complex than those used for other production activities. Search for mineral deposits, manufacturing and product trade of metallurgy, have gradually changed the whole social-economical system, with important consequences for production technologies and for transmission of new cultural models.


Archaeological site 4. Location Masseria Piccinini (Paterno, Potenza). Structure 1. Late middle bronze, Apennines stage (Photo by A. Preite - Superintendence of Archaeological Heritage of Basilicata photographic archive)In the Upper Agri Valley the Eneolithic Era, or Copper Age (about end of fourth millennium- end of third millennium B.C.) is known just in its final stage in the areas of Paterno and Viggiano, thanks to remains of housing structures (holes for post and fireplaces), ceramic materials related to pots of different size, some of them with surfaces decorated with “scales” and “wattle”, lytic instruments of flint, obsidian and bone, faunal remains such as meal remains. These are materials referring to human sedimentary groups with an agro-pastoral economic structure and collateral activities such as weaving, testified by tools like mixing fuseruole.

In the Upper Agri Valley, at the moment, there aren’t any burial structures dating to late Eneolithic. The sample topographically nearest is in the Middle Agri Valley, where is documented the presence of burial barrows, expression of the acquisition of new burial and symbolical beliefs, as well as demarcation indicators for the community area.

Living attendance area. Civita (Paterno, Potenza). Clay pots of fine mixing with geometrical “Apennine” decoration. Advanced Middle Bronze, Apennine stageThe same funerary model is kept almost unchanged in the subsequent Bronze Age (about late third-second millennium B.C.), well documented in the Upper Agri Valley. In the area of Viggiano and Marsicovetere, during the early and middle Bronze Age, is certified the presence of two necropolis with imposing barrow structures and rich pottery kits testifying the existence of human communities socially well-organized. For these phases are also known living spaces in the valley organized with more housing facilities.

Meetings, exchanges and socializations, favored by commercial activities (products trade, transhumance, etc.) stay at the base of cultural uniformity that is emerging in the Upper Agri Valley during the late phase of Middle Bronze Era, thanks to the emerging of Apennine culture.

During this period, human groups socially and economically well-structured, occupy both hill and valley areas strategically important.

Grave No. 28. Location Sorigliano Valley (Tursi, Matera). Woman kit. Early Iron Age (early eighth century B.C. - Superintendence of Archaeological Heritage of Basilicata photographic archive) These are communities whose remains indicate a particular uniformity settlement and material in the use of vascular forms, often decorated, in particular those related to the storage and processing of milk (jars, small jars, boilers, bowls and pigeon cups with handles surmounted by raising, sometimes with a central hole), suggesting the adoption of a complex economy characterized by the practice of agriculture, farming, hunting and craft.

Grave No. 28. Location Sorigliano Valley (Tursi, Matera). Reconstruction of female array. Early Iron Age (early eighth century B.C. - Superintendence of Archaeological Heritage of Basilicata photographic archive)The topographical evidence and the archaeological importance suggest that the settlements on hills and valleys were object of seasonal frequentations, probably linked to the practice of summer transhumance in short and medium range (valley ↔ hill ↔ mountain). We don’t have to preclude, however, that hill areas, due to their topographical position,  have played an important rule also on a longer path, that from Agri Valley, going westwards, through many easy passes, leading to the Valley of Diano at the back.

The topographical features of hill settlements, located on natural acropolis, easily tenable, put them in a dominant position on the surrounding area and at the middle of a thick system of fluvial valleys and passes that link the different territories in rapid and reciprocal communication. These environmental aspects certainly contributed to the development of material and cultural contacts among the communities; contacts that during an advanced stage of Middle Bronze Age made possible the establishment of an “unique cultural area” among the settlements of Upper Sinni Valley and Upper Agri Valley. Cultural area that in turn falls within in the larger “cultural area of Tyrrhenian gravity”, formed by western Basilicata, coastal areas and islands of Campania, Tyrrhenian Calabria and Aeolian Islands.

The first cultural manifestations of the early Iron Age (first millennium B.C.) in Basilicata, are the result of evolutionary processes already begun in the previous stages and influenced by cultural models of Illyrian-Balkan derivation. The settlement choices continue to prefer the hills with possibility of control of territories and surrounding routes, which promote cultural relations and economic activities.

In the Upper Agri Valley, the early Iron Age is poorly documented, whereas in the middle and low part of the fluvial valley in this period are developing settlement realities of Oenotrian culture, mainly known through the rich necropolis, often with continuity of life between tenth/ninth century and fifth century B.C.





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  • F. Boenzi, R. Giura Longo1994, La Basilicata: i tempi, gli uomini, l’ambiente, Bari.
  • P. Bottini et alii 1997, Il Museo Archeologico Nazionale dell’Alta Val D’Agri, Lavello.
  • D. Adamesteanu 1999 (a cura di), 1. L’Antichità, in G. De Rosa, A. Cestaro 1999 (a cura di), Storia della Basilicata, Bari.



Copyright text and pictures (where there aren’t other references) by Salvatore Bianco, Ada Preite ed Elena Natali.