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Terra Incognita: the Rediscovery of an Italian People with no Name

Same title is given to a new publication about the recent archaeological discoveries made in Lucania by Massimo Osanna and others researchers, edited by L’Erma di Bretschneider. 

Massimo Osanna, the author of the book, is Director General of the Pompeii Archaeological Park and Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of Naples Federico II. He has worked for a long time in Basilicata, where he managed the School of Specialisation in the Archaeological Heritage of Matera and held a research fellowship at the Italian Archaeological School of Athens. 

Osanna was also Superintendent for the Archaeological Heritage of Basilicata: his Terra Incognita comes from a high level of expertise for what concerns the historical significance of the Region, a land which inner vitality seems that can’t leave anyone unimpressed, neither in 1800s nor today. 

Lucanian ancient and living culture: magic and a people with no name

Basilicata has always been a quite rural area of southern Italy, far enough away from Rome to remain an isolated area, in terms of cultural anthropology, throughout the twentieth century. That’s no accident that Ernesto De Martino chose this land for his well-known 1950s “ethnographic expeditions”.

Inspired by Carlo Levi and Antonio Gramsci writings, namely Cristo si è fermato ad Eboli (1945) and Quaderni dal carcere (1948-51), De Martino found Lucania as the perfect site for its innovative research method.

The so called critic ethnocentrism of further De Martino studies started from here, where some peasants used to heal people with magic spells and rituals and others were thought to be born before Christ, still in the 1950s.    

The same supposed distance from high culture, which allowed the magical approach to life to survive in present popular culture, got the attention of archaeologists later on. Archaeology indeed can observe the population of Lucanian lands from a privileged point of view, showing how it was in 4th and 3rd century B.C., when Basilicata was not as isolated as it appeared at the time of De Martino researches.

So we have a Terra Incognita, as to say an unknown land to discover: that’s Lucania in the times of Plato and Hannibal, for what we know from archaeological records. From Torre di Satriano to its Anaktoron, every record could tell something about those “peasants outside of history” which lived in Lucania during the first millennium B.C.. 

According to the authors, this may have been the only period in which those peasants have “become the protagonists of dynamics that left tangible traces in the archaeological records”. In ethnography as much as in archaeology and historical studies, it has never been easy to record the life of lower classes, especially of those living in rural areas: that’s a merit the author doesn’t disguise, and a new possible starting point for further studies about the ancient people of Southern Italy and their culture.

Terra Incognita let come out an unedited image of Lucania, quite different from the ones given by Levi, Gramsci and De Martino in 1900s. Despite the image of a forgotten people far away from the grace of God and human associations, archaeological records tell that those areas “were far from being isolated monads without windows onto the surrounding worlds, the contiguous realities and more advanced cultural centres of Italy and the Mediterranean in general”.

The volume

Edited in 2019, Terra Incognita. The Rediscovery of an Italian People with no Name focuses on the circumstances around the area of North Lucania during the first millennium B.C.. 

Starting from 2000, this area became the site of important archaeological discoveries which hit the headlines of scientific papers. The tombs at Braida di Vaglio and Baragiano and the chieftains' houses at Torre di Satriano are some of the important discoveries that came to light thanks to the close relationship of the University of Basilicata and the Archaeological Superintendence.

This tight cooperation led to the “Torre di Satriano Project”: in the words of the author, that specific project “has given back to the scientific community a true role-model, shedding light on the social and settlement phenomena, ritual dynamics and manifestations of power of the italic cultures of south Italy”.

The site of Satriano is considered a key settlement for understanding the area, even in its popular and cultural traits: there you can visit two whole villages, which had maintained residential buildings as well as the better known church. 

The volume edited by L’Erma di Bretschneider contains several references to surveys and excavations, such as important reflections and suggestions about the culture of the “italian people with no name” living in Lucania in the first millennium B.C..

From the development of North Lucania settlements between VIII and VII centuries, to the transformations occurred during the V century, the studying of vases and pottery, building techniques and topography tells a new story about the italian people of southern rural region.

The studies carried on in fifteen years (2000-2014) by the School of Specialisation in the Archaeological Heritage of Matera followed a long tradition of archaeological excavations in Basilicata, which grab the attention of academicians since the 1960s.

The old and the new studies only recently made it possible to understand the development of the area between the Bronze Age and late Middle Ages. The volume intends to be a rational synthesis of all previous publications about archaeological surveys in Basilicata, most of which had involved the author, finally showing something about a people we didn’t really know until now. 

Terra Incognita: the Rediscovery of an Italian People with no Name

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