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Karstic caves in prehistoric Apulia

Date of Submission: 01/06/2006
Criteria: (i)(ii)(iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities
State, Province or Region:

Region: Puglia - Province: Lecce

Coordinates: Region: Puglia - Province: Lecce
Ref.: 5011

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The Salento peninsula is a uniform lowland area on the southeastern tip of Apulia. Like the Gargano and the Murge - the two sub-regions bordering on the Adriatic Sea, located more to the north - it is composed of limestone and, exactly because of its geological features, it shows karstic phenomena that have given rise to several natural caves, of which some are currently located along the coastline. Among such caves, the Grotta Romanelli (Castro) and the Grotta delle Veneri at Parabita - both inhabited during the Palaeolithic Age - are some of the best famous caves from an archaeological viewpoint on account of their artistic findings, with the Grotta dei Cervi at Porto Badisco that is a remarkable and unique evidence of  post-palaeolithic rock painting.

In the Grotta Romanelli there have been found traces of a Tyrrhenian beach from the Riss-Würm interglacial period (about 120,000-80,000 years ago); limestone flake tools from the mid-Palaeolithic have been collected, preceding the rich layers from the Upper Palaeolithic. In addition to the typical stone industry - named after the type-site ‘Romanellian' -, bone tools and limestone stones bearing naturalistic engravings (bovid, feline, deer, boar, etc.) or else geometric shapes - also visible on the walls of the cave - have been found. Two small-sized female figurines carved in bone - which are especially interesting artistic manufacts from the Upper Palaeolithic - have been also found in the Grotta delle Veneri, where human occupation can be documented from the Mousterian Age until the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

The Grotta dei Cervi close to the village Porto Badisco, with its corridors decorated with paintings dating back to the Neolithic Age, completes the picture of the artistic and cognitive skills pertaining to the ancient dwellers of this region. The cave was discovered in 1970 by a group of speleologists, who called it ‘Grotta di Enea' on the basis of a local tradition; later on it was named ‘Grotta dei Cervi' because of the presence of paintings showing deers. The Grotta dei Cervi is of karstic origin and contains the largest as well as the most important set of paintings from the European Neolithic, thanks to the hundreds of pictures painted on the walls of its galleries and in the many chambers it is composed of. The archaeological findings show that human dwellers started inhabiting the cave between the mid-Neolithic (facies of Masseria La Quercia and Serra d'Alto) and the early Chalcolithic (facies of Piano Conte) - when some corridors became obstructed. The paintings were created during this time span (about 4,000-3,000 b.C.), although it is difficult to determine their precise chronological sequence; however, many graphic elements (cross-shaped, comb-shaped, spiral-shaped, etc.) are especially similar to the decorations that feature in the Neolithic facies of Masseria La Quercia and Serra d'Alto. Figurative elements in the shape of human beings, dogs, and deer - often giving rise to hunting scenes - are especially frequent in the area that is closest to the entrance of the cave, whilst they become less frequent, and ultimately dwindle to nothing, as one moves towards the remoter parts of the galleries; here there predominate hand-shaped marks and abstract motifs that are more difficult to interpret. The groups of paintings, mostly in brown and only exceptionally in red, are located along three corridors for a total length of about 400 m; the galleries are separated by narrowings, deposit conoids, dry-stone walls, and steps. Their distribution shows that the different sections of the cave were intended for different purposes, bears testimony to the use of the cave as a place of worship, and is an outstanding example of the spiritual sphere of the populations from the Neolithic Age.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The karstic caves of prehistoric Apulia are absolutely authentic properties since their peculiarities and morphology allow ruling out any interventions aimed at restoring and/or replacing the relevant findings. The first entrance (west entrance) to the Porto Badisco cave was detected in 1970 after removing the rubble that had obstructed it; a second entrance (east entrance), similarly obstructed by rubble, could only be detected in 1975. Therefore, the cave had been "sealed" by its archaeological deposits.

The generally good preservation of the paintings is closely related to the stable temperature (about 16° C) and humidity (92% to 99%) conditions in the galleries.

As regards integrity, the individual properties are legally protected by national laws (Legislative decree no. 42/2004, containing the "Code on Cultural Heritage and Landscape") as well as by regional legislation (landscape planning instruments) and municipal measures, in addition to management mechanisms aimed at ensuring their protection and conservation.

Comparison with other similar properties

The concept of prehistoric art is immediately reminiscent of the spectacular paintings (bovids, deers, roebucks, horses, mammoths, etc.) from the Upper Palaeolithic - dating back to about 15,000 years ago - that can be seen on the walls of many caves in the French-Cantabric region, including some world-renowned locations such as Altamira (Santander) in Spain and Lascaux (Montignac) in France. In particular, the latter cave was nicknamed the prehistoric "Sistine chapel" on account of the complex pictorial compositions it contains. The artistic language, which is one of the highest forms of symbolic expression by a community, evolved over time. A significant example of this evolution is provided by the paintings - showing animals, men, women, hunting and dancing scenes, etc. - in the Eastern regions of Spain, which are typical, in particular, of the 6th and 5th millennium; the post-Palaeolithic schematic art would appear to be grounded on this experience. In Europe, the wall paintings from the late prehistoric age - which are usually difficult to date because stratigraphic information is missing, even though they probably cover a time span ultimately reaching up to the end of the Bronze Age - are to be found in the southern regions and show their peak concentration in southeastern Spain and some examples in France, Corsica, Italy and Malta. The wall paintings of the Grotta dei Cervi are composed of realistic figurative elements, which - though schematic - are reminiscent of real objects, as well as of non-figurative elements, both symbolic and abstract. The former are significantly comparable with the schematic art of southeastern Spain, southern France, Corsica and some paintings in Sicilian caves (Grotta del Monte Mirabella, Grotta di Za' Minica) - in particular with the Grotta dei Genovesi at Levanzo, which was one of the most important pictorial documents of late prehistory in the Mediterranean prior to the discovery of the Porto Badisco cave.

Conversely, the non-figurative, symbolic and abstract elements can be compared with paintings - not always superimposable from a chronological viewpoint - found in Malta, in the Hal Saflieni underground temple, Bulgaria (Magura cave), and Romania.

Close similarities are also to be descried with the paintings (S-shaped elements, serpentines, human shapes) found in the Grotta Cosma, which is a few kilometres from the Grotta dei Cervi at Porto Badisco. However, the latter remains unique on account of the quality and complexity of its paintings as well as because of the multivarious artistic styles that can be evidenced; indeed, it can be regarded as a sort of "sanctuary", where the "intellectual" art of the Neolithic Age is related to a complex system of symbols rather than merely to the feeling of mystery resulting from its setting.