A view of the Sassi with some of the prehistoric caves visible on the left across the canyon. The Civita, the ancient fortified city, is the highest central area around where the cathedral bell tower is visible.
The Sassi of Matera are famous for being one of the oldest continuously inhabited (since the Paleolithic era) settlements in the world, second only to Petra, Jordan. Since the Sassi developed over many different periods, the result is a sort of organized confusion. I found the Sassi interesting because they are so multi-layered, and I was curious about the history of the city and the history of the caves that I could see in the distance behind the Sassi on the other side of the canyon. Here’s what I found out about the basic early history of Matera (continues after the photos).
These photos were all taken on the west bank of the canyon and show the area and some of the caves where the first settlements were located.
These two photos show parts of the interior and ancient frescoes of the rock church called Madonna delle tre Porte.
These impressions in the stone are part of an ancient water collection and filtration system.
Human presence in Matera began not in the Sassi but in the caves on the other side of the Gravina canyon. The Sassi developed on the east bank of the Gravina stream, while the plateau and sloping sides of the west bank, called the Murgia, were the seat of early settlements starting in the Paleolithic era.
A complete skeleton of a Neanderthal man, known as l’uomo di Altamura (the Altamura man) has even been found in il Pulo di Altamura, a few kilometers from Matera, showing the archeological richness of the Murgia.
Archaeological finds, including dwellings, burial places, and temples, have been discovered in the Murgia from the Paleolithic period, where nomadic groups lived in the natural caves along the steep sides of the Gravina.
The inhabitants of the Murgia in the Neolithic period were no longer nomadic but were shepherds and cultivated terraced plots on the slopes of the canyon. People lived in villages consisting of huts with wooden poles, evidenced by the holes in the rock for the poles, and they dug defensive trenches around their villages. Three villages sprang up in this area, two on the west bank and one on the east bank where the central part, called the Civita, of the Sassi now stands. The villages were arranged around a natural water reservoir and they represent the first socially organized communities in the Murgia.
These early people dug cisterns in the rock to gather and filter rainwater and to irrigate their cultivated plots. They also dug out containing spaces for their herds and smaller cisterns that served as drinking troughs for their animals, and they made walls, paths, wells, dykes, and terraced fields.
The existence of better tools in the Bronze and Iron ages made it easier to dig into the tufo, the soft tufa rock of the canyon walls. The rock across the stream on the east bank of the Gravina was softer and more easy to excavate, and it was there that the town known as the Sassi started to develop.
In fact, during the Metal Ages, two of the Neolithic villages disappeared and the one on the east bank, located on a rocky spur, continued to be inhabited and became the oldest part of the Sassi (the Civita.)
Matera consisted of simple agropastoral settlements during the Greek and Roman periods. During the High Middle Ages the Lombards arrived and built defensive walls to protect against the Byzantines in bordering Puglia, rebuilding the settlement several times after invasions during the Lombard-Byzantine clashes from 867 to 994. With the establishment of political, administrative, and military powers, the hamlet turned into a city and the Civita, the ancient fortified citadel, was born.
Starting in the tenth century, groups of shepherds had begun to settle on the east bank and dig out rough dwellings in the tufa. By the time the Normans arrived in the year 1000, Matera consisted of a fortified city center (the Civita) with rural groups of houses excavated along the steep rocky sides of the east bank of the Gravina, outside of the perimeter of the Civita.
In the course of the following centuries, the Sassi expanded and Matera became the seat of religious settlements, rock churches, convents, and monasteries. The built-up areas gradually became more complex and turned into the other two districts of the Sassi, the Sasso Caveoso and the Sasso Barisano. This scheme gave life to a most interesting urban complex admired for its organization and harmony with the natural environment.
-Giardini di pietra. I Sassi di Matera e la civiltà mediterranea by Pietro Laureano