Sasso delle Fate prehistoric petroglyphs

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TRACCE no. 8 – by Daniela Burroni

Prehistoric Petroglyphs at Sasso delle Fate Monte San Savino -Tuscany (Italy).
In 1995 the archaeological group “G.F.Gamurrini” noted the presence of petroglyphs carved in a large boulder situated near Monte San Savino, a small hill town in eastern Tuscany (Figure 1).

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In the summer of the same year, during a survey of the area, we took photographs and carried out a tracing of the visible petroglyphs according to the method described by Arcá (1995) and Fossati, Jaffe and Abreu (1990). This field work was followed by a preliminary study with the results briefly summarised here.

The location of Monte san Savino (Arezzo)

Figure 1: the location of Monte san Savino (Arezzo)

The site
The large boulder with petroglyphs is known to the locals asSasso delle Fate which means ‘Rock of the Fairies’, a familiar name in Italian archaeology especially in the Etruria region where a number of caves or shelters, identified as prehistoric settlements or burial sites, are called Buca delle Fate (for a list of the sites under this name see Radmilli 1978).

The wooded hill where the boulder is situated is indicated on the topographic map asMonte Polli. It is an area particularly rich in springs and is the property ofSantafiora, a company that sells mineral water. TheSasso delle Fate is located at an altitude of 350 metres above sea level, almost at the top of a narrow valley cut by a stream calledVescina. Nature has shaped the rock in a very peculiar way, with smooth and rounded parts, holes and crevices. The final effect is a gigantic “sculpture” that calls to mind a “human face” (Figure 2)

The shape of the boulder, together with its panoramic location, and the possible presence in the vicinity of a spring could explain why this particular rock, and not others nearby, was chosen for the petroglyphs.

Figure 2: the boulder with petroglyphs knwn as <em>Sasso delle Fate</em>. The dimensions are about 3x4x5 m

Figure 2: the boulder with petroglyphs knwn asSasso delle Fate. The dimensions are about 3x4x5 m

From the geological point of view theSasso delle Fate is a sandstone belonging to the Tertiary formation calledMacigno toscano. This kind of sandstone is the base rock and frequently out crops in the area.

The motifs
The pecked motifs on theSasso delle Fate are located on three sides of the boulder: the top, the south and the north sides. The are represented by some of the typical recurrent thematic elements in the art of the prehistoric pastoral-farming communities including a schematic human figure, a spiral, lines and cup-marks.

The human figure is on the top of the boulder and it is about 15 cm long (Figure 3).

A few elements of the body are delineated and in a very schematic way, and it could be interpreted in more than one way, we propose that it is a male figure, with the body depicted by a simple line, as are the arms, which lie perpendicular to the body. The legs are V-shape, spread apart, and in between a very large phallus is represented. The right hand holds an arched tool. The face looks East. Next to the male figure there are a few small cup-marks, about one cm. in diameter and few millimetres in depth. A large concentration of similar small cup-marks can be found one meter north of this figure.

On the south and north facing sides of the boulder only geometrical motifs are present. On the south facing side, within a natural round concavity, there is a simple spiral departing from a central dot or cup mark, it is about 30 cm .in diameter (Figure 4). Above and left of the spiral are some parallel lines carved inside and on the edge of a natural crevice, which is 25 cm. in length and 5 cm. in width. Immediately below and to the left of the crevice a cluster of small cup marks can be found.

On the north facing side there are a few more geometrical motifs: a group of cup marks connected by U shape lines; a single line 5 to 6 cm. long, and a single cup mark at the centre of a natural round concavity.

Concerning the technique of decoration, the motifs were picked onto the natural rock surface by making a series of small pits, using a sharp, pointed implement. It is possible that the motifs were incised or scratched prior to the direct percussion, to mark out a guide-line. It seems also that the line of picking was finished by rubbing with a pebble to produce a continuous grooved line. This is because the small pits are very blurred, but natural weathering could also be the cause for why they are now so indistinct.

Figure 3: the schematic human figure

Figure 3: the schematic human figure

Of a different technique and age is an alignment of spindle-shaped carvings along the top of the boulder about one meter west of the human figure. They were presumably executed for the practical purpose of sharpening metal tools. Possibly contemporary are some motifs similar to the capital letter “T” and two similar to the capital letter “E,” found underlying grooves forming the spindles, and realised with the scratching technique.

It is very likely that more petroglyphs are present. The rock remains partly covered by moss and lichens and the top is partially covered by sediment. Unfortunately, the top was used until not long ago as a floor for the production of charcoal and the fires have damaged the rock surface and made it very brittle.

Correlations and conclusions
The reference area for the rock art in Italy is Valcamonica, a valley of the river Oglio flowing through the Lombard Alps, North of lake Iseo. For several millennia pastoral-farming communities in this valley used rock art as a means to express their religious ideas and beliefs. More than 200,000 petroglyphs are present, and encompass a variety of motifs, styles, and techniques (Anati 1960, 1975, 1982; Priuli 1983, 1985; Fossati, Jaffe and Abreu 1990). The other important alpine rock art site is Mount Bego in the Maritime Alps, near Tenda (France) where 35,000 pecked figures are recorded. Here the prehistoric motifs are mainly represented by horned figures, and also include weapons, grids and rare human figures (De Lumley 1995).

Figure 4: the spiral departing from the central dot or cup mark

Figure 4: the spiral departing from the central dot or cup mark

For Valcamonica, where the variety of motifs is much greater and a refined typology in operation, several chronological phases have been identified using a relative dating method. It is based upon the comparison of stylistic elements; techniques used to produce the petroglyphs, cross-dating of depicted objects with those found in archaeological sites, and the superposition of petroglyphs.
Without denying the validity of these criteria, there are still some doubts regarding the rock art chronology in Italy. For example, a date for the beginning of the rock art in Valcamonica in the VI millennium ( Anati 1982) does not seem supported by archaeological data and we prefer to place the beginning around 4000 BC (calibrated) as this seems to be the case in the region of Val D’Aosta where some motifs of the earliest phases are represented (Burroni and Mezzena 1988). However, there are not many petroglyphs in Valcamonica that can be related to the beginning of the rock art tradition because it is mainly during the Bronze Age and, in particular, the Iron Age when it seems to evolve and grow in this valley.

The human and geometrical motifs in Valcamonica, which are similar to the ones represented at the site ofSasso delle Fate, have the following chronological characteristics: the human motifs in the earlier phases are more schematic, while later they are represented in a more naturalistic way and as part of descriptive scenes such as armed combats and other activities.

The geometrical motifs such as circles, spirals, lines and cup-marks do not change significantly over time, but they are more frequent in the earlier phases. If these chronological indicators are applicable to the Apennines and also Tuscany, then theSasso delle Fate petroglyphs should be stylistically related to one of the earliest phases.

Very few prehistoric sites are known in Monte San Savino, among those known are two interesting recent findings: a lithic assemblage that includes a flint arrowhead in a locality calledCastellare, and an Eneolithic burial in the locality calledSan Bartolomeo delle Vertighe. Both were found during agricultural activities involving deep excavations. Unfortunately, the lithic assemblage is not supplemented with ceramic artefacts, and therefore it is difficult to date except to state that the arrowhead does not predate the Neolithic. According to the finders the burial was a simple pit dug in the ground with a single individual. Among the grave goods recovered are two copper daggers and a flint arrowhead. The artefacts have affinities with a tradition called Rinaldone, dated to the 3rd millennium BC (uncalibrated), and found in southern Tuscany and Lazio. Apart from the funerary practices, very little is known about this Copper Age culture of central Italy.

In northern Italy during the Copper Age the customs of carving natural rock surfaces and standing stones were particularly strong and could have easily reached Tuscany during that time. This hypothesis would be supported if the eneolithic burial and theSasso delle Fate petroglyphs are associated. In any case, the two archaeological sites are only a few kilometres away from theSasso delle Fate.

Petroglyphs in northern Italy are often found in elevated locations at the margin between the low fertile land and the high mountains. The location of theSasso delle Fate can be considered analogous as it lies at the margin between the low plain and fertile river terraces and the more rocky and densely wooded upland.

It is also significant that the Rock of the Fairy is in the vicinity of a trail used until recently by transhumant herders going between the Apennines and the Maremma on the Tyrhennian coast according to the season of the year.

The practice of seasonal pastoral transhumance began during the Neolithic and continued onward. It is reasonable to consider that this same trail, along theVescina stream, was used by prehistoric shepherds and theSasso delle Fate represented one of their ritual centres.

In conclusion, although the Alps remain the centre of a central Mediterranean rock art tradition, and very likely the place of origins of rock art in Italy, we know that it is a tradition not restricted to this area, but extends to the Ligurian Apennines at Finale (Graziosi 1974, Odetti and Ravaggia 1985, Tizzoni 1975).

The Sasso delle Fate–despite that it is at moment isolated and with few motifs represented–is significant because it is the most southern open rock art site in Italy and it shows that this tradition was also known in the Tuscan Apennine and pre-Appennine area. More evidence is needed to date and identify the cultural tradition responsible for the Sasso delle Fate petroglyph, yet something interesting seems emerging already. It would appear that the same symbols, and the religious beliefs and rituals they imply, continued to be shared by different cultural groups in northern and central Italy throughout the Metal Ages. The presence of the same rock art motifs cannot, in fact, be a casual coincidence.

Daniela Burroni
MLT Centre, Arts Tower, The University of Sheffield
S10 2SB, Sheffield, England


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2nd International Congress of Rupestrian Archaeology

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