From the Neolithic to the Present Day: a journey through the history of mankind
Mankind’s presence in Arneo, evidenced by the Neolithic remains found in various parts of the region, dates back to the prehistoric age and subsequent pre-Roman settlements. There is evidence, visible in the archaeological complex of Serra Cicora at of the presence of the Messapi people. Numerous utensils found there are now kept in the museums of Taranto and Lecce and consist of: redfigure vases, skiphoi, trozzellas, strigils, inscriptions, stone medallions, loom weights and oil lamps. Some isolated tombs have been found in the Nardò area, at Sciminale, Ingegna and Olivastro farms, along the local road to Leverano and close to the town gate, Porta Castello. There is another protohistoric settlement at Scalo di Furno, in the Porto Cesareo area, consisting of a village of huts. The finds discovered and recovered near to the coast give evidence of intense trade with the African and Oriental coasts, both before and during the Roman conquest. Recovery work was started recently, thanks to an intervention co-financed by GAL Terra d’Arneo and the Municipality of Porto Cesareo. Others are still in progress. In addition, it has been shown that, during the Messapic period, workshops were producing pottery for everyday use in Arneo. Torre Chianca stands on palaeosoil composed of minute fragments of broken glass of this type and, both at Scalo di Furno and on the Strea peninsula, kilns for the firing of such articles. The scarcity of evidence following this period is due to the presence of the Romans. They used this area as a place to keep slaves and peasants, administering it through urban centres captured from the Messapi. During Trajan’s rule, a road was built to provide a more integrated and better distributed road between Taranto (ancient capital of Magna Graecia), Brindisi and Lecce, with the addition of the Via Traiana Salentina.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the barbarian invasions disturbed the social and economic microcosm of the Arneo, eventually causing the first wave of swamping. This was later drained as part of the work of reclamation and prudent colonization carried out by the Basilian monks, who revolutionized the cultural, social and rural microcosm of Salento. The Basilians then went through a period of deep crisis due to the continual invasions of the Saracens, Normans, Angevins and Aragonese. Driven off the farms, the people who survived the massacres and kidnapping migrated inland. There, they organized themselves in fortified locations for defensive purposes, giving rise to primitive communes, administered by feudatories. The last manifestation of central power in this period came with the construction of small for- tresses, inland and along the coast, on the orders of Emperor Frederick II. Towers and castles took the place of almost every one of the “specchie”, which were demolished, to provide building material for the new structures. All the other fortifications built on the orders of the great emperor were substantially adapted over the following centuries, to improve their defensive characteristics. On the ruins of the granges and Byzantine hamlets, farms grew up, to accommodate the essential services and personnel to rear animals and pro- vide a safe shelter against incursions and limit the effects of malaria out- breaks. The Arneo was furthermore organizing itself for the construction of watchtowers and other forms of resistance against Saracen, Turkish and Slav pirates, by building a dense network of coastal towers. Each tower was built within sight of the other and the inland fortified farmhouses could communicate with them. The sheepfolds and cattle sheds also date from this period: the former are stone sheep pens containing a shed with a fireplace and a well or cistern, where the shepherds could milk the animals and rest. The cattle sheds were refuges consisting of a very large stone building with one or more star vaults, and at the centre a large fireplace and niches to the sides in which one or two people could lie down. The cattle sheds were soon replaced by “caseddhre”, ”furnieddri” or “pajare”, typical forms of rural dry stone buildings (which are in some ways similar to trulli), whose function was both to provide shelter from the rain and intense heat for the people engaged in seasonal processing or supervision of the harvest, and as a lookout against possible attack. Because of its position at the centre of the Mediterranean, Salento and the Terra d’Arneo have, willy-nilly, been participants in and victims of the great historical events and changes that they brought about. For example, the victory at Lepanto was an event that opened up a new era of peace, industry and affluence: very soon, castles were transformed into comfortable aristocratic houses; high towers became the homes of thousands of doves; and town squares were adorned with churches and bell towers. Trade and agriculture flourished again; but, at the same time, solitude and fear still reigned in the vast Arneo plain. The long period of neglect had left most of the region marshy, giving rise to continual waves of malaria that claimed lives in every town. In 1860, when Salento became part of the Kingdom of Italy, the wild and isolated Arneo region now a collection of large estates involved partly in olive production and sheep farming - became the backdrop for the development of banditry. This phenomenon, in all its violence, was a natural reaction to the poverty and injustice created by the corrupt government and landowners of the period. The new government, not knowing exactly what the situation was in the South of the country, imposed heavy taxes on the people, as well as conscription, which forced many men to take refuge in the maquis. Compulsory education was also established. However, this created opposition, due to the insufficiency of teachers and schools and the fact that it took manpower from rural communities. In the 20th century, governments led by Giovanni Giolitti approved special legislation to finance public works which, however, did not have the de- sired effects. This led many peasants to escape the misery of the country- side by emigrating. In the aftermath of the 2nd World War, the Southern Question again became a central point of debate and the cause of much political and social strife in Italy. The left-wing parties led the peas- ants in their struggle to have a share of the uncultivated land of large estate owners, which finally resulted in the long-awaited Land Reform.The Transitional Law passed by the Government and the occupation of land by the peasants, against which the police even shot at demonstrators, ended in bitter disappointment from the point of view of the peasants’ hopes and demands. The rest is history. The Arneo region, as it proudly regains its cultural identity, is striving to grow and develop together with the whole of Salento. However, the still unresolved problems and contradictions remain. The increase in rural tourist accommodation in the last decade, promoted by GAL Terra d’Arneo with investment programmer aimed at recuperating and redeveloping this so often disparaged region, represents an opportunity for an economic and social renaissance in the area. The special nature of the landscape, the quality of life, the natural beauty, the hospitality of its people and the many fine traditional products offer great promise to a land that has a unique fascination.