Scaloria Cave: The Back Story

Ernestine S. Elster November 2010

Caves have a certain mystery—their contents a secret until we enter—adjusting to the dim light and strange environment.  Then we peer inside, as did Howard Carter at the tomb of Tutankhamen on Feb. 16, 1923, to discover, as he did,  “...wondrous things.”

Two seas, the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, and seven years separated Carter's discovery and the discovery of Grotta Scaloria  in 1931 [Map 2]. Not to mention the 2,500-year difference between the time that burials were placed in the Upper Chamber of Grotta Scaloria and the time that Tutankhamen was interred in 2500 BC.

Perhaps it is a bit outrageous to compare burials from such disparate regions, cultures, and times but the human response to discovery unites the experiences of Howard Carter in Egypt in 1923 and Quintino Quagliati in Italy in 1931.  A rock fall had closed the entrance to Grotta Scaloria for thousands of year, just as Egyptian burial rites kept Tutankhamun’s tomb untouched for millenia.

While  the United States was enduring the early years of the Great Depression, Italy was also suffering economically although a few public work projects were underway.  One of these, the excavations for an aqueduct on the Tavoliere Plain near the rising landscape of the Gargano Peninsula [Map 3], revealed a fissure in the ground–a break in the ceiling of  a cave–Grotta Scaloria.  Professor Quagliati, Superintendent  of Apulian Antiquities undertook a general reconnaissance of the cave between September and November of 1931, observing numerous flexed burials [Figure 1],
much pottery recognized as Early Neolithic [Figure 2], abundant flint tools, polished stone tools, and many bones.  He never had time to investigate the possibility of another chamber beyond the one that he so briefly explored.   One thing that he was able to determine, however, was that the chamber he explored had been used to inter human remains  Today, much of what was collected from the Upper Chamber many of his collections is on display and in storage in the Taranto and Manfredonia Museums.

Scaloria Cave was closed for many years after Quagliati's untimely death in 1936 from malaria. However, two other Apulian scholars, Ciro Drago and  Superintendent of Apulian Antiquities and archaeologist, Ugo Rellini, studied the finds and undertook a short exploration into  the Grotto in 1936, the same year that a volume by Quagliati's  on

Figure 1.

the antiquity of Apulia was published.   World War II then interfered most decidedly and no official work was undertaken during the war years (although reports indicate illegal entry into the cave by treasure hunters). Certainly the loss of some artifactual materials occurred over time.  Time and again the authorities secured the entrance to the cave but tombaroli continued to find their way in.   Scaloria Cave h
ad been “ found and lost” and would be found again....

Rediscovery happened decades later in the person of some young speleologists [Figure 3], who, rather illegally, entered the cave and discovered the spectacular Lower Chamber [Figure 4] .  This was no mean feat for to reach it they had to crawl on all fours through a long, narrow passageway.   Once there, a fabulous sight rewarded them:  a soaring chamber with stalactites, stalagmites and a large central pool of water  In addition, abundant cultural materials littered the ground:  stone tools, human bone, and pottery fragments. The year was 1967 and Scaloria

Figure 2.

Cave had been found again.

Enter Professor Santo Tinè (19xx - 2010) , who was known to all as the éminence gris of the Tavoliere Plain.  He included the young discoverers and another speleological team from Trieste when he began the first systematic mapping and collection of the materials from the cave's two chambers .

Eugenia Isetti wrote in her chapter on the history of Scaloria research that during his first exploration. Tinè observed numerous vessels that the Neolithic visitors to the cave had placed to collect the dripping liquid that forms stalagmites.  One must imagine the extraordinary realization that these “...wondrous things” had been unseen and unmoved for some 5000 years! [Figure 4.]

Figure 3.

Beginning in 1967, Santo Tinè, his students from the University of Genoa, and members of the Apulian Antiquities Department undertook several limited explorations (see Tinè 1971; 1972; Tinè and Isetti 1975, 1980) and reported their findings at national and international conferences. At a Conference in Valcamonica in 1972, the late Marija Gimbutas [Figure 5], Professor of European Archaeology at the University of California, Los

Figure 4.

Angeles, was also a participant. Her abiding interest in prehistoric cult practice drew her to Santo Tinè's presentation of the unusual ritual nature of Grotta Scaloria. Soon the two scholars, Tinè and Gimbutas undertook plans for a joint project to be entitled “The Neolithic of South-East Italy” which would feature a systematic excavation of the two chambers at Scaloria and an environmental study of the region.

UCLA's Institute of Archaeology and University of Genoa's Instituto Italiano per L'archeologia Sperimentale sponsored two intensive excavation seasons in 1978 and 1979, followed by a preliminary study season in 1980 directed by Gimbutas and Ernestine S. Elster PhD. This study season took place in the Manfredonia Museum where many of all the materials from Tinè’s earlier explorations of the Cave and those from the joint UCLA/University of Genoa project are stored.

Following this promising start, Scaloria was “lost” again as several of these scholars moved in different directions.  Professor Gimbutas died in 1994 but during her last weeks asked, or rather insisted, that Dr. Elster promise to see that the Scaloria Cave material was published.  Scaloria was Marija Gimbutas' single unpublished excavation; she had seen all the others to press: Obre (Gimbutas 1974), Anzabegovo (Gimbutas 1976); Sitagroi  (Renfrew et al 1986; Elster and Renfrew 2003), and Achilleion (Gimbutas et al 1989). Years passed but serendipity arrived again in 2003 in the person of Professor John Robb, himself a veteran of several seasons of excavation in Calabria, Southern Italy

Robb offered his help in contacting Professor Tinè in order to begin the effort needed to revive such a long neglected project and with Tinè's encouragement and participation of his former students Dr. Eugenia Isetti and Dr. Antonella Traverso, Elster took up the Save Scaloria project that has, ultimately, brought us to the creation of this web page

Figure 5.


Grotta Scaloria:

The Emergence of Ritual in
Neolithic Italy