The San Pellegrino rock-hewn complex at Matera: a magnificent example of the rupestrian culture in Southern Italy. Lionetti G., Borneo V., Santarcangelo S., Pelosi M., Parise M.


Lionetti G. 1, Borneo V. 2, Santarcangelo S. 2, Pelosi M. 1, Parise M.2,3

1 Freelance, Matera, Italy
2 Centro Altamurano Ricerche Speleologiche, Altamura, Italy
3 CNR–IRPI, Bari, Italy (

The town of Matera is worldwide known for the remarkable development of the inhabited area, one of the best examples of the so–called rupestrian culture, consisting in settlements formed by houses and shelters carved in the rocks, especially along the faces of deep valleys (locally called gravine). Physical properties of the local rock allowed to use the natural caves and shelters, and to enlarge them, to create even very complex, multi–stories, settlements. Due to richness of such evidence, and the magnificent natural scenario in which the town is located, Matera was listed in the World Cultural Heritage Sites by Unesco in 1993.
This contribution describes a complex of caves located at the southern outskirts of town, in locality Ofra, consisting of four different levels of natural and man–made cavities, along the right cliff of the gravina. Named San Pellegrino, the cave complex is situated in an area that shows at the surface several archaeological evidence, testifying a long occupation of the site. About in the same area, in many other caves remarkable prehistoric remnants have repeatedly been brought to light.
The San Pellegrino complex follows the geological passage between the Cretaceous limestone bedrock, and the overlying Plio–Pleistocene calcarenites. Natural caves developed typically at the contact, mainly formed as rock shelters, or phreatic caves of limited length. They were later on modified by man, that also excavated further rooms at higher levels, thus creating the overall multi–story complex.
Since its origin, San Pellegrino was dedicated to agriculture and breeding, mainly for sheep and goats. This is testified by the high walls realized at the lowest entrance of the system, to create a space where to control of the herds. Two underground spaces were, on the other hand, dedicated to beekeeping. At the surface, the highplain shows farmyards for cereal ventilation, holes to host poles to sustain the vineyards, and water cisterns to collect the rainfall. In the central part of the complex, the rupestrian church is placed, also with a function of burial–place.
The overall complex is of high historical importance, but it is at present in a very degraded state, being affected by diffuse instability processes, testified by past falls, unstable blocks, and a pervasive system of cracks. The instability throughout the history of the site is also testified by changes in the distribution of the spaces, and by sustaining pillars in calcarenites in the most dangerous places, as well as by new passages, realized to overcome the obstacles created by the occurrence of rockfalls.

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