Prehistoric Sicily, the forgotten archeology in the village of Erbe Bianche is a national disgrace

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The archaeological site of Erbe Bianche in Campobello di Mazara in Sicily lives in total abandonment: an important place where there are remains from the Middle Bronze Age, abandoned by the institutions.

The peculiarities to be a rare archaeological jewel are all there. From the history that makes it one of the most important Middle Bronze Age sites in the Mediterranean to the fascination of the discovery of one of the oldest arms storerooms in Sicily. Yet, immediately after the excavation, a not exactly virtuous management decreed the slow and inexorable decline of the ancient remains in Erbe Bianche, a district of the Municipality of Campobello di Mazara in the province of Trapani. We are in the Selinunte “chora” about three kilometers from the sea. The prehistoric settlement stands on a calcarenite bank, at the gates of the town nestled in the Belice valley, and was investigated by archaeologists in two campaigns, in 1992 and 1995, led by Sebastiano Tusa. To be brought to light are four elliptical huts, obtained from karst cavities and arranged around a circular building delimited by post holes. But an oven and an outdoor cult area also come out.

The Bronze Age village carved into the rocky bank

Taking via Contrada Erbe Bianche, on the outskirts of Campobello, you immediately find yourself in front of a large clearing of uncultivated grass and it is difficult to notice that the archaeological remains lie underneath. The revealing traces are weak, nothing that can clearly and sharply outline the architecture of the pit huts adapted in the detritus of the limestone rock. The surrounding orography suggests a snapshot without human traces. And, instead, here the earth has returned in the nineties of the last century bronze weapons, ceramics including basins on high feet, baking trays, plates, a cup-censer, a colander, two fragments of Aegean vases, antlers of deer which attest to the pastoral vocation of the village, all finds now kept in the museum of Baglio Florio in Selinunte, but never exhibited to the public. On the other hand, the underground dwellings themselves, after the excavation, were suitably hidden with metal roofs to avoid destruction or looting, and they remained like this for thirty years, almost swallowed up by the oblivion of time. There is no protective fence around the huts, the brown sign indicating the presence of a historic-artistic asset is missing, and there is no tourist signage of any kind.

The complaint of the local associations

“The site is completely abandoned – denounces Antonino Gulotta, president of the local section of Archeoclub d’Italia -. The huts are covered with metal sheets, approaching and spying from some cracks you can barely glimpse. In November we organized a flash mob with Legambiente on the spot to sensitize citizens and competent bodies, but nothing has changed. There are no indications, an illuminating beacon, no surveillance, the metal mesh has survived only in a stretch. Anyone can enter and do what they want”. After all, five years ago the seasonal workers who, from Africa and Southern Italy, arrive in this area for the autumn harvest of the renowned olives, such as the magnogreca dop Nocellara del Belice, occupied the Bronze Age huts and camped there between garbage and eternity. There was a cry of scandal, drawing attention to an area already suffering from the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Belice in 1968 and transformed this piece of suburb south of Campobello into a slum for displaced people. The epos of the migrant has therefore gone on to intertwine with the ancient and recent history of the Campobello area. The latter is a succession of ordered rows of olive trees, vineyards, citrus groves, almond groves, in the plain at a hundred meters above sea level (that of Tre Fontane and Torretta Granitola), until you reach the Cusa quarries to the west where the vegetation it evolves into Mediterranean scrub and where the inhabitants of Selinunte extracted the stones to build the gigantic columns of the famous temples. The very name of Campobello preserves the memory of the Latin “campus belli”, a battlefield between Segestani and Selinunte, before the Carthaginians, allied with the former, conquered and destroyed Selinunte in 409 BC Stratified landscapes, therefore, those of Campobello di Mazara. Halfway between Castel Vetrano and Selinunte, territories known for their breathtaking natural beauty and, needless to hide it, for a karstic and invasive presence of organized crime, as echoed in the news reports made up of investigations and operations on the Trapani Cosa Nostra and on the “longa manus” of super-fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro.

How the excavations at Erbe Bianche were born

Eighty-one years old and the energy of a twenty-year-old, quick thinking and passion, Nino speaks competently, as they shorten his name in these parts, and lets himself go back to memories. “The excavations – says the president of Archeoclub Campobello di Mazara – began following reports made to Vincenzo Tusa, Sebastiano’s father, at the time superintendent of cultural heritage. I too indicated to him, as his friend, some interesting places on which Vincenzo then made some essays. I’m not an archaeologist, but a good observer of the soil. The soil speaks for itself. A simple pebble can turn out to be an ancient fragment, a piece of artifact destroyed by the plow, by agricultural cutters. It remains on the surface, yes notes and gives us back the thread of history”. However, the excavation site was opened by Vincenzo’s son, Sebastiano, also a talented archaeologist, an internationally renowned scholar, first superintendent of the sea of ​​the Sicily Region in 2004 and who in 2018 held the position of councilor for cultural heritage of the island, but dies tragically the following year. “Sebastiano – adds Gulotta -, as soon as he was appointed councilor, said to me ‘Nino, I have put the money into the regional budget to be able to complete the expropriation of the Erbe Bianche land and fence it off’, then unfortunately he left us in the cursed flight and everything remained on paper”. Sebastiano Tusa lost his life, at the age of 66, in a plane crash in the skies of Ethiopia on his way to Malindi for an international conference organized by UNESCO on the protection of underwater cultural heritage. The body of the man who was called “the gentle archaeologist” rests in Palermo, in the church of San Domenico, next to that of judge Giovanni Falcone.


The importance of the Campobello site: the huts are unique

Erbe Bianche is the most important archaeological site in western Sicily as far as the middle bronze is concerned – the archaeologist Fabrizio Nicoletti, a close collaborator of Sebastiano Tusa, explains in detail – and one of the most important in the Mediterranean for many reasons. First of all for the absolutely unique architecture of the huts, which finds a punctual comparison only in the coeval settlement found in the municipal technical office of Partanna. The singularity lies in these large tanks dug deep, up to two meters, in such a way that the rock then overhangs as if to form a vault, on which a roof was built. In short, huts partly dug into the rock and partly built, moreover very large with a cult area and hearth plates, a very articulated village. The second reason is that the westernmost Mycenaean fragments of Sicily were found here. And finally, in one of the huts of Erbe Bianche we discovered the bronze armory of a warrior which included three axes, a spearhead and a spike, that is a very strange object which we did not fully understand what it was. The fighter’s kit had probably been hidden in the roof of one of the huts which collapsed”. The pottery found places the settlement between the end of the Middle Bronze Age and the recent Bronze Age, therefore 1300-1200 BC, and can be referred to a western version, and partly original, of the so-called Thapsos-Milazzese “facies”. Recent Bronze that had relations with the eastern Mediterranean, an international facies to be clear. The town was of a certain importance, but it didn’t have a very long life, suddenly something happened and no one ever came back”.

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Indelible excavation pages with Sebastiano Tusa: the discovery of the warrior’s kit

“There were two excavation campaigns – explains Nicoletti –: in 1992, where the clues of the huts and the sacred area were revealed, and in 1995, the most important, lasted a couple of months and I participated under the guidance of Sebastiano”. Thirty years have passed, yet Nicoletti, today an official of the Superintendency of Catania, keeps intact the memories of the entire excavation context. “I remember some earthquake victims’ barracks near our construction site, but also a shed, a former warehouse for mechanical means during the Second World War, which we used to keep the boxes of the finds waiting to be transferred”. Before arriving at the prehistoric huts, the overlying necropolis from the Greek era is excavated. “They were rather poor tombs, but full of human episodes – recalls Nicoletti -: children, dead mothers of birth, pits always dug in the calcarenite bank which at the beginning we also mistook for huts because they were the same”. To the north, the rocky crest called Santo Monte closes the district, welcoming instead the tombs and an artificial grotto of the necropolis of the prehistoric settlement. The moment of discovery of the closet with the weapons is unforgettable. “I still remember the young worker, blond and robust, who was digging – says the Sicilian archaeologist -, he gives a blow of the pickaxe, we were at the level of the collapse of the hut, so we went very hard. At a certain point, the handle emerges of what could have been a spearhead, I saw it immediately because I was in front of him. As soon as it emerged, the young man rushed to extract it, I was about to tell him ‘stop’, but the cry choked in my throat and he extracted the prehistoric spearhead as if it were a sword in the stone, he literally unsheathed it, brandishing it in the air. The construction site went crazy, I lost control of the excavation for a moment, amid jubilation and applause”.

Proposals for the future of the site

The Erbe Bianche website today sleeps the deep sleep of embarrassing neglect. What should be done to awaken it? “First of all, it is necessary to connect it with that of the Cusa Caves, which are about three kilometers away – explains Gulotta of Archeoclub -, to create a single archaeological itinerary, but also a tourist-cultural one because Campobello di Mazara is full of treasures”. Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, French, Spaniards have come and gone in these places. They have left traces like those men who inhabited the huts of Erbe Bianche. Now the havoc of forgetfulness seems to be tolerated even by a distracted public opinion. «In these parts – sums up Nino with his wise concreteness – they say that with culture you don’t eat and it is useless and dangerous to denounce abandonments. We, on the other hand, believe that defending our history means valuing it. And therefore create wealth of spirit and resources».

The article is in Italian

Tags: Prehistoric Sicily forgotten archeology village Erbe Bianche national disgrace

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