The Lunigiana stele statues

An anthropomorphic figure, which seems to have re-emerged from a forgotten and primitive age of man, stares at visitors with an enigmatic archaic smile. The statue, made of sandstone, has a semicircular head; its stylised face has a simple U-shape, but mysteriously takes on an expressiveness that transcends time, and seems to look into the depths of the psyche. As if it were an existential archetype, that stele statue reflects the primordial essence of humanity and hypnotically captures us by its figure. The sculpture’s stiff hands rest on its lap where a dagger is depicted. The weapon has a triangular blade and a long handle, a sign perhaps of an ancestral power, of a disturbing force that has come down to us.

Stele statue ‘group B’ found at Cavallino di Taponecco by Antonio Travaglini in 1975. Lunigiana Stele Statue Museum in Pontremoli

The mysterious stele statues

That mysterious figure with such ancestral features is not unique. In the Lunigiana Stele Statue Museum in Pontremoli there are at least sixty, including originals and casts. Some of them have oval heads, others have breasts, and a few have the stylised characters of stylised jewels. All stele statues were found in Lunigiana, and nowhere else. In this historical region of Italy, they have always been a familiar presence and, like all things we take for granted, were almost unnoticed by ordinary people. Sculptures were often found by peasants and reused in huts and retaining walls [1], chicken coops and even churches, without anyone really wondering what their significance was. Sometimes they were even feared and hidden as they were believed to be ancient pagan idols or demonic figures.

Nevertheless, since the 1950s, a new awareness of the study and rediscovery of antiquity began in Lunigiana. The pioneer of this cultural process was Professor Cesare Ambrosi [2], who had the merit of spreading the historical and archaeological value of the stele statues. Thus, the inhabitants of the region became an active part of a great and exciting research. The stele statues re-emerged from the ground and from the construction in which they were reused, so everyone realised that those strange hat-shaped heads contained the primordial seeds of that land. Cesare Ambrosi collected the findings and first organised an exhibition of the monoliths in Casola; then, in 1975, the innovative museum at Piagnaro Castle in Pontremoli was founded.

Some stele statues of the “Groppoli group” found between 2000 and 2005. Lunigiana Stele Statue Museum in Pontremoli

Lunigiana stele statues as a symbol of identity

Stele statues were already known to scholars since the first half of the 19th century, although it was unknown how widespread they were. In fact, the first discoveries in Zignago (1827) and La Spezia (1886, near the arsenal) date back to that century. However, these were fortuitous discoveries, and only in 1968 a stratigraphic archaeological excavation revealed a monolith in Minucciano. As public interest grew, the number of discoveries increased considerably, and it soon became evident that the stele statues were part of a well-defined geographical area, Lunigiana, and in most cases the Magra valley, where the river of the same name meets the Aulella and Taverone streams.

The distribution of the findings in Lunigiana, Lunigiana Stele Statue Museum in Pontremoli

Classification of Lunigiana stele statues

The creation of the stele statues had extraordinarily maintained certain distinctive, identifying characteristics of this region over millennia. The statues belong to a long period, between the Copper Age (4th-3rd millennium B.C.) and the arrival of the Etruscans in Lunigiana (6th century B.C.), and are a testimony of the prehistoric and protohistoric civilisations. Nevertheless, all statues are carved from the same local sandstone, using a basic technique that has been preserved over time. The block of stone was first carved in geometric proportions, later the bas-relief was made by removing superfluous material. This is how weapons, hands, faces and other anatomical details appeared from the bare sandstone by means of lithic tools and flint blades.

Lunigiana statues reproduce male and female anthropomorphic figures. They are characterised by common and distinctive elements, including semi-circular head, slab-shaped body, detailed hands on the belly and female breasts. However, the Lunigiana monoliths have distinctive features that allow us to classify them into three groups, named with the letters A, B and C. They differ in the type of sandstone modelling and the symbolic and iconographic motifs that characterise the anthropomorphic figure.

Group A stele statues

The statues of group A are characterised by a strong stylisation. They are the oldest monoliths, dating back to the Eneolithic age (from the 4th-3rd millennium BC). These sculptures have no neck, the semi-circular head stands directly on the geometric body, and is ideally separated from it by a relief band at shoulder height. The upper limbs are roughly reproduced, with rigid features and slightly bent elbows. The details of the face, with its typical ‘U’ shape, are hinted at, while the line of the mouth looks like an archaic smile. There are usually two small holes to indicate the eyes, and sometimes the female figures are adorned with jewellery, like small circles or cup-marks on the stone. It is easy to distinguish female from male depictions, as the first have breasts, the men a dagger.

Group B

Probably as a result of social and cultural changes in Lunigiana at the end of the Copper Age, the representation of the stele statues changed. The group B statues we know are more numerous and also more detailed. They are characterised by a marked separation of the head, semicircular in shape with neck, from the body. The anatomical details are well-defined: the face is U-shaped or made of a raised band from which a nose protrudes. As in the previous group, female figures are identifiable by their breasts; male figures are equipped with a dagger, sometimes sheathed in a sheath, or an axe.

Lunigiana stele statues
Minucciano stele statues I, II, III, group B, found in Minucciano (LU). Lunigiana Stele Statue Museum

The youngest stele statues: Group C

The carving of stele statues in Lunigiana continued during the Iron Age, at least until the 6th century BC, albeit with characteristic and more elaborate features. These are monolithic depictions belonging to the so-called C group. They are realistic, enriched with new anatomical details such as a well-defined face and, in some cases, lower limbs. However, only male subjects are depicted, perhaps as a result of a new patriarchal culture.

Lunigiana stele statues
Filetto II stele statue, type C, found in Villafranca in Lunigiana (MS). Lunigiana Stele Statue Museum

Iconoclasm and the destruction of stele statues

Archaeologists have discovered that many of the Lunigiana stele statues were were hidden or even intentionally destroyed. In particular, numerous B-group monoliths were found fragmented or mutilated. This evidence is related to a phenomenon of ancient iconoclasm, whereby in certain historical periods there was a need to destroy the statues. This could happen for religious, political, or cultural reasons, when the values of an emerging civilisation did not correspond to those of the previous one. Hence, Lunigiana stele statues were often identified as simulacra of deities or symbols to be erased forever.

The phenomenon is documented since the Iron Age, but became relevant in the Christian era, especially after the Council of Nantes in 658. In the Middle Ages, stele statues were considered to be depictions of pagan deities, demons or otherwise of evil origin. They were intentionally destroyed during special exorcism rites, then buried near the foundations of churches, as in Santo Stefano di Sorano in Filattiera.

The Groppoli monoliths

Archaeologists have discovered some statues placed alone and others in groups, such as the Groppoli monoliths, today exhibited in the Lunigiana Stele Statue Museum. During some construction work in Groppoli, carried out at the end of 2000, two stele statues were found in the ground below Provincial road 31. Following the accidental discovery, in the subsequent years (2001-2005) a number of archaeological writings and excavations made it possible to discover a total of eight type B sculptures in sandstone [3], dating back to the Copper Age.

Lunigiana stele statues
Groppoli stele statues found between 2000 and 2005. Lunigiana Stele Statue Museum

The statues, two male and five female, were buried in a huge pit, inside which they were carefully arranged to prevent damage. Around them, archaeologists have identified some fragments of Ligurian-type pottery and a blackish soil component. An accredited hypothesis is that the deposition of the statues was part of a sacred ritual, as evidenced by the colour of the soil, contaminated by the remains of votive offerings, officiated by a community of Ligurians in Groppoli between the 2nd and 1st centuries BC.

A forgotten ritual function

The stele statues of Lunigiana represent a fascinating enigma today since, despite dozens of finds, their original function is still unknown. This is largely due to the difficulty in reconstructing the archaeological context in which they were originally placed. Almost all of the stele statues had been moved from their original location before they were found: some were reused as building material, some others were hidden in deep pits or even fragmented. This is a serious lack of knowledge, as the original context allows us to gather fundamental information about the function of an artefact and who produced it.

For instance, if the stele statues were found near a burial ground, we could assume that their presence was linked to rites of passage, as for the baetyli and the tombs of the Giants in Sardinia. This is just the case with the stele statues of group C. Stylistic comparison with contemporary megalithic artefacts shows that the later Lunigiana stele statues can be compared to funerary monuments. As such, the anthropomorphic figure of the group C statues is indeed the representation of a real person, and could be associated with the burial of an aristocrat or warrior. The presence of inscriptions in the Etruscan alphabet over the statues of Zignago, Filetto II and Bigliolo [4], probably personal names, seems to indicate the same line of interpretation.

Ritual functions and the cult of ancestors

The ritual function of the stele statues belonging to groups A and B is more uncertain. On the basis of some findings of statue groups (Groppoli, Pontevecchio, Selva di Filetto), arranged in rows with their faces oriented to the south, it was assumed that they could indicate sacred territories. In particular, the stele statues are always found in clearings located near watercourses and mountains. These were probably connecting valleys of pathways, as nomadic-pastoral societies prevailed in the Final Eneolithic.

A fragment of a group B female statue with a U-shaped face and earrings, found in Pontremoli (MS) in 2021 and now preserved in the Lunigiana Stele Statue Museum.

The stele statues of Lunigiana could be the result of a particular cult of ancestors, depicted as beings beyond nature, guiding spirits who indicate the way. Such enigmatic figures, expressions of art and rituals from thousands of years ago, have no mouths on their U-shaped face: the ancestors’ souls are still ideally contained in the stone. Thus the ancestor fathers, through symbolic figures and a spiritual presence, could show the valleys that allowed life and that they themselves had formerly inhabited.

Samuele Corrente Naso and Daniela Campus

Notes

[1] Stele di Malgrate I, Malgrate IV , Malgrate V, Filetto XI, Falcinello.

[2] Ambrosi Augusto Cesare, Lunigiana: la preistoria e la romanizzazione. vol. I – La Preistoria, 1981, Itinerari Educativi. Centro Aullese di Ricerche e Studi Lunigianesi, Aulla.

[3] Groppoli I, Groppoli III, Groppoli V, Groppoli VI statues are intact; Groppoli II, Groppoli VII, Groppoli VIII are headless; of the Groppoli IV stele, a fragment of the head was found.

[4] Dal sito ufficiale del Museo delle Statue Stele Lunigianesi di Pontremoli: mezunemunius (oppure mezu nemunius) sulla statua stele di Zignago; (u) vezaruapus (oppure vezaru apus) sulla statua stele di Filetto II; vemetuvis sulla statua stele di Bigliolo.

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