The Dolmen of Chianca and ancestral rites of passage

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On August 6, 1909, archaeologists Francesco Samarelli and Angelo Mosso were going to Bisceglie, in the narrow strip of Apulia among the gentle slopes of the Murge and plunges into the warm embrace of the Adriatic Sea. They had received news from a group of local farmers: some large stone slabs had emerged from the soil near the country locality “la Chianca”. The two archaeologists immediately supposed that these artifacts were related to prehistory, since it was known that the area had been interested by primitive settlements. On the other hand, other archaeological testimonies from that period were beginning to be found there and, about twenty years later, the important Cave of San Ciriaco was to be discovered, confirming the presence of Neolithic rock dwellings.

The Dolmen of Chianca

When Samarelli and Mosso arrived at the site of the discovery, farmers had already shoveled the land revealing a primitive construction made of local limestone. The lithic structure was composed of three large vertical slabs or orthostats, which in Apulia are called chianche, and a fourth horizontal covering slab (240 cm x 380 cm). A narrow dromos-shaped corridor oriented eastward, about seven and a half meters long, departed from the cell, which was one and a half meters high.

Dolmen of Chianca
The Dolmen of Chianca

It was immediately clear that the particular stone structure so ancient and mysterious was a megalithic dolmen, a prehistoric expression of a collective burial.

Finds from the dromos and subsequent excavations

The discovery was undoubtedly sensational. The Dolmen of Chianca appeared to be unique in its kind. In fact the structure was exceptionally preserved and still retained its original function as a burial chamber. Subsequent excavations lasted for years and were led by archaeologist Michele Gervasio. Inside the cell, fragments of pottery, small stone knives, animal bones and, most importantly, eight human skeletons of different ages were found [1]. Along the dromos were buried some pieces of blackened pottery, probably from ritual fires, a jug and a pendant, now preserved at the Archaeological Museum of Bari and dated between 1200 BC and 100 BC.

Ancestral rites of passage

The Dolmen of Chianca was certainly a place of enormous mystical-ritual significance. Some clues, found near the communal burial chamber, suggest that the entire complex was used for the practice of elaborate rites of passage. In particular, the dromos ideally corresponded to the path that the soul of the deceased had to take to reach the afterlife. In fact, the corridor faces east in the direction of the rising sun and ends in the burial cell, a symbolic representation of the afterlife dimension. The fires lit along the dromos, of which archaeologists have found traces, were perhaps intended to facilitate the transit of the deceased. Instead, the presence of crockery, as well as animal bones, served to forage during the transition, similarly to what is attested for numerous coeval cultures. The dromos thus served as an antechamber for the funerary banquet [2].

Chianca dolmen

Also of considerable importance are the holes visible at the level of one of the vertical slabs. They were expected to allow the soul of the deceased to reach the burial chamber so that it could rejoin his body. This is an element that recurs frequently among civilizations with collective burials. Such holes could have a function similar to those found on the exedras of the tombs of giants in Sardinia, or of pre-existing pre-Nuragic cultures.

Chianca dolmen
Note the holes on the vertical slab

The Dolmen of Chianca as a metaphysical boundary

Despite the numerous studies conducted, the ritual function of dolmen burials has yet to be investigated in detail. Nevertheless, such megalithic monuments fascinate contemporary man not only for their intrinsic historical and cultural value, but also because they manifest primordial belief in another dimension of existence. Thus, the Dolmen of Chianca constitutes a metaphysical boundary between the world of the living and the dead one; between what is known and an unknown past; between matter and the ethereal conception of fire, which makes everything indistinguishable.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

[1] Italia preistorica, A. Guidi, M. Piperno, editori Laterza, Bari, 1992

[2] Pietre di Puglia, dolmen trulli ed insediamenti rupestri, E. Allen, Mario Adda Editore, Bari, 1969

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