Developmental Literacy Case Study 2: South East Italy



The Region

The south-east of Italy has traditionally been divided into three ethnic/cultural zones - Daunia, Peucetia and Messapia proper, which corresponds to the Salento.  These divisions derive largely from the works of Greek and Roman authors, who variously (and confusingly)  identify the populations of the region as Apuli, Iapyges, Dauni, Peuceti, Messapi and Sallentini - categories which frequently overlap and contradict each other, and which come accompanied by Hellenocentric origin and foundation myths.  As a result, the ethnography of the region must be treated with extreme caution.  The archaeology of the region does support the idea that it may have contained several different - although closely linked - cultural groups, but attempting to map the ethnic identifications of the ancient sources onto these would be extremely hazardous.  Although there is good evidence from inscriptions and coin legends for self-definition at the level of the individual community, It is very unclear what the wider, ethnic, self-definition of these groups was and how it developed.

The language of the region - conventionally known as Messapic - is found from the Tavoliere and Gargano regions in the north down to the Salentine peninsular, and as far west as the Greek settlement of Tarentum.  It is possible that variations within the region can be identified in both the language and the alphabet in which it is written, but there is no clear division into separate languages.  Oscan inscriptions are found in the north-west of the region, around Venosa and Canosa, and Greek inscriptions are predominant in the territory of Tarentum.  Greek language and script is also found in other contexts, notably some sanctuaries, and used by the Messapic communities for certain types of inscription.  Latin inscriptions appear from the 2nd century BC onwards, but do not occur in significant quantity until the 1st century AD.

The Inscriptions

Inscriptions in cave sanctuary, Rocavecchia

The data for this region comprises c.700 Messapic  inscriptions, together with a number of Greek and Latin examples.  Greek and Latin inscriptions are included for comparative purposes, where they interact with indigenous material, but are not the primary focus of this study.  There are also a small number of inscriptions written in other languages and alphabets such as Oscan, and an isolated example of Punic.  The earliest Messapic inscriptions appear in the 6th century BC, but by far the largest number date to the 4th-2nd centuries BC, with a particularly high concentration dating to the 3rd century.  Messapic continues to be used for funerary and monumental inscriptions  until the 1st century BC, but in much smaller numbers.  Many of the inscriptions from the region are collected in existing corpora (Whatmough, Conway and Johnson 1933; Parlangeli 1960; Santoro 1983; Santoro 1984 and De Simone and Marchesini 2002); it is not our intention to try to replace these, but to create a searchable resource from this - and more recent - data, and to examine their socio-cultural significance.

The alphabet in which the inscriptions are written is adapted from Greek and probably derived originally from Tarentum, but it rapidly evolves to develop unique letter-forms of its own and shows a high degree of chronological development, as well as developing regional sub-divisions in the northern part of Puglia.

The majority of Messapic inscriptions are from votive or funerary contexts and occur on tombstones (both from inside the tomb and on cippi designed to mark the tomb above ground) and a variety of votives.  Most of the votives taken the form on dipinti or inscriptions on potsherds and inscriptions on stone cippi, but there is also a long-standing tradition of locating sanctuaries in caves along the coast of the Salento, and the important cave sanctuary of Grotta della Poesia (Leuca) has a large number of votive inscriptions carved on the wall of the cave.  There are also a large number of inscriptions and graffiti on portable items, notably items such as loom weights, which are connected with textile-production and wool-working - staples of the local economy.  One significant difference between the inscriptions of Puglia and those of north-east Italy is the gender-balance represented.  Whereas in the Veneto, there are a large number of inscriptions commemorating, or dedicated by, women, in Puglia, the epigraphic record is overwhelmingly male.  Most of the funerary inscriptions commemorate men, apart from a group - the so-called tabara inscriptions - which are believed to commemorate priestesses, and many of the votives are also dedicated by men


R.S. Conway, J. Whatmough and S. Johnson (1933), The Prae-Italic Dialects of Italy. 3 vols.
Parlangèli, O. (1960). Studi Messapici
Santoro, C. (1983)  Nuovi Studi Messapici. 2 vols.
Santoro, C. (1984)  Nuovi Studi Messapici. Primo supplemento.
De Simone, C. and Marchesini, S. (2002) Monumenta Linguae Messapicae. 2 vols.