The caves of Zungri and the last descendant of the Sbariati

“Zungri is a rock village of extraordinary beauty. Located at the edge of the new town in an area that is significantly called “I Fossi”, a name that appears together with that of “Cavernoli” since 1586 in the writings of Monsignor Del Tufo, it was partly frequented until quite distant times. However, the most recent use of some caves has only partly affected the original appearance and so the town looks like a settlement where it is still possible to grasp all the complexity and refinement of living in the cave. It is an anthropized environment where nothing has been left to chance and where the expert hand of the man, with the help of chisels and double-pointed picks, has been able to imagine and realize environments, paths, services where, often, technical and functional perfection has been achieved. Here man, perhaps more than elsewhere, has learned, with ingenuity, to constantly measure himself with nature and has pondered, with great experience, every activity. The inhabited area, composed of over fifty caves of different sizes and shapes, develops along a broad rocky ridge, also known as the Sbariati, which overlooks the Malopera river. The settlement, articulated on several levels, is crossed by a stairway cut into the rock that has a channel, also dug, functional to the collection of water. Some caves are built on two levels and many keep inside niches and many other functional elements to the needs of everyday life. Sometimes the exterior of the entrances is embellished with engravings that, imitating the stone portals, trace jambs and arches. Next to the houses, which sometimes keep the signs of more recent frequentations (bread oven, stone walls, wooden stairs), it is possible to record the presence of rooms destined to the shelter of the animals, others that keep work plans, others destined to the productive activities: it is the case of a small millstone placed at the beginning of the inhabited area and of a limestone, almost entirely obtained in the rock. ». The well-known archaeologist Francesco Cuteri describes the site of Zungri. He also owes an important insight: those that have always been called “domes with ventilation holes” were, in reality, granaries. Throughout the area of ​​the caves there were some silos already in the Byzantine era. On these granaries, in the Middle Ages, it was excavated to obtain the cavities that appear today. Therefore, Zungri, is not born as a place for living but as a huge granary, with silos of different shape and size, some of which can be traced back to the Greek age and only at a later time, when the needs of concentrating the harvest of wheat has failed, Zungri takes shape as a settlement and only starting from the late Middle Ages develops as a real structured village. The “discovery” of the archaeological site of Zungri, today better known as Le Grotte, occurred in 1983: a real village dug in the sandstone, inhabited, perhaps, until the beginning of the last century, reused during the war as a refuge from the inhabitants of the place and then, again, from the peasants as storerooms, stables and deposits. The inhabitants of the place, who even knew these cavities and used them, in fact, as deposits of agricultural commodities, calling them the Grutti di Sbariati, never imagined they should be a heritage of such immense value. The stonemasons who, tenaciously, carved the rock were surely oriental. Everything speaks to us of the East. According to the scholars, this site was inhabited by a population called “the Sbariati”, which originates from the word sbariat, meaning stragglers, wandering people. And today Sbariati is the nickname of the family to which the Caves were expropriated to make them become today’s. Next to the stony city worthy of attention is the Museo della Civiltà Rupestre e Contadina. It is an extraordinary cultural heritage of popular traditions that aims to safeguard the “social memory” preserving the latest testimonies of a millenary culture. But today, Zungri, requires great care and attention. We must intervene in a structured manner, upstream, in ensuring that what is today an extraordinary heritage can be preserved for the future.