The Vaste Archaeological Museum is housed in the Palazzo Baronale (Baron’s Palace), a residential building composed of various elements that was built in the 14th to 18th centuries.
Access to the rooms of the exhibition is from Piazza Dante. The visitor is welcomed by a giant poster showing one of the most characteristic elements of the landscape of ancient Messapia: the circuit of walls around Vaste.
Proposed by Francesco D’Andria and created by the InkLink graphics studio in Florence, it represents the stretch of the circuit near the East Gate, shown just after an earthquake caused it to collapse in the first half of the 3rd century BC: the earthquake is documented by historical and archaeoseismological evidence.
To the left of the giant poster are two vases from the necropolis of the Messapian city of the 4th century BC: a krater with red figures and a trozzella, a vase similar to a nestoris.
The krater is a container that was used for mixing wine with water.
Among the indigenous population of Puglia it was a key element in the grave goods of adult men: Indeed, only they were allowed to consume the precious drink.
The exemplar on display is the work from which “the Painter of Vaste” conventionally takes his name.
The scene represents a man between two women, chasing one of them, and is perhaps symbolic of marriage.
The trozzella is highly typical of Messapian civilisation; female tombs usually contain one.
It was used as a container for water and indicated the responsibility of women for domestic activities and the family's possessions.
The exemplar on display is richly decorated with plant and geometric motifs.
Opposite the entrance is Room 1 of the Museum, containing a life-size reconstruction in wood of part of the Hypogeum (underground chamber) of the Caryatids, faithful to the style of the contemporary sculptor Mario Ceroli: two female figures hold up an architrave with a frieze of chariots driven by putti and drawn by lions.
The original sculptures, currently on display in the museums of Taranto and Lecce, decorated the façade of a large tomb with two funerary chambers dated to the 3rd century BC.
The opening framed by the caryatids leads to a sort of sepulchral chamber in which two tombs are arranged exactly as they were discovered in the course of the excavations conducted in 1985 by the University of Lecce.
The “Tomb of the Horseman”, which takes its name from the presence of a bronze spur, is dated to about 430 BC; the “Tomb of the Athlete”, dated to the beginning of the 4th century BC, takes its name from the strigils, utensils used for cleaning the body after competing.
The valuable vases used for banquets, such as the painted kraters and the bronze bowl from Etruria, indicated the aristocratic origins of the tombs’ occupants.
The next room is dedicated to a type of monument that was particularly widespread in the southern Salento in the Archaic period: the monolithic cippi in pietra leccese building stone.
They were an important feature in the rural landscape, as they were used in small open-air places of worship.
In these places, enclosed within sacred walls, religious ceremonies were held in order to invoke the fertility of the fields.
In Vaste, they formed a protective ring around the settlement: inside them, in front of the cippi or the votive columns, some of which are on display in the room, worshippers made offerings of wine and water, along with the remains of the sacrifices of sheep and goats.
Incorporated within a wooden reconstruction is a limestone block with a frieze decorated with plant motifs corresponding to the upper part of the perimeter wall marking off the sacred area.
The museum display here includes an exact reconstruction of the context brought to light in the Fondo Melliche area on the northern outskirts of the town.
Here, in the same spot that would subsequently be occupied by a necropolis used for the tombs of the ancient settlement’s aristocracy, was a place of worship that was in use from 550 to 480 BC.
It was composed of a large area enclosed within a perimeter wall in which there were cippi, in front of which worshippers placed vases used for offering libations and the remains of sacrifices.
In some cases, inscriptions etched on the cippi conserve the name of the person making the dedication.
Another wooden reconstruction presents the architecture of the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, in the form of a large wall that contains a block decorated with a Doric frieze with metopes and triglyphs: it was discovered embedded in masonry built in the modern epoch, having been used to build the very same Palazzo Baronale that houses the museum.
Originally it is believed to have belonged to an aristocratic Messapian residence situated in a central area of the ancient settlement, near Piazza Dante.
Other examples of the architectural decoration of private Messapian-era residences have been found elsewhere in the Salento, but to date, very little evidence of Greek temple-style architecture has been discovered, with the significant exception of the recent discoveries in the area of the sanctuary of Athena near the walls of Castro.
The archaeological exhibition continues on the upper floor of the Palazzo Baronale; the entrance is to the rear of the building, facing an ancient orange garden.
The first room on this floor is set up for consultation and study, with interactive screens and computer terminals for navigating online archives and resources linked to the archaeology of Puglia.
The large room that follows contains an overview of the life and the transformations of the settlement in the main phases of antiquity.
The finds presented here reflect daily life in the period from the Iron Age (9th century BC) to the late Roman epoch (6th century AD).
Although the most ancient traces of the occupation of the territory of Vaste and Poggiardo date back to the late Bronze Age (11th-10th century BC), it is only from the 9th century BC onwards that the settlement of huts protected by a line of earthworks can be recognised.
In the dwellings and in the place of worship identified on the village’s northern outskirts the inhabitants used locally produced pottery, made by hand without a wheel from unprocessed or purified clay, with painted geometric decoration.
As well as these articles there was pottery imported from Greece, particularly from Corinth, used for drinking wine (bowls, cups, jugs, kraters).
Also produced in Corinth is a beautiful example of a spectacle brooch (for fastening clothes) carved from a deer’s antlers.
The room contains a broad selection of table ceramics and commercial amphorae recovered from the rubbish tips of the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. This is the best-known period in the history of Vaste.
The settlement occupied an area of almost 70 ha and was surrounded by an imposing wall of fortifications.
The residential districts were located in the area of the modern-day Piazza Dante.
The most valuable ceramics were of the black-varnish type, mostly bowls and plates; the other forms include locally produced ware, either plain or with geometric and vegetal decoration.
Of particular interest is a stone mould used for producing plaster figures of women carrying baskets.
At the back of the room is a model showing a scene of sacrifice on the occasion of the departure of the warriors: During the 3rd century BC the Salento was profoundly affected by wars that were to radically alter the political and social landscape.
In 267-266 BC the Romans completed their conquest of Puglia; a few years later the region would be one of the main theatres in the war against Hannibal.
As a result of these events the settlement of Vaste shrank considerably, corresponding to the area of the current old town.
From the material dumped in abandoned cisterns come the fine grey paste ceramics of the 2nd and 1st centuries BC.
From the 1st century AD the so-called “sigillata” ceramics began to become widespread.
This was a form of slipware with a distinctive red colour, sometimes with applied figurative decoration.
The older examples are Italic, from the area of Arezzo in particular; subsequently there are vases of eastern and North African manufacture (from modern-day Turkey and Tunisia respectively).
An object of particular value is the oil lamp of the 2nd century AD decorated with heads in relief and signed by the Greek craftsman Epagathos.
To the right of the large room the visit continues with a section dedicated to finds from the Messapian necropolises of Vaste.
At the beginning of the 20th century a late Archaic burial (520-470 BC) was discovered, from which two groups of vases were recovered.
In the 1980s the University of Lecce launched a programme of systematic investigations focusing on the necropolis in the Fondo Melliche district, used from the mid 5th to the early 3rd centuries BC by an aristocratic family, and other areas with a funerary function inside the settlement and near the East and North-East city gates.
The investigations found monolithic sarcophagi and tombs lined with slabs, built and covered with limestone slabs.
The male tombs are characterised by the presence of a krater and pieces of armour, such as the bronze belts with snake-head clasps, and parts of a helmet.
In the female tombs are extremely significant objects such as the trozzella (a vase like a nestoris, decorated with “wheels”), containers for unguents (lekythoi) and statuettes. Child burials are distinguished by miniature vases.
The reuse of tombs has been documented in many cases: in the ground next to the lateral slabs, small pits were dug, into which the bones and the grave goods of the previous occupants were moved in order to make way for a new deposition.
The funerary rite is illustrated in an animated model, based on analysis of the archaeological data.
A small room is reserved for the exhibition of the trove of 150 silver staters (coins), discovered in 1989 in the area of the ancient dwellings in the Fondo S. Antonio district: thanks to a specially-built showcase it is possible to observe the coins on both sides. Also on display here is the bronze vase (olpe) in which the trove was found.
It includes 142 coins minted in Tarentum, 7 in Heraclea and one in Thurii; they have been numismatically dated to between 281 and 235 BC.
The nature of the context of discovery suggests that the trove was hidden by the owners of the nearby aristocratic residence in dangerous circumstances arising from the Roman conquest.
The route continues, with a room dedicated to the place of worship brought to light in 1999 in Piazza Dante, right in front of the Museum: as it was impossible to leave the archaeological excavation open, the shape and position of the main structures discovered have been accurately reproduced on the ground.
The sacred area included two adjacent spaces ringed by perimeter walls inside which were hearths.
Near them were the entrances to three underground cavities: two were used for the deposition of votive offerings consisting of miniature vases, jugs, bowls, small plates, cups and vials of perfumed oils, while the largest one was used for religious rites, including libations and the sacrifice of piglets.
A female head made of limestone, with the remains of polychromatic decoration, is assumed to be from a statue of the divinity to which the small sanctuary was dedicated.
Some artefacts bear the Messapian name Oxxo.
A slab with a hole in it served as an altar for the sacrifice of dogs, whose throats were slit in order to let the blood flow down towards the subterranean divinities.
The large quantity and variety of archaeological data have made it possible to generate graphic reconstructions, videos and a model which complement the presentation of the finds.
The theme of cults in the Messapian settlement is also taken up in the Museum’s next room.
On the northern outskirts of the Hellenistic settlement, two separate but adjacent open-air structures were identified; containing altars and hearths, they have been dated to the late 4th – early 3rd century BC.
Particularly significant in one of these spaces is the offering of a miniature vase containing three silver coins, while amphora necks were used to pour liquid offerings into the soil; the other structure was characterised by the presence of cippus-like pillars.
Among the other materials recovered from votive deposits is a group of iron utensils that identify the person making the offering as a warrior and a cultivator.
In addition, a slab with a double dedicatory inscription was part of the perimeter wall of a sacred area.
Although for the whole of the Roman period the settlement of Vaste has yielded limited monumental remains or traces of dwelling structures, dated to the second half of the 2nd century BC is the largest set of playing pieces ever discovered in the Roman world.
Found in the material that had been dumped in a disused cistern, they belonged to a game whose rules remain uncertain: it has been suggested that they may have been drawn at random from a bag, given the association between numbers and appellatives (which were insulting for low numbers, complimentary for high numbers), or they may have been used in a game similar to Ludo, possibly involving dice.
For the late Roman period Vaste has yielded extraordinary evidence of the dissemination of Christianity.
As early as the late 4th century, two km from the current settlement, there was probably a church linked to the cult of the relics of a martyr (a martyrium), perhaps St Stephen. Around it was a large rock-cut necropolis.
The exhibits include some of the grave goods, which partly represent a continuation of pagan traditions, such as the deposition of coins (Charon’s obol).
The church was subsequently extended after the Gothic War (535-553 AD) and modified again in the 9th century.
A video reconstruction and a model complement the reading of the archaeological complex.
The last room houses a series of exhibits concerning the life of Vaste in the medieval and modern epochs.
They were recovered above all thanks to urban archaeological initiatives conducted during the installation of utility networks.
A large rubbish dump of the 14th century was found to contain pottery, utensils, metallurgical slag and the remains of meals; it included plates decorated with the polychromatic coats of arms of the owners’ families.
The composition of the dump, rich in rare materials, as well as its location near the Palazzo Baronale (Baron’s Palace) in Piazza Dante, suggests that this was the rubbish tip of the castle.
Other similar historic rubbish dumps discovered in Piazza Dante and Via Principe Umberto have yielded materials dated to the 16th century.