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Altar of Minerva found in southern Italian town of Castro


A team of archaeologists led by Francesco D' Andria has discovered the altar of the temple of Minerva (Athena) in the town of Castro in the province of Lecce in the Apulia (Puglia) region of south-eastern Italy.

Altar of Minerva found in southern Italian town of Castro
Credit: Quotidiano di Puglia
The discovery is unprecedented insofar as it is the only example of a monumental Greek altar found in Apulia.

The Castro altar is similar to those found in Metaponto, a Lucanian city which has been the subject of systematic excavation campaigns which revealed the famous Greek temples and their altars in front of them. However, the Messapic altars were simple pits dug in the earth where the libations were burned and offered, whereas the one at Castro is a built altar not unlike like those of the Hellenistic (eg. Altar of Pergamon) and Roman (eg. Ara Pacis) periods.

Altar of Minerva found in southern Italian town of Castro
Credit: Quotidiano di Puglia
The structure consists of well worked square blocks at least 6 metres long and two and a half metres wide and has yielded an impressive series of finds linked to the ritual sacrifices made to the goddess: bones of sacrificed animals and other objects which bear witness to the daily life in the sanctuary.

The castle of the Adriatic town has been the focus of successive excavation campaigns since the year 2000, which, in addition to the Messapic fortifications dating back to the fourth century, have now also identified the Sanctuary of Minerva (Athena) from which the ancient city received its name, Castrum Minervae.

Altar of Minerva found in southern Italian town of Castro
Credit: Quotidiano di Puglia
The temple was said to have been founded by Idomeneus, who formed the tribe of the Sallentini from a mixture of Cretans, Illyrians and Italian Locrians (Central Greek tribe). It is known that this is the same temple dedicated to Athena Iliaca, the Trojan Athena, which Virgil mentions in the 3rd Book of the Aeneid when he talks about the arrival of Aeneas and his ships on the coasts of Italy.

The altar dates back to the second half of the fourth century BC and is contemporaneous to the cult statue of the goddess, found in 2015, and another small bronze statue found a few years earlier, both of which depict Trojan Athena, who wears a Phrygian helmet, as further proof of the connections of Castrum Minervae with the Aeneas myth.

Altar of Minerva found in southern Italian town of Castro
Credit: Quotidiano di Puglia
The collection of finds, preserved in the Museum inaugurated in 2016 and housed inside the Castle, is now enriched with other important elements found in this season's excavations, including a beautiful bronze mask, of Tarentine style, also from the fourth century BC, which is perhaps a female figure with some sort of knot in her hair. It was probably a votive offering made to the divinity, as were also two terracotta heads, probably belonging to two female divinities, which were found just yesterday.

Only two of the six metres long altar have been excavated because the most of it is located under the road surface and in an adjacent plot of land, where - D' Andria is sure - lies the temple itself, which, in Greek worship, stood behind the enclosure where sacrifices were made.

Altar of Minerva found in southern Italian town of Castro
Credit: Quotidiano di Puglia
D' Andria now faces the challenge of raising funds for the expropriation or purchase of those 300 square metres of private property, so that another excavation campaign can be carried out to unearth the foundations, perimeter and other elements of the sanctuary.

Source: Quotidiano di Puglia [November 16, 2017]
TANN

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