In the olive groves, close to the small town of Torchiarolo, lies the ancient settlement of Valesio where the remains of a sturdy Messapian fortification, architectural feature and tombs can be seen.
Taking the scenic route home from San Pietro Vernotico, through the olive groves that lie between San Pietro and Torchiarolo, we accidentally stumbled on the ancient ruins. Although the Visitor Centre was not open, we could explore the area and learn a lot from the information boards. On a sunny November afternoon, it seemed somewhat incongruous to be standing on the site of an ancient settlement listening to the sound of modern aircraft arriving and departing at Brindisi airport!
It is thought that the settlement was established in the eighth-century BC, in the Iron Age. It developed near the canal “Infocaciucce” which was navigable at the time and ran through the village connecting it to the nearby Adriatic Sea. The first inhabitants of Valesio were probably attracted by the source of water and the excellent grazing areas. The land was fertile, suitable for growing wheat, and the proximity of the sea provided supplies of fish. Towards the end of the IV century BC, the archaeological data shows that, as well as the traditional cereal/pulse crops, there is evidence of vines, olive and fruit trees, probably resembling the current landscape with its olive groves and vineyards.
It was then further developed in the Messapian Age (IV-III centuries BC); the archaeological research has provided a great deal of data for this period identifying the centre of the settlement, public and religious buildings, residential quarters, warehouses for food storage and agricultural/grazing area.
Roman rule came to Valesio around 250BC, as it did with many of the other Messapian centres in Salento. It seems likely that the rapid growth of Brindisi at this time contributed to the decline of Valesio with not much more than a small agricultural site remaining.
During the Middle Ages, Valesio was destroyed, by the men of Guglielmo of Sicily. Feudal rights were then granted to the Order of St Benedict in Lecce by Count Tancredi, and it is probable that a farm was continued on the site at the time. From 1550, the area was abandoned as a settlement and used only for agriculture until the ruins were discovered and work started on reclaiming, developing and enhancing the area.
The site covers an area of approximately 6 acres to the south and north of the canal. Starting at the main entrance to the site, where there is a car park, the remains of the Messapian fortifications can be seen. Excavations in the Sant Stefano area, an area of approximately 1200 square metres, uncovered the remains of a series of dwellings and allowed for the identification of archaeological sequencing from the Iron Age to the Late Middle Ages. After the excavations had been completed the Sant Stefano area was completely filled in order to protect the structures. Only the highest part of the walls of the baths’ complex remain visible.
An area of approximately 700 square metres shows the clearest archaeological remains of a road station, established early in the IV century AD and used by travellers. The main room, changing room (apodytherium) , the (frigidarium) thermal quarters with the cold-water pool, the bathroom with a heated floor (tepidarium), the sweating-room (sudatorium) and the hottest room (calidarium) have all been identified. A Roman dwelling, probably a farm, with different size rooms and a small courtyard have been identified.
In the burials’ area, heavy rainfall and the results of illegal digging led to the discovery of a limestone slab. Excavations there revealed a tomb which can be dated to III century BC. An inscription in Messapican, probably the name of the deceased, was found on one of the covering slabs.
Surrounding the site, and restored in places, is the boundary wall with the wall of the Messapian fortification being the most visible section. On the north-eastern side of the site, the ancient sentry walkway has been restored.
Work on the site has not been restricted to ancient ruins. The Masseria Grande is a large, more modern, farmhouse that has also been restored and will eventually be the Documentation Centre and Exhibition Centre for the artefacts of Valesio. It is believed that the farmhouse itself was built on the site of an older rural structure, probably dating back to between 1600 and 1700, pointing to continued use of the area