The National Park of Alta Murgia comprises a territory of great landscape beauty in which the limestone plateau on the Adriatic and Ionian slopes soften into gentle slopes and fields, where magnificent rocky crests alternate with deep gorges and sun-baked plains.
Apart from the first sign of anthropisation in the cave of Lamalunga, documented by the discovery of a skeleton which can be dated back to the Middle Palaeolithic period (150,000-200,000 BC), from the end of the Mesolithic period (around 3,000 BC) the first stable settlements are recorded and a new economy began to develop, based not only on agriculture, probably practised by populations from the coast, but also on the first nomadic drover activities. During this period, the social structure was mainly settlements in caves.
In the Bronze Age (1550 BC-1200 BC) and again in the Iron Age (9th-8th century BC), the culture did not differ a great deal from that of the bordering territories. Between the 9th and 8th century BC, the area recorded the rise of a warrior aristocracy, a rapid development of villages, both on the hills and in the plains, and a productive economy based on agriculture and husbandry. At the same time, agricultural villages spread around Altamura, Pulo and Gravina-Botromoagno and in the territories of Ruvo and Minervino, as testified by the large number of tombs found.
In the 7th and 6th centuries BC, trading with Greece and the colonies of Magna Graecia encouraged the people of Alta Murgia to differentiate themselves from the Messapians and the Dauni. The straw roofed huts were replaced by rectangular houses, inspired by the Greek model with a tiled roof. Their pottery using the main geometric patterns (pedunculate swastika, the Maltese cross and “gallinaccio”) testifies to the process of Hellenisation. On the contrary, the proto-historic, indigenous tradition maintained the funerary ritual of burial in a curled up position, with mainly imported pottery as accoutrements.
The following period featured a series of conflicts between the Italic populations, determined mainly by the expansionist tendencies of the Oschi and Samnites. This was followed by a strengthening of the alliance between Rome and the various town centres. This phase was marked by the radical transformation of the urban fabric of the territory of Murgia, following the construction of the new Via Appia, connecting with southern Italy and with the coastal areas and lands of the East via the Via Traiana. Several important resting stations, such as Ad Pinum (perhaps today’s Spinazzola), Silvum (Gravina), Blera and Sub-Lupatia (perhaps the area of Jesce, to the south-east of Altamura), were built along this artery across the slopes of Murgia. This phase showed a slow, radical Romanisation, which was most apparent in the land division of the plains, such as Butuntinus (of Bitonto) and Rubustinus (of Ruvo). This phase records major deforestation to make spaces for sedentary and transhumant sheep-farming, where the Apennine flocks of Sannio and Abruzzo came for the winter.
With the end of the Roman Empire, the area of Alta Murgia held only a marginal function and saw a partial demographic contraction, which gave rise to a fragmented, autonomous structure, divided into micro-areas, each with specific settlement dynamics. On the one hand, the area to the north of the Murge had a higher concentration of more densely inhabited settlements, whereas the western Murge were divided into Imperial villas, agricultural settlements (vici) or simple farms, as shown in the vicinity of Gravina in the valley of the River Basentello.
On the other hand, inland areas, such as those towards the coast, were more liable to depopulation. With the Greek-Gothic wars in the mid 6th century AD, depopulation of the area rose to the extent that we can conjecture a high concentration of inhabitants in the vici and municipia. After the Goths took control, Christian worship spread and the best archaeological evidence of this is to be found in the rural building of worship of Belmonte in Altamura.
During the early Middle Ages, Alta Murgia was given a secondary role as a border between the area controlled by the Longobards and the Greek Byzantine area. These areas were once again depopulated. Most of the villages used in the preceding centuries were abandoned and new settlements were created inside caves and rocky ravines.
Under the Byzantine rule, true urban towns began to appear, particularly on the western slopes, such as Minervino, Montemilone, Acquatetta, Montepeloso and Gravina. Under the Normans and then under Frederick II, followed by the Angevins, the new settlements mainly followed the encastellation system. Defence structures appeared in Ruvo, Altamura, Spinazzola, Castel del Monte, Gravina, Garagnone and Santeramo. The sole aim of the system was to develop wide-ranging control over the territories in order to manage agricultural activities more effectively. One such example is the Castle of Garagnone, positioned to control the wheat trade, at the point where the ancient Via Appia meets the roads towards Ruvo, Corato, Andria, and Barletta further along towards the coast.
This area has been occupied since ancient times by farmers and shepherds. During the Angevin and Aragonese era, Alta Murgia was once again redefined into functional areas linked to the growing husbandry and to the reorganisation put in place by the famous Dogana menae pecudum in 1433: the lands of Bitonto, Ruvo, Corato, Andria and Minervino constituted the so-called “Riposo delle Murge” [Repose of the Murgia]. The western part of Alta Murgia also gave rise to the great “general repose”, and was divided into defence, payments and hire and other types of control and administration envisaged by the Dogana. This enabled the lands to be assigned to those who were able to settle in these areas, including people from other areas, such as the shepherds from Abruzzo, who began to occupy them radically (as proven by the place names from Abruzzo alongside those of Puglia).
From the 16th century onwards, there was an increase in the number of settlements. This was to remain unchanged in subsequent centuries and constituted the cultural and architectural heritage which continues to characterise the landscape of Alta Murgia today. Farms, jazzi (sheep pens) and rural lodges, all rural buildings, were now indissolubly linked to the agricultural activity of the area.