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A Megalith Site for Prehistoric Grape Growing

Varchignoli, a high Piedmont Northern Italy village, is a fascinating evidence confirming ancient peoples’ technical skill in a passage period between the Bronze and the Iron Age

Piedmont has always been a vineyard land and especially Monferrato and Langhe are grape growing main and most known areas, but grapes and consequently wine are our Country’s whole culture heritage. It is surprising how many hidden and almost unknown spots you may find everywhere. Sometimes, such as in our case, it is possible to find traces of ancient times in which we can hardly suspect that such well organized grape cultivations may exist and such a long period back in time.

Varchignoli area is substantially part of a hill slope just above the village of Villadossola, a village in central Ossola Valley at first slopes of Antrona Valley and partly in Montescheno village area just inside the valley.

The fact that grape growing was an ancient tradition in that area is witnessed by an ancient parchment dating back to the XIV Century AD, mentioning wine trading and reporting about an original wine called “Prunent”. That specific grape, similar to much more known “Nebbiolo”, can well be declared as a historically proved documentation evidence of a much older origin than other famous Piedmont wines. Even today this wine still exists, though in very modest quantity, as a result of few passionate local wine growers.

However these times are practically modern times or at least historical times, but Varchignoli site can be dated up the XIII Century BC a period between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Not all peoples were installed with a permanent life organization, stone houses and regular stable cultivation and very few of them were able to make grape growing. It is not just a very uncommon thing to be observed, but also an extraordinary planning skill evidence.

The creation of this wine growing site required a canalization for water drainage on the hill slope and a complete dry stone canalization was built up Then the area was covered by ground and supporting terracing. The terracing was created using dry stones and erratic stones (or megaliths ) and stone staircases connected the different levels. Stone rooms and caves were added, with dry stone supports. Lastly regular distance holes in the stones indicated the original positions of vineyard posts composing the typical grape growing rows.

Unfortunately the planning capacity and vision of the future that those peoples possessed is now lost, as it is witnessed by the close-minded local behaviour and the difficulties in planning and work together. This is the present limit of a possible development and exploitation of this area and many other places in the Alps.

This is why FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano) (Italian Environmental Trust), local delegation of Domodossola decided to make a project to enhance the value of this area, to use the FAI main office expression, they would put it “under the limelight”. In other words, FAI wishes to make it know by a larger number of people out of the local area, to make it a reference point and an attraction for those interested in studying this site or nearby places with similar features, or as a starting point to re-acquire the capacity to cooperate and plan which is still lacking.

Wednesday 22nd April, FAI Domodossola Delegation organized a conference presenting studies and suggestions about this site, which was appreciated by a good audience partecipation of interested and qualified people. It is to be hoped that this action will contribute to cast a new light on such an extraordinary area.

Italy, as we all know, is a wonderful Country, rich in art, traditions and hidden treasures. It is time to enhance the value of these treasures hidden partly by their location and partly by the richness of many other works of art and historical landmarks, all around us and where we, Italian, have grown up. This area cannot be contained in a museum and might not have the relevance or the fame of other better known Italian archaeological sites, but it deserves a higher attention and may become a destination for scholars, motivated tourists, media and visitors which could result in interesting economical effect in the area.

by Daniele Bordoni, Silvia Ruggieri
04 may 2009, Food Notes > Miscellanea