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Metapontum was founded by Achaean Greek settlers from the northern Peloponnese in the late 7th century BC.  These settlers chose a site between the mouths of the Bradano and Basento Rivers on the Ionian coast of Italy (the "instep" of the peninsula). The colony quickly grew to achieve great wealth and influence among the Western Greek colonies, probably largely thanks to its large and very fertile chora (agricultural territory) and its position on the busy maritime trade route connecting Greece to the Western Mediterranean. But by the mid-5th century the Metapontines entered a period of severe social and economic decline as the power of neighboring Taras (modern Taranto) grew rapidly and massive environmental changes reduced the productivity of the chora. A brief revitalization in the 4th century was followed by involvement in the 3rd century in two devastating wars against the advancing Romans, which dramatically reduced the population in both city and countryside. By the time of the first Roman emperors the chora of Metapontum, once dotted with hundreds of family farms, hosted only a handful of farming families, while the ruins of the city supported a meager population centered around the moribund port.

From Late Antiquity (4th-6th centuries AD) to the 19th century the "Metapontino" (as the former colonial chora came to be known) was occupied by a few isolated farmsteads and hamlets; the majority of the population withdrew into hilltop towns like Bernalda and Pisticci to escape the swampy conditions along the coast. After a large-scale reclamation and redistribution of land in the mid-20th century, the Metapontino today supports a thriving agricultural sector specializing in high-value crops (oranges, peaches, etc.) sold for export to colder European markets. The ancient city, located in the 18th century and ruthlessly despoiled of its stone in the late 19th century during construction of the Taranto-Reggio Calabria railway, became the object of regular and ongoing archaeological investigation in the 1960s. Because of its virtual abandonment for nearly two millennia, the chora of Metapontum contains an unusually well-preserved archaeological record of human settlement from prehistoric to recent times, but that record is being damaged and even erased at an alarming rate by the mechanization and intensive construction that have propelled the region's post-war agricultural development.

The Metaponto project, a study of the rural population in Classical Greek times (as well as its predecessors and successors), came into existence at a particularly opportune moment for this subject. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Classical archaeologists and ancient historians "discovered" that much of the population of the Greek world did not live in urban centers, as previously supposed, but rather in the chorai (agricultural territories) surrounding them. Interest in ancient rural populations was manifest in Western Europe in conferences, edited volumes, and in a handful of pioneering archaeological projects, such as Michael Jameson's survey of the southern Argolid. In Eastern Europe along the shores of the Black Sea, but out of touch with the West, studies of chorai had been underway already for decades (see Chersonesos).

Concomitant with this scholarly interest were major changes in land management (building, deep-plowing) that threatened, and in many instances destroyed, the evidence for rural settlement. A sense of urgency inspired the early work and still does. Developments in the field of archaeology, especially Classical archaeology, were another stimulus. Under the influence of prehistoric archaeology, the Metaponto project, as others, became multi-disciplinary and incorporated intensive field survey as a leading and integral element. Computers and information technology were applied to the research starting in the early 1980s, as they began to transform the way the world works.  Survey and excavations of rural sites in the chora of Metapontum, organized as part of a vast integrated study of Greek colonies, rural populations, and indigenous sites in the interior of Basilicata by Prof. Dinu Adamesteanu (the first regional Superintendent of Antiquities) in 1964, were the forerunners and direct inspiration for ICA's projects. In fact, the creation of ICA was in no small part due to Adamesteanu's constant encouragement.

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