Archaeology of a fugitive: the cave of “El Castrin”, a deserter who became an outlaw
Luca Pisoni PhD
The use of different sources in the archaeology of the contemporary past allows us to obtain interdisciplinary perspectives on similar issues and to verify hypotheses by comparing different kinds of evidence; thus, helping us to discover conflicts between data (Rathje 1992; Buchli and Lucas 2001; Harrison and Schofield 2010). The aim of this entry is to connect the historical-biographical reconstruction of an Italian bandit, Abramo Zeni (better known as "El Castrin"), with related archaeological evidence, which was uncovered in the cave where he hid during World War II (fig. 1; fig. 3; fig. 4).
Fig.1. Southern Trentino (Italy) and some of the places frequented by Abramo Zeni
This research rests upon three lines of inquiry: 1) archival work focused upon news related to the bandit in newspapers of the period; 2) ethnographic interviews with witnesses regarding the life of the bandit; and 3) an archaeological-stratigraphical survey of the cave where he lived.
1) Born in 1912, Abramo Zeni described himself as a peaceful man in two interviews (18/07/1973) that he gave to the local newspapers "L'Adige" and "L'Alto Adige" (fig. 2). He added that, before going to prison (he was sentenced to 29 years for desertion and theft), he sustained himself with different jobs, most notably as a shoe mender. He said that he deserted for the first time in 1939 and the second time from 1941 to 1944. The latter occurred after a violent quarrel, which resulted in his admittance to the hospital of Arco (Trento, northern Italy). There, he was arrested by the Nazis.
Fig.2. On the right Abramo (Gino Zeni), welcomed back by the Major and his fellows countrymen when he was released from jail; on the left, Zeni with a friend in the village bar (“L’Adige, July, the 18th, 1973).
During his desertion years, which he spent in his birthplace (Cavedine and Sarca Valleys), he confessed to have stolen food, which he hid in what he simply referred to as “a refuge". He often shared the food with his impoverished fellow countrymen.
2) Between 2004 and 2009, I conducted together with Ivan Montagni 15 interviews, focusing on information about Zeni’s "refuge" and on the objects found there (Pisoni 2012, in press). An informer (RC) led us near the place known today as "Bus del Castrin" (Castrin’s Hole), a hanging cave on the road to Le Sarche (Trento), in the north of Riva del Garda. The informer told us that as a child (in the early 1940s), when he took the sheep out to pasture, he would pass under the cave reluctantly and with fear. He would quicken his steps, sensing the presence of someone and even seeing the barrel of a rifle sticking out from the cave. According to RC, the entrance to the cave was from the top, by means of a wooden step ladder (not found) at the peak of the cliff. The informant told us that, after the capture of El Castrin, the refuge was stripped bare of the wooden boards that lined the inside of the cave. This fact was also confirmed by another informant (LP), who said that during the 1950s he found the remains of a badly damaged wooden structure in the cave. Last but not least, RC told us about a big theft of leather in Le Sarche, which was attributed to Castrin by the people of the village. From other interviews, it emerged how “el Castrin” was not actively looked for, even though many knew where he was hiding. This was both because of the fear he inspired in them (and in the local police) and because of the "social approach" that characterized his actions, by which he gained respect. Many informants testify that he gave food to poor families.
Fig.3. The gorge made by the river Sarca and the Bus del Castrin. Inset above: one of the two entrances, which is located above the street (Photo: L. Pisoni).
3) The archaeological survey in the cave, which I undertook on the 11 May 2009 in accordance with Soprintendenza ai Beni Librari e Archeologici di Trento, has allowed me to single out (fig. 3; fig. 4) the remains of a shelter built with wooden beams, metal sheets, glass, tiles and tar; not far from the shelter it is possible to distinguish two hearths constructed with a few stones. The discovery of dishes (fig. 5, 1), a knife (fig. 5, 4), a ‘pitar’ (used for keeping food; fig. 5, 3), and a small food box (fig. 5, 2), indicates that the cave was regularly inhabited.
Fig.4. The inside of the Bus del Castrin (Photo: L. Pisoni)
The main points of interest were the discovery of a leather cutting (which can be related with Castrin’s trade as a shoe mender and the subsequent theft that took place in the town of Le Sarche; fig. 5, 7) and the finding of a small bottle of French perfume “Grenoville” (fig. 5, 6). According to the studies of the Museo del Profumo (Milan), this particular perfume was produced between the 1920s and 1940s and almost certainly contained the lotion “Oeillet Fané.” It was most likely a gift from one of the bandit’s lovers, as it is known that he had many. The presence of the heel of a shoe of the “ARBITER” brand (fig. 5, 9), produced since 1954 (http://www.calzaturificioarbiter.it/home.asp), indicates that the cave was visited, although infrequently, in subsequent decades.
Fig.5. The objects found in the Bus del Castrin (Photo: L. Pisoni).
The inaccessibility of the cave and the elements that show the convergence between the historical-biographical reconstruction and the archaeological research (the wooden shelter, the perfume bottle and the leather cutting) suggest that these findings are evidence of the presence of the bandit El Castrin. The heel from an “ARBITER” shoe indicates that there were later “visits” to the cave, although sporadic. The most interesting result is perhaps of a methodological nature, as the study makes evident how microhistory (Ginzburg 1980; Muir and Ruggiero 1991) and archaeology can work together towards the reconstruction of the life of a single person. Archaeology, through the study of material culture, can offer relevant data, which are often inaccessible to other disciplines.
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