The area of what is now Matera has been continually inhabited since the Palaeolithic and it is considered one of the oldest settlement in the Mediterranean region.
The city was probably founded by the Romans in the 3rd century BC, with the name of Mateola after the consul Metellus. However, there are many theories concerning the etymology of this toponym and it is hard to say which one is correct: for example, some sources affirm that the toponym derives from Methera, the compound of the place names METaponto and HERAclea, two Greek colonies situated on the Ionian Coast; others suggest that the city has been called by the Greeks Mataia Ole (from mataios olos, meaning empty all) with reference to the particular conformation of the area; finally some scholars claim that it could also derive from Mata, a term very common in Southern Italy, which means heaps of rocks.

Matera has gained international fame for its ancient town, the Sassi (meaning stones ), two quarters carved into the calcareous rock: the Sasso Caveoso, bearing this name because it is made up of hundreds of caves, and the Sasso Barisano, probably so called because it has been built toward the city of Bari.
It is said that the Sassi are an example of the so called negative architecture in the sense that its houses have been built taking away the material (by excavation) instead of adding it. However, if you compare the two quarters’ architecture, you can spot a difference: in the oldest part of the Sasso Caveoso, you will notice that many of those “houses” are really only caverns, and the streets often are located on the rooftops of other houses; instead in the Sasso Barisano, we find a more “advanced” architecture, with small buildings,arches etc.

On the other side of the canyon there are also many caverns, once inhabited by people. But they remained most of the time in the shade in humid caves, what made life difficult, especially in winter. That’s why the inhabitants moved to the other, more sunny side of the Murgia, in the area where nowadays Sassi are located.