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The mysterious seafarers of the “faraway island”

The ancient necropolises of the Italian island of Sardinia have been linked with the fairies, its gigantic tombs with giants. Built by the Ozieri culture, they were a mysterious seafaring culture known as the Shardana.

Philip Coppens

The island of Sardinia has one of the oldest traces of civilisation: monuments around the town of Alghero date back to an impressive 6000 BC. But it is between 3400 and 2700 BC that the so-called Ozieri culture began to express its elaborate cult of the dead, when huge megalithic monuments were erected all over the island. This culture specifically populated the lands in the north of the island before the development of the culture’s Nuraghic phase, which would leave the hundreds of round towers around the island that make Sardinia so unique.
During the Ozieri culture, the bodies of the dead were buried in caves that were cut into the rock and which were quite elaborately decorated. Today, these structures are often known as domus de janas, or fairy houses. The Necropoli di Anghelu Ruju is the largest ancient burial ground on Sardinia and dates from 3500-1800 BC. The site, not far from Alghero airport, was discovered by chance in 1903, shortly after the land was purchased by the Sella e Mosca winery. Even from nearby, the funeral field appears to be nothing more than any other field, situated on a low, flat-topped hill. It was indeed only during clearing work that it was found to hold ancient burials, rock-cut chambers that held the dead.
Today, the dead remains have been removed and the field has been given to tourists to roam in and out of the various chambers. There are over a dozen individual complexes and 27 of the 38 tombs are built by the Ozieri culture. The excavations revealed that the dead were embalmed, occasionally placed in mass burials, and were sometimes half-cremated. Tombs XXV and XXIX of this complex date from c. 3300-2900 BC and have a “pozzetto” entrance, which archaeologists believe predates the open passage entrance of most of the other tombs here. Tomb XXX had artefacts similar to objects known to have been used by the Beaker Culture of the Iberian peninsula and the Balearic islands, suggesting that extensive maritime trade and contacts occurred in the Mediterranean Sea by as early as ca. 3000 BC. Though discussions about ancient seafaring are largely unpopular topics for many historians, in the case of Sardinia, it has to be addressed, for it being an island, how else did people come to it in the first place?
At Anghelu Ruju, the most visually stunning tomb is XXbis, entered via a flight of steps down to the entrance portal, which has a bull’s head reliefs carved on the pilasters. Equally interesting is that Tomb XXVIII has carvings above the main portal which have faint traces of carved bull horns on the pilaster. Indeed, the bull and bull horns were a common decorative motif for the Sardinian cult of the dead, once again suggesting an exchange of ideas with other cultures around the Mediterranean, where bull imagery was also prevalent, such as the Mediterranean shores of Turkey and the Greek island of Crete. Finally, the Sardinian necropolises were decorated with red ochre, often interpreted as the symbol of menstrual blood, symbolising rebirth and – again – a common practice shared by many European cultures from as early as ca. 15,000 BC.

Even than Anghelu Ruju older is the Necropoli di Potu Codinu, which was in use from 3500-2700 BC to 100 BC, thus spanning several millennia of occupation and use. Here, there are nine tomb complexes, each with entrances facing the rising sun. Tomb VI is the most intricate, with seven chambers and niches, while Tomb I is the simplest.
Another important early burial site is the necropolis of Li Mur, discovered in 1939. This necropolis is different as here, a series of dolmen cists, surrounded by several concentric circles of upright stone slabs, contained earth to protect the body or skeleton inside. But the excavations also drew an interesting conclusion, which was that the ground itself was considered sacred, suggesting that the burial fields elsewhere in Sardinia were “consecrated” ground.
This site would equally have looked like a series of large mounds, with a diameter of around five metres each. There would have been a final edging circle that included standing stones, perhaps to identify the person inside or to protect the body from evil. Grave goods include a soapstone cup, flint blades, hatchets, stones with holes carved through them and hand weapons.

Apart from these rock-cut necropolises, Sardinia also has a series of so-called Giants’ Tombs, a megalithic monument that is different from the traditional dolmen in that they have a façade that is made of gigantic megalithic slabs, which is typical for the island. These form a veritable wall, into which the central, large slab, ranging from 2.5 to four metres high and usually monolithic, though sometimes consisting out of two pieces, had a small entrance through which the inner structure could be accessed. This chamber was enclosed within a sort of elongated tumulus, which must have appeared as a mound with its highest point at the entrance and lowest point at the back: the latter was almost always curved to form an apse.
Several of these structures appeared, first in the uplands, in close spatial proximity to the proto-nuraghi, the forerunners of the megalithic round towers. The oldest tombs were also the biggest and could therefore contain the bones of many deceased. At Preganti in Gergei, 25 skeletons were found under the pavement, with offerings of grinding stones, bone beads and pottery.
Still, the giants’ tombs are uniformly spaced over the island as a whole, though more strongly concentrated in the centre of the island itself. Moravetti mapped 130 such tombs, and noted their similarity to the “allées couvertes” or long cists burials found elsewhere in Europe, thus once again underlining links with the rest of Europe. There were nevertheless some differences to the structures of continental Europe: apart from the façade, the burial chamber was normally longer, about eight metres long and paved.
Coddu Vecchiu is the finest Giants’ Tomb in the Gallura region. This monument started out as an allée couverte, but was then later transformed into a giants’ tomb, by adding a grand portal – measuring 4.40 metres high and 1.9 metres wide. The carved granite slab was laid end-up in a semicircular, or bull-horn shaped formation. The entrance is fronted by a row of large flat rounded stones, carved wit hedging detail, the largest of which has a small arched entrance portal and a two-tier façade. As mentioned, the gallery grave is the oldest part, and measures over ten by four metres, its walls and roof made of basalt slabs.
Another famous tomb is the Tomba di Giganti di Li Lolghi, which is set at the summit of a small hill that is barely visible in the landscape. The earliest grave goods found here date from 1800 BC. The stele at the centre of the façade rises to 3.75 metres, while the dolmen itself measures 27 metres. Unfortunately, the front slab has fallen off.
But the dead were not merely placed in these two type of structures. Li Muri is a stone circle dating from the 3rd millennium BC. Each of the five central circles (measuring five to eight metres in diameter) contained a body, interred in a crouching position together with votive offerings, while smaller circles dating from a later period are distinguished by a double row of stones, the sides of which have been worked. There is a suggestion that the rows were used for skinning the corpse prior to burial. The bodies of the dead were indeed stripped of their flesh by exposure in open ceremonial areas, perhaps the forecourts, after which the bones were placed in the tomb.
Whether true or not, the link between standing stones and tombs is also in evidence in Pranu Mutteddu, which has rows of sixty standing stones converging on the underground burial tombs of Goni. Michael Hoskin has found that the orientation of virtually all of the giants’ tombs in the centre of the island face east. The 252 tombs on the island mostly face to the south-east quadrant, especially those in the north of the island. One in three in the south do not conform to this rule, however: some are aligned well west of due south, others north of the midsummer sunrise, suggesting that there is variation in execution, but which reveals clear signs of astronomical knowledge and alignment.

It is therefore known that Sardinia had a profound cult of the ancestor, which included practices like sleeping near the graves of the dead for magical and therapeutic reasons. It was in the forecourt of the giants’ tombs that these incubations occurred.
Some of the giants’ tomb had three holes, which were perhaps used for placing small betyls (sacred conical stones), which were commonly hollowed out in the tumulus behind the upper edge of the arched stele. The same practice was used for the domus de janus. These betyls measure from one to two metres and were found near many giants’ tombs, especially in central-western Sardinia, like Marhine and the northern Oristano regions, or Tamuli giants’ tomb in Macomer. Some have seen the betyls as heir of the standing stones, and are believed to have functioned as small altars, a meeting place between the divinity and the devout. Indeed, one might argue that the betyl is therefore the first statue of a deity, before it acquired the precise detail and workmanship of e.g. the statues of ancient Egypt, who depicted their deities as part human, part animal.

Everywhere we look on the island, we see a culture with contacts to the rest of Europe, but equally possessing its own cultural identity. The Ozieri culture definitely had links with eastern and western parts of the Mediterranean; in fact, they are believed to have come from the Eastern Mediterranean: known as the Shardana, they are often labelled “Sea People”. Their cultural link to the island is obvious, as they gave their name to the island: Sardinia.
The Shardana were definitely a seafaring culture and Egyptian records refer to them as “people from the faraway islands”, which is believed to have been a reference to Sardinia. Their seafaring tradition is held to be the inspiration as to why the giants’ tomb have a tombstone shaped like a ship vertically dug into the ground.
The major question, however, is why Sardinia developed such a unique culture on an island so close to the nearby island of Corsica and the Italian mainland itself. Interestingly, despite geographic proximity, modern genetic research has actually shown that the Sardinian population were genetically quite distant from their neighbours, suggesting they indeed might have come from the Middle East – which is conform to the known history of the Shardana, and which might also explain why the island has an enigmatic ziggurat-like construction (located at Monte d’Acccoddi), which was, of course, typical for the Middle East and Sumer/Babylon in particular, but which is totally unique for the Mediterranean Sea.

What would have brought seafaring nations to this island? It is known that the Ozieri culture was engaged in the obsidian trade. Was it exported from the island by entrepreneuring sailors, like the Shardana?
Still, despite giving their name to the island, the precise relationship between the Shardana and Sardinia remains a matter of some debate. As is customary in modern archaeological research, the diffusionist view that Sardinia was part of a larger network of trade is less than popular. But fact of the matter is that this hypothesis is the best fit for the available evidence.
When the Shardana arrived in Sardinia equally is a matter of debate, some, like Lawrence Melis, arguing that they arrived after 2300 BC, when they are believed to have been forced to flee from Ur. Still, the ziggurat of Monte d’Accoddi has clear signs of contact with the Middle East, this in ca. 3000 BC, during the Ozieri culture.
The situation is not helped by the fact that little is known about the Shardana and their religion. But what is known about them, is that they venerated a “dark mother”, which Melis has labelled the Mater Mediterranea. Statues of this dark goddess are present in the various museums of Sardinia. Interestingly, this specific cult might explain the later cult of the “Black Madonnas”, which have been found elsewhere in Europe and which has puzzled many scholars. Most interestingly, the early Christian church at Saccargia was, however, not only original megalithic in form, inside, there are still two Black Madonnas. Should we see this as evidence that the influence of the Ozieri culture is far bigger, wider and perhaps more important than we have previously believed? For the enigma of the Shardana and the origins of Sardinia to be fully answered, more archaeological and historical research needs to occur. But once accomplished, it is possible, if not likely, that this unique culture in the Mediterranean Sea might reveal a unique insight into an aspect of European history.