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.
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.
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
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”
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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
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.