Prehistoric Sardinia

It is not easy to write a short history of Sardinia. Nonetheless I will try to summarize the main events. Much of the rich prehistoric past has been preserved until the present day mainly because Sardinia does not have a densely populated countryside and many areas where people once lived were abandoned. The past has been much determined by the fact that Sardinia is an island. On the one hand it has been open to influences from outside where the sea was a highway of communication and transport, but on the other hand it could be completely isolated and developments on the island would take their own course. Thus surprising similarities can be found with France, Spain, North-Africa and even the Middle-East but also periods of developments unique for Sardinia that are not to be found elsewhere. As a consequence Sardinia has been an interesting studyground for scientists from all over the world, not in the last place archaeologists.

The oldest traces of human activity

Although Sardinia is geologically older than the peninsula of Italy, it has been populated by mankind later than the mainland. The oldest traces of human activity date from 400.000 to 120.000 years ago (Paleolithic) and have been found in the north of Sardinia, near Perfugas. During the last Ice-age the sea-levels dropped so low that the distance between Sardinia and the mainland was reduced which made a crossing relatively easy. Traces have been found of human activity near Oliena dating back to the recent Paleolithic ( 14000-12000 BC ) while for the intermediate period almost no evidence of a human presence is available. After the Ice-age sea levels rose again but the technology of seafaring developed further making crossing the straits possible. In the same cave of Corbeddu fossile remains of humans have been found that could be dated back to 8750 BC, these fossile remains have some marked differences from the more common Homo sapiens. In the Paleolithic and Mesolithic only communities of hunter-gatherers existed that needed sufficient territory to survive. It seems Sardinia offered enough room for a limited number of these groups. Remains of hunted deer and the prolagus sardus, an extinct species, have been found that were the basis of the pre-neolithic human diet 1.

The neolithic and obsidian in Sardinia

During the neolithic the Monte Arci, a former vulcano, was one of the central deposits of obsidian. This vulcanic glass was used to produce arrowheads, spearheads and cutting utensils. In several areas of the west Mediterranean artefacts in obsidian have been found that could be traced back to different deposits on the Monte Arci. This points to a thriving commerce with the surrounding regions in the recent neolithic times 2.

Dating method with obsidian in archaeology.

One of the methods to date artefacts and sites in archaeology is based on the measure of hydration of obsidian. Once chipped the surface of obsidian starts hydrating when exposed to the (moist) air and creates a brownish surface. The thickness of this layer determines the age of the utensil (the time exposed to the air). An arrowhead of the neolithic will therefore never be as shiny as a fresh chipped piece of obsidian. This method was developed by the geologists Irving Friedman and Robert L Smith.

Material cultures in neolithic and calcolithic Sardinia

The neolithic age is characterized by three phases: the old neolithic, the middle neolithic with the culture of Bonuighinu and the recent neolithic with the culture of Ozieri (also called the culture of San Michele). Of the various cultures in traces have been found consisting of earthenware, utensils in bone and stone and they were named after the place where the first discoveries were made 3. Of the same period are the megalithic gravestructures called Dolmen and the gravechambers cut in the rock, the Domus de Janas (houses of the fairies) that are still visible in the landscape 4. Even though these cultures were mainly inland of Sardinia, traces of a sub-Ozieri culture were also to be found in the plains, near Cabras at Cuccuru S'Arriu on the edge of the stagno 5.

In the Calcolithic age the mining of metals (copper) became more important. The culture of Ozieri slowly developed in the culture of Monte Claro and the cultures of Filigosa and Abealzu, the direct predecessors of the nuragic culture. One of the main sites is the curious ziggurat of Monte D'Accoddì near Sassari, a trapeze-like structure that probably was an important religious center 6. Other important sites can be considered the necropolis of Anghelu Ruju near Alghero and the necropolis of Montessu near Villaperuccio 7. As in the rest of Europe (France, Spain) megalithic structures of low towers and walls appeared during the times of the culture of Monte Claro (Sa Ureci, Guspini and Monte Baranta near Alghero) 8. The gravestructures developed into allee couverte, a covered corridor, the predecessor of the tombe di giganti 9.

Archaeological periods in Sardinia

Table of archaeological periods 10

 PeriodCultureDates
  (findplace)a)b)c)d)
 Paleolithic 500 / 300.000500.000(?)350.000350.000 
 EarlyClactonian (Perfugas)||||
 120.000120.000100.000100.000
 Middle||||
 35.00035.00035.00035.000
 LateCorbeddu cave||||
 Mesolithic10.00010.00010.00010.000
 Corbeddu cave||||
 Neolithic6.0006.0006.0006.000
 EarlyDecorated pottery (Filiestru)||||
 4.6005.8004.0003.730
 MiddleBonu Ighinu||||
 3.2403.8003.5003.300
 LateSan Michele (Ozieri)||||
 Calcolithic (Eneolithic) Copper age2.3602.9002.7002.480
 EarlySub-Ozieri and Filigosa|
2.130
|
2.400
|
2.500
|
 MiddleAbealzu2.300
|
2.200
2.850
|
2.630
2.700
|
2.500
|
 LateMonte-Claro2.360
|
2.100
2.900
|
2.550
|
2.000
|
 FinalBeaker culture2.300
|
1.650
2.850
|
2.000
||
 Bronze age2.0002.3501.8001.855
 EarlyBonnanaro or archaic nuraghe age (Lilliu I)||||
 1.5001.8001.6001.490
 MiddleBonnanaro single tower nuraghi (Contu) or Middle nuraghe age (Lilliu II and III)||||
 1.3001.500||
 LateComplex nuraghi (Contu) or Middle nuraghe age (Lilliu II en III) comb decorated pottery and mycenean imported ware||||
 1.2001.2001.300|
 FinalPre-geometric pottery, single huts or Middle nuraghe age (Lilliu II and III)||||
 Iron age850850900900
 GeometricGeometric pottery, complex huts (Contu) or Late nuraghe age (Lilliu IV)||||
 720720||
 Protohistoric OrientalizingOrientalizing, contact with Phoenicians (Contu) or Late nuraghe age (Lilliu IV)||||
 535535535535
 PunicLate indigenous pottery, punic period (Contu) or Final nuraghe age (Lilliu V)||||
 Historical era238238238238
 RomanRoman period||||
 476 n C476 n C476 n C476 n C
a = Dating with C14, K40-Ar40
b = Dating according to Contu
c = Dating according to Lo Schiavo
d = Dating according to Lilliu

Download in pdf: Table of archaeological periods of Sardinia

The chronology of the Nuragic age has been subject to discussion. Some archaeologists are of the opinion that the Nuragic age began much earlier (2700 BC) and ended around or even before the time the Phoenicians came to Sardinia (1000 BC), even though the nuraghi themselves were still in use after that time. Justly they question the fact that the bronze statues are ascribed to a nuragic culture or nuragic origin. The point is that a Nuragic cultural horizon is difficult to establish and it would be more correct to speak of a Nuragic age in which the Nuraghi were built and used even though in the end the people that lived around the Nuraghi may have had nothing in common with the builders 11.

Notes:

1 Lilliu 2003, p 25; Tanda 2004, p 31,32; Martini 1992, p 40-48; Klein Hofmeijer and Sondaar 1992, p 49-56; Cherry 1992, p 28-39; Sondaar 1998, p 45-51
2 Lilliu 2003, p. 29 f; Tykot 1992, p. 57 f; Tanda 2004, p.32,33
3 Lilliu 2003, p. 14 and p. 79 f; Tanda 2004, p. 33
4 Ferrarese Ceruti 1992, p.98-99; Tanda 2004, p.34-42; Lilliu 2003, p. 45-127
5 Santoni 1992, p. 157
6 Lilliu 2003, p.96; Tanda 2004, p. 42 f ; Brochure of the Regione della Sardegna with an article written on Monte d'Accoddi by Giuseppa Tanda, Sassari e Porto Torres, Monte d'Accoddi e Su Crucifissu Mannu
7 Demartis 1986, p. 10; Atzeni-Melis 2000, p. 33
8 Lilliu 2003, p. 152,153; Tanda 2004, p. 47-48
9 Lilliu 2003, p. 217
10 Lo Schiavo 1991, p 20-21; Lilliu 2003, p 12-17; Webster 1996, p 14,19-22; Cherry 1992, p 28-39; Contu 1998, p 63-76
11 Manca 2004, p. 97 and 102

Bibliography

1. Atzeni, E. - G.M. Melis 2000, Villaperuccio tra ipogeismo e megalitismo, Sassari
2. Cherry, J.F. 1992, Paleolithic Sardinians? Some questions of evidence and method in: Sardinia in the Mediterranean: A footprint in the sea, ed. R. H. Tykot and T.K. Andrews, Sheffield, p. 28-39
3. Contu, E. 1998, Stratigrafia ed altri elementi di cronologia della Sardegna preistorica e protostorica in: Sardinian and Aegean Chronology, ed. M.S. Balmuth and R.H. Tykot, Oxford, p. 63-76
4. Demartis, G.M. 1986, La necropoli di Anghelu Ruju, Sassari
5. Ferrarese Ceruti, M.L. 1992, Elementi Architettonici e del Culto Funerario nella Domus de Janas di Su Littu (Ossi-Sassari) in: Sardinia in the Mediterranean: A footprint in the sea, ed. R. H. Tykot and T.K. Andrews, Sheffield, p. 98-104
6. Klein Hofmeijer, G. and P.Y. Sondaar 1992, Pleistocene Humans in the island environment of Sardinia in: Sardinia in the Mediterranean: A footprint in the sea, ed. R. H. Tykot and T.K. Andrews, Sheffield, p. 49-56
7. Lilliu,G. 2003: La civiltà dei Sardi dal paleolitico all'età dei nuraghi, Nuoro
8. Lo Schiavo, F. 1991, Il museo archeologico di Sassari G.A. Sanna, Sassari
9. Manca, G. 2004: Il nuraghe Losa e la civiltà nuragica, Ghilarza
10. Martini, F. 1992, Early Human Settlement in Sardinia: The Paleolithic Industries in: Sardinia in the Mediterranean: A footprint in the sea, ed. R. H. Tykot and T.K. Andrews, Sheffield, p. 40-48
11. Santoni, V. 1992, Cuccuru S'Arriu (Cabras). L'Orizzonte Eneolitico Sub-Ozieri in: Sardinia in the Mediterranean: A footprint in the sea, ed. R. H. Tykot and T.K. Andrews, Sheffield, p. 157-174
12. Sondaar, P.Y. 1998, Paleolithic Sardinians: Paleontological Evidence and Methods in: Sardinian and Aegean Chronology, ed. M.S. Balmuth and R.H. Tykot, Oxford, p. 45-51
13. Tanda, G. 2004, Dalla preistoria alla storia, in: Storia della Sardegna, ed. M. Brigaglia, Cagliari, p. 25-74
14. Tykot, R.H. 1992, The Sources and Distribution of Sardinian Obsidian in: Sardinia in the Mediterranean: A footprint in the sea, ed. R. H. Tykot and T.K. Andrews, Sheffield, p. 57-70
15. Webster, G.S. 1996, A Prehistory of Sardinia 2300-500BC, Sheffield

Last updated 06/05/2016

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