The Phoenicians on Sardinia

An interesting phase in the prehistory of Sardinia is the arrival of the Phoenicians to the island. Sardinia has been an important source of knowledge for Phoenician history because much of the pre- and protohistoric remains survived throughout the centuries. Initially the Phoenician arrival was seen by historians and archaeologists as the phase of the foundation of towns and colonies, parallel to the Greek colonisation, but in time this view of the Phoenician expansion has been modified. The discussions between archaeologists were centered on the question of the exact moment of colonisation and on the form this would have taken. These discussions were greatly influenced by the Greek and Roman ancient writers who had tried to establish a date for the foundation of cities like Rome and Carthage by telling the foundation myths. Similar foundation myths were also told about less important towns and cities of the Roman empire. This drove archaeologists and historians at first to search for the signs of the first settlement of colonies, and when they could not match the ancient sources with their findings of much later date they reasoned there must have been a pre-colonial phase. But how were these first contacts between Phoenicians and Sardinians established? Can one speak of colonisation and in what measure? How did these contacts between Phoenician traders and Sardic tribes develop?

The development of Phoenician trade

Already in the Bronze-age there were contacts between Sardinia and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Mycenean ceramics that have been found in Sardinia indicate the existence of these contacts 1. After 1200 BC, with the Sea-Peoples destabilising the Eastern mediterranean, and the disappearance of the palace-cultures in Mycene and Crete, the Cypriot merchants kept trading with the west-Mediterranean, either in a direct form or indirectly through Crete,the south of Italy and Sicily 2. It was not until the tenth century BC that Tyrus (ancient Sor) gained in power as a city state, based on a strong development of trade, at the same time surpassing cities like Sidon, Sarepta and Byblos (ancient Gebal). Although they are commonly referred to as Phoenicians it is known that the merchants came from the wider Siro-Palestine area. The first signs of expansion of Tyrus are found on Cyprus with the foundation of a colony in Kition (Kittim). From there they expanded westwards through Crete (Kommos) until they eventually reached Spain, the legendary (and biblical) kingdom of Tartessos 3.

Map of the Mediterranean Sea with the most important connections between the Phoenician settlements, see also the article on phoenician navigation.

The Mediterranean

The Phoenicians in the west

It can be safely assumed that in the eighth century BC the Phoenicians founded their first settlements in Sardinia: Tharros, Bithia, Sulcis (Sant'Antioco), Nora and Karalis (Cagliari). They laid the foundation of a trading network in the western Mediterranean; in Spain (Huelva and Gades/Cadiz), Northern Africa (ranging from Utica in Tunis to Lixus in Northern Morocco), Malta, Sicily (Motya, Panormus/Palermo). The main drives for this expansion of the Phoenicians can be found in the lucrative trade of silver, which they obtained in Spain and sold to the Assyrians, but also in luxury goods, produced in their homeland and exchanged with the local chiefs and kings, acquiring in this way for themselves a position in the local trade networks 4. Therefore settlements like Sulcis, Pithekoussai (Ischia) and Motya are often called "ports of trade" or "ports of call", where not only Phoenicians, but also Greek merchants (Euboians) were actively engaged in trade 5. This Phoenician expansion coincided with the colonisation by the Greeks of Southern-Italy and Sicily (Magna-Graecia), although the main difference is that the Phoenicians were not after land possession but maintained peaceful relations with the local people 6. It seems plausible that towns like Tharros at first did not have a big impact on the native Sardinian society but were more focussed on the Phoenician trade network 7. Only in the seventh century BC secondary settlements were established, for instance Othoca, Monte Sirai and Bithia 8.

Phoenician settlements in Sardinia

The most important evidence of settlement, and foundation of the city, comes from the open-air sanctuaries (dedicated to Baal-Hammon), that have been excavated in Tharros, Nora, Sulcis, and that have been found also in Motya (Sicily), Carthage (Tunis). These open air sanctuaries are called tophet, a term derived from a hebrew word used in the bible where it indicated an open-air sanctuary. The sanctuary was used to deposit the urns with ashes of sacrifices, usually animals and also children. In later times votive stele's were also deposited along with the urns (or as a substitute sacrifice). By means of the ashes a date could be established for the oldest deposits (eight century BC) and this has been seen as proof of the earliest presence of the Phoenicians. Secondary settlements did not have a tophet, these were established in the sixth century in Monte Sirai and Bithia only 9.

Another important indicator of a foundation was the presence of a temple dedicated to Melqart, the god of the city of Tyrus. A temple of Melqart has been found near Gades (Cadiz). Other temples are those dedicated to Astarte, the Cypriotic goddess 10. Astarte has been identified with Aphrodite by the Greeks.

There are not many remains of Phoenician buildings on Sardinia. For the largest part the Phoenician remains are artefacts or statuettes and these are kept in the various museums. The stone of Nora is the most important archaeological find of Phoenician origin. It contains inscriptions with the name of the island in Phoenician (SRDN) and it has been dated to the ninth century BC. It can be admired in the Archeological Museum of Cagliari 11. The only visible remains of the Phoenician presence are the tophet of Tharros and Sulcis (Sant'Antioco). Other Phoenicians remains concern mostly ceramics found in the context of graves, characterised as red-slip ware with painted decorations 12.

The Phoenicians and the Sards

An important study on the effects of Phoenician colonisation in Sardinia has been done by Peter van Dommelen during the nineties of the previous century. He performed a large-scale archaeological survey in west-central Sardinia to obtain insight in the developments in occupation and land use and the effect of the Phoenician, Punic and Roman presence on these.

In the course of the eighth and seventh centuries BC the relations between the Phoenician merchants and the Sardic tribes intensified. These relations were based on the mechanism of gift exchange, a mechanism studied by anthropologists and applied in archaeology. Gift exchange was not limited to the direct exchange of products but was used also mainly to create a bond of obligations that could also be repayed in an immaterial way 13. The Phoenicians were interested in metal ores and other products. These they obtained through the mediation of the Sardic elites who used their monopoly to enhance their power over the Sardic people. It is also in this period that the centralisation of settlements occurred in the nuragic villages, either near complex nuraghi, in some cases transformed to sanctuaries, or near the water sanctuaries. The more dispersed single tower nuraghi were abandoned more and more, indicating changing social relations within the Sardic communities 14.

The archaeological survey

An important non-destructive method in archaeological research is the survey. With this method the surface of a relative large area is searched for archaeological remains and these are catalogized. Because the area is usually too large to walk every square meter representative sections are defined that are subject to the survey. This method allows for a broader insight in land use in prehistoric times. Next to the survey the sites with high concentrations of finds can be subjected to a traditional excavation. However due to the destructive nature of excavations this is avoided as much as possible.

Van Dommelen has applied the method of the archaeological survey in west-central Sardinia, and before him other archaeologists have used the method in the area of the Marmilla and the peninsula of Sinis, to gain deeper insight in the relations between Phoenicians and Sards 15.

See also the projects of the University of Glasgow
Terralba Rural Settlement Project - Progetto Terralba

Phoenician and other exotic artefacts have been found in the context of native Sardinian sites. Apart from Phoenician ceramic and bronze also Villanovian (later Etruscan) products have been found. Vice versa Sardic artefacts have been found in the context of purely Phoenician graves. The presence of exotic products in Sardic contexts does not imply that the Sards perceived or adopted the Phoenician or Etruscan culture as a superior culture, an object could acquire it's own significance or use within the own culture, losing the use it was originally destined for. From archaeological research emerges that Phoenician objects were not present in high numbers which would imply a more limited influence of the Phoenician presence on the Sardic communities than initially thought 16.

The increased concentration of political power in the hands of the local elites was expressed in a stronger Sardic identity, not necessarily by copying the Phoenician standards of life but by using forms of their own. An example can be found in the manhigh statues of Monte Prama, found in the context of a necropolis, clearly inspired by the Sardinian bronze statuettes (bronzetti) 17.


1 Markoe 2000: p.21, 177
2 Mathäeus 2000: p. 48-49; Sherratt & Sherratt 1993: p.364-365
3 Sherratt & Sherratt 1993: p.364; Karageorghis 1999: p.186-189; Aubet 1993: p.42 ff.; Markoe 2000: p.173; Niemeyer 1989: p.20
4 Markoe 2000: p.180; Sherratt & Sherratt 1993: p. 363; Mathäeus 2000: p. 56-57; Frankenstein 1979: p. 280-283
5 Sherratt & Sherratt 1993: p. 368; Markoe 2000: p. 179; Frankenstein 1979: p. 278; Coldstream 1979: p.263-264; Buchner 1979: p.279; Botto 1989: p.235,241
6 Markoe 2000: p. 177
7 Van Dommelen 1998, p 105-107
8 Van Dommelen 1998, p. 80-82
9 Aubet 1993: p. 216,217; Markoe 2000: p. 132, 136; Van Dommelen, p 82-83
10 Markoe 2000: p. 89, 130, 139; Röllig 1979: p. 20; Niemeyer 1989: p. 7 ff.
11 Guzzo Amadasi 1967: p. 83 a footnote on the date of the stele of Nora found in 1773 at Nora
12 Bartoloni 1983: studi sulla ceramica fenicia e punica in Sardegna
13 Renfrew 2000, p 353-355
14 Van Dommelen 1998, p 109-112
15 Renfrew 2000, p76-77; Van Dommelen 1998, p 60-61
16 Van Dommelen 1998, p 107-109
17 Van Dommelen 1998, p 110


1. Aubet, M.E. 1993, The Phoenicians and the West. Politics Colonies and Trade, Cambridge (first published in Spanish, 1987)
2. Bartoloni, P. 1983, Studi sulla ceramica fenicia e punica in Sardegna, Roma
3. Botto, M. 1989: Considerazioni sul commercio fenicio nel tirreno nell'VIII e nel VII secolo a. C., in: Istituto Universitario Orientale Annali Archeologia e Storia Antica XI, Napoli
4. Buchner, G. 1979: Die Beziehungen zwischen der euboïschen kolonie Pithekoussai auf die Insel Ischia und dem nordwestsemitischen Mittelmeerraum in der Zweiten Hälfte des 8. Jhr v. Chr., in: ed. H.G. Niemeyer, Phönizier im Westen, Köln, p. 277-298
5. Coldstream, J.N. 1979: Greeks and Phoenicians in the Aegean, in: ed. H.G. Niemeyer, Phönizier im Westen, Köln, p. 261-272
6. Frankenstein, S. 1979: The Phoenicians in the far west. A function of Neo-Assyrian imperialism, in: ed. M.T. Larsen, Power and Propaganda. A symposion on ancient empires, Copenhagen
7. Guzzo Amadasi, M.G. 1967: Le iscrizioni fenicie e puniche delle colonie in occidente, Roma
8. Karageorghis, V. 1999, Cyprus in: The Phoenicians, ed. S. Moscati (first published on the occasion of the exhibition The Phoenicians at the Palazzo Grassi Venice 1988), New York, p. 185-198
9. Markoe, G.E. 2000: Peoples of the past. Phoenicians, London
10. Matthäus, H. 2000: Die Rolle Zyperns und Sardiniens im Mittelmeerischen interaktionsprozess während der Späten Zweiten und Frühen ersten Jahrtausends v. Chr., in: Der Orient und Etrurien, Roma
11. Niemeyer, H.G. 1989, Das frühe Karthago und die phönizische Expansion im Mittelmeerraum, Als öffentlicher Vortrag der Joachim Jungius-Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften gehalten am 31. Mai 1988 in Hamburg, Göttingen
12. Renfrew, C. and P. Bahn 2000: Archaeology: Theories Methods and Practice, London
13. Röllig, W. 1979: Die Phönizier des Mutterlandes zur Zeit der Kolonisierung, in: ed. H.G. Niemeyer, Phönizier im Westen, Köln, p. 15-28
14. Sherratt, A.G. & E.S. Sherratt 1993: The growth of the Mediterranean economy in the early first millenium B.C., in: World Archeaology 24, p. 361-378
15. Van Dommelen, P. 1998, On Colonial Grounds, Leiden

Last updated 01/02/2015

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