Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean, with an area of about 24,000 square km. The earliest traces of human occupation now date to the Upper Paleolithic, ca. 20,000 BP, providing at the same time the earliest evidence of sea travel in the Mediterranean. Due perhaps to limited indigenous fauna and flora, Sardinia was not densely occupied, however, until the Neolithic period (ca. 5800-3200 BC). During the Neolithic, domesticated sheep, goat, cattle and pig, as well as wheat and barley, were introduced to Sardinia, and year-round, permanent settlements appear throughout the island. By the later neolithic, elaborate rock-cut domus-de-janas tombs are evidence of complex religious and ritual practices. From the beginning of the Neolithic, Sardinia was part of a regional interaction system, as indicated by the widespread distribution of the Cardial impressed ceramic style throughout the western Mediterranean, and the distribution of Monte Arci (Sardinia) obsidian to Corsica, northern Italy, and southern France. Extrainsular contacts continued during the Copper and Early Bronze Ages (ca. 3200-1800 BC), with the most notable example being the Beaker style ceramics and burials which are known throughout much of Europe.
Beginning about 1600 BC, Sardinia is characterized by the construction of stone towers called nuraghi, which probably served as territorial markers and as defensive structures. Nuraghi are the largest stone structures in the Mediterranean after the Egyptian pyramids, and their corbel-vaulted ceilings are the earliest known. Approximately 7000 nuraghi have been identified, although only a few dozen are well preserved - some up to 3 stories in height. The Nuragic people were farmers and shepherds and probably warriors, they buried their dead in communal tombe di giganti, and they practiced sophisticated metallurgical and other craft techniques. By the Late Bronze Age, there is extensive evidence for contact with the Aegean (oxhide ingots and Mycenaean ceramics in Sardinia; Nuragic ceramics in Crete), and it is possible that the Sherden tribe of the Sea Peoples mentioned in Egyptian documents is related to Sardinia.
The Phoenicians established colonies in Sardinia in the early 8th century BC, while their Carthaginian successors managed to gain control of the western part of the island by 509 BC. The Romans in turn gained control of the entire island in 238 BC, and Sardinia became both an important source of grain during the Empire, and a place of exile for early Christians and political troublemakers. Indigenous, Nuragic ways persisted throughout these waves of colonists and conquerors.
I have been doing research on Sardinia since 1982, when as an undergraduate at Tufts University I became interested in problems surrounding the Monte Arci obsidian sources. As part of my dissertation research at Harvard, I eventually conducted an extensive survey of the sources, determined through chemical analyses that five distinct sources were used to make stone tools, and analyzed several thousand artifacts to reconstruct Neolithic distribution patterns and exchange systems. I continue to work on obsidian from various sites in the Mediterranean, including Sardinia, Corsica, Malta, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Cyprus.
While at Tufts, I did my Master's thesis on a peculiar type of hearth ceramic called ditata, decorated with finger impressions, and found at Punic (Carthaginian) sites in Sardinia and Carthage (Tunisia). In Sardinia, several examples were excavated by Miriam S. Balmuth of Tufts University at Ortu Comidu (Sardara), and were attributed to Punic domestic cooking activities. In Carthage, however, examples were found on the Byrsa in association with metalworking remains, and the ceramics were interpreted as parts of smelting or smithing furnaces. My analysis of the firing temperature of the ceramics, however, does not support the smelting interpretation, and these structures are now thought to have been bread ovens (tabuns), similar in many respects to ethnographic examples known from North Africa.
At the same time that I was doing my obsidian work, I was also involved in several field projects, eventually becoming Assistant Director of the excavations at Nuraghe Santa Barbara in Bauladu. Lenore Gallin of UCLA and Diablo Valley CC began the excavations in 1986, under the auspices of the Soprintendente di Archeologia for the provinces of Cagliari and Oristano, Dott. Vincenzo Santoni. The significance of the site lies in the metal workshop that we discovered in the village outside the nuraghe itself; the finds include scrap metal (bronze and lead), and the ceramic moulds, cores and crucibles used to cast a variety of objects including spearheads and the famous bronzetti, small human and animal votive figurines that are commonly found as offerings at Nuragic sacred wells.
I have also been involved, with Miriam S. Balmuth, in the chemical analysis of Sardinian bronzetti in American museum collections. Our preliminary conclusions are that typical but variable amounts of copper and tin were alloyed to make the bronze figurines, and that lead and silver were rarely intentionally added. The presence of zinc (copper plus zinc = brass) is highly problematic for pre-Roman figurines.
Further fieldwork in Sardinia is now in the planning stages, and I anticipate that there will be opportunities for students and volunteers to participate.
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