The next stop on our tour of the Mediterranean islands was Corsica’s neighbor to the south, Sardinia. In an illuminating on-board lecture by Prof. Paula Lazrus of the Archaeological Institute of America, we had learned that Corsica and Sardinia were once part of the same landmass. Geological evidence indicates that at some point in the distant past, after breaking apart into two separate areas of land, one of the two had rotated approximately 90 degrees. (Paula, if you read this, maybe you could clarify the point in a Comment below since my explanation is lacking?). Like Corsica, Sardinia has its own language (Sardinian) that may incorporate elements of the language of the ancient Etruscans from mainland Italy as well as of that of the Lydians from Anatolia (western Turkey). Those with an interest in linguistics may wish to consult the highly technical Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sardinian_language.
We visited the island on a grey day and made port in Cagliari, on the southern coast of the Island. Sardinia is important for ancient historians for several reasons, and it has much to offer to those with interests in specific ancient cultures. It is perhaps best known for the remains of the Punic occupation of the island. The term “Punic” refers to the Carthaginian culture, a major ancient power and rival of Rome whose capital was located at Carthage (modern-day Tunis, Tunisia) on the north coast of Africa. We were given a choice between two excursions that highlighted several phases of the island’s history: a visit to the Punic-Roman city of Nora, which boasts a fine amphitheater, or to the island of Sant’Antioco, which preserves traces of the Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman presences on Sardinia. I selected the trip to Sant’Antioco, located southwest of the main island of Sardinia and connected by a highway bridge, a modern version of an artificial isthmus constructed by the Romans in the 2nd century B.C.
Sant’Antioco’s history is long. The Nuragic civilization, indigenous to Sardinia, flourished from the 18th century B.C. probably into the 2nd century A.D. We did not have time to visit any of the nuarghe, the tower-like monuments from which the culture takes its name. This was unfortunate because the other Lecturer on board, Prof. Lazrus, is a specialist in the Nuragic period. A Phoenician settlement, called Solki (the Romans rendered it Sulci), was founded on what is now Sant’Antioco in the 8th century B.C. and occupation has continued unbroken down to the present day. It is impossible in a short blog to discuss all of the history, so I will only mention highlights here.
The ancient ruins at Solki are really made up of three main parts: a Punic-Roman acropolis, a Punic necropolis, and a series of hypogea. Because of time limitations, we only passed by the acropolis on our way to the other sites. Ongoing excavations continue to reveal monuments from both the Carthaginian and later Roman periods:
The Punic necropolis is a fascinating site. In terms of its importance in the study of Punic burial customs, it is second only to the necropolis of Carthage itself. It has been called a tophet (literally, “roasting place”), a term found in the Bible and in several Roman authors in reference to a location for the ritual sacrifice of Carthaginian children by burning.
Archaeologists have recovered the remains of 3300 child burials, and it was long postulated that this WAS a site for human sacrifice. However, more recent analysis of the remains of the bodies uncovered little evidence to support the claim that the infants were ritually killed. It seems more likely that it was simply a place for the burial of young children who had died of natural causes, a theory that is supported by inscriptions recovered at the site mentioning the god Baal Hammon and the goddess Tanit, two Carthaginian deities associated with the protection of children.
The evidence from other Carthaginian sites, such as a tophet at Motiya (Sicily) DO seem to point to child-sacrifice, however, so the question of its importance and prevalence in Carthaginian culture remains open.
The tophet is not the only important burial site on Sant’Antioco. Within walking distance is a fascinating series of Punic hypogea. A hypogeum is an underground chamber, and the term most often refers to such areas when used for burials. On Sant’Antioco, areas of the island are composed of soft tufa, which is easily dug out. This area lent itself to development as a burial ground by the Carthaginians, and the hypogea were dug and used between the 6th and 3rd centuries B.C. Though only a small section are open to tourists today, archaeologists estimate that as many as 1,500 hypogea were in use over that period of time.
Each hypogeum was a family tomb and could house the bodies of up to twenty individuals. The dead were inhumed rather than cremated – they were laid in the tombs on wooden stretchers or in sarcophagi. Burial goods have been discovered in abundance, placed below the wooden stretchers and in niches surrounding the bodies.
These tombs served much the same purpose as modern family burial vaults: when someone died, they were interred and the tomb was sealed up with a rock and the entrance then covered with dirt. Hopefully, by the next time it was necessary to bury a relative, the body had completed its decomposition.
The Romans continued to use the hypogea, as did the Early Christians on the island. In modern times, as the island suffered extreme rates of poverty, some of the less-fortunate converted the hypogea into private homes. Though some view this practice as macabre, it does not seem so to me at all – it seems, rather, like a very economical re-use of structures that were probably pretty comfortable, as underground houses tend to preserve very pleasant temperatures year-round. The local museum has done an excellent job of displaying both the ancient Punic history of the tombs in their original forms and the modern history of the tombs as homes for the Sardinians.
Other aspects of the modern history of Sant’Antioco are also preserved in a small but excellent ethnographic museum near the hypogea. Inside, a visitor can see beautiful examples of the local handmade pasta (a traditional Sardinian dish: fried ravioli stuffed with cheese and grated orange or lemon, and dressed with warm, bitter honey – oh my!) and exquisitely-formed breads and marzipans.
Also of interest in the museum is a display explaining the local handicraft of producing bisso. Bisso is a cloth woven from the beard of a certain large mollusk, the Noble Pen Shell (pino nobilis). A traditional craft, the weaving of bisso is now greatly in decline, and the skill is in danger of being lost.
Another pleasant aspect of a visit to Sardinia is that the island is a botanist’s delight.
Like so many of the Mediterranean islands, the climate of Sardinia lends itself to the cultivation of a range of plants, and many types were imported by the people who passed through the island over the centuries.
For example, the beautiful flowering bush you see here, whose name I do not know, apparently originated in Australia – the Aussies in our group could not believe that I was stopping to snap photos of such a bothersome weed!
Sardinia is definitely a stop that would repay more time spent. The physical remains of the many layers of history laid atop one another are still clear and evocative, and the unique elements of its modern culture make it a delightful place to explore.