Mauro Perra






This paper presents a new approach to the study of Nuragic Sardinia, which contrasts with the common simplistic view of proto-historic societies of Western Mediterranean as being stuck at an earlier stage of development (‘barbaric’), for their being illiterate, not focused on urbanisation and not state-like, in opposition to contemporary Eastern Mediterranean communities. The author challenges such concept of linear evolution of human communities, which is unable to explain the variety of Western Mediterranean social and political formations during this historical period, as the only possible path towards ‘civilization’. In particular, he argues that at least some of the Nuragic élites, those leading the most advanced territorial districts on the island, played a major role as equal partners in the trading processes with Eastern Mediterranean counterparts, such as Cyprus.





While ancient texts may take us some way,

in order to achieve a fully rounded picture of what

was going on at any point in time we also need

the testimony of archaeology, which can tell us

about activities that the texts never mention, and which

lay beneath or beyond the radar of literate élites,

perhaps fatally for many of them.

(Sherratt 2016: 291)



‘The paradox is that this tower-fixated, still internally obsidian-using society, in many ways so unlike others in the Mediterranean and retaining (unusually under such circumstances) many of its insular idiosyncrasies, also opened up spectacularly to external contacts.’ (Broodbank, 2013). Broodbank's amazement, astonishment and visible embarrassment are clear indicators of the inability of many scholars to categorise Nuragic Sardinia, as well as all the other Bronze Age communities of the central-western Mediterranean, into preconceived and predetermined models and unable to interpret the unexpected custom of how Nuragic Sardinians manage to break free from the consolidated and anachronistic schemes of certain archaeological literature. I will attempt to propose a solution to Broodbank's anguished dilemma by offering an interpretation of the phenomenon of the traffic and trade in the ‘Middle Sea’ based in part on contributions of scholars of the subject.

The society and political actions of Nuragic communities, as my research has highlighted on several occasions, are marked and founded on kinship (Perra 1997; 2009; 2020). Yet a series of other aspects must also be taken into consideration to understand the complexity of the historical path of the Nuragic Civilisation:

- modes of settlement consisting of Nuragic population groups clustered into hierarchical territorial districts with polycentric forms settlement;

- funerary rituals from the Middle Bronze to the Late Bronze Age linked to the construction of the so-called ‘Giants' Tombs’, passage graves for collective burials based on ancestor veneration;

- land tenure regime which assures a common access as a means of production not in the hands of individuals, but shared by all members of a social group;

- the solidity and impact of productive activities on the environment;

- a staggering demographic increase between the 14th and 12th centuries BC (see Tab. 1);

- the presence of objects of prestige and customary use from the Aegean (not only pottery, but copper ingots; see Sabatini and Lo Schiavo 2020) in nuraghi and sanctuaries;

- Nuragic archaeological evidence in Mediterranean ports on their way to Cyprus.

Within Nuragic Sardinia, differentiation appears in the form of hierarchical territorial systems, where remarkable inequalities can be identified at different levels: nuraghi show great diversity in structural complexity, there are differences in the impact of agro-pastoral practices on the environment, and also in the evidence of extra-insular contacts. It seems reasonable that such hierarchy among levels of settlement complexity corresponds to a social hierarchy represented by differentiated lineages: the hegemonic ones – a sort of élite that enjoyed the privilege of inhabiting the most imposing buildings and of managing the means of production, resources and external contacts – and the subordinate ones, that live in the satellite settlements, dependent on the political center, proportionally to the genealogical distance from a common Ancestor.

In general, a close look at Nuragic socio-economic structure reveals the presence of almost all the indicators required to insert it into the Kin Ordered Mode of Production (KOMP), as proposed by anthropologist Timothy Earle and archaeologist Kristian Kristiansen (2020). There are nonetheless certain significant discrepancies:

1) The first one concerns the notion of Household Production, well suited to the Neolithic village communities of Sardinia but inadequate when applied to the Nuragic period. In fact, the production, distribution and consumption of goods in the Nuragic period go beyond mere subsistence to yield a surplus. This appears clear in the ability of this society – marked by a solid agro-pastoral and artisanal economic structure – to mobilise men and resources to construct thousands of towers, at times of very complex design, throughout all of Sardinia (including islets). Evidence of this comes from pollen analyses at the site of Nuraghe Arrubiu (Orroli), which reveal a continuous deforestation of the environment due to the slash-and-burn method to clear fields to cultivate cereals and for livestock grazing. The impact of these activities between the 14th and 13th centuries BC was such that they progressively led to soil impoverishment and erosion taking place between the 12th and 11th centuries BC (Lopez et al. 2005).

2) Another discrepancy regarding the parameters advanced by Earle and Kristiansen concerns population density, which in Sardinia increases steadily between the 14th and 12th centuries. This is evidenced by both the spread of thousands and thousands of nuraghi throughout the island and the coeval multiplication of settlements without nuraghi. Yet, the fact that settlements are distributed throughout large portions of the territory (polycentric model) instead of being concentrated into greater urban entities, reduces the scale of the Nuragic Civilisation to values below their Aegean and Near Eastern counterparts, placing them at the lowest stages of the so-called village societies characteristic of ‘barbaric’ Western Europe.

In a study recently published (Perra 2020), I propose that the factors triggering the change that took place in Nuragic Sardinia between the end of the Recent Bronze Age (Phase 2 of the second half of the 13th century) and throughout all the Final Bronze between the 12th and 10th centuries BC can be identified through demographic growth and a solid economic base. It is in this period that the Nuragic Civilisation reaches its apogee. It is a phase marked by great social transformations evidenced by the disappearance of nuraghi as the main political reference points, and the diffusion of ceremonial centres such as Well-Temples, Sacred Springs, Rotundas, Megaron Temples, Meeting Halls and at times the reuse of the inner spaces of nuraghi for worship. Appearing in these structures as elements of ritual are nuraghi models votive swords, hoards of bronze artifacts, copper ingots from Cyprus or the Mediterranean Levant, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic bronze figurines, etc., clear signs of the change towards an intensification of religious rituals.

It is also necessary to include the factors of change in the development of contacts and traffic with the opposite shores of the Mediterranean, as evidenced by the Mycenaean pottery in the Nuraghe Antigori at Sarroch (Ferrarese Ceruti 1981, 1982, 1983), in the Nuragic settlement of Bia ’e Palma at Selargius (Manunza 2016) and in Nuraghe Arrubiu itself (Lo Schiavo and Perra 2017; Perra and Lo Schiavo 2018 and 2020) and in other nuraghi along the coast and inland. This is likewise evidenced by the widespread diffusion of Cypriot and Levantine copper ingots throughout the island (most recently Sabatini, Lo Schiavo 2020). Equally important are finds of Nuragic pottery in the ports of Cannatello in Sicily (Levi et al. 2017), Lipari, Kommos in Crete (Watrous 1989, 1992; Watrous et al. 1998; Jones and Day 1987; Rutter and Van der Moortel 2006) and Pyla Kokkinokremos (Karageorghis 2011; Bretschneider et al. 2015, 2017a and 2017b; Kanta 2021) and Hala Sultan Tekke in Cyprus (Bürge and Fischer 2019; Fischer and Bürge 2018a, 2018b; Gradoli et al 2020). The non-accidental presence of Nuragic individuals in these different overseas contexts unequivocally demonstrates contacts and exchanges, deeply linked to the trade of metals.



Tab. 1 - Chronology of Bronze and Iron Age Sardinia.






























































A great transformation of the Nuragic Civilisation between the 14th and 12th/11th centuries BC can be identified by the transition from the Kin Ordered Mode of Production to the Maritime Mode of Production (MMP). Nuragic Sardinia, however, falls far from the model proposed by Ling, Earle and Kristiansen (2018). In fact, these scholars, when proposing the Maritime Mode of Production, refer to a production throughout the Scandinavian Bronze Age and the Viking period based on raids, trade and slaving, controlled by an armed caste through violence and piracy basically formed by decentralised but confederate chiefdoms. They also argue that the MMP can assume different aspects controlled by a strong centralised power or be based on private entrepreneurship. My position, however, is that it is possible in the case of Nuragic Sardinia to suppose a potential coexistence of the MMP with the Kin Ordered Mode of Production.

While I leave without hesitation the question of raids, slavery and even warriors (certainly elements which suit the communities of the Scandinavian fjords but remain unproven for what is known so far of Nuragic society), I would like to focus on the factor of trade. In fact, although the debate is still open about the involvement of Sardinians into the ‘Peoples of the Sea’ saga, archaeological research still has to take many steps to confirm the Sherden/Nuragic equation which so far has never been proven by research in either island and extra-island contexts (Stiglitz 2010). Instead, there is evidence of Mediterranean traffic between the 13th and 12th centuries BC between Nuragics and Aegeans, contacts which pave the way to new approach to the geopolitical situation of the Mediterranean. However, as time does not allow me to delve into such a complex issue and its manifest facets, I will limit myself to reporting on arguments that most of scholars of the Mare Nostrum maintain to be well-founded.

The political regional powers of that time, Ramesses in Egypt and the Hittite Empire, underwent serious turbulence and an inevitable clash at Kadesh on the Orontes River resulting in a stalemate, despite the self-congratulatory declaration of Ramses II at the Temple of Abu Simbel. In this framework of rigidity and weaknesses, the ‘Great Kings’ and empires suffered from a fading centralised and ‘institutional’ control of commercial exchanges that became practically impossible, favouring a change in maritime activities into private entrepreneurship (Sherratt 2016). As a consequence Cyprus, especially during the 13th century, grew economically – despite Hattuŝa demanding its vassalage. Urban centres including Kition, Enkomi, Palaepaphos and ports such as Hala Sultan Tekke, and even short-lived sites such as Pyla Kokkinokremos and Maa-Palaekastro, although then lacking palatial structures, strengthened their roles as mediators in the exchange of luxury goods and various materials with Egypt, the Near East and the West. The city-state of Ugarit and other Anatolian and Lebanese coastal centres also appear to have enjoyed considerable autonomy, free from undue interference by the Egyptian and Hittite Empires.

The progressive decline during the 12th century BC of the Mediterranean power centres became more and more evident with the destruction of the citadels of Mycenae, Argos, Tiryns, Pylos in the Peloponnese and Thebes in Boeotia. According to the tradition, these disasters stemmed from people ‘living on boats’, the Hattuŝa according to written sources, or due to the ‘Peoples of the Great Green’ as stated by the Egyptians.

Certain minimalist theories propose a marginal role for Nuragic elements in Mediterranean exchanges during the 13th-12th centuries BC (Russell and Knapp 2017; Knapp et al. 2021). Others even suggest the possibility that Nuragic women were slaves of the wealthy Cypriot elites (Cultraro 2020). The representativeness of the archaeological record constitutes, according to Mark Pearce (2021: 216), ‘... just a small fraction of a much more numerous and complex prehistoric reality’. Moreover, although the number of oxhide ingots in Sardinia (often fragments) is less than that of the cargo of the shipwreck of Uluburun, they are found throughout the island. Furthermore, the presence of Nuragic men and women in Cyprus is evidenced at Pyla, and especially Hala Sultan Tekke, by finds of Nuragic fine table ware among the local funerary goods of a suburban cemetery.

So what was the role of Nuragic seafarers in this multicoloured mosaic of Mediterranean trade and contacts of the 13th and 12th centuries BC? And what was the function of the Nuragic elite? Were they capable of organising or at least participating in preparing vessels charged with goods and materials? Certainly not all the Nuragic communities possessed economic bases solid enough to participate in Mediterranean trade. Only certain communities, such as the elites of Pran’e Muru of Orroli and Nurri associated with Nuraghe Arrubiu, or those who settled in the territorial system of Sinis (Perra 2020), to cite a few, could have participated as partners in Mediterranean trade.

Cyprus lacked gold and silver, as well as tin ore. It is possible to infer that the Nuragic communities, as suggested by Pearce (2021), played the ‘middlemen’ role in trading silver and tin. This last metal perhaps came from ores in Cornwall or elsewhere in the Western Mediterranean (Wood et al. 2019). These questions thus remain as working hypotheses in the current state of research, as archaeology is far from offering proof. It must nonetheless be noted that the Sulcis region, located in south-west Sardinia, was rich in silver and lead deposits. It was not a coincidence that the landing of Aragonese troops in 1323 A.D. under Infante Alfonso took place in the Gulf of Palmas of Sulcis. It was that year that saw the siege of Villa di Chiesa (today Iglesias) precisely because this city was the head of a territory rich in silver and salt mines. It is therefore not surprising, due to the continuous mining, that archaeologists today find no trace of the extractive work that persisted from prehistoric times throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. It is also useful to recall that the currency of exchange in the 13th century BC in the Mediterranean and Near East was silver rather than gold (Papasavvas 2021).

Finally, finds of fine pottery from the Nuraghe Arrubiu in the votive wells of Hala in the context of Cypriot funerary rituals suggest that Nuragic elements did not play the sole role of oarsmen and even less of slaves. The Nuragic elites of the most economically, politically and socially advanced territorial districts could well have been reliable commercial partners in the eyes of the Cypriots.

To conclude, I believe that the ‘Nuragic paradox’ afflicting many scholars, and not just Cyprian Broodbank, derives from a widespread ethnocentric attitude that remains chained to the old 19th-century concept of a unilinear evolution of human communities towards the creation of urban centres, state institutions and writing (all Eastern Mediterranean inventions and conquests) as the only possible path towards ‘civilization’. It is a short-sighted and hierarchical outlook that cannot grasp, nor is able to explain, the variety of Western social and political formations. It is a gaze that contrasts with the ever-increasing amount of information and data emerging from archaeological research in Sardinia as well the Western and Eastern Mediterranean.



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