Sardinian splendours

5 mins read

CWA explores standout ancient sites in the north-west of the Mediterranean island.

Monte d’Accoddi served as a sanctuary for centuries between the Late Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age. Through successive rebuilds, it was transformed into a terraced, truncated pyramid, often compared to a ziggurat.

In the middle of an open plain, a magnificent structure stands out against the blue sky, dominating the flat green fields that surround it. With a long ramp leading up to a tiered, truncated pyramid, this prehistoric monument has been likened to a Mesopotamian ziggurat; but this is not Iraq: we are in north-west Sardinia.

Despite their apparent similarities, there is no link between the Mesopotamian monuments and this contemporaneous Sardinian sanctuary site, Monte d’Accoddi, whose name stems from the archaic kodi meaning ‘stones’. The elevation of the temple-altar has, however, been interpreted as a way of creating a meeting point between heaven and earth, just like ziggurats. A gentle climb up the ramp and steps today certainly raises the spirits.

Smaller than the Mesopotamian superstructure at, for instance, Ur, Monte d’Accoddi is still an impressive and evocative sight in the open landscape, and offers a chance to follow in the footsteps of Sardinia’s prehistoric inhabitants. With its origins in the Ozieri culture of the Late Neolithic (3500-2900 BC), Monte d’Accoddi was transformed over some 1,500 years of use, until it was abandoned in the Early Bronze Age around 1800 BC, and thereafter used only for the occasional burial.

Local residents in the early 20th century thought that the grown-over mound with some exposed stones was just another of the island’s numerous Bronze Age nuraghi – circular stone towers, often surrounded by villages, and the signature structure of the Nuragic culture. In the Second World War, it saw action with a military post positioned on top, causing some damage to the underlying remains. Monte d’Accoddi is not unique in this regard, and it is easy to spot further traces of the war around Sardinia: for example, the concrete pillboxes that once trained machine-guns on some of the island’s beautiful beaches.

A few years after the war, in 1952, the first excavations at Monte d’Accoddi started under Sardinian archaeologist Ercole Contu. They revealed that this small artificial mound was not a nuraghe, but a pyramidal sanctuary, which has since been partially reconstructed. A granite stele, found next to the monument, is carved with the image of a female deity, who may have been revered at the sanctuary. Today, the original is in the Museo Sanna di Sassari, but a replica stands in the open air in its original spot.

The monument has a complex history, which is illustrated through a sequence of reconstruction drawings in the on-site office. An early Ozieri sanctuary was comprised of a group of huts and monuments, including a 4.5m-high menhir and an immense flat stone with seven holes that has been interpreted as an altar, with the holes perhaps used to restrain sacrificial victims. These now lie on either side of the ramp built later at the site, along with two other enigmatic stones from this early ceremonial complex: large egg-shaped boulders, one measuring 5m in circumference.

The ziggurat-like altar was built on top of this, in two phases. The first truncated pyramid was constructed at the end of the Ozieri period (c.3000-2800 BC), and crowned by a rectangular building, called the ‘Red Temple’ because it was painted in ochre. Later, the temple was buried beneath a mass of earth and stones, and around 2700 BC, towards the start of the Chalcolithic period, builders from the Abealzu-Filigosa culture enlarged the existing structure by making a terraced pyramid, perhaps originally 8m high. This had longer sides than its predecessor, and a 40m ramp. Animal remains excavated from the Chalcolithic levels indicate that sheep, cattle, and pigs were sacrificed at the site, while other objects, like pots from the ruins of the surrounding village (now in the museum at Sassari), give a glimpse of ritual and domestic activity during Monte d’Accoddi’s centuries of occupation.

A street with a row of tabernae at the Roman town of Turris Libisonis.

To the sea

A short drive away, heading towards the coast, lies an altogether different site, the Roman town of Turris Libisonis at Porto Torres, today a major port in the north of Sardinia. The site’s location in the Gulf of Asinara offers protection from the full force of the mistral, the wind that sweeps along the island’s western coast, making it a desirable spot for a safe harbour.

Given the favourable location, the area was also occupied in prehistory. In the 1st century BC, a Roman colonia linked with Julius Caesar – Colonia Iulia Turris Libisonis – was founded. It flourished, thanks to maritime trade, and in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD became the second biggest Roman town on Sardinia, after Caralis, now Cagliari, the island’s capital.

It is a relatively small site, truncated by a 19th-century railway station that dissects the colonia with its tracks. Nevertheless, 3rd- and 4th-century bathhouses, together with a row of street-side tabernae, give a flavour of life in Roman Turris Libisonis. The highlight, though, is a suite of mosaics from a house excavated below the entrance to the central public baths. Called ‘the Domus of Orpheus’, after a mosaic that shows the mythical musician in a Phrygian cap playing the lyre and attracting the attention of animals, the house’s overall layout and date remain unknown. Research is set to continue, though, and restoration work is currently under way on the house’s frescoes. Another mythological mosaic, in the first room of the domus, shows a wedding between two gods, and in front of this is a small water feature, lined inside with a mosaic depicting a varied bounty of sea creatures, among them eel, tuna, red mullet, sole, mackerel, mussels, sea urchin, and crab, shown as if alive.

Dwellings for the dead

The hill of Santu Pedru is home to a necropolis of chambered tombs, including the Tomba dei Vasi Tetrapodi, shown here.

Elements of domestic design were used when burying the dead too. Close to Alghero’s airport are two late Neolithic necropoleis, full of chambered tombs called domus de janas, ‘houses of the fairies’. The first, the necropolis of Santu Pedru, has ten tombs built into a picturesque rocky hill, which is capped by a partially collapsed nuraghe. One was repurposed in the 6th to 7th century AD to serve as a church, which, according to oral tradition, was dedicated to St Peter (giving the site its modern name) and St Lucy.

The burials were discovered by chance during construction work in 1959, and it was again Ercole Contu who carried out the first excavations on the Tomba dei Vasi Tetrapodi (‘Tomb of the Tetrapod Vases’), so-called for the vessels found inside. Other objects excavated, including shells, ceramics, and metalwork, show that the tomb was in use from the Late Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age (c.3000-1500 BC). A long corridor leads up to a small raised doorway (a bit of an awkward squeeze!), which opens up into the dark, spacious main chamber within. Around the walls are the openings for the smaller chambers where the bodies were placed. No fairies live here of course, but the tombs incorporated features from homes in their designs, such as false doors (which perhaps were thought to provide access to the realm of the dead, only not for the living), pillars, and false windows. Ochre is visible on parts of the walls, as are carved bull’s horns.

One of the T-shaped tombs at the necropolis of Anghelu Ruju.

Easier to access is the nearby necropolis of Anghelu Ruju, with its 38 rock-cut tombs, again in use from the Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age. Keep your eyes peeled as you walk around and you can see similar features too: bull’s horns, false doors, and pillars. One tomb even has small bowls for offerings of food or drink carved into the rock of the steps leading to it, a poignant marker of the care people to took to provide for and honour the residents of these sepulchral houses.

This article appeared in issue 99 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

All images: L Marchini

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