Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.02.04 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.02.04

Gary S. Webster, The Archaeology of Nuragic Sardinia. Monographs in Mediterranean archaeology, 14.   Sheffield; Bristol, CT:  Equinox Publishing, 2015.  Pp. xvii, 253.  ISBN 9781781791356.  $100.00.  


Reviewed by Jeremy Hayne (Jeremy.hayne@fastwebnet.it)

Publisher’s Preview

This is the second edition of Webster’s book The Prehistory of Sardinia 2300-500 BC, first published in 1996, which was a successful attempt to offer an introduction to Sardinian Nuragic archaeology aimed at an English-speaking audience. The original edition followed the currently popular processional and classificatory approach. This new edition attempts not only to incorporate the large amount of new scholarship written about the same period on the island but also to offer a more up-to-date approach drawn from material cultural studies which places less emphasis on general theory and more on “regionalness, cultural uniqueness, human agency, ethnicity, [and] identity” (p. xiii).

The book is relatively short and the author is to be commended for cramming so much information into a comparatively small space, while still providing an informative and readable overview of the period, well supplied with case studies. It covers primarily the period from the Middle Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, with a shorter discussion of the Early BA, and removes the discussion of pre-Nuragic society present in the first edition. The book’s structure, apart from the first chapter, is similar to that of the previous version. Each chapter covers a chronological period and includes sections on chronology, selected site descriptions, a wider discussion of social practices and a concluding summary. New to this edition is a very welcome short parallel discussion of Sardinia’s nearest and often neglected neighbour, Corsica, during the relevant period. Webster does well to tackle the thorny subject of Sardinian chronology, but the absence of deeper discussion on the later Iron Age, whilst understandable from an editorial point of view, is less justifiable from an archaeological one, as this period between the 9th and 7th centuries is one of much recent scholarly focus.1

The Introduction places Nuragic archaeology in a historical setting and gives an overview of its chronology. Absolute dates are few (currently only about 80) and the typological seriation put forward by Campus and Leonelli 2000 and 20062 (the latter not cited) remains, for all its analysis, frustratingly vague and at times subjective. What is missing here is an acknowledgment of the opposing points of view that colour the discussions of Nuragic chronology between those who see most Nuragic activity finishing before the end of the Bronze Age (e.g. Lo Schiavo 2013 and Milletti 2012)3 and those who see Nuragic activity continuing into the Iron Age (e.g Ialongo 2013 and Tronchetti 2012).4 The chapter finishes with an overview of the island’s geography/geology.

Chapter 2 covers the Early Bronze Age. Once seen as the start of the Nuragic culture, recent studies now consider this period to be a pre-Nuragic age, with strong discontinuities with the previous Monte Claro Neolithic apparent in a reduction of settlement scale and complexity and changes in dietary practices. The author stresses the spatial and temporal international connections of the EBA Bonnanaro culture, perhaps via contacts with Corsica and consequently with the Italian Peninsula. The author argues that contrary to traditional interpretations, the EBA was an acephalous society, not led by a “warrior elite”.

Chapter 3 focuses on the Middle Bronze Age. This period marks the start of the five centuries of the Nuragic period proper, identified by the eponymous ca. 7,000 stone structures that populate the island. These range from the simpler corridor, or pseudo, nuraghi to single towers and imposing multi-towered ‘castles’, and collective burials in the megalithic so-called Giant’s Tombs. The cultural facies is marked by Sa Turricula pottery, especially in the early period, possibly a continuation of the EBA Bonnanaro B pottery. Webster enumerates different explanations for the sudden construction of such monumental buildings, including social differentiation and population increase, greater security in a martial society, or as a way of asserting status or prestige, before offering his own interpretation: the buildings served as a “symbolic expression of normalcy” (p. 80) which contributed to the reinforcement of a particular Nuragic identity. Webster’s conclusion is that the MBA Nuragic society was likely to have been acephalous and non-hierarchical, given the homogeneity of the material culture found across the island in all settlements and nuraghi.

The last two chapters make up the bulk of the book. The LBA, as the author points out, is the most confusing period for chronology, as it is divided into the Recent and Final Bronze Age, with the latter recently sub-divided into three further periods designated 1, 2 and 3 (Campus and Leonelli 2006). The recent proposal to identify a break between FBA 2 and 3, while joining FBA 3 with EIA 1 as a transitional period, is rightly rejected here as it “tends to obscure rather than reveal what is likely to have been an episode of significant discontinuity at the beginning of the IA” (p. 85-6). This period is marked by the construction of the largest and most complex settlements and the emergence of several hundred open villages without nuraghi whose growth seems to lead to social collapse, perhaps through overpopulation. Bronze-work developed, perhaps through contact with Cypriot and Eastern Mediterranean communities; as the most important evidence for this technology comes from hoards, it is a strange oversight that several of the most significant hoards are missing from Webster’s discussion (e.g. Monte Idda, Costa Nighedda).

Evidence of foreign contact is rightly treated with caution, and here Webster makes use of recent studies which temper the enthusiasm for Sardinia having privileged contact with Cyprus and Greece.5 The presence of Mycenaean pottery and copper ‘oxhide’ ingots on the island have been much vaunted but, as the author points out, the former are highly localised and the latter could have been part of a single shipload wrecked on the island. More importantly, the spatial patterning of the finds does not suggest any formally structured trading network and could be thus the result of a few coastal contacts.

The chapter finishes with a discussion of the widespread disruption of Nuragic society at the end of the Bronze Age: earthquakes, foreign invasion and armed conflict are all mentioned as possible causes, but likely evidence points to the changes in the agro-pastoral conditions around the nuraghi as land was cleared and could no longer support a growing population. This may have led to internal enmity and a corresponding growth in domestic cults and shrines as a means of appealing to the sacred world in those periods of stress, as evidenced by the increasing importance of water cults and the so-called ‘megaron temples’.

In Chapter 5, Webster turns to the Iron Age. A series of discontinuities in the social/political Nuragic world is placed at the start of the IA, drawing a line between that and the previous BA. Evidence comes from the evolution of some villages with so-called insulae (huts built around a central courtyard), an arrangement which has been called ‘proto-urban’, and the development of cult structures ranging from water temples, to domestic shrines, to large sanctuaries and cave shrines. However, much work remains to be done on this period. It seems likely that the large sanctuaries are an IA development, but many of the other types of structures cannot specifically be dated to this period and may be earlier. Similarly, Webster questions whether, as usually thought, nuraghi were no longer built in the IA, given the few dates available.

Metalworking intensifies in the IA and Webster uses the examples of the bronzetti and hoards such as at S’Arcu ‘e is Forros to demonstrate the skills of the Nuragic communities in this period. Although the increase in contact, metalworking and change in settlement structure seem to imply a more urban situation in Sardinia, production was still carried out on a local level, with each community producing for itself and perhaps creating a surplus – not enough, however, to lead to what could be called ‘international’ trade.

Webster highlights the evidence for an increase in trade in the IA but evidence is scarce. It is clear from sites such as Sant’Imbenia and S’Arcu ‘e is Forros that, in some areas, there was an increase in foreign contact from at least the 9th century. Until the foundation of Phoenician settlements in the mid-8th century BC, however, foreign material is basically made up of small portable prestige items, mainly in bronze, with Sant’Imbenia being the only Nuragic village with reasonable numbers of items related to trade. At other sites, these items could be more easily classified as part of a process of gift exchange, especially since they are often found in sanctuaries. Webster notes that there is even less evidence for exported material, although it is surprising that he does not mention the large numbers of 8th century Nuragic amphorae found at Carthage and thought to have transported wine (Bechtold and Docter 2010).6

The chapter ends with an overview that presents IA society on Sardinia as divided into various classes (warrior, priestly, artisanal and commoner). This idea certainly has validity, but these divisions into different classes are not always matched by the evidence; as Webster himself states, the evidence for religious practitioners is not well documented (p. 218), and the many settlements without nuraghi and the advent of the courtyarded villages suggest instead a social organisation based on communal identity and kinship. Equally, whilst it is likely that the sanctuaries served to stabilize relationships between different communities, their lack of fortification and position in open areas provide no evidence of the sort of inter-community aggression that would warrant a warrior class.

The last section deals with new theoretical approaches, including ‘hybridity’ and ‘entanglement’, to explain ways local Sardinian communities interacted with foreign groups. It is a pity that this section seems to be tacked on to the end of the book, as deeper engagement with these new approaches would merit further analysis, especially to try to explain how Nuragic communities were transformed from the mid- to late 1st millennium BC.

Webster has capably brought together a mass of different data to provide a convincing narrative of the Nuragic period in Sardinia. At the same time he has updated the content and moved away from the classificatory slant of the first edition to bring it more in line with recent approaches to archaeological theory, making it a unique comprehensive guide to this fascinating period. This book will serve an English-speaking world very well, although gaps in the bibliography and lack of attention to alternate interpretations of fragmentary evidence mean that interested researchers will have to delve further themselves.

There are a few typographical errors in names (‘Pizzinu’ instead of ‘Pizzinnu’, for example), and some callouts for figures are misplaced, but the plates and drawings are of a high standard, with some even in colour, and the book is well supplied with charts and maps.


Notes:


1.   Tronchetti, C. “Cultural Interactions in Iron Age Sardinia”. In A.B. Knapp and P. Van Dommelen (eds.), The Cambridge Prehistory of the Bronze and Iron Age Mediterranean. New York: Cambridge University Press 2014, 266-284. Van Dommelen, P. and A. Roppa (eds.) Materiali e contesti nell'età del Ferro Sarda. Atti della giornata di studi, museo civico di San Vero Milis (Oristano), 25 Maggio 2012. Rivista di Studi Fenici. Pisa, Rome: Fabrizio Serra, 2014.
2.   Campus, F. and V. Leonelli, La tipologia della ceramica nuragica: il materiale edito Viterbo: BetaGamma, 2000. Campus, F. and V. Leonelli, “La Sardegna nel Mediterraneo fra l'età del Bronzo e l'età del Ferro. Proposta per una distinzione in fasi.” In Studi di protostoria in onore di Renato Peroni. Firenze: All'Insegna del Giglio, 2006, 372-392.
3.   Lo Schiavo, F. “The Bronze Age in Sardinia.” In H. Fokkens and A. Harding (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the European Bronze Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 668-91; Milletti, M. Cimeli d'identità: tra Etruria e Sardegna nella prima età del Ferro. Rome: Officina edizioni, 2012.
4.   Ialongo, N. “Sanctuaries and the Emergence of Elites in Nuragic Sardinia during the Early Iron Age (ca 950-720 BC): The Actualization of a 'Ritual Strategy'.” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 26.2: 2013, 187-209; Tronchetti, C. “Cultural interactions in Iron Age Sardinia.” In A.B. Knapp and P. Van Dommelen (eds.), The Cambridge Prehistory of the Bronze and Iron Age Mediterranean. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 266-284.
5.   Blake, E. “Late Bronze Age Sardinia: Acephalous Cohesion.” In A.B. Knapp and P. Van Dommelen (eds.), The Cambridge Prehistory of the Bronze and Iron Age Mediterranean. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 96-108.
6.   Bechtold, B. and R.F. Docter. “Transport Amphorae from Punic Carthage: An Overview.” In Motya and the Phoenician Ceramic Repertoire between the Levant and the West, 9th-6th Century BC. Proceedings of the International Conference held in Rome, 26th February 2010. Rome: Università degli Studi di Roma "La Sapienza", 2010, 85-116.

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