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The Archaeology of Nuragic Sardinia

April 2017 (121.2)

Book Review

The Archaeology of Nuragic Sardinia

By Gary Webster (Monographs in Mediterranean Archaeology 14). Pp. xvii + 253, figs. 86, tables 4. Equinox, Sheffield, England, and Bristol, Conn. 2015. $100. ISBN 978-1-78179-135-6 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This book provides a long-overdue synthesis of Sardinia’s Nuragic era, named after the roughly 7,000 monumental stone towers, or nuraghi, located throughout the island. It is an introductory treatise that builds on the author’s prior monograph on the subject (A Prehistory of Sardinia 2300–500 B.C. Monographs in Mediterranean Archaeology 5 [Sheffield, England 1996]). However, the current book differs in that it attempts to contextualize the island’s archaeology by moving beyond the general theory-building characteristic of processualist archaeology to give way to “more specifically focused interpretive stances which emphasize if not localness, then regionalness, cultural uniqueness, human agency, ethnicity, identity, and the material mediation of memory” (xiii). Whether the book fully realizes these aims is immaterial, because as it stands the volume collates a wide variety of disparate sources into a timely monograph representing the current state of Nuragic archaeology. The author also makes an important contribution to the field by focusing on the radiocarbon evidence as a means of constructing regional chronologies and in turn using these data to situate ceramic typologies in time and space. Such a reading of the archaeological record is particularly meaningful in that it has led to a recontextualization of the timing of the first nuraghe and proto-nuraghe construction, and hence Nuragic culture more broadly.

The book is well organized and consists of five chapters plus a preface and a postscript. After the introduction, chapters are organized chronologically and include reviews of the Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Ages, as well as Iron Age I, spanning in total the 23rd to eighth centuries B.C.E. The time depth feels balanced and allows for a thorough discussion of the development, proliferation, and eventual disintegration of quintessential Nuragic culture. Each chapter includes sections on chronology, settlement, technology and economy, trade and interaction, and burial practices. Important archaeological sites and corresponding finds are described in detail and form the foundation on which interpretations are proffered. While not exhaustive, the book represents a fitting compendium of available evidence and interpretations. Each chapter ends with a discussion and overview where the author ably weaves together multiple interpretations that invariably arise from an often incomplete archaeological record, in turn offering his own take on what the data reveal. Also included in each chapter is a review of contemporaneous archaeological evidence from Corsica. These discussions are short, however, and do not do justice to a topic that deserves a volume unto itself; any discussion of Corsica would fit more appropriately within sections on trade and interaction.

The author’s careful treatment of the significance and functionality of nuraghi is noteworthy (77–81). Despite the ubiquitous presence of the towers on this island, archaeologists are surprisingly divided as to their purpose. While some argue that they are best seen as defensive structures constructed by upwardly mobile elites, others see them as communal compounds built to symbolize a newly formed insular identity. The author takes a more nuanced stance by framing nuraghe construction within concerns for both security and social status, a phenomenon whose realization created the very cultural, social, and psychological conditions that encouraged its reproduction (79).

The author’s discussion of the complicated milieu of Iron Age cult and funerary practices is also especially compelling, wherein interpretations are built up through a site-by-site consideration of the architectural evidence. This involves discussions of the construction and elaboration of local shrines, vestibule temples, and sanctuaries, as well as the continued use of Late Bronze Age megaron temples and the emergence of a new cult of water centered around sacred wells and fountain houses (183–215). By integrating these discussions with what can be inferred about cult behavior from the artifactual evidence, most notably from the study of bronze votive figurines, the author composes a fitting narrative of religious life in the period.

At 253 pages, the book is concise enough to be of interest to a broad variety of scholars interested in Bronze and Iron Age archaeology. However, readers might find that detailed site descriptions and esoteric architectural terminology detract from the larger narrative. Also, the book would have benefited from higher-quality color maps and figures. The book is nonetheless effective in highlighting the sometimes contradictory elements of the archaeological record and, as a result, painting a landscape of diverse regional polities and local particularities while at the same time calling attention to the cultural features that coalesced to produce a shared Nuragic identity.

The book is, in sum, a meticulous overview of the totality of Nuragic cultural developments from the Early Bronze Age to Iron Age I, but unfortunately it ends quite abruptly. One more chapter is needed to situate Nuragic studies within broader theoretical developments of the discipline. After laboriously reviewing the archaeology from almost 1,500 years of prehistory, the author would have served his readers well to provide them with a full summary of the evidence, a space where he takes a step back and reflects on the place of Nuragic culture within the wider arc of central Mediterranean prehistory. Indeed, the insularity of Sardinia and its complicated relationship with the outside world is something that makes the island’s culture so singular, even today. Despite these limitations, this book is a must for Sardinian archaeologists in that it provides a long-overdue synthesis of Nuragic archaeology in the tradition of Giovanni Lilliu, often considered the father of modern Sardinian archaeology. Perhaps the book’s most enduring contribution is that it showcases the richness of Nuragic society in a manner that is accessible to a diverse scholarly audience.

Kyle P. Freund
Department of Anthropology
Indian River State College

Book Review of The Archaeology of Nuragic Sardinia, by Gary Webster

Reviewed by Kyle P. Freund

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 2 (April 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1212.Freund

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