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Who were the ancient Sardinians? The mystery of the origins and the Nuragic language

Sardinia, with its history, customs and its lively language represents an inimitable unicum. So sunny, simple and frank like its population, as mysterious sentinel of a glorious and unknown past. A past that lives in the hearts of the Sardinian people, animating them with a new splendour to the story of majestic days, of a time when their island was the birthplace of civilization. Nowhere else as in Sardinia, the daily rediscovery of the ancient splendour rises to the role of redemption, of historical revenge.

Nuraghe, archeological area of Santu Antine – Torralba (SS)

Introduction about the Nuragic civilization

For too many years the ancient Sardinians were considered as a people of simple shepherds, illiterate and subjected by the numerous invaders from the sea. However, today history and archeology assert that it was not exactly like that. The discovery of the monumental complex of Mont’e Prama (1974) and the recent studies of historiographical character suggest the presence, in Sardinia, of an advanced civilization: the Nuragic civilization.

 Giant of Mont ‘e Prama, Civic Museum – Cabras (OR)

Nevertheless, the Sardinian history is the one of which we have less knowledge, if compared with the history of many other Mediterranean peoples of the antiquity. Despite the approximately 7000 nuraghes, the numerous tombs of the giants and the variegated complexity of the finds discovered in Sardinia, few other notions are known of the Nuragic civilization.

This “void” of knowledge has led, in recent years, to the flowering of studies, research and hypotheses to increase the historical truths about the people of the ancient Sardinians.  This has inexorably led towards a colourful mixture of thought, consisting of fierce debates and opinions (sometimes bizarre) about the origins and existence of a so-called Nuragic language. To clarify the complex of archaeological or fanta-archaeological, scientific or pseudo-scientific theories, it is necessary to adopt the historical method: the reliability of the sources.

Giants’ tomb of Imbertighe, Borore (NU)
Giants’ tomb, archeological area of Corruoe Aidu – Cossoine (SS)

The issue of the origin of the Nuragic civilization

For a long time there was a debate about who the ancient Sardinians really were. The most reliable testimonies left to us by the Nuragic civilization correspond to the monumental complexes. They are represented by the plenty of the architectures of an era between the nineteenth century BC and the second century BC. However, questions are raised regarding the presence or the absence of written historical sources. These could provide information concerning the customs of the population of Sardinia during the Bronze Age, or the relations with neighbouring populations. Surprisingly, despite the important archaeological excavation works held on the island in recent decades, the written sources appear in rather small numbers and never univocally interpretable. The work of archaeologists and historians has therefore concentrated on the attempt to identify these claims outside the Sardinian territory.

Basically: are there written “documents” that can help us to reconstruct the history and origins of the ancient nuraghes’ people? Among the various research proposed, one of them suggests that the ancient people of Sardinia are described in archaeological documents of Ancient Egypt. In this regard, the following findings can be considered:

– Amarna Letters;

The Amarna Letters (1350 BC) are a private correspondence belonging to the private archive of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton (XIV century BC). In some of them there is the correspondence between the sovereign and the governor of Biblo, Rib-Hadda, who describes his concerns due to the continuous incursions by the so-called “Sea Peoples”. These formed a complex of marauders, bands of mercenary warriors probably from southern and western Europe, the Anatolian area and the Aegean Sea. Among them there are the Lukka, the Philistines, the Denyen, and the Shardana. In reality, very little is known about the origins of the Sea Peoples and who they really were, nor where they came from.

Among those mentioned in the Amarna letters, the Shardana may have relevance for the purposes of this study. According to some scholars [1], in fact, this denomination could refer to the populations of the ancient Nuragic Sardinia. The term Shardana (Šrdn in Egyptian hieroglyphic) has a remarkable phonetic correspondence with the ancient name of the island of Sardinia. The pronunciation Shardana or Sherdana is also confirmed by some Ugaritic inscriptions found in the ancient city of Ugarit [2], which was destroyed by the arrival of the invading Sea Peoples.

Stele II of Tanis.

Shardana are also named in a stele found at Tanis, in Egypt. Specifically, the Stele II reports how the people of the “Shardana rebels, who no one ever knew how to fight, arrived from the center of the sea boldly sailing with their warships, no one has ever managed to resist him” [3].

Aswan stele and the Qadesh inscription.

On the Aswan stele, an inscription on a coastal rock near Elephantine (an island located in the center of the Nile, near Aswan), refers of a battle held by the Egypt of Ramesses II (1297-1213 BC) against the Shardana pirates and ended with the subjugation of the same.

“He has destroyed the warriors of the Great Green, the great lake of Lower Egypt, so that they (the Egyptians) can sleep peacefully” [4].

During the battle of Qadesh (1275 BC), 520 soldiers of the Šrdn Sea People, as evidenced by an inscription found at the site of the battle and between the lines of the eponymous poem, even fought as a personal guard of Pharaoh Ramesses II [5].

“After His Majesty had prepared his troops, his chariots and the Shardana he had captured by subjecting them with the strength of his arm, all equipped with their weapons, and communicated to them his plans of battle, then His Majesty proceeded towards the North “.

The representation of the Shardana people

In the reliefs of the Battle of Qadesh the Shardana are represented with a beard, bare-chested. They were dressed in kilt or with long tunics embellished with studded leather strips. Furthermore, the warriors were depicted with circular shields, a helmet with small horns and a long sword. This armament appears very similar to that of the nuragic bronzes found in Sardinia.  It is a further factor that lead scholars to identify the Shardana with the ancient Sardinians of the Nuragic civilization.

 One of the 520 Shardana who were part of the guard of Ramesses II during the Battle of Qadesh
Nuragic bronze statuette

Other sources

There are numerous other sources in which Shardana are depicted in battles within Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions. Among these are the “Conquest of the Syrian city of Dapur” [6], the “Conquest of the Syrian city of Tunip” [7], the “War against the Libyans (Series I and II)” [8], the “Battle against the Peoples of the Sea “[9], the” War against the Libyans and the Peoples of the Sea “[10].

Egyptian and Egyptising find

In support of the thesis that the Shardana would be identified with the people of the ancient Sardinians, there may be some findings of Egyptian origin in the Sardinian territory. Among these, the most famous is a slab found in Tharros depicting the Theban Triad.

The steatite slab with the Theban Triad of Tharros, front-back. 

Despite this, the Sardinian provenance of the Shardana is still debated. In particular, the plate of the Theban Triad, according to some archaeologists [Zucca, historiography of the problem of “nuragic writing”] would be of Egyptian origin, but of Roman age, much later than the Nuragic one. Even the numerous beetles found on the Sinis peninsula, according to the same scholars, would be imitations of objects coming from Egypt, such that they are defined as Egyptizing scaraboids.


Egyptian Phoenician invaluable scaraboid or Egyptian relic?

Phoenician and Nuragic findings

Far more numerous are the findings of Phoenician origin found in Sardinia. An evidence that suggests that a large part of the most advanced Nuragic cities were actually under the domination of the Phoenician populations. Phoenicians were a people of sailors and merchants, considered descendants of the Canaanite populations, and therefore originating in the same territorial area (corresponding to the current Lebanon) during the Bronze Age (3000-1200 BC). Furthermore, it was precisely Phoenicians who first created an alphabetic script in the West, mainly characterized by a consonant system that included 22 signs written from right to left. This writing system was exported to the various colonies owned by Phoenicians, acquiring local peculiarities. Among them, the best known is the Punic dialectal variety, used in Carthage and in the colonies owned by it.

The Stele of Nora

The Stele of Nora, found near the city of Cagliari, constitutes an important Sardinian finding containing Phoenician-Punic alphabetic characters. A Phoenician presence in Sardinia is attested both during the Bronze Age and in the Punic-Carthaginian period. Carthaginians took possession of some cities already founded in the Phoenician times (Tharros, Nora). Inside them, the largest Phoenician heritage in Western Europe was found; the Stele of Nora is a part of it.

Stele of Nora. Photo by Giovanni dall’Orto

The Stele of Nora is a block of sandstone, dating back to a period between the 4th and 8th centuries BC. According to scholars, it represents only a small part of a longer inscription. Different interpretations are advanced by historians, archaeologists and linguists about its meaning. Some of them believe the stele shows the commemoration of a military expedition (although in this regard several versions have been elaborated: in fact someone thinks that it refers to military activities aimed at conquering part of the Iberian territory, while others believe that the inscription is a testimony of the victory of Phoenicians against Sardinians).

Another line of studies supports further interpretations concerning the celebration of a divinity. Despite the efforts made over the years the meaning of the Stele of Nora has not yet been clarified.

Finds, Civic Museum – Cabras (OR)

On the contrary, there are fewer finds from Sardinia belonging to the Minoan or Mycenaean civilization.

About the existence of a Nuragic language

One of the problems most frequently addressed in the discussion of the Nuragic civilization  certainly concerns a possible written language used by the ancient Sardinians. As evidenced by the aforementioned sources, almost all of the Sardinian archaeological findings have shown signs of writing and alphabets belonging to other populations, such as Egyptians, Phoenicians or Cretans. This leads to a predictable but essential question: has there ever been a Sardinian-Nuragic writing language?

Professor Gigi Sanna’s hypothesis

Possible writer’s signs of a Sardinian writing system have historically been proposed by various scholars, although the current state of the art does not recognize its scientific validity.The professor Gigi Sanna, in the “Sardoa Grammata”, proposed a form of Nuragic writing similar to a Proto-Sinaitic system, with the Phoenician-cuneiform alphabet. Professor Sanna’s studies were based on the discovery of the so-called “Tablet of Tziricotu” and similar plaster casts of which, however, only photographs are available.

The Tablet of Tziricotu. Bronze of the Nuragic age with proto-sinaitic engravings or late medieval belt fibula?

These findings are undoubtedly among the most discussed of the last twenty years for what regards the Sardinian archeology. The tablet of Tziricotu was found by a farmer (Andrea Porcu) in 1975 in an area of the municipality of Cabras. It is known that the finding concerned only one bronze tablet, containing stylized signs, which some scholars believe to be an incision relating to the ancient Sardinian language. In this regard, Professor Gigi Sanna has analyzed the signs of the tablet of Tziricotu and those of the casts, and could have reconstructed an entire Sardinian-Nuragic alphabet. According to his thesis, these signs should also be identified in other dozens of finds recently discovered in Sardinia.

The debate about the tabletof Tziricotu

The archaeologists Zucca [11], Serra [12] and Pittau [13], like most of the national archeology scholars, as well as the Superintendency of the archaeological heritage of Cagliari and Oristano, reject Sanna’s thesis, stating that it has no scientific bases. In particular, as to the alleged casts of the tablet of Tziricotu, it has been shown that these are mold copies of the same artifact. Furthermore, since there are no real findings but only photographs, these cannot be used for an historical-critical analysis, nor they can be used to support any archaeological theory.

The archaeologist Serra claimed [12] that the tablet of Tziricotu would not be a bronze from the Nuragic age, but rather an artifact from the early Middle Ages and Byzantine times. In particular, according to this scholar, the finding is a fibula for belts, whose engraving signs would be merely decorative. The archaeologist Zucca made a careful analysis of the further finds attested by Gigi Sanna as bearers of Nuragic writing. The scholar said they are only engravings related to other known writers systems of the Mediterranean area.

Conclusions about the existence of a Nuragic language

The question of the existence of a Nuragic language is still debated, although the official position of archaeologists and the Superintendency is of strong pessimism. This derives from two substantial factors: the first concerns the scarcity of finds that could be cataloged in relation to a new alphabetical system of the Bronze Age. Since the quantity of objects containing other writing systems is numerous on the totality of the archaeological finds found in Sardinia, probably those belonging to the Nuragic civilization simply used the “foreign” alphabets (Phoenician in particular) to communicate with other peoples. According to this thesis, the ancient Sardinians did not have their own written language, nor they derived a Nuragic alphabet from the Phoenician one, as happened for most of the Mediterranean languages of the Bronze Age. Alternatively, from a historical point of view, it seems rather unlikely that ancient Sardinians might have devised a new alphabet, like very few other cases in the world, such as the Easter Island or Central America.

Daniela Campus and Samuele Corrente Naso


[1] Ugas, G. (2017), “Shardana e Sardegna. I Popoli del mare, gli alleati del Nordafrica e la fine dei grandi regni. (XV-XII secolo a.C.)”.

[2] Ugarit in Siria

[3] Kenneth Kitchen, Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt, Aris & Phillips, 1982.

[4] Giacomo Cavillier, “Gli Shardana nell’Egitto Ramesside”.

[5] Grimal, N. “A History of Ancient Egypt”

[6] Atlas II, pl.78; Rosellini, II, Tav.CVIII

[7] Atlas II, pl.72; Rosellini, II, Tav.CVII

[8] MH I.17; Rosellini, II, Tav.CVIII; MH I.18, 47 C-E; Rosellini, II, Tav.CXXVI. MH II. 62; 55, 63-65; MH II.71-72; 129 D-F; MH II. 88-89; MH II. 94-95;

[9] MH I.30-31; Rosellini, II, Tav.CXXVI; MH I.32-34; Rosellini, II, Tav.CXXVIII; MH I.35; Rosellini, II, Tav.CXXIX; MH I. 36-43; Rosellini, II, Tav.CXXXI.

[10] MH I.17; Rosellini, II, Tav.CVIII.

[11] Zucca, Raimondo. “Storiografia del problema della ‘scrittura nuragica’.” Bollettino di Studi Sardi  (2012).

[12] Serra, Paolo Benito. “Su una matrice di modano e su una placca di fibbia dall’oristanese.” Quaderni  (2014).

[13] Pittau, Massimo. La lingua dei Sardi Nuragici e degli Etruschi. Libreria Dessi, 1981.

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