The bronze statuettes and the identity of Nuragic people

The wide fields looking westward, and the towers of the nuraghes like peaks of a barren hilly landscape. Never domed nor concealed, the stone peered over the vivid swarming of men. Some adorned with shining armaments and round shields, fierce warriors with horned helmets resting on their foreheads, placed to guard the territories where the sacred ancestors had settled in remote times. Others in the robes of priests, praying and blessing in the moonlight, before the calm flow of waters in sacred fountains. Still others busied in their trades, spinning and weaving, shaping form from clay, planting and sowing, leading cattle to pasture. And in the Nuragic villages deafening sounds of hammers and crafted metals, the snapping of molds and the crackling of a blazing fire ready to melt…

When we think of the ancient Nuragic people, the great material evidence they have handed down to us comes to mind. But the nuraghes, tombs of giants, megaron temples and sacred wells represent a partial image, an opaque reflection of a civilization composed of men. The best way to really know the ancient Sardinians is to reconstruct their customs, rituals, beliefs, roles and social aspects. This is very complex for a civilization that has left no tangible written sources, and it would be impossible if archaeologists had not unearthed a large number of bronze artifacts.

Nuragic bronze statuettes
Nuragic bronze statuettes from the National Archaeological and Ethnographic Museum “Giovanni Antonio Sanna” in Sassari, Italy.

The Nuragic bronze statuettes of Sardinia

The people of Sardinia three thousand years ago used to reproduce in bronze, in small features, male and female human figures, animals and scenes of daily life. Such “bronze statuettes” constitute an iconographic source of inestimable value and allow us to open a window on a world, social and cultural, otherwise unknown.

Metalworking on the island was a well-known art and practiced since the Copper Age. With the advent of the Nuragic civilization, however, it acquired strongly identifiable characters. Metalworking became a privileged mode of symbolic expression, as well as a fundamental component of the local economy. In the making of the typical figurative bronze statuettes the different sensibilities of an entire civilization converged: the technical and artistic ability to make fine artifacts in bronze, an alloy obtained from copper and tin; the religious and metaphysical tension, as they constituted votive offerings; and the social balance marked by roles, trades and classes.

The technique of lost-wax casting

The sculptures were made using the lost-wax casting technique. This method was imported from Cyprus through contacts with Levantine merchants who came to Sardinia to export copper, in the form of the so-called oxhide ingots (oxhide), and to take other metals, including lead and tin, from the island.

The lost-wax casting technique first involved making an accurate wax model of the final product. Then the model was covered with clay, which, hardening with firing, formed the mold. Within the model, bronze was cast; each statuette constituted a unique piece since the procedure could not be repeated. In fact, the mold had to be broken to get rid of the sculptural draft, which was then subjected to finishing procedures, such as removing burrs1, hammering and welding some parts. The result of such laborious procedures were small sculptures of fifteen to twenty centimeters in height. But there were also exceptions: the bronze statuette of a chieftain from Monte Arcosu-Uta measures more than forty.

Nuragic bronze statuettes
Bronze statuette of chieftain from Monte Arcosu-Uta, 40.2 cm high. The figure has double tunic and cloak, sword and gammata hilt dagger on the chest, while the gnarled staff is a sign of power. National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari

The stylistic differences

Stylistically, Giovanni Lilliu divided the Nuragic bronze statuettes into two different categories: one marked by a geometric naturalism, called Abini-Uta because of the large number of statuettes found there; the other, freer and more grotesque, called “barbaric-Mediterranean2.” There is indeed an intermediate characterization, but it is not clear if this is related to chronological reasons, since dating proposals for the bronze statuettes are often debated among scholars. The stylistic differences could rather be an expression of the preferences of some local communities settled on the island.

However, it was pointed out that the geometric style relates to a broader Mediterranean cultural trend. Probably a factor stemming from the Sardinians’ interactions with Cyprus from the Final Bronze Age onward and the frequentation of Phoenician emporic centers in the early Iron Age. At the turn of the tenth century BC to the seventh century BC, therefore, Nuragic metallurgical production increased significantly. It was during this period that most of the finds were made.

The Nuragic bronze statuettes were votive offerings

Archaeologists have found about five hundred figured bronzes, mostly inside nuraghes transformed for cultic use, sacred wells and fountains, megaron temples, reunion huts, and giants’ tombs. Despite the precision with which they were made, as well as the significant material value, which would suggest that they were objects of commerce, they possessed a votive purpose. Such carvings, in fact, were intended to be laid as gifts to the deity, in order to propitiate the success of an enterprise, request the fertility of the flock or deliverance from an evil. Most of the finds are located near shrines, where the statuettes were soldered with lead or nailed to tables for offerings. In addition to the well-known anthropomorphic and zoomorphic bronze statuettes, about one hundred and fifty “little ships” were also rediscovered. They reproduced real vessels and constituted, in all probability, oil lamps intended for ritual purposes.

Nuragic bronze statuettes
Two warriors with horned helmets from Monte Arcosu-Uta: on the left a hoplite with round shield and sword; on the right an archer at rest. Cagliari National Archaeological Museum.

The cultic sites to which the statuettes belong are to be ascribed within the agro-pastoral world of Nuragic society, and are located near water sources or along transhumance routes. These are religious and political meeting places, appropriately sacralized and marked by the presence of the typical circular “reunion” huts. How many donations of bronze figurines were made depended on the importance of the place of worship to the communities in that area. Large collections of finds have thus occurred at Uta in Campidano, at Santa Vittoria di Serri, at the village-sanctuary of Abini at Teti in Barbagia, in northwestern Sardinia such as at Sorso and Perfugas3.

The figurative production

It is unclear what the Nuragic bronze statuettes actually represented, whether subjects drawn from reality or myth, whether deities, heroes or fantasy images. In any case, they reflect the customs and knowledge of the Nuragic people and are valuable in trying to reconstruct certain aspects of society related to daily life. Thus, through their careful observation, it is possible to guess of those people what the clothing, domestic animals, armaments and even the ritual gestures were. Finally, we can outline the complex forms of social organization, which were structured through well-defined roles and functions. In the bronze statuettes we see depicted proud and fully armed warriors, captains, and cult-related figures, among whom we distinguish priests, orants, and offerers4.

Nuragic warriors

Three types of warriors can be recognized in the Nuragic bronze statuettes, differentiated by their weapon styles and clothing: archers, hoplites and boxers.

The archers

Archers are adorned with a long tunic or a robe combined with a skirt. Shin guards protecting the legs, a square plate lying on the chest, and some ringed foils on the neck are clearly visible. A high-horned helmet often adorns the head of these warriors, depicted with an outstretched bow at the moment of shooting an arrow. However, there are also some statuettes depicted in “praying” mode: the bow is resting on the shoulder or laid on the ground; the right hand faces the viewer with the palm raised in greeting. This is a devotional gesture of reverence that, in the intentions of the donor, was probably addressed to the deity placed in the shrine. The bronzes of archers bear a number of objects with strong symbolic-identity connotations hanging behind their backs, including a quiver, a sword, and a ceremonial vessel.

Nuragic bronze statuettes
Nuragic bronze statuette of a praying archer, National Archaeological Museum of CagliarI

The hoplites

Hoplites are distinguished by a broad sword with a foliated blade, standing or reclining backward on one shoulder, and a circular shield with umbo, at the level of which throwing daggers or short stilettos may be placed. Such soldiers are also reproduced with weapons or praying with the typical ritual gesture of the right hand. The tunic is usually long-sleeved, while the helmet, as usual, has very long horns, sometimes hammered or curved.

Nuragic bronze statuettes
Soldier with umbonate shield and horned helmet, known as miles cornutus, from Senorbì. National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari

The demon-heroes of Abini-Teti

Also of great interest are some warriors, found in the village-sanctuary of Abini in Teti, that show a repetition of figurative elements on which scholarly interpretations disagree. Indeed, these statuettes have four eyes and four arms holding two shields and two swords. Some see the splitting of attributes as a symbolic metaphor: was it intended to represent a kind of “enhanced” fighter, interpretable as a mythical hero5? Nevertheless, nothing excludes the possibility that it could be the fantastic reproduction of demonic or semi-divine beings6.

Nuragic bronze statuettes
Warrior with crested helmet and pommel horns, having four eyes and four arms, from the Abini-Teti Nuragic Complex. Today at the National Archaeological Museum in Cagliari

Boxers

Boxers are always reproduced in a resting position. They wear no clothes except for a short skirt tied on the belt. The profession of the subject depicted is evident from a glove attached to the right hand. Both arms hold suspended above their head a curved shield, which we can imagine was composed of leather and a flexible wooden frame.

Boxer found in Gonone-Dorgali, National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari

The Nuragic bronze statuettes related to worship and capitals

The offerers are depicted with their heads turned upward and covered by a light tunic, if not completely naked. Some hold a ram on their shoulders or a tray containing the offering. Others, wearing a skirt and recognizable by their “barbaric” style, are depicted in the act of donating a round object, perhaps a flatbread.

The female figures

The forty or so known single-figure or paired female sculptures are also characterized by an attitude of prayer or appear in the guise of simple offerers. Praying women give the offering with their left hand, while the other arm may be outstretched, palm down, or raised in the usual devotional greeting7. Simple offertory women hold the gift with both hands. The clothing reveals that Nuragic women wore lavish clothing: a tunic over a light robe, a cloak, and a veil on the head. It is a sign that the reproduced subjects belonged to an upper class, which through trade had assimilated cultural elements from the distant Levant.

A praying priestess offers a bowl to the deity, from unknown location. National archaeological and ethnographic museum “Giovanni Antonio Sanna” in Sassari, Italy.

The chieftains

Among the Nuragic bronze statuettes of offerers is the category of chieftains. They are distinguished by the presence of a shepherd’s staff, a symbol of power, a double tunic, and a cloak. Well visible on the chest is the typical Nuragic dagger. This was used for animal sacrifices and associated with an elite status of social belonging, called “gammadion hilt”. The stick is held with the left hand, as an attribute of royalty, while the right arm is raised in the gesture of ritual greeting. The clothes of such figures probably resembled the real garments of the chieftains, worn during meetings in the circular tents. We can imagine that at the end of these assemblies, the bronze figures donated by community members, reflecting their social roles, were offered in the shrine.

Scenes of daily life in Sardinian Nuragic bronze statuettes

There are also “collective” bronze statuettes that reveal some social aspects related to the process of community identity. Such is the case with the two young fighters from Monte Arcosu, who evoke the ritual of passage necessary to reach adulthood. The winner, by pinning the other boy to the ground, received the gammadion hilt dagger, a sign that he had attained warrior status8. There are also figures of musicians, a horn player and another with a wind instrument similar to launeddas, who performed during Nuragic ceremonies. Two shepherds sacrificing an animal, found in Su Tempiesu in Orune, tell of a world of beliefs and propitiatory rituals for the fertility of the land. Also fascinating are some maternal figures holding an infant, images of dedication to the cult of the mother goddess and fertility.

The zoomorphic figures

Among the zoomorphic figures wide attention is given to cattle, a symbolic reference to the animals that pulled the plow and promoted the fertility of the land. The ox, it is useful to specify, was venerated by the Nuragics in a deified version. It was connected to otherworldly rites of passage, a belief that is reflected in the expertise of the representations. It is inferred from the bronze statuettes found that the ancient Sardinians practiced primitive forms of sheep-goat and pig breeding, and that rams were used for animal sacrifices9, as probably occurred in the prenuragic cultures at Monte d’Accoddi.

The reproductions of canids suggest habitual use of such animals for hunting purposes or as guardians of flocks; the miniatures, provided with pointed ears and upright tails, seem to refer to molossus such as the Sardinian dogo, a breed indigenous to the island. Instead, we have only one depiction of a small horse, topped by an archer doing a test of skill.

Double deer figure that was placed on a votive sword, from Abini-Teti. National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari

A portrait of a society

The study of the Nuragic bronze statuettes allows us to delineate how Nuragic society could be structured. Although the collective organization of the ancient Sardinians is not easy to frame with respect to pre-established paradigms, some authors have proposed that it tended at least toward the chiefdom model10. The socio-economic structure of the Nuragics consisted of numerous family clans, each with its own chief, divided into autonomous communities and settled in circumscribed territories at which they exercised military control11. This allowed the widespread exploitation of natural resources within an agro-pastoral economy, where nuraghes served as collection and sorting centers. Thus, in the bronze statuettes we find representations of the chieftains holding the shepherd’s staff, a forerunner of the scepter that defined the power derived from herd ownership, a fundamental livelihood for the entire community. Similarly, the mantle and gammadion hilt dagger clearly indicated their position of leadership.

Governance of the territory by Nuragic clans is evidenced by the numerous finds of statuettes depicting soldiers. These were ordered in distinct bodies and identifiable by their weapons and peculiar uniforms. This was not an improvised army, then, as the Nuragic bronze statuettes reveal the existence of a deep-rooted tradition of warfare, of an iron and well-established military organization. The economy of the Nuragic people was based mainly on animal husbandry, fishing and pastoralism, as is evident from the depictions of the offerers, distinguished by the attributes of the arts and crafts proper to the patron. Finally, there was a priestly caste custodian of an indispensable social role, which is reflected in the same function for which the bronze statuettes were made.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

  1. P. Melis, Civiltà nuragica, Carlo Delfino editore, 2003. ↩︎
  2. L. Foddai, Bronzi a figura zoomorfa. Nel volume: A. Moravetti, P. Melis, L. Foddai, E. Alba, La Sardegna Nuragica. Storia e materiali, Corpora delle antichità della Sardegna, 2014, Carlo Delfino editore & C. ↩︎
  3. Ibidem. ↩︎
  4. G. Canino, Bronzi a figura maschile. Nel volume: A. Moravetti, P. Melis, L. Foddai, E. Alba, La Sardegna Nuragica. Storia e materiali, Corpora delle antichità della Sardegna, 2014, Carlo Delfino editore & C. ↩︎
  5. F. Lo Schiavo, La produzione metallurgica. Nel volume: A. Moravetti, P. Melis, L. Foddai, E. Alba, La Sardegna Nuragica. Storia e materiali, Corpora delle antichità della Sardegna, 2014, Carlo Delfino editore & C. ↩︎
  6. Ibidem nota 4. ↩︎
  7. E. Alba, Bronzi a figura femminile. Nel volume: A. Moravetti, P. Melis, L. Foddai, E. Alba, La Sardegna Nuragica. Storia e materiali, Corpora delle antichità della Sardegna, 2014, Carlo Delfino editore & C. ↩︎
  8. Ibidem nota 4. ↩︎
  9. Ibidem nota 1. ↩︎
  10. P. Bernardini, Santuari, culti e ideologia del potere nella Sardegna nuragica della Prima età del Ferro. Nel volume: A. Moravetti, P. Melis, L. Foddai, E. Alba, La Sardegna Nuragica. Storia e monumenti, Corpora delle antichità della Sardegna, 2017, Carlo Delfino editore & C. ↩︎
  11. G. Lilliu, La civiltà dei sardi. Dal paleolitico all’età dei nuraghi, 2004, Il Maestrale. ↩︎
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