Nuragic Warriors from pre historic Sardinia: an osteological and experimental analysis
The Nuragic civilization starts in Sardinia, Italy, in 1800 BC in the ancient bronze age, and ends around 500 b. C. with the Punic conquest of the island. The name of this culture came from the big stone structures called Nuraghi, typical stone towers of the Sardinia landscape (similar to the Scottish Brochs) believed to be built around 1600-1400 BC, and used by nuragics until the iron age, around 800-600 BC when they were reconverted as temple structures.
Other structures, typical of the Nuragic culture, are the Giant’s Tomb and the Sacred Wells. The first ones are much older, as they first appear in the very beginning of the Nuragic culture. These tombs are collective burials, and they can be considered similar to the allee couvert, but with the addition of a pair of stone wings in the main entrance area, called “esedra“, and with a particular large flat stone with a hole in the bottom, called centering stele, for his particular “A” shape decoration, which meaning is unknown. These burials, evolutions of the Alée, are presumed to have the shape of a bull’s head seen from above. They are supposed to be the tombs of elites, but for a long time, they were presumed to be just collective burials. The use of this tombs ends around the 1200 BC, when the burial ritual changes and the grave begin to be simple, like the kind of Mont’e Prama, basically a hole in the ground covered with a flat rock or little stone.
The sacred wells, instead, are typically used as sanctuaries, when the first appearance in the middle and late Bronze age. They are presumed to be later than the nuraghi, and for sure they were used for rituals, offerings, and meetings. In this temple, it was found the most part of the bronze statues of the chieftains and warriors, similar in the representation of the stone statues of Mont’é Prama, high nearly 2 meters, named by the place where they have been found, a little hill near the village of Cabras, in the Oristano city area. It’s very interesting the debate around the dating of this statue. The Sardinian scholars are divided into those who date the statues around 1100-1000 BC and the ones dating the statue at 900-800 b. C. This stone statue represents mainly warriors, like the little bronze statues: different figures of shielded swordsman, archers, and hypothetical shielded boxers, but no chieftains. Of course one of the main questions regarding this figures are: what is their role? What sort of combat these warriors fought? Later on, I will talk you about the experimental studies I’ve done on this figures, especially about the boxers.
The Nuragic culture in 100 years of studies was interpreted as a chiefdom, with the main leader, identified in the so-called “capo tribù” or tribe leader (now this identification is wrong, and seems more appropriate call this figures just “chief”), and his elite warriors, represented in the other examples. Priests and priestesses have been recognized in particular statues, especially the ones of females dressed in a long cloak and a sort of so-called “witch-hat”. This figures operating in the “sacred wells” and in the antis structures, water temples similar to the sacred wells, but without a vein of water from the ground. It’s presumed that the water was directly brought into this places. The rest of the population has identified in so-called “praying bidders” both male and female. The general interpretation made by the scholars is that the bronzes represent the whole population:, warriors and chiefs, including young adults, mothers with children and commoners. Of course, because we have the iconography of warriors, one of the main questions of the scholars is if the Nuragic were a warrior society or not. In my thesis, I’ve also approached this problem.
My study started with my Bachelor degree thesis in osteology on three Nuragic skulls with evidently healed weapon traumas. The purpose was of trying of reconstructing how the trauma was inflicted, trying to interpret the kind of weapon used and the motion of striking. All was finalized to try to understand how they fight and of course how much violent possibly was the Nuragic culture. The whole anthropological study was based on three different aspects of my background: historical fencing, re-enactment, historical reconstruction and experimental archaeology. The archaeological support was given by the professor Anna Depalmas, and the osteological part by professors Rosalba and Giovanni Floris of Cagliari University.
The thesis is divided into different parts: in the first, I’ve approached the main question from an anthropological view. The documented cases of violence in the chimpanzees, and then a list of the first episodes of violence in the prehistory of humanity, from Jebel Sahaba in 12.000-10.000 BC to Talheim in Germany, in 5500-5000 BC (R. Brian Ferguson (2008)). Then I’ve looked in the osteological finds of prehistoric Sardinia, in the period before the Nuragic, the so-called pre-Nuragic period. We have different examples of bone and obsidian weapons used for injuring other members of the same species. From 10.000 BC to the Ozieri culture in the Neolithic 3200-2800 BC, passing thru the beginning of the copper age in Sardinia, 2700-2500 BC, with the case of Scab’è Arriu, in which we have a human jaw with a sherd of obsidian weapon, and the Monte Claro culture, with a skull, partially scalped. The pre-Nuragic evidence of human traumas ends with the ancient bronze age, in Sardinia associated to the Bonnanaro culture. The remains are friendly called “Sisaia” that means elder grandmother in Sardinian. The woman had different traumas and suffered from various illnesses. The subject has an evident healed trauma on the left shoulder and left arm, which is supposed to be a parrying fracture. These two traumas are presumed to be contemporary. The woman also had transplantation of a bone wheel from his head. As one of the few cases in Europe, now is documented that the transplantation was made for healing purpose after a trauma as proved by O. Becheroni in 2013. In my thesis, I’ve also made a list of all the cases (at least ten) known in bibliography about skull trepanation in Sardinian prehistory. Some cases are also possibly documented for the bronze age, as the female one from Nurallao. This part was necessary as we have to distinguish possible ritual surgery from curettage made for healing purposes, as can be in one of the nuragic skulls studied.
Of course, this is the main part of my thesis. We had three skulls from different parts of Sardinia, of different times, from 800 BC for the supposed ax trauma from the Alghero town (NW Sardinia), to the 1200 BC for the one from Perdasdefogu village (central Sardinia).
The study covered different aspects. Starting from the wound, we have presumed the weapon that could have made the same trauma, as for example, the first one from Alghero, was once presumed to be neolithic, made with a stone axe, but making a comparison with the sizes of the edges of neolithic Sardinian stone axes, like the one kept in the anthropological museum, we have seen that the trauma was too narrow and precise: a result that could be obtained just with a metal weapon.
Same process for the skull from Perdasdefogu, the wound was long from the frontal to the occipital bone. For this reason is presumed to be a long blade, with great cutting power. In Sardinia, at that time there are no other weapons that can do the same kind of damage. So we have presumed that the weapon could have been a Sardinian “pistilliforme” sword, similar to the British Limehouse, but with more accentuated curvatures in the final part of the blade. Moreover, we have determined, as for the previous skull, the angle which the aggressor has swung the weapon. Both were diagonal cuts, inflicted with the right arm, frontally for the sword, possibly both frontal or from the back for the axe. The last skull (Perdalba) we have observed, instead, have a particular wound on the left side of the skull that was cured operating with surgical tools. The nature of the weapon used is unknown, but we have presumed that could have been a blunt force trauma. The weapon used couldn’t have been a thrusting weapon, because it’s so large that the man would have died. The interesting thing observed in all the three skulls is that all of them were healed and the people died at old age, presumed at least 40 years old.
The results obtained by this thesis were several. We have observed that at least two wounds were inflicted with weapons, a metal axe and possibly a sword and that two cases on three were of possible aggression, and at least one, the sword wound, could be a war or possibly a duel wound, for the nature of the weapon. During the study, we have used bronze weapons on fresh corpses of farming animals to replicate the cut-marks we were analyzing, and for seeing if this kind of weapons were able to cut the bone.
The experimental cut-tests have show that these weapons are able to cut the flesh and even the bones, but they react differently based on the shape of the blade. Some like the pistiliforme/Limehouse kind are definitively designed for slashing motions, cutting with the heaviest part of the blade, other ones, like the carp’s tongue, are designed for more complex usage, using the narrow part of the blade for thrusting, and the middle for slashing, but probably with a push and pull action, as suggested by the particular handle, more appropriate for a delicate handling, instead that using the hammer fist grip.
This is suggested also by some examples from Sardinia, a variation of the Carp’s Tongue, with a ring protection for the index finger, like in the Italians renaissance swords. The handling in this way is more precise in the thrusting motion and allow more control also in the cuts because the index it’s basically supporting part of the sword. The weapons had a hammered edge, and they were cast by the English swordsmith Neil Burridge. Some of them show bowing and use wear, that can be seen on the originals. The cutting tests were also interesting for seeing if the weapons could produce a similar wound to the one’s object of study. The traumas were very close in the case of the axe and possibly in the case of cutting with the pistilliforme/Limehouse sword.
Based on this work, we obtained interesting results with the experimental fightings we did for trying to understand how the wounds were procured. The reconstruction of the armors and the weapons led us to hypothesize that the main traumas on the body should be observed mainly in the hands and in the thighs of the human remains of the Nuragic period, in a similar way to what happened to the soldiers of Wisby, in the 14°th century AD.
Also, other evidence suggests that the motions for striking with specific swords, during the bronze age and the beginning of the iron age, were made in a particular way, different from the one used in the past with the swords from the medieval time on. This can be applied also in the way these warriors fought, mainly using the shield for parrying, and striking with the weapon, as probably was in classic and Hellenistic times, when the metallurgy of weapons could still not allow using iron or low carbon steel weapons to parry the blows, how was done from medieval times on with more performing kind of steel.
With the work did in the past years before the thesis, I’ve then continued with the reconstructions and the experimentations on the Nuragic warriors. The result was a book, called “Gherreris” that means simply “Warriors” in Sardinian language. The book is a further step, as in the thesis the space for doing such work of analysis on every single weapon and armor present in the statues was impossible. Each chapter is the depiction of a single piece of equipment, armor or weapon, observed in the iconography or in the archaeological remains. The previous hypothesis made in the past by other authors, as the existence of throwing sticks, boomerangs and war clubs were analyzed and experimentally evaluated. For let you understand better what I’ve done I want to explain you a couple of very interesting cases of study I’ve examined in the book.
THE NURAGIC ARCHER’S BRASSARD
As the first example, I want to show you the experimental research made on the so-called Nuragic “Brassard”. As for bell-beakers brassards, the archaeologist has presumed that the arm protections used by the Nuragic archers were useful for protecting the inside part of the bow’s arm from the hit of the string during the release of the arrow. But, there is a problem in the whole idea. The Nuragic Brassard doesn’t protect the inside part, and usually is too much long, protecting even the outside of the elbow, also it protects the outside part of the hand and fingers, a detail that is very particular.
There is another problem. The Nuragic archers used to carry on the back, the so-called “gruppo faretra” or “quiver-group”, a carrying system that included quiver with arrows, sword and some little containers of unknown function. This means that the Nuragic archer was armed, and he used a sword for defending himself once the arrows were finished or an armed opponent was getting too close. Probably during the fight the Nuragic archer extract the sword from his back with the right hand, the same used for manipulating the arrows to shoot. But the problem is that, usually, the Nuragic swordsman is represented with a particular protection on the sword’s arm. This protection typically is half the length of the arm, but sometimes is long enough to protect the elbow, but in all the examples it protects the outside part of the hand and the fingers. Exactly like the Nuragic so-called brassard. The hypothesis proposed are: that the archer shifted the asset of his body, with the sword arm forward, but in this way, the sword’s arm will be unprotected. The second idea is that the archer extracts the sword, throw away the bow and fighting with just the left arm, that is pretty difficult for many reasons. The other idea and this is my theory, the archer fought using the presumed brassard as a sort shield, combined with the bow for parrying the oncoming sword blows of the enemy. The right hand, used for handling the sword, kept backwards is potentially safe, used just in the proper moment, for striking with a trust or a cut. The nuragic brassard, in the end, looks more likely a protection for the oncoming sword hits, than for protecting the inside part of the arm by the bow’s string or from another archer’s arrows. In fact, the most protected archers depicted in the nuragic iconography don’t have this brassard. Also, it’s interesting to notice that they don’t have any sword on the back.
Another interesting case is the one of
THE BOXERS OF MONT’E PRAMA
As I said previously, the nuragic statues show different warriors: shielded sword fighters, archers, and so-called “boxers”. These boxers have been compared to the Greek and Roman boxer of centuries later. The main difference, however, is the fact that these boxers used shields, or at least this is the opinion of most part of the scholars. The combatants are naked except for the V-shaped skirt around the waist. The left arm carries a shield, possibly leather, reinforced with thin, long pieces of wood and secured with a handle and a strap. The right arm wrapped inside a long brace protection, with round, spheric protection for the hand, and sometimes a band on the humerus. The glove seems to have, especially in the little bronze statues, some studs. The idea is that these fighters fought each other striking the opponent, that used the shield for protecting the body and the head of the damages procured by the stud. Trying to reconstructing this kind of combat, I’ve studied ancient boxing and reconstructed the panoply. The idea of the scholars on this combat was that the boxer could have done the punches like in a modern way. But as we know from other studies in unarmed ancient combat, the pankration and pygmachia had different strikes, especially the so-called hammer fist. So, trying to making a good reconstruction, I’ve analysed the perfect example of nuragic boxing glove that we have: the ones from the statues of Mont’e Prama.
In this gloves, we can observe that the stud is not all over the round part of the glove, but just under the pinkie. Furthermore, we see a transversal protection for the fist, located above the stud. Because so, obviously the gesture of the striking cannot be like in the modern boxing, but the only strikes that can be done must be hammer fist ones. This motion with the arm remembers the one used for striking with weapons, in fact, trying to making a reconstruction of this particular glove, I’ve realised that the final shape is more similar to a so-called nuragic “gamma-hilted dagger” than to a boxing glove. The reconstruction and the archaeological findings are very similar. In fact, analysing the stone statues the archaeologist have found traces of sculpted wounds carved in the stone, filled with red colour for simulating the human blood. The archaeologist that have excavated the statues have theorised that the boxers fought against armed opponents, in a kind of ritual combat. The necropolis it’s an alignment of 33 graves containing young adults, of 16-18 years old, very fit and muscled, accustomed with long and extensive training, with muscular and bone deformation especially to the legs and the right arm. Also, the alimentation of this combatants was very specific, as the isotopic analysis show that they had a very specific diet based on fish and soft food. All the data seems to push to a necropolis of young elite warriors, that possibly fought in ritual combats, armed with shield and the iconic gamma-hilted dagger carried usually by chieftains and warriors of the nuragic society. To be fair from the osteological analysis on the bones of the necropolis of Monte Prama, the anthropologist has found more blunt force traumas than blade cut marks, and this is an aspect that needs to be explained.
In my honest opinion, I think that these warriors can be considered predecessors of the Etruscan and Roman bustuarii, sort of gladiators that used to fight to the death next to the bustus, the funeral pyre. We have similar descriptions also in the Iliad with the fights organized by Achilles for Patroclo’s funeral.
THE NURAGIC SOCIETY
The final argument I want to talk it’s about the possible identity of the figures presented in the iconography. As I said, in the beginning, the nuragic society it’s interpreted mainly using the bronzes iconography. There is the chief, the soldiers that support him, the priests and priestess, the commoners and the bidders. But, what information we have obtained studying the weapons, the armour and the general equipment of the statues? Speaking about the weapons, we see in the bronzes that the figures carried particular weapons. This weapon, before interpreted as throwing sticks or boomerangs, now appear as particular swords, know as “votive swords”. These swords were used in the sacred wells and for offerings. Usually, the swords were broken and the parts used for creating gamma – hilted daggers. It’s interesting that this daggers are represented on the chest of the chiefs, but also, if my hypothesis will be confirmed, in the glove of the so-called boxer.
These swords weren’t used for war, as the composition of the bronze in basically pure copper as document the analysis executed by F. Lo Schiavo. The sword also, has the central rim misaligned, a detail that makes the sword very easy to bend. Also, most of this swords don’t have a bronze handle, and they’re almost impossible to use, if not just for thrusting, but also this motion it does not seem plausible. The other interesting detail is that very often the warriors use to carry more of this swords in the shield. The idea was that the warrior could use the extra swords for fighting, once that the main weapon was bent. But reconstructing the shields, we have seen that usually, the swords pass in the middle of the shield, where is the handle on it. This means that the warrior was using the hand for handling both shield and swords. There is no sheath behind the shield for carrying these swords. The other interesting thing is that the handles of this backup swords are identical to the main one used by the figure, and the handle is for sure the one of a votive sword. This is important, as for a long time has supposed that the backup swords were throwing swords, daggers or huge bronze pins. The other interesting fact regarding the weapons carried by the bronzes is the identity of the so-called “Nuragic boomerang”. This idea is based on a particular bronze carrying a votive sword and a long curved stick. But looking closer to the handle of the item, we see a detail that can be seen also in other sticks of other bronzes. These sticks are the so-called “command stick” or scepter, carried by the statues of chiefs. After having reconstructed the presumed boomerang and observed that with this particular shape and section the weapon just doesn’t work properly, I presume that we are talking about the same item. This particular warrior then should be a chief in armour, with the objects of command: the votive sword and the scepter. Notice that this warrior is practically identical to one of the couples called “the fellow soldiers”. In the representation, we see a horned warrior armed with a votive sword and the other one with a stick resting on his shoulder. Many authors have suggested a range of different weapons as a possible solution, but not even one seems certain. A closer look at the handle documents the particular shape of it. Of course, we have tried to make a reconstruction and the final shape, as we suggested before for the presumed boomerang, is very close to the scepter ‘s handle. If this hypothesis is correct, this means that all the statues of presumed stick fighters with the same detail, instead are carrying the chief’s scepter. As you can see in the picture, the representations are very close between them. The other detail in common in all this representations is the stole kept on the figure’s shoulder. The reconstruction shows that this piece of equipment is useless for defensive purposes, and that needs a belt or similar for letting the bearer moving around freely. But there is no evidence of this belt in the figures. It’s like this stole was just supported on the shoulder, as a Roman toga, or a ceremonial ornament. But if you compare the bidders with the other statues, you can notice that they have in common also the gamma-hilted knife and the particular hat they wear. So the difference between this representations is just the cape used by the chiefs. In my opinion, a possible solution is that the stole carried by the bidders is the same cape, folded and left on the shoulder, with the scepter reverse upside down. But, why this difference in the representations? We can just speculate about it.
In my opinion, the Nuragic statues, in general, represent the same figures. Not chiefs and warriors and commoners, instead chiefs, armed chiefs with complete panoply and offering chiefs.
This, of course, changes radically the picture that we have of the Nuragic society, and a deep revision will be necessary if this theory will be considered valid.
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