Discovery and excavations - Mont'e Prama

Discovery and excavations

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The early archaeological investigations

The first mentions in literature of the site of Mont’e Prama go back to the 17th century, when Capuchin monk Salvatore Vidal was the first to write of the existence of an ancient settlement at Mont’e Prama, as one of the fourty fortified cities (oppida) of the Sinis.

According to unverified oral reports, in the early 1970s two farmers discovered the first sculptures while ploughing. The first documented findings took place in the spring of 1974.
The Heritage Superintendency started the first excavation campaign in December 1975 under the direction of Alessandro Bedini. The following years saw other investigations: in January 1977, an exploratory dig lasting just one day was directed by Giovanni Lilliu and Enrico Atzeni and in December of the same year, more exploratory digs were performed by Maria Luisa Ferrarese Ceruti and Carlo Tronchetti. In 1979, the first systematic excavation campaign was directed by Carlo Tronchetti.

These early archaeological investigations reveal to us a necropolis in use for several centuries, showing the signs of several different development periods.

Zenith view of a well tomb of the Bedini dig. It still contains the remains of the body.
The archaeological area on 12 October 2015.

In an early phase, perhaps in the 11th and 10th centuries BC, the necropolis consisted of small single well tombs, not too deep, cylindrical in shape, closed by a mound of small stones, in which a body was laid in a crouched position, at times with a vase, which was often in fragments.

Phase 1 - Simple well tomb, covered with pile of stones.
Phase 1 - Tombs covered with pile of stones.

Subsequently, probably between the 10th and 9th centuries BC, the local communities decided to give a monumental aspect to the area: new well tombs were created and completed with stone structures, but still grouped in a haphazard manner. A body in crouched position was placed in each grave and covered with a slab of carefully worked stone.

Phase 2 - Well tomb, partly built with an isolated large round slab.
Phase 2 - Tombs, alone or in small groups, covered with thick rectangular or, exceptionally, round slabs.

In a third phase, probably in the early 8th century BC, the tombs were dug out of the soft rock and covered with one or two square slabs of sandstone, at times with vertical slabs to the sides (these are known as ‘pseudo-cyst graves’).
The tombs were lined up along the edge of a funerary road and were separated into groups by vertical slabs set in the ground. Each group of tombs was fenced off in the direction of the road by a line of vertical slabs and is marked by at least one betyl, some of which are more than 2 meters high.

Phase 3 - Well tomb with square slab cover in sandstone in a long line.
Phase 3 - Tombs arranged in a line, covered by a square slab.

In this third phase, the necropolis was decorated with a spectacular complex of statues and models of nuraghes in limestone.

We do not know how long the necropolis maintained this distinctive layout.
At the end of the 4th century BC, well into the Punic period, the fragmented statues were heaped on top of the tombs and in the adjacent road in a disordered manner, together with other elements of material culture such as pottery of the Nuragic, Punic and Roman periods.
It is possible that the statues were smashed at that time, perhaps intentionally, but we cannot rule out other times and causes.

The tombs of the third phase are without grave goods. Only in tomb 25, under the body of the young buried man, a seal imitating an Egyptian scarab was found, dated by comparison between 1130 and 945 BC. The discovery of oriental grave goods in the Nuragic burials is very rare.
This unusual find indicates a process of change in the early Iron Age, and is certainly not easy to interpret.

Recent excavation campaigns

The excavation campaign was resumed on 5 May 2014 by a team of experts from the Cagliari Superintendency (Alessandro Usai and Emerenziana Usai) and the University of Sassari (Raimondo Zucca, Paolo Bernardini and Pier Giorgio Spanu).
Led by Professor Gaetano Ranieri, the team performed geophysical tests using georadar on about 80,000 square meters: the subsoil was examined from sixteen different angles to detect changes in subsurface features. On the basis of the main geophysical results and analysis of aerial and satellite photos, trial excavations were carried out in three quadrants of the easternmost portion of the area, without however finding any elements confirming the anomalies noted.

Hence excavation was once more concentrated on the necropolis, to the south of the portions already investigated by Bedini and Tronchetti.
By the side of a new stretch of the funerary road, eight tombs were unearthed, covered with square slabs and further to the east, a further eight tombs set in three irregular rows, of simple well type, covered by a heap of stones, destined for the single burial of individuals in a crouched position. Judging from the pottery dating at least from the 10th century BC, they were the earliest tombs at the site.

The finding of two statues of boxers during Ranieri’s excavation in 2014.
Close-up view of one of the boxer statues found by Ranieri’s excavation in 2014.
Close-up view of the head of one of the boxer statues found by Ranieri’s excavation in 2014.

The most surprising finding of the 2014 excavations was the recovery of two statues of boxers, a type not yet found in the other statues of Mont’e Prama. Their iconography is similar to that of the famous Nuragic bronze of Cavalupo di Vulci of the 9th century BC.

Excavation campaign 2015-2016 

Lastly, a new excavation campaign under the direction of Alessandro Usai was carried out from May 2015 to December 2016.
It reopened the long trench opened between 1975 and 1979, which had been filled in in the 1980s with earth, and linked the old trench to that of 2014. Excavation of the necropolis brought to light 22 new tombs, half of which of intermediate type with well partially constructed of stone and with a covering slab of various shapes.

Aerial view of the archaeological area on 28 May 2015.
Vista aerea zenitale dell'area archeologica il 12 ottobre del 2015.

However, no clues were found as to the original position of the sculptures.

Current research is focused not on finding more sculptures, but on extending the excavation area to gain more insight on the layout of the area, the relationship between the sculptures and the necropolis and whether a temple or sanctuary once stood there, as well as other structures or buildings having other functions.

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