Why heroes

The necropolis of individual tombs and the extraordinary discovery of the statues make the Mont’e Prama site unique in Sardinia.
Its features suggest that the late Nuragic communities of the Sinis had developed funerary customs linked
to the emergence of a ruling class, perhaps even of a true aristocracy.
The iconography of the statues would thus seem to be the visible embodiment of the key values of these communities,
whose patrician families were buried in what some authors define as heroon.

Close up view of the statue of a boxer known as ‘Fastigiadu’, on show at the National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari.

The heroon (from the Greek ἡρῷον) was a shrine erected to commemorate a hero.
Due to its nature as a combination of burial site and place of worship, the heroon was both a sepulchre and a temple.
However, while the heroa are well known in the Greek world, as of today we have no evidence or information of the existence of similar structures in Nuragic Sardinia.
At Mont’e Prama too, we cannot speak of heroon in the strict sense. At the present stage of research, no reliable evidence has been found of ruins of a shrine, although the discovery of some squared blocks suggests that it might have existed in the area.
In any case, Mont’e Prama was certainly a monumental necropolis and the statues that once stood there reproduce and magnify the people to whose memory the necropolis is dedicated, or their real or mythical ancestors, interpreted as heroes.

The sculptures of Mont’e Prama were produced by a society which had radically changed from the Bronze Age.
They do not in fact represent ‘giants’, as they are commonly called.
For this new society, the far off times of the builders of the nuraghes, considered as heroes, represented a period to be worshipped, the roots of their identity.
Both the dead placed in the tombs and the statues of Mont’e Prama were considered heroes, embodying the values, ideals,
power and identity of a people and a civilisation that saw in them the prestige of a glorious past.

 

Heroes in literature

The definition of the necropolis and the sculpture complex of Mont’e Prama as a heroon is confirmed by many contemporary studies.
Below are some extracts from scientific papers which have attempted to interpret the heroes of Mont’e Prama.

«The iconographies of the boxers, archers and warriors, replicated several times in basically the same manner […] are a powerful sign marking the territory, celebrating the values of the communities whose leading families were buried at Mont’e Prama, in a place we can define as a Heroon» (Bedini-Tronchetti et alii 2012, page 19).

The carefully finished arm of the statue of an archer known as ‘Prexiau’, on show at the National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari.
The arm of the statue of the archer known as ‘Compoidori’, on show at the Giovanni Marongiu Civic Museum of Cabras.

«The Heroon of Mont’e Prama is the most interesting archaeological find of the last decade, throwing light on the history of Sardinia and the western Mediterranean in the early centuries of the 1st millennium BC. […] At the present state of the excavations, still to be completed, the Heroon appears to measure about 50 m, with the statues set on the slabs of the tombs, and with a number of betyls and models of nuraghes set beside and behind them. This represents the monumental phase during the last period of use of a burial site first established in the 9th century BC. […] Carlo Tronchetti analysed Iron Age society, and sees the Heroon as reflecting the rise of an aristocratic class. The aristocracy lived in houses with a central courtyard consisting of several rooms, in villages that were gradually being transformed into proto-urban centres and had achieved a relative affluence» (Bedini-Tronchetti et alii 2012, pages 10-11).

«A necropolis that the community wanted to be monumental in structure and extraordinary in the figurative artwork connected to it; such artwork appears to reproduce in ‘heroic’ and emphatic form the dead to whom the necropolis is dedicated: statues of young men, armed and vigorous, brothers in arms, standing as a tribute to and in defence of their brothers, dead and forever buried in the land of Mont’e Prama» (Minoja 2014, page 367).

«It is above all the series of individual tombs at Mont’e Prama-Cabras, transformed into a heroon, that witnesses the great political and social upheaval, the deep change in the Nuragic social structure which took place in phase IV» (Lilliu 2004, page 497).

An aerial view of the necropolis of Bedini and Tronchetti at the end of the excavation campaign in 2015.

«Dialectically, the violent destruction of the heroon could correspond to the time of transformation of the emporion into polis […]. The heroon was probably as a monument to dynastic ‘glory’. […] We do not know precisely when this upheaval took place.

The well tombs, originally containing the remains of the ‘prince-heroes’ also contained a scarab-shaped seal and glass beads […]» (Lilliu 2004, pages 635-636).

Model of an eight-lobed nuraghe found during excavations in 2016 and on show at the Giovanni Marongiu Civic Museum of Cabras.

«According to a traditional interpretation, a high-standing clan of the Iron Age communities that lived in the Sinis region was buried at Mont’e Prama in a sort of monumental Heroon in individual tombs and with prestigious statues embodying a heroic ideology. However, finds of architectural elements such as column and pillar capitals suggest the existence of an actual sanctuary, in which the decorations and sculptures were housed; if this was the case, the necropolis was only one part of the sanctuary’s area.
This part was linked to the cult of the ancestors. They were seen as heroes, perhaps already deities, from whom the elite families buried in the tombs descended. From the cult of ancestors, embodied by the statues, but also from the cult of the nuraghe, shown by the many stone models found, the high class drew their ascendancy and power. We find in the sculptures a programme linking the mythical world and the ancestors to the physical world of the present and its aristoi, celebrating the peculiar cosmology of power» (Bernardini 2014, page 157).

«In this context, I see the phenomenon of Monti Prama as a particular type of necropolis glorifying a family clan, an aristocratic group that qualifies itself with signs of military virtue, of religion and which connects itself to the past golden age […] the tombs of ancestors seen as heroes, and the betyls taken from some of these tombs date from an earlier time and were sculpted in a different material» (Tronchetti 2012a, pages 181-192).

«In light of these reflections, Tronchetti concludes that the necropolis of Mont’e Prama cannot be considered as a simple funerary site, but rather was a sort of necropolis-sanctuary in which the cult of the ancestors was celebrated and the power of the aristocracies of the 8th century BC was affirmed. In this context, the term heroon is introduced: Mont’e Prama is the burial site of the heroes of the present and the place of worship of the heroes of the past» (Bernardini 2015, page 53).

«Unfortunately, recent excavations have not been able to clarify the precise nature and the whole form and structure of a heroon transformed into a temple, which must have been among the greatest and best-known of Sardinian proto-historic antiquity […]» (Lilliu 1980, page 118).

«It is not the graves dug in the earth, in the form of simple wells, that mark out the site of the heroon, but the statues, the above-ground funerary monuments embodying the rank and power of those who commissioned it» (Lilliu 1997, page 314).

«The Mont’e Prama statues were the alternative face of that settlement, since their heroic status presupposes control by the natives over the Phoenician emporion, just as the violent destruction of the necropolis seems to mark the  transformation of that emporion into polis and hence the reversal of the balance of power between the trading parties, as symbolised by fate of the beautiful colossal statues» (Torelli 1984, page 392).

The heroes of Mont'e Prama

«The finds show us a snapshot of a time when power in Nuragic society was held by an aristocratic elite, present in what we feel was a great federal sanctuary with areas for burial, with monumental figures depicting their ideology in monumental forms never seen before» (Tronchetti 1981, page 527).

«The presence of a building may have transformed the funerary area into a place of worship superimposed on the tombs, thus taking on a sacred value. Interpreting the context as celebrating the ancestors of the aristocratic group might have a higher meaning: the cult of the deceased not only as heroes but also as deities protecting at least the aristocratic group to which they belonged» (Rendeli 2014b, page 70).

«The funerary and sculpture complex is usually defined as a heroon, a Greek word defining an organised, structured site for the cult of the ancestors raised to the rank of heroes and celebrating the traditional values of the community that identifies itself with them. The sculptures of Mont’e Prama expressed identity and belonging, which were especially significant at a turning poing in history, marked by deep tensions and transformations.» (Usai 2015b, page 98).

icona-profilo
Further readings:
L’Heroon di Mont’e Prama, Bedini-Tronchetti et alii 2012, pp. 15-23

Mont’e Prama. L’Heroon dei giganti di pietra, Tronchetti 2015
L’Heroon di Mont’e Prama nelle pagine di Giovanni Lilliu, Zucca 2014
Guardiani, dei o eroi? marzo 1974, nel podere di Sisinnio Poddi, presso Cabras, venne alla luce un grosso reperto archeologico. Cominciò così la lunga quanto appassionante vicenda dei giganti di Mont’e Prama, Manunza 2013
La pietra e gli eroi, Minoja e Usai (a cura di), 2011
Interpretare Mont’e Prama: l’heroon, Bernardini 2015, p. 52
L’Heroon di Mont’e Prama, Zucca 2013

check the references