Animals, People, and Power in Ancient Sardinia

Dr Emily Holt, Marie Curie Fellow
Cardiff University

When you think of archaeology, what do you imagine? Pyramids? Temples? Researchers in broad-brimmed hats scraping the ground with their trowels? What about animal bones – do animal bones come to mind when you picture archaeologists at work? 

Animal bones may not be the first thing you think of, but zooarchaeology – the study of animal remains in archaeological contexts – is a vibrant and informative part of archaeological research. Animal bones tell us all kinds of things about ancient people – not just what they ate, but also about their economies, political structures, home lives, and patterns of travel.  

I’m a zooarchaeologist studying the Nuragic Culture of Ancient Sardinia. The Nuragic Culture flourished during the Sardinian Bronze Age (c. 1700-900 BCE), when the Nuragic people built thousands of monumental stone towers called nuraghi all over their island. They built just a few hundred at first, expanding over the centuries to build thousands more, many of which were also larger and more architecturally complex than the early towers. These patterns of settlement expansion suggest that interesting processes of political consolidation were taking place, probably supported by changes in how Nuragic people used their natural resources. 

Studying the towers themselves can only tell us so much, however. Resources like animal bones excavated from inside and around the towers provide helpful additional evidence. My project ZANBA is using animal remains excavated from an early and a later Nuragic tower to look at changes in how much territory Nuragic leaders controlled. I’m going to do this by analyzing the strontium isotopes in the teeth of the domestic animals the Nuragic leaders ate and comparing them against the strontium isotopes in the regions around the two sites. 

Strontium isotopes come from the particular geology of a region and get into animal teeth through the food chain: plants take up strontium from groundwater and soil, herbivores absorb strontium through the plants they eat, and carnivores absorb strontium through the animals they consume. Fortunately, the strontium isotopes aren’t really changed by going through the food chain, so the isotopes in animal teeth at the end of the chain are closely related to the isotopes of the plants at the beginning. 

Sardinia has a highly varied geology, so the first part of my study is to map the strontium isotopes around my study area. I’ll do this by collecting plants from across the different geologies and testing their strontium isotopes. This will allow me to establish a base map of how strontium isotopes vary across my study area. Once I’ve completed the base map, I’ll test the strontium isotopes in the teeth of animals from my two sites and compare them with the base map.

This will allow me to identify where the animals that were eaten at the sites originally came from, which will give me an idea of how far the political power of these Nuragic leaders stretched. I expect to see an expansion of power between the early site and the later site, showing that Nuragic leaders were able to bring more territory under their control over time. 

Right now I’m in the early stages of my project, planning the best locations to collect plants to produce the most accurate and representative base map. The next step will be to travel to Sardinia and collect both the plant and animal specimens and bring them back to the lab to analyze with the help of my colleagues. If you’re interested in learning more about my research, you can check out my personal blog or follow @ZANBA_Project1 on Twitter and zanba_project on Instagram. 

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