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. 

Archaeology and STEM in Primary Education

Poppy Hodkinson is a 3rd year PhD student at Cardiff University and University of Southampton. Her research is funded by South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWWDTP) and is investigating the potential impact of archaeology on STEM engagement in primary education. The following is a summary of her findings so far!

A shortage of people working in the STEM industry is well documented. Not enough STEM graduates are entering appropriate jobs, leading to employers looking outside of the UK to fill roles. This may become even more difficult in the future with changes to working visa policy.

Reasons for the employment gap are complex: gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status all play a role and often intersect. These factors are influential in A-level choices so it is crucial that interventions happen early as possible – in Primary School for example!

So why Archaeology? It’s a unique combination of science and humanities, giving it a wide appeal and making it a perfect way to demonstrate ‘real life’ applications of STEM skills. It’s practical and ‘hands on’ nature is particularly well suited to Primary level teaching. This project tried to see whether archaeological interventions could impact how primary pupils perceive STEM. It delivered 3 STEM-based archaeological workshops (with content relevant to curriculum requirements) to 233 Year 4 pupils at five schools in Cardiff and Hampshire.

Workshop 1: Pupils were set a zooarchaeological challenge. They identified and quantified animal remains, and used graphs to present their data. Pupils looked for patterns in their data to try and understand human/ animal relationships in the past.

Workshop 2: Pupils became ‘Pollen Detectives’ to study Climate Change in the past. They learned that different plants grow in different environments, so the pollen remains left behind can give clues about past landscapes. Credit to Rhiannon Philip (@rioannon) for the pollen ID cards.

Workshop 3: Pupils learned about Roman aqueducts and made their own out of recycled materials. Their aim was to transport as much water from one end of their design to the other. They wrote success criteria for their projects and designed a method to fairly test their work.

Questionnaires and interviews were used to observe pupils’ STEM perceptions. All pupils filled out questionnaires and four from each school were interviewed. Both methods encouraged pupils to reflect on how certain skills and personality traits might be suited to a STEM career.

The impact of workshops on questionnaire results was limited. The only significant change was to the percentage of pupils agreeing with ‘STEM is an important part of my life’ after Workshop 1. Pupils enjoying science but not wanting to ‘be a scientist’ mirrors findings of ASPIRES Research (@ASPIRESscience)

Pupils used word sort activities to explore skills and personality traits that might be important to someone working in STEM. Over time, conversations shifted from vague statements, to thoughtful and specific considerations of how skills and traits might be applied in a STEM career.

While workshops appear to have had limited effect, this project introduced STEM to pupils who were not previously aware of it. Factors in STEM uptake are complex, and additional focus/ reflection on individuals’ skills and personality traits may be needed to effect change.

Links to resources/ packs:

Aqueduct challenge used some elements from Practical Action’s (@PracticalAction) resource packs, all available online:

WISE campaign’s ‘People Like Me’ activity has since been replaced with an online quiz (the pack no longer exists online, that I can find) which can be found at:

Science Capital Teaching Approach Teacher pack available from:

Science Grrl Case for a Gender Lens in STEM:

Aspires Summary report:

Most recent Aspires Summary report: