The Mont’e Prama Giants: A Massive Archaeological Mystery

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1974, Sinis region, Sardinia (Oristano): the plow of a farmer being blocked by a piece of stone marked the beginning of a series of excavations in the area of Mont’e Prama, near the village of Cabras. Unable to continue plowing, the man got off the tractor and perplexedly examined an outcropping of stone. Digging with his hands, he pulled a huge head out of the ground. It had double-carved eyes, something he had never seen before and which no one else had laid eyes on for many centuries. Thus began the mystery of the Mont’e Prama Giants.

What came to light immediately held considerable importance: in the approximately 50 meters (164 ft.) that initially delimited the burial ground, there were numerous stone slabs that covered many tombs with large statues originally placed above them. The dating, at the time not completely certain, assigned the construction to the 9th century BC and was attributed to the families of local aristocrats. It was obviously a sacred complex of great importance. Never before had such an imposing and pronounced complex been found, with a form of statuary so unusual and older than the Greeks.

Reconstruction of a Mont’e Prama grave. (DedaloNur/CC BY SA 3.0)

Reconstruction of a Mont’e Prama grave. (DedaloNur/CC BY SA 3.0 )

The statues soon began to be studied, despite the scarcity of means and funds at the time, and boxers, archers and warriors soon were unearthed with models of nuraghe and betyls (from the Hebrew Beth-El, house of God) – stones of sacred value worked in a truncated cone shape, sometimes with quadrangular recesses.

Over time, 16 big statues of boxers emerged, all over two meters (6.56 ft.) tall and carrying a large shield raised over their heads and a glove armed with spikes on their right hands; six warriors were found with a round shield and armed with a sword, wearing  long, horned helmets; six archers also emerged from the earth with their quivers and a finely decorated bow in their left hands, as well as 13 menhir-like betyls and nuraghe models.

The finds began to be collected and catalogued and a selection of the more than 5000 fragments have been exhibited since 1980 at the museum of Cagliari.

In December 1979 the excavations stopped. The row of tombs showed slabs put at the ends as if to indicate the end of the burial ground. Tests carried out in the continuation both towards South and North and trenches towards the West gave negative results.

After 30 years, the numerous blocks were transferred to the center of Li Punti, where an analysis and intervention laboratory was set up to restore and study the statues with various types of scientific investigations. They were found to have realistic decorations on the shields, armor, and weapons.

Some of the Mont’e Prama Giants. (Author Provided)

Some of the Mont’e Prama Giants. (Author Provided)

About 30 years passed, in which the Giants , as they became known, were hosted in some exhibitions, and studies continued. But it was only in 2014, thanks to a University of Sardinia research project together with the Archaeological Superintendence of Cagliari that excavations resumed at the site where the Mont’e Prama Giants had been found; this brought new extraordinary finds to light.

In particular, two figures were found, one still with the head connected to the body, which are assumed to be magicians or priests. They differ from all the others because of their shoes – the other statues are for the most part barefoot – and a particular cone shaped headgear, curiously of the same type as a bronze statuette found in a tomb in Lazio (Vulci), where a Nuragic princess and her Etruscan husband were buried. And other Giants seem to be waiting for their turn to return to the light as well.

But why is the Mont’e Prama site so important?

The Most Extraordinary Archaeological Discovery of the 21st Century

The statues found at Mont’e Prama are unique, both in appearance and age. And they date back several centuries. In fact, before the discovery there was no news of such impressive artistic elements prior to the Greek and Etruscan statuary documented to the beginning of the seventh century BC. But the Giants changed everything and dealt a decisive blow to the usual perception classical archaeology had assigned to the Nuragic culture (second half of the 2nd millennium BC).

Mont’e Prama revealed a much more refined culture than was previously thought. It shows a culture that was able to produce an imposing sacred complex and the most ancient statues of the Mediterranean basin and Europe.

Bedini excavation (1975) of Mont’e Prama, Sardinia, Italy. (Public Domain)

Bedini excavation (1975) of Mont’e Prama, Sardinia, Italy. ( Public Domain )

From the findings we can understand that the Iron Age in Sardinia, from the 9th century BC, was an extremely varied and culturally active period. It seems clear that the island at this time was a crossroads of populations, cultural and artistic influences, and ideas; literally it was at the center of a specialized network of art and trade professionals. The Sardinian people exported their goods from Andalusia to Morocco and throughout the Mediterranean area in northern Africa.

Sardinia thus participated directly in the trade and perhaps assimilated construction techniques and stylistic influences, creating the first great statues in Europe. The constitutive peculiarities of the Giants, the highly suggestive eyes , the realistic decorations of the panoply (complete armor), the large shields, the imposing positions with the shield raised or the bent arms supporting the bow, clearly state that the creators of the Mont’e Prama area had access to avant-garde techniques for the time, and their work was very refined.

Not only that, the uniqueness of the complex and impressive statuary tells us that there were aristocracies so powerful and rich that they wanted to hand down their culture through a refined example that would last for many centuries. The site itself, as will be discovered through a new generation of geo-radar thanks to the geophysicist Prof. Gaetano Ranieri, is known to be much more extensive than what has emerged today, and it testifies to the considerable constructive and artistic skills of the people.

It is very interesting that this new vision of Sardinia offered by Mont’e Prama matches what is presented in  classical sources. According to Diodorus Siculus, the island was inhabited by the 50 sons of Heracles, conceived with the daughters of Thespius, the Thespiades. Supposedly the hero wanted to populate Sardinia before being hired by the Gods and sent his nephew Iolaus to lead the Thespiades to colonize Sardinia.

The result was a sort of paradise where the inhabitants produced valuable architectural works, gymnasiums, and courts – this was the image of a happy island. A tradition reported by Pseudo – Aristotle adds interesting notes about the advanced culture and art of the island, which in ancient times would have been scattered with temples of exquisite workmanship and fields cultivated with technologies that were unusually advanced for their time.

The Heroon of Mont’e Prama

The site is considered by many scholars to be a Heroon, a monumental sanctuary dedicated to a hero (or exemplary heroes) who became mythical or mythological over time. The area is located about two km (1.24 miles) from the pond of Cabras and is essentially formed by a series of 60 cockpit tombs with a depth between 70 and 80 cm (27.56-31.50 inches), aligned on a north-south vector, (others without slabs are located further east). They run alongside a road and many are covered by slabs about 20 cm (7.87 inches) thick, on which about 5,000 sculptural fragments of statues, betyls, and models of sandstone nuraghe were scattered.

The betyls are created with different materials than the statues. They are made of sandstone while the statues are of limestone. Sandstone is located a few kilometers from Mont’e Prama, while the limestone was extracted from the quarries between S’Archittu and Santa Caterina (Cuglieri) posing new questions about how the blocks were transported.

Various models of nuraghe have also been found that sometimes deviate from the classical image; they are rather complex: some of them even have eight towers (however, we do not have examples of this style in Sardinia) of various sizes joined by terraces to a larger central body. They are rather unusual and resemble  small medieval castles .

The beginning and the end of the burial ground is marked by two vertical sunken stones adjacent to the first and last tomb. About 20 meters (65.62 ft.) from them, to the west, are the remains of a Nuragic hut.

At the time of opening, all the tombs were devoid of any funerary equipment, except for number 25, which returned an Egyptian scarab from the 12th/ 11th century BC, reused in a necklace.

What Do the Mont’e Prama Giants Look Like?

The statues, carved from a single block of stone, mainly represent boxers, archers, and warriors with round shields, all of them around 2.30 meters (7.55 ft.) tall. Several of them have helmets with frontal horns, visible combat gloves, a cap on the head from which long braids descend, and large shields which are held above the head.

All of the statues show feet resting on irregular squares with well-outlined toes, well-shaped faces, and especially unique eyes, marked by a double concentric circle executed to perfection, and a pillar nose.

Head of one of the Mont’e Prama Giants. (spritz77 /Adobe Stock)

Head of one of the Mont’e Prama Giants. ( spritz77 /Adobe Stock)

The boxers are bare-chested, wearing a sort of triangular tip back skirt with perceivable closing laces, while the archers wear a tunic. The warriors also wear armor on their tunics. Archers are copies of Sardinian bronzes found everywhere in Sardinia and Etruria. Other elements present are the well-sculpted and visible greaves (leg guards), and in some cases a two-horned helmet. Quivers and sword sheaths are clearly visible.

An anthropological analysis conducted on recovered bone remains shows that they belong to young men. Radioactive carbon (C-14) dating places the site to between 1100 and 800 BC.

The Expanding Archaeological Site

Sardinian archaeological authorities state that the burials and other elements at the site suggest this was meant to be an imposing complex aimed at celebrating deceased nobles or exemplary ancestors who magnificently represent the best characteristics of the local civilization.

The construction methods identify three phases inserted chronologically between the 9th and the end of the 8th century BC: in the oldest one the tombs were excavated, in the second one the perimeter was delimited with a fence and stone slabs covered the tombs, and in the last phase the statues were made. These create an appropriate monumental decoration for a site of evident importance for the Nuragic civilization.

According to the 1st century historian Diodorus Siculus, between the 10th and 7th century BC warrior aristocracies developed in the area and imposed their power on other local people. It is commonly believed that these aristocracies commissioned the construction of the Heroon to glorify their success and their wealth.

The necropolis can also be framed in its cultural place through the evaluation of the populations that gravitated around the area. The hill of the site is in fact the home of several Nuragic structures . Unfortunately we do not know the exact date of these buildings and therefore we cannot directly link them with the necropolis.

However, other nearby Nuragic sites are certainly contemporary. Moreover, the Phoenician colony of Tharros was about 10 km (6.2 miles) away and it is certain that there was constant contact between the two areas due to the discovery of small Nuragic objects in Phoenician burial sites near Mont’e Prama. This could suggest the possibility of the two ethnic groups mixing.

Ruins of the Phoenician colony of Tharros. (Author provided)

Ruins of the Phoenician colony of Tharros. (Author provided)

Damnatio Memoriae

The excavations also outlined an interesting final epilogue to the history of the Mont’e Prama area: the destruction of the statues into thousands of pieces. Their heads were taken off and eye lines were erased in a sort of eternal damnatio memoriae . Someone has deliberately erased the traces of the civilization that produced the Mont’e Prama site. But who? When? And most importantly why?

It’s difficult to say with certainty, since there is no specific data about the event except a partial dating on the basis of the analyses carried out. The destruction of the statues, betyls, and all that surrounded the tombs took place before 300 BC. On the basis of this data, various hypotheses have been put forward; all are possible explanations for the destruction: a Carthaginian expedition, internal wars between the various tribes or local people to conquer the territory, Phoenician incursions of the nearby colony of Tharros, natural degradation of the stones, and the site being used as a landfill.

New Discoveries

The discovery of a monumental necropolis in an unimposing field far from hot springs and raw materials poses many questions, especially of its real intention. Was there anything like a built-up area or a shrine at Mont’e Prama that could justify the presence of a necropolis? A research project was set up involving the two universities of the island : on the technological side was the University of Cagliari, which was directed by Prof. G. Ranieri, and the archaeological side was covered by Prof. R. Zucca’s team from the University of Sassari.

In 2013 the Cagliari unit highlighted numerous possible archaeological structures. To the north and south of the old archaeological area they found circular (Nuragic huts?), rectangular (buildings?), linear and flat (roads?), elliptical (fences?), and row (tombs?) anomalies, and, nearby there were important scattered anomalies (statues?). Many innovative geophysical methods were used (multi-channel georadar, 3D electric tomography, thermal tomography, ARP, etc.) and the 7-hectare subsoil around the old archaeological site was scanned and digitally represented up to three meters (9.84 ft.) deep.

In 2014, multi-channel georadar immediately showed important anomalies. Prof. Zucca’s team, together with the Superintendence Department, verified the integrity of the method that was used with high precision (sometimes down to the centimeter.) They discovered two enormous beetles (2.35x 60 cm), lined with millenary furrows from plows and placed at the edge of two other groups of four tombs each.

More than 4000 finds were brought to light – feet, statue heads, busts with quivers, and many models of nuraghe. Further geophysical research discovered two unusual statues of unarmed people, one of which with its head still attached to the body. In 2015 the geophysical exploration of Prof. Ranieri’s unit led to the finding of another 8 hectares with important anomalies still waiting to be verified.

In 2015 / 2016 the Archaeological Superintendence of Cagliari, with the participation in 2017 of the University of Sassari, carried out extensive research outside the area of the 1974-1979 findings, verifying the archaeological correspondence of the anomalies found in 2014 by Prof. Ranieri’s team. Other elements (a monumental wall) excavated by the Superintendence in the N-NW direction corresponds to the anomalies revealed by the electrical and Georadar investigations.

It is obvious that there is a vast, hidden universe under the surface just waiting to be brought to light.

The author would like to sincerely thank Prof. G. Ranieri and Prof. R. Zucca for their kind help in drafting this article.

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