Monday, March 16, 2009


Stephen L. Dyson, Robert J. Rowland, Jr., Archaeology and History in Sardinia from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages. Shepherds, Sailors, and Conquerors. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2008. Pp. viii, 240; maps 2, figs. 89. ISBN 978-1-934536-02-5. $49.95.
Reviewed by Catherine M. Draycott, Somerville College, Oxford (

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

Islands are particularly useful, naturally circumscribed territories within which one can study sociocultural transformations over long periods of time. Not only this, but cultural practices which emerge on islands are often distinctive, prompting questions about the nature of their formation and the role of the island's geography in this process.

This is the main interest of the authors of this book on Sardinia, which as the title indicates, covers the long durée from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages, examining developments on the island with attention to pre-existing conditions. For them, a combination of moderate geographic accessibility and the kind of inhabitation that developed early on affected the continuing development of Sardinia, distinguishing it from its rougher and less accessible neighbour Corsica, and from other islands such as Sicily, which they characterise as more affected by external forces. The authors are particularly keen to dislodge the entrenched ideas that Sardinia's idiosyncrasies are signs of primitivism, the result of geographic isolation, or signs of indigenous resistance to foreign influences. Resistance, they say, may be relevant for the more recent political history of the island, but should not be assumed for earlier periods. Equally, they are keen to tackle models that would explain changes in Sardinia as resulting mostly from external forces -- migrations, trade, invasion. Their approach is more balanced, not denying aspects of geographic isolation or the impact of outsiders, but at the same time emphasising the internal dynamics in processes of change. Rather than revolutions, they prefer to see precedents and continuities.

The book marks a culmination of the two authors' years of partnership in the field and joint efforts to bring the archaeology and history of Sardinia more into line with mainstream archaeological theory, before Rowland's death in 2007. Together with Rowland's earlier British Archaeological Report volume (The Periphery in the Center: Sardinia in the Ancient and Early Medieval Worlds, BAR International Series 970, Oxford 2001), it greatly improves access to the archaeology and scholarship of Sardinia, and this book's compact and attractively bound format will appeal to a wide readership. Each chapter issues challenges to orthodoxies and assumptions about the island, and various sections provide particularly useful case studies of key issues in archaeological theory. There are, however, significant problems with the structure and fluency of the text and with the scholarly apparatus of the book, which undermine its success.

The book is divided into twelve chapters, beginning with an introduction explaining the development of Sardinian scholarship and its dominant paradigms, and then proceeding in stages from the Paleolithic to the conquest of the island by the Aragonese. The authors explain that this end date was a largely arbitrary choice designed to limit the scope of the book. It also leaves off at the very moment of legendary Sardinian resistance, which they argue has been romanticized and retrojected onto the more remote past of the island.

Chapters two through five cover the rise of a robust indigenous culture from the earliest settlement of the island through to the Bronze Age, when the nuraghi towers so characteristic of the Sardinian landscape were erected. In this story, contact with the outside world is not neglected, but the authors want to counter assumptions that the Sardinians were any less sophisticated than others in the Mediterranean and depended on others to deliver technology or ideas. Hence, later exploitation of Sardinian obsidian, evidenced by finds outside the island, could be evidence for the growth of powerful indigenous communities harnessing the islands' resources. Neolithic developments -- pottery, more visible settlements, some agriculture -- can be seen as at least in part stemming from such roots, rather than appearing with new migrants from the east, as the old orthodoxy would have it.

By the end of the Neolithic period communities of increasing sophistication were building domus de janas tombs and shrines. Bronze Age developments can be seen against this background: rather than attributing the rise of a warrior society to the introduction of metal technology from the outside, the authors prefer to see this as an outcome of already existing elite competition. A number of interesting points are raised along the way: beakers on Sardinia are used differently from those in mainland areas, and so prove (if proof is needed) that they are not to be associated with a mono-cultural group. And when they arrive in the Nuragic period, the authors downplay the nuraghi, which have dominated literature, in favour of highlighting other less well-known aspects of the settlements with which these towers were associated. The non-specialist would appreciate a basic introduction to the nuraghi as well, but one gathers the overall sense of the rich, metal-working, sculpture-using, sanctuary-building culture which did not, it seems, experience the Bronze Age collapse of the Aegean.

This last point, lack of collapse, should frame the next several chapters which cover the arrival of new immigrants and would-be rulers of the island, from the Phoenicians to the Romans. The authors here downplay the impact that these new arrivals had on the island, comparing the Phoenicians, for instance, to the French in North Africa. They see neither Carthage nor the Roman Republic as having imposed a new system of vast estates on the island, suggesting that forts and 'limes' across the island could be constructions of competitive or wary native landowners, who continued their previous farming practices albeit on a more intensive scale. Moreover, the arrival of new settlers could even empower locals. The example of a special tomb at Cabras near Tharros, adorned with large sculptures in a forecourt, may be representative of emerging 'Big Men' controlling trade with Phoenicians and the interior. (This example is given in the previous chapter on Nuragic societies, however.) Other opportunities meant the adoption of some Punic and Roman trappings by the elites, and there were various 'grey zones' of interaction between non-elite indigenes and newcomers, such as new gods at old water shrines and some settlements with mixed pottery types. But overall, it seems, aside from major new cities on the coast and some syncretism, the previous strength of Sardinian communities meant that the penetration of new ways of life was relatively limited.

To some extent the Roman Empire had a greater impact, with new kinds of architecture transforming coastal cities and with the development of a new kind of rural hinterland with farms and villas. But still, changes in the interior were limited and guided, perhaps, by pre-existing features: the authors suggest that the extensive imperial road network may not be linked to increased urbanism, for which evidence is low, but could have been a form of state control over the countryside -- symbolic competition with older indigenous monuments such as the nuraghi. Mining, the authors feel, also continued at about the same level as before, challenging assumptions of massive imperial mining operations on the island.

Across the final three chapters, one can follow the re-emergence of indigenous ruling powers, the Judicate, and a new kind of indigenous Sardinian Christian culture. Although the authors point out that the four regions controlled by the dynastic families which formed the Judicate roughly correspond with the major cities of the Punic and Roman periods, it is unclear whether one is supposed to understand some kind of legacy from the earlier, strong indigenous societies emphasized through the previous chapters. Apart from the implication that pagan cults persisted in the interior and from the continued use of older buildings, now made into churches, there is little sense of continuity in ways of life or sociopolitical structures. What is particularly clear here, though, is how the location of the island, far from its Byzantine possessors, allowed an indigenous system of rule to arise and affected the religious identity of the island. The origins of the Judicate are obscure, but the authors suggest that the distance from Constantinople encouraging local leaders to assert control. Eventually, the Byzantine-styled, Greek orthodox judices found themselves entangled in the politics of their Western, non-orthodox neighbours, culminating in their competitive support of Italian Benedictine abbeys, to whom they granted much of their land. Although the authors speak of the creative maneuvering of the judices in such circumstances, their rivalry and need to appeal to mainland powers for support seem to have inadvertently led to their final downfall and the end of Sardinia's autonomy.

The above overview of how Sardinia's position and indigenous dynamics affected its identity through the ages does not give any real sense of the amount of material covered in this book. Each chapter surveys the evidence for various time periods, and contains facts and revisionist ideas which will intrigue a variety of scholars. To give just a few examples: the testing of copper ingots has revealed that Sardinia imported its copper rather than exporting it as was assumed in the past. Hence, the island was not in a simple core-periphery relationship with the Eastern Mediterranean in the Bronze Age. In the Roman imperial period, differing preferences in the types of mosaics used in villas in different parts of the island can be detected -- more North African in the south and more Italian in the northeast. Regional differences in culture also appeared (or were maintained?) in the Judicate period, with Latin script being use in the northeast and Greek in the south. According to new views, the Vandal period on the island was one of relative prosperity rather than decline.

On the other hand, the scope of the book means that much is skimmed over quickly. Treatment of the evidence can be too thin -- simply mentioned rather than explicated -- and knowledge assumed, making the book difficult for a non-specialist to follow. The survey structure also means that it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees; the material pertaining to particular periods is not tightly harnessed into a controlled discussion of change and continuity. At times, the authors seem more interested in arguing one theoretical point or another than in tying the narrative together, so on a first read the story of indigenous dynamics does not become apparent. The text also tends to skip about and sometimes repeat. It feels like a draft, which requires tightening and editing to really produce a synthesis with a consistent focus.

Related to this, other problems which should be minor but which are very noticeable reveal lack of care in the final stages of production: the book has not been proofread. There are regular typos, misspellings, inconsistencies in spelling, repetitions and other errors, which should really have been caught before printing. A number of the references in the text are not included in the bibliography, which undermines the usefulness of the book. Perhaps the most grievous example of this is Tykot and Andrews 1992, from which many of the maps included among the illustrations are reproduced.1 The illustrations themselves also seem like an afterthought; there are no figure numbers, which means that there is no referencing of the images within the text and sometimes the connection is not self-evident. Maps are reproduced at different scales and often without scales or north arrows included. Worse, some of the main places named in the text are not labelled on the maps! It is a shame that a new set of tailor-made maps was not produced for this book, especially in view of the authors' interest in geographic factors. Inconsistencies in the spelling of place names undermines the point of an index: for instance, Kalaris-Cagliari is variously referred to as Cagliari, Kalaris, Karalis, Karales, Calaris, Calares, Caliaris and Carales, but only the pages for 'Karalis' are listed in the index. Other sites such are not included in the index -- Bithia, for instance. Returning to the bibliography, there are some errors (Broadbank for Broodbank, for instance, though I did not find it actually referenced in the text). And while the book is broadly in line with current archaeological theory, it is not completely up-to-date in references to relevant literature on island archaeology and interactions in the Mediterranean.2 The traumatic circumstances of Rowland's death prior to the completion of the book (mentioned in the preface) may help to explain these errors. One must assume that the publishers took the decision to release the book in a rough state, rather than allowing it to languish unpublished.

Overall, its publication is something for which to be grateful. The approach and the numerous challenges the book issues mean that it should be an important influence on the archaeology of Sardinia. Within university teaching, chapters of this book will very usefully complement readings on theories of change. Readers will have to mind the editing flaws and those seeking an introduction to Sardinian remains will have to supplement this text with other literature and maps.


1. Robert H. Tykot and Tamsey K. Andrews (eds.), Sardinia in the Mediterranean: A Footprint in the Sea, Studies in Sardinian Archaeology Presented to Miriam S. Balmuth (Sheffield 1992).

2. A helpful bibliography with some more recent works is available online at the website for John Cherry's Brown University class, ARCH2250 Island Archaeology in the Mediterranean (access date March 2009).

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