Sardinian History – The Stone and the Bronze Age
After my last two articles, “My Grazia Deledda” and “D. H. Lawrence and Grazia Deledda”, I received dozens of emails and requests. The thoughts I expressed were clear and with a strict consequentiality: Grazia Deledda’s work is about Sardinian identity, both the best and the worst of what we could save after 200 years of greedy and merciless colonialism carried out by the Piedmontese; if we want to understand Grazia Deledda’s greatness we have to retrace Sardinian history, scientifically erased by the colonialists; without that, our comprehension of our Nobel Prize winner’s world would be extremely limited.
The awareness of the effects of colonialism (Oxford Dictionary: “The policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically”) collided with the general exaltation over the unity of Italy. This process followed the usual iconography and an incontrovertible, yet false scenario (a movement of people, wanted and dreamed of by the entire population of Italy).
Then, the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century erased local traditions and cultures, which simply could not to exist on the altar of a superior system.
For these reasons, today Sardinian history has to be rewritten.
And speaking about literature, after reading recent reviews, one can say that Grazia Deledda’s work was never anchored to Sardinian or, especially, to Barbagia’s history. The syllogism is perfect: if Sardinian history doesn’t exist, colonialism doesn’t exist either, and we can jump easily from the remote past to the second half of the 19th century and the unity of Italy in 1861, forgetting relevant centuries that are the humus of our present identity.
In this bogus picture, Grazia Deledda is an Italian writer who was born in the primitive Sardinia, in a forgotten town called Nuoro. She described the barbarian population with passion, but, you know, she was already far from that island, from a land that owned the characters only of a remote, very remote past. And so we can compare this writer with other Italian writers, as if they had the same roots.
This is a completely false framework. Sardinia had its own origins and its own historical path, different from other parts of Italy. And “Italy” never existed in history – be careful: it is only a geographical concept foisted on us to justify wars that led to annexes.
Sardinian history has to be rewritten, as I said, and I’ll try to do it in a short journalistic way, emphasising the important facts and passages: please be patient with me and my comments.
So, before reading Grazia Deledda’s novels and accounts (she was born in 1871 in the town of Nuoro, in Barbagia, Sardinia, Italy; won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926, and died in 1937), we have to know the milestones of Sardinian history and what Sardinia was at the end of the nineteenth century. And we have to focus on the most secluded and wild part of Sardinia, Barbagia, which was an island within a larger island (it is a cliché, I know, but this time completely correct) or rather, the real heart of this ancient and mysterious land.
Like a human heart, Barbagia is set slightly on the left of the body of Sardinia, closer to the northern part than the southern. Corresponding to the bay of Orosei, the big round bay we can see on the eastern coast, but without any contact with the sea—Barbagia is a landlocked region, mountainous and impervious, hidden and rough.
We have to start our journey from the Bronze Age maybe before. But a preliminary word of warning: please don’t take for granted the information you can pick up surfing online here and there. When I was young I was told that the Sardinians and their primitive constructions dated back to 3—4,000 years BC, just after the Stone Age. Then, with some things difficult to explain, especially particularly sophisticated technics, the experts checked more closely and the consensus was to shift the existence of this population to about 1,800 BC. For the best constructions, like the Holy Pit of Santa Cristina, quite incredible for its architecture and precision, you can read that they dated back to about 1,100 BC or – it is the last comment online – “though initially assigned to the 8th—6th centuries BC, due to their developed buildings techniques, they most likely date to the earlier Bronze Age, so about the 2nd century BC”. Using the same approach, we could say that the Egyptian pyramids were built during centuries AD because some features of their technology don’t fit with their alleged age.
Believe me, the truth is that the origins, age, names and the technologies too of the ancient Sardinians are completely uncertain, and the info you can discover are only products of different hypotheses and assumptions – and one of the best sports among the scholars was, I remember, to dispute certain specific fashionable topics (is the Nuraghe a temple, or a military bastion?).
The only certainty is that a strange population, as much technologically able as they were completely silent and secret, inhabited Sardinia in some remote past, thousands of years ago. They erected more than seven thousand Nuraghi, large cone-shaped stone structures (7,000 of them still existing today, so all likelihood their number was larger); some incredibly high for those times, with internal stone stairs, double walls with cavities, rooms and niches, and a few underground, like pits. They also built villages made up of dozens of Nuraghi, elegantly set around the largest. The huge number of constructions is quite incredible given the population who inhabited Sardinia in that period lived, in the wild, in small groups—usually fewer than 150 people, the experts confirm. But the Sardinian population was able to follow a unique model of construction, a unique unmistakeable design, spreading thousand of Nuraghi along a north—south ridge and creating a sort of backbone of the island.
Another surprising discovery is that there are no Nuraghi outside Sardinia—not even in Corsica, the island to the north, so close to Sardinia but obviously with different roots.
Nuraghi were born in Sardinia and still represent this unrevealed land.
Despite repeated debates and learned works, there are many unresolved questions, as you can imagine. The main disputes concern the leadership and governance of that population over the centuries (a kind of federation among thousand of groups, with a dominant, overhead vision and concept? A religious power?); how many centuries it took to build thousands of buildings, with a very limited populace, without crowds of slaves; the forms of communication (how did they share technical information, for example?) and the language; the agreements among the groups, i.e. for common defence; etc.
Moreover, the extraordinary quality and precision of the design and assembly, as well as the inexplicable solution of complex technical problems (how in those time to lift an eight-ton beam to its right position, ten metres above the ground?), all unveil a rare, strong and structured civilization. Not least, they revealed a population that wanted to stay in Sardinia and defend its land, without conducting invasions against other countries or promoting trade, and characterized by “a lack of belonging to any other part of the word, … not absorbed into the world” (D. H. Lawrence).
Strange people indeed, maybe brought by the wind that bends the oaks and accelerates in the gorges, swirling inside Sas Domus de Janas, ‘the houses of the small fairies’, black holes opened in the granite walls of the island like the eyes of hell.
Actually, fairies’ houses could be found everywhere in Sardinia, and always have the same appearance. The holes are two or three metres above ground level, just to keep out wild animals and enemies. Nobody understands how such a primitive people of the Stone Age could dig the granite rocks, but inside you can find one, two or sometimes three small rooms: another mysterious technology that is impossible to set correctly in the past. The fairies, my grandmother used to tell me, are small and beautiful. They weave a thin veil on golden looms and use it to cover the countryside when a wayfarer gets too near them, to blur his mind. This explanation is as valid as any of the others, more or less scientific.
There were no inscriptions, either in the Domus de Janas or Nuraghi. In fact, unlike any other population of the Mediterranean basin, the ancient Sardinians didn’t leave inscriptions: their culture was only and stubbornly oral. And so you can understand why it is difficult to situate and retrace their history.
A complicated, disdainful and mysterious populace, as I said, which left a sort of imprint on the next generations of the island: a severe and fierce behaviour, hard like a stone; a will to be alone, isolated from the rest of the world, following its own rules and respecting a form of tacit federation among sovereign groups or villages; an oral communication, and a rigid code of silence; the cult of tradition, family and honour.
Well, if you are now approaching Grazia Deledda’s work, you must grasp this magic first: there is a powerful link between the ancient and the modern inhabitants of Sardinia. The thread hasn’t been broken: it is true. But other terrible events contributed to the creation, consolidation and then fall of a civilization throughout history.