Landscapes of Mont’e Prama

By Peter van Dommelen, Director, Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University (Providence, R.I.); Alfonso Stiglitz, Former Director, Municipal Archaeological Museum, San Vero Milis (Sardinia)

Map of the northern Gulf of Oristano

Society and landscape

To speak of the “landscapes” of Mont’e Prama is to speak in a broad sense that goes well beyond the actual physical landscapes and settlements of the Sinis peninsula and of west-central Sardinia—for the site and the statues of Mont’e Prama were an integral part of Iron Age Nuragic society in its later stages. The Sinis peninsula and the vast plain there, the Campidano di Milis, represent key contexts for understanding the site of Mont’e Prama, particularly the monumental site of S’Urachi nearby, and its nuraghe (the famous stone towers of Sardinia). The evidence from S’Urachi consistently matches that of Mont’e Prama, despite the obvious differences because S’Urachi was a habitation site and Mont’e Prama was a burial ground. In structural terms, however, the two sites may indeed be regarded as complementary.

The map shows part of Sardinia’s western coast, including the northern Gulf of Oristano, the Sinis peninsula, and the Campidano di Milis plain (with the location of Mont’e Prama and the S’Urachi nuraghe).

The S’Urachi site

While none of the individuals buried at Mont’e Prama can be directly related to the S’Urachi nuraghe with any certainty, the longer-term history and the characteristics of the site suggest that the deceased from Mont’e Prama came from the S’Urachi community and were most closely associated with it.

S’Urachi is a large nuraghe, situated in the Campidano di Milis plain, made up of multiple towers and surrounded by a massive, well-preserved external defensive wall reinforced by ten towers.

Nuragic stonemasons crafted the Mont’e Prama statues and, later, constructed the stone embankments of the defensive ditch at S’Urachi.

Aerial view of the S’Urachi nuraghe in the Campidano di Milis plain. The oldest spaces and walls (marked "D" and "E" here) date to the seventh century BCE.

Aerial view of S’Urachi nuraghe
Bronze torch-holder

Prestigious foreign goods

The community at S’Urachi likely enjoyed prestige and overseas connections, as is indicated by this bronze torch-holder (thymiaterion) found at or near the site. The piece originated in the eastern Mediterranean, likely in Cyprus, and is an example of the rare, high-end items found throughout the ancient Near East and Mediterranean from the tenth through the seventh centuries BCE—exclusively in elite contexts such as royal palaces and “princely tombs.” This torch-holder is a strong reminder that S’Urachi was already in the early Iron Age a well-connected place—precisely the kind of place from which the people buried at Mont’e Prama would have hailed.

Miniature nuraghe

Miniature nuraghi

At Mont’e Prama, in addition to the life-size human statues, there are at least sixteen stone sculptures of nuraghi, some of which stand half a meter tall. These are evidently far from life-size. They are made from the same soft sandstone as the statues, which is local to the Sinis peninsula. 

Nuraghe “models” or miniatures are a well-established category of Nuragic material culture that is found throughout Sardinia and represents a key characteristic of the Iron Age. Such miniature nuraghi have primarily been recorded at sites such as the large sanctuaries and “meeting huts.” During this process, new habitable nuraghi were no longer being built, and social and political life shifted to villages—at least in the largest nuraghe complexes associated with elites.

The importance of nuraghi was thus transferred to the miniature models, which functioned to symbolically bestow power and prestige on the new centers of political life.

This miniature nuraghe, with its representation of a person and an animal, comes from the site called Serra is Araus.