Thursday, March 1, 2012

Megalithic Builders in Italy


Italy cannot be called a country of megalithic monuments. In the centre and north they do not occur, the supposed examples mentioned by Dennis in his Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria having been proved non-existent by the Italian Ministry of Education. It is only in the extreme south-west that megalithic structures appear. They are dolmens of ordinary type, except that in some cases the walls are formed not of upright slabs, but of stones roughly superposed one upon another. On the farm of the Grassi, near Lecce, are what appear to be two small dolmens at a distance of only 4 feet apart; they are perhaps parts of a single corridor-tomb. In the neighbourhood of Tarentum there is a dolmen-tomb approached by a short passage, and at Bisceglie, near Ruvo, there is an even finer example, the discovery of which is one of the most important events which have occurred in Italian prehistoric archæology during the last few years. The tomb is a simple rectangular corridor 36 feet in length, lying east and west. Only one cover-slab, that at the west end, remains, and the exact []disposition of the rest of the tomb is uncertain. In one of the side uprights which supports this slab is a circular hole, which, however, seems to be the work of Nature, though its presence may have led to the choice of the stone. The tomb was carefully excavated, and the remains of several skeletons were found, one of which lay in the contracted position on the right side. Three of the skulls were observed by an expert to be dolichocephalic, but their fragile condition prevented the taking of actual measurements. Burnt bones of animals, fragments of pottery, a terra-cotta bead, and a stone pendant were also found, together with flint knives and a fragment of obsidian.

These discoveries show that the heel of Italy fell under the influence which caused the spread of the megalithic monuments, whatever that influence may have been. The same influence may also have been responsible for the bronze age rock-hewn tombs of Matera in the Basilicata, each of which is surrounded by a circle of fairly large stones.

Geographical considerations would lead one to suppose that the same conditions existed in Sicily, and it is possible that this was the case. Yet it is an affirmation which must be made with great reserve. Megalithic monuments in the ordinary sense of the term are unknown in Sicily. There are, however, four tombs in the south-east [78]of the island which show some affinity to megalithic work. Two of these were found by Orsi at Monteracello. They were rectangular chambers built of squared slabs of limestone set on edge. At one end of the finer of the two was a small opening or window cut in the upright slab. This same grave contained a skeleton lying on the right side with the legs slightly contracted. These two tombs can hardly be described as dolmens; they seem to have had no cover-slabs, and the blocks, which were small, were let into the earth, scarcely appearing above the surface. Taken by themselves the Monteracello tombs would hardly prove the presence of the megalithic civilization in Sicily. However, in the valley called Cava Lazzaro there is a rock-hewn tomb where the vertical face of the rock in which the tomb is cut has been shaped into a curved façade, a very usual feature of megalithic architecture. This is ornamented on each side of the entrance of the tomb with four pilasters cut in relief in the solid rock, each pair being connected by a semicircular arch also in relief. On the pilasters is incised a pattern of circles and V-shaped signs. A somewhat similar arrangement of pilasters is seen in two rock-tombs at Cava Lavinaro in the same district. This work forcibly recalls the work of the megalithic builders in the hypogeum of Halsaflieni in Malta (see Chap. VII), and on the façades of the Giants' Tombs in Sardinia (see below). It affords, at any [79]rate, a presumption that in all three islands we have to deal with the same civilization if not the same people.

Such a presumption is not weakened by the fact that in Sicily the usual form of tomb was the rock-hewn sepulchre, which, as will be seen later, is very often a concomitant of the megalithic monument, and in many cases is proved to be the work of the same people. In the early neolithic period in Sicily, called by Orsi the Sicanian Period, rock-hewn tombs seem not to have been used. It is only at the beginning of the metal age that they begin to appear. In this period, the so-called First Siculan, the tomb-chamber was almost always circular or elliptical, entered by a small door or window in the face of the rock. The dead were often seated round the wall of the chamber, evidently engaged in a funerary feast, as is clear from the great vase set in their midst with small cups for ladling out the liquid. A single tomb often contained many bodies, especially in cases where the banquet arrangement was not observed; one chamber held more than a hundred skeletons, and it has been suggested that the bodies were only laid in the tomb after the flesh had been removed from the bones, either artificially or as the result of a temporary burial elsewhere. Such a custom is not unknown in other parts of the megalithic area. With these bodies were found large quantities of painted [80]pottery, a few implements of copper and many of flint. Among the ornaments which the dead carried—for they seem to have been buried in complete costume—were several axe-shaped pendants of polished stone, precisely similar to those of Sardinia, Malta, and France. The most important cemeteries of this period are those of Castelluccio, Melilli, and Monteracello. Near this last site was also found a round hut based on a course of orthostatic slabs of typically megalithic appearance.

In the full bronze age, called the Second Siculan Period, burial in rock-tombs still remained the rule. The tomb-form had developed considerably. The circular type was still usual, though beside it a rectangular form was fast coming into favour. The main chamber often had side-niches, and was usually preceded by a corridor which sometimes passed through an antechamber. Occasionally we find an elaborate open-air court outside the façade of the tomb, built very much after the megalithic style. Large vertical surfaces of rock were carefully sought after for tombs, and the almost inaccessible cliffs of Pantalica and Cassibile are literally honeycombed with them. Where such surfaces of rock were unobtainable a vertical shaft was sunk in the level rock and a chamber was opened off the bottom of it. The tradition of the banquet of the dead is still kept up, but the number of the skeletons in each tomb steadily ]decreases. The sitting posture is still frequent, though occasionally the body lies flat on one side with the legs slightly contracted. Flint is now rare, but objects of bronze are plentiful. The local painted pottery has almost entirely given place to simpler yet better wares with occasional Mycenean importations.

It is impossible to decide whether this Sicilian civilization ought to be included under the term megalithic. If, as seems probable, the idea of megalithic building was brought to Europe by the immigration of a new race it is possible that a branch of this race entered Sicily. In that case I should prefer to think that they came not at the beginning of the First Siculan Period as we know it, but rather earlier. Certain vases found with neolithic burials in a cave at Villafrati and elsewhere in Sicily resemble the pottery usually found in megalithic tombs; one of them is in fact a bell-shaped cup, a form typical of megalithic pottery. It is thus possible that an immigration of megalithic people into Sicily took place during the stone age, definitely later than the period of the earliest neolithic remains on the island, but earlier than that of such sites as the Castelluccio cemetery. This, however, is and will perhaps remain a mere conjecture, though it is quite possible that there are in the interior of Sicily dolmens which have not yet come to the notice of the archæologist; in this connection it is worth [while to remember that up to five years ago the existence of dolmens in both Sardinia and Malta passed unnoticed.

If the inclusion of Sicily in the megalithic area is doubtful there is fortunately no question about the island of Sardinia. Here we have one of the chief strongholds of the megalithic civilization, where the architecture displays its greatest variety and flexibility. The simplest manifestation of megalithic building, the dolmen, was up till lately thought to be absent from Sardinia, but the researches of the last few years have brought to light several examples, of which the best known are those of Birori, where the chamber is approximately circular in plan.

The monuments, however, for which Sardinia is most famous are the nuraghi. A nuraghe is a tower-like structure of truncated conical form, built of large stones laid in comparatively regular courses (Pl. II, Fig. 2). The stones are often artificially squared, and set with a clay mortar. The plan and arrangement of a simple nuraghe are usually as follows (Fig. 17): The diameter of the building is generally under 30 feet. A door of barely comfortable height even for an average man and surmounted by a single lintel-block gives access to a narrow passage cut through the thickness of the wall. In this passage are, to the right, a small niche (c) just large enough to hold


Plate II, Fig. 1. Mnaidra, Doorway of Room H


Plate II, Fig. 2. The Nuraghe of Madrone in Sardinia
To face p. 82



Fig. 17. Elevation, section and plan of anuraghe.
(PinzaMonumenti Antichi.)

]a man, and, on the left, a winding staircase in the wall (d) leading to an upper storey. The passage itself leads into the chamber (a), which is circular, often with two or three side-niches (b b), and roofed by corbelling, i.e. by making each of the upper courses of stones in its wall project inwards over the last. The upper chamber, which is rarely preserved, is similar in form to the lower.

Considerable speculation has been indulged in concerning the purpose of the nuraghi. For many years they were regarded as tombs, a view which was first combated by Nissardi at the International Congress in Rome in 1903. Further exploration since that time has placed it beyond all doubt that the nuraghi were fortified dwellings. The form of the building itself is almost conclusive. The lowness of the door would at once put an enemy at a disadvantage in attempting to enter; it is significant that in the nuraghe of Su Cadalanu, where the doorway was over 6 feet in height, its breadth was so much reduced that it was necessary to enter sideways. Arrangements were made for the closing of the entrance from inside by a heavy slab of stone, often fitted into grooves. The niche on the right of the passage clearly served to hold a man, who would command the passage itself and the staircase to the upper floor; he would, moreover, be able to attack the undefended flank of an enemy entering with his [85]shield on his left arm. To the same effort at impregnability we may safely ascribe the fact that the staircase leading to the upper room did not begin on the floor-level of the passage, but was reached through a hole high up in the wall. Many of thenuraghi are surrounded by elaborate fortifications consisting of walls, towers, and bastions, sometimes built at the same time as the dwelling itself, sometimes added later. Those of Aiga, Losa, and s'Aspru are among the most famous of this type. All the nuraghi stand in commanding situations overlooking large tracts of country, and the more important a position is from the strategical point of view the stronger will be the nuraghe which defends it. All are situated close to streams and springs of good water, and some, as for instance that of Abbameiga, are actually built over a natural spring. At Nossiu is a building which can only be described as a fortress. It consists of a rhomboidal enclosure with nuraghe-like towers at its corners and four narrow gateways in its walls. It is surrounded by the ruins of a village of stone huts. There cannot be the least doubt that in time of danger the inhabitants drove their cattle into the fortified enclosure, entered it themselves, and then closed the gates.

Each nuraghe formed the centre of a group of stone huts. Mackenzie has described such a village at Serucci, where the circular plan of the [86]huts was still visible. The walls in one case stood high enough to show, from the corbelling of their upper courses, that the huts were roofed in the same fashion as the nuraghi themselves. Another village, that which surrounds the nuraghe of Su Chiai, was protected by a wall of huge stones.

It is thus clear that the nuraghi were the fortified centres of the various villages of Sardinia. Probably each formed the residence of the local chieftain; that they were actually inhabited is clear from the remains of everyday life found in them, and from the polish which continual use has set on the side-walls of some of the staircases. In general appearance and design the nuraghi recall the modern truddhi, hundreds of which dot the surface of Apulia and help to beguile the tedium of the railway journey from Brindisi to Foggia. Thetruddhi, however, are built in steps or terraces and have no upper chamber.

Who were the foes against whom such elaborate preparations for defence were made? Two alternatives are possible. Either Sardinia was a continual prey to some piratical Mediterranean people, or she was divided against herself through the rivalry of the local chieftains.

The second explanation is perhaps the more probable. Mackenzie seems to adopt it, and fancies that in the growth of the largest nuraghi we may trace the rise to power of some of these local dynasts at the expense of their neighbours. He [87]suggests that the existence of the fortified enclosure of Nossiu, where there is no sign of a true nuraghe, may mean that there were certain communities which succeeded in maintaining their independence in the face of these powerful rulers. But here, as he himself is the first to admit, we are in the realm of pure conjecture.


Fig. 18. Giant's Tomb at Muraguada, Sardinia.
(Mackenzie, Papers of the British School of Rome, V.)

It is now established that in the Giants' Tombs of Sardinia we are to see the graves of the inhabitants of the nuraghe villages. Every Giant's Tomb lies close to such a village, and almost every village has its Giants' Tombs, one or more in number according to its size. A Giant's Tomb consists of a long rectangular chamber of upright slabs roofed by corbelled masonry (Fig. 18). [88]The slab which closes one end of the tomb is of great size, and consists of a lower rectangular half with a small hole at the base and an upper part shaped like a rounded gable. There is a raised border to the whole slab, and a similar band in relief marks out the two halves. This front slab forms the centre-piece in a curved façade of upright slabs. The chamber is covered with a coating of ashlar masonry, which is shaped into an apsidal form at the end opposite to the façade. Occasionally more than 50 feet in length, the Giants' Tombs served as graves for whole families, or even for whole villages. Mackenzie has shown that the form is derived from the simple dolmen, and has pointed out several of the intermediate stages.

The inhabitants of Sardinia in the megalithic period also buried their dead in rock-hewn sepulchres, of which there are numerous examples at Anghelu Ruju. The contents of these graves make it clear that they are the work of the same people as the Giants' Graves. Were further proof needed it could be afforded by a grave at Molafà, where a Giant's Grave with its façade and gabled slab has been faithfully imitated in the solid rock. There is a similar tomb at St. George. Two natural caves in Cape Sant' Elia on the south of the island contain burials of this same period.

The neighbouring island of Corsica also contains ]important megalithic remains. They consist of thirteen dolmens, forty-one menhirs, two alignements, and a cromlech. They fall geographically into two groups, one in the extreme north and the other in the extreme south of the island.

The stones used are chiefly granite and gneiss. The dolmens, which are of carefully chosen flat blocks showing no trace of work, are all rectangular in plan, and usually consist of four side-walls and a cover-slab. The finest of all, however, the dolmen of Fontanaccia, has seven blocks supporting the cover, one at each short end, three in one of the long sides, and two in the other. None of the dolmens are covered by mounds.

Of the alignements, that of Caouria seems to consist, in part at least, of two parallel lines of menhirs, the rest of the plan being uncertain. There are still thirty-two blocks, of which six have fallen. The other alignement, that of Rinaiou, consists of seven menhirs set in a straight line. The cromlech is circular and stands on Cape Corse.

On the small island of Pianosa, near Elba, are several rock-hewn tombs of the æneolithic period which ought perhaps to be classed with the megalithic monuments of Sardinia and Corsica.