Unique Ancient History in the National Archaeology Museum of Cagliari

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National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari, Cagliari, Sardinia

When planning my trip to Cagliari, the first thing I knew I really needed to do was visit the Archaeology Museum.  It would have been necessary anyway, but what made it sound particularly interesting was the fact that the museum had objects from an ancient native Sardinian culture.  But I was wrong.  It wasn’t interesting – it was awesome.

National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy

The museum was actually founded in 1800 when an Archaeology and Natural History collection was assembled in a room of the Viceroy’s Palace.  It was to be a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ with a real mix of antiquities, minerals and animals.  Two years later, the collection was opened to the public but passed into the hands of the Royal University of Cagliari in 1805.

Over the years the collection grew with donations and through archaeological digs, and it changed homes a number of times over the next century and a half.  In 1993 it moved to its current location in the Museum Citadel complex.

Now, the museum was in a peculiar state: there are four floors of exhibition space, but the first and second floors were being redone and therefore there were lots of enigmatic empty cases to walk past.  To be frank, the displays were poorly done.  However, what they are clearly working towards is the standard of the exhibition on the ground floor, so I’m certain that when they’re finished they will be amazing.

As it was, the highlight of the museum was the ground floor.  This gives a great overview of the history and archaeology of Sardinia.  The idea is that the subsequent floors then look at specific areas.  Anyway, as it stands you get to view life from the Early Neolithic period to the early Middle Ages, and see some pretty amazing things…

My absolute favourite objects in the museum, though, were the bronze so-called Nuragic figures.  These are the most fascinating remnants of the Nuragic culture which existed on Sardinia from the 1800s BC to at least the time of Roman colonisation of the island in 238BC.  Like many of their contemporaries, they left no written records, except for a few epigraphic inscriptions towards the end of their culture.

The culture is named after the most characteristic structure that they left on the Sardinian landscape – the nuraghe, which was a tower-fortress with an inner chamber.  They were so widespread that there are still over 7000 of these nuraghes on the island.  Ancient Greek authors were puzzled by the structures and the people who built them, and modern historians are no less puzzled.  The structures have been speculatively identified as tombs, furnaces – perhaps they had religious or astronomical roles.  Modern ideas tend towards the idea of their being defensible homes that could store goods.

The most charming aspect of the culture comes from the Sardinian land.  The island is rich in copper and lead, and these ancient Sardinians became skilled in producing alloys and making metal objects which they then exported across the Mediterranean.  They were experts in bronze, and along with weapons and household objects they made some adorable – and some pretty amazing – statuettes.  Because the dating was pretty unclear for many of these, and indeed the dating of the statuettes is up for scholarly discussion anyway, I’m just dating these as ‘Nuragic era’.

Now, for me, this figure below was a masterpiece which deserves to be as well known as any other statuette from the ancient world.  From every angle it expressed a different mood, and its striking features took on different aspects according to the way the light hit it.  Really, it’s such a remarkable piece, I became slightly obsessed with it, so here are three pictures.

The next highlight was the chieftain who, for some reason, was constantly rotating.  I liked it from all angles.  If Nick Parks had lived in the Nuragic period, I think he would have created this fellow instead of Wallace and Gromit.

Continuing on the first/ground floor, is a neat little exhibition room which is designed to give you an overview of the main periods of Sardinian history from the Nuragic to the Medieval world.  There is a certain amount of overlap with some of what was covered in the previous gallery, and there is more overlap from here to upstairs.  However, as I said in my opening post, they are doing major renovations, so just go with the flow.

Although my pictures don’t do it justice, another great figure was the ‘Mother of the Killed Man’.  It was like a Pieta, and the more you looked at it, the more moving it became.  It’s not often you can say that for objects created in this period and again it deserves to be well known.

In around 900 BC,  Phoenicians began visiting Sardinia as traders.  In the 500s BC the Carthaginians launched campaigns against the coastal cities of the island and eventually conquered the region of Iglesiente, which is still famed for its mines, and areas along the southern coast and plains.  When the Carthaginians themselves were defeated by the Romans in 238 BC, Sardinia and Corsica became a Roman province.

There were quite a few statuettes from the Sanctuary of Bes.   Excavations in the 1950s revealed that the cult of Bes, an Egyptian god of healing, was popular in Sardinia during the Roman period.  They found many terracotta figures gesturing towards the part of the body that they prayed would be healed.  Although I have seen this sort of thing before, I haven’t seen such moving statuettes – the faces are often contorted in pain and they are rendered with real power.

The Giants of Mont’e Prama are a group of 32/40 statues that were discovered in 1974 near Cabras in Oristano. They depict warriors, archers, wrestlers, models of nuraghe and boxers and may represent mythological heroes, or deities.  They have been speculatively dated to between the 11th and 8th centuries BC, which would make them the oldest anthropomorphic sculptures of the Mediterranean after the Egyptian statues.  They have fantastic eyes, and the boxer below looks like a cartoon of a man being hypnotised.  And he has a cute little smile and nostrils.

There are some more statues from Mont’e Prama upstairs, which will be covered further down…

This part of my post will basically cobble together the objects from the top three floors.  The display cases look at specific sites, which could be very interesting.  However, the galleries were being re-done when I visited, so it made for quite a depressing journey, past empty cases and with badly labelled objects.   Knowing that this feeling of being unloved is temporary makes it easier to accept, but on the other hand it’s a shame for me, because I don’t know if or when I might return to see it as it should be.

Anyway, the items go backwards and forwards in time, and I’ve left the order as I saw it.  It makes no sense, but neither did the displays, so go with it.  They had some remarkable works on display, including a few really great Roman busts.

So now we go back to statues Mont’e Prama.  These are large and striking but also sadly often incomplete.  It was interesting having a small bronze statuette by the statues to demonstrate the way the representations worked on the larger scale.

Outside the main entrance are a few sarcophagi and if you go round to the right of the entrance, you’ll see a little courtyard.  There were some interesting things there, but I had only the quickest look because a bunch of bees kept attacking me.

So In Summary

This museum was truly educational for me, and I came away admiring and loving the Nuragic figures.  The only problem was the fact that huge swathes of the museum were being done up and presumably rearranged, and it’s annoying walking past a run of empty glass display cases.  Still, that will soon change.  I’m taking it for granted that the whole museum will eventually be like the ground floor, and that will be great, because this island deserves a museum which really shows off its unique and fascinating heritage.

Further Information

There is a fee to enter the museum, and disappointingly, you can’t get a ticket to cover all the museums in the so-called Citadel, but you can get a joint one for here and the Art Gallery.

The museum has a website, with a section in English, but it’s sort of limited: www.museoarcheocagliari.beniculturali.it

There was also a good, but small, gift shop with a fine range of books in English on Sardinian history.

How To Get There

The museum is on the Citadel of Museums.  It’s easy to walk there from the old centre of Cagliari, but it is on a steep hill, so you may need a bus.  The transport website for Cagliari is not very user-friendly for the non-Italian speaker.  So, here’s the city’s official transport website: www.ctmcagliari.it – with some English information on Cagliari buses generally.  Here is a pdf of the bus map.  Now you’ve worked out what route you want to take, pop over here for a list of the bus numbers, so you can see the schedule of your bus. Yes, it’s that simple.

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