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21 April 2010
The sealed wonders of Sardinia

Sardinia is an Italian island known mainly among archaeologists for its nuraghes - ancient towers somewhat reminiscent of Scottish brochs, but far more numerous and quite elaborate. On the island you will find a great number of other ancient wonders: from the so-called 'giants tombs' to the rock-cut tombs locally known as 'domus de janas' (houses of the fairies) .
     So, Sardinia is truly an amazing place for everyone interested in ancient monuments. But some of the most striking examples may lie hidden for centuries after being discovered and then excavated by the archaeologists. During a recent archaeological tour of the island, we stopped for the night at Sas Abbilas farm house, located in a secluded little valley near Bonorva (Sassari), not too far from the well-known prehistoric necropolis of Sant'Andrea Priu. Mr Antonello Porcu, the farm house owner, showed us a series of striking images he had taken with his camera last year, showing 70cm wide red ochre spirals painted on the walls of a side cell of a prehistoric tomb that had been excavated in 2009. Then he told us the story of the 'tomba della scacchiera' - the chequered tomb.
     His land lies next to a place called Tenuta Mariani, where a prehistoric necropolis was discovered in 2002. By 2007, the Bonorva municipality received funding to make a survey of the archaeological sites in that area. The local cooperative society who was commissioned to perform that survey worked on the site together with the archaeologist Francesco Sartor, appointed by the Soprintendenza archeologica for Nuoro and Sassari (the local branch of the Italian Ministry for Heritage). After the first phase of survey, a further survey and excavation campaign began the following year, with Mr Sartor once again in charge. A few weeks after the start of the search, the archaeologist then said he had yet to find anything, but Mr Porcu had noticed for several consecutive days, that the excavators coming down the hill were covered by rock powder. He then asked them in Sardinian (a language very different from Italian): "Did the sow give birth to the piglets?" The excavators answered (always in Sardinian): "Yes, and you should see how many and how beautiful they are!" That was the proof that something amazing had been found up the hills in the Tenuta Mariani.
     Mr Porcu and his brother couldn't resist and a few days later they went there and discovered, under a groundsheet placed there by the excavators, an entrance passage with a rock-cut façade leading into a huge tomb with three side cells. That tomb is decorated with bright red ochre drawings, with huge bull heads carved on the long side of the main chamber, and with the 1.70m tall roof carved as it was made of wood planks, painted in dark blue and white. But the most striking visual element of the tomb is the series of great red spirals painted on a side cell: a total of seven spirals, many of them interconnected one to each other. The quality of that ancient painting is breathtaking, and on the roof of a side vault there is also a geometric figure very rarely found in a Sardinian tomb: a black and white chequered motif - something probably unique on a site apparently dating back to late Neolithic and related to the so-called Ozieri culture (from 3800 BCE to 2900 BCE).
     After that visit, Mr Porcu went to the mayor of Bonorva and informed him about the striking discovery made in his territory. The mayor, quite astonished, said he didn't know about the tomb at all, as he never recieved any news about it from the archaeologist who was excavating it, or from official representatives of the Soprintendenza.
     The conclusion of this story is that after about 4 months of excavations, the Soprintendenza decided to put a massive block of rock in front of the only entrance of the tomb, filling everything with concrete and covering the whole area with a thick layer of soil, sealing the tomb once again and maybe forever. All this was done 'to protect the tomb against looters'. So the tomb and its amazing paintings disappeared once again. A fate shared also by other tombs in the same area, like the one called 'Sa Pala Larga' where an impressive bull head is carved above a series of spirals that form a sort of 'tree of life'.
     Mimmino Deriu, mayor of Bonorva said in an interview with us that "In spite of the chronic lack of funding, I strongly believe in the huge importance of the archaeological heritage of the Tenuta Mariani area. I'm working to further improve it, thanks to the re-opening of the local archaeological Museum located on a former monastery and through the recent agreement with the Forestry Service so to preserve and enhance - also with touristic aims - the Tenuta Mariani, where the sealed necropolis lies".
     We have also called Mrs Luisanna Usai, archaeologist of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici for Sassari and Nuoro provinces and in charge of the Bonorva area. We wanted to know if there is any project to remove the seal to the tomb and to open it to the public, along with the other sites of the necropolis. The archaeologists expressed her point of view quite clearly: "I don't want to spread any word about it. The main aim of the Soprintendenza is to protect those sites; the paintings are faint, so the tomb will remain sealed." She concluded saying: "We are the ones who decide which are the best channels to inform people about this kind of discoveries."
     Now, provided that we agree on the absolute necessity to preserve the tomb from looters, it looks that its sealing may have a sense only as a short-term perspective. That is also because local witnesses claim that other sealed tombs in the same area - among them, Sa Pala Larga already mentioned - are suffering by heavy water seepage that is ruining the paintings. So, in this case, the cure seems worse than the disease.
     While acknowledging our deep respect of the Soprintendenza and its archaeologists - including Luisanna Usai who we know to be a commendable and skilled functionry - we disagree strongly with the applied methods and with this 'closure' attitude. Our heritage is a national treasure and must be shared: protection is one thing, but hiding an ancient site indefinitely - even if motivated by preservation principles - is something else.
     We wonder just how many remarkable monuments have been found, studied and sealed once again over the years by the archaeologists in Sardinia with only a few authorized persons aware of them. It is now our decision that in order to raise the awareness about the special tomb described here (also known to the archaeologists as tomb no.7 of the Sa Pala Larga area), we would urge for letters and messages to be sent directly to the Soprintendente Archeologico for Sassari and Nuoro (Dott. Bruno Massabò - Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici per le province di Sassari e Nuoro, Piazza Sant'Agostino, 2 - 07100 Sassari, Italia; tel. +39 079 2067402, e-mail address bmassabo@arti.beniculturali.it This could convince the Soprintendenza to do its best to open the Tomba della scacchiera to the public and so share its amazing beauty with the rest of the world. Until then, we would like to share with you this wonderful site publishing in our website Mr Porcu's images of the tomb - viewable at www.stonepages.com/scacchiera

Source: Stone Pages (21 April 2010)

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