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30 October 2010
Neolithic necropolis under threat in Sardinia

Although rock-cut tombs are relatively common in Sardinia (Italy), the Tomba della scacchiera has an altogether unique carved and painted rock-art heritage and is now at the centre of controversy. This monument, dating to the Ozieri period (between 3000 and 1500 BCE), revealed by chance a wealth of painted and engraved art that graced its walls and ceiling. Following excavation, the tomb was sealed by Italian archaeologists and concealed from the public and researchers alike. Thanks to the unofficial photographs taken by a neighbouring landowner, last April we brought to the world's attention the importance of this site.
     Based on a recent site visit by an international team of specialists, including rock-art expert George Nash from the Dept.of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol, and conservation archaeologist Jayne Pilkington, it was clear that certain basic protocols enshrined into the Valetta Convention have been violated by Italian authorities. Furthermore, nothing had been considered for the long-term conservation of this and other nearby Neolithic burial-ritual sites, including Tomb No.3 (Tomb of the Spirals) at the Necropolis of Sa Pala Larga which was in an advanced state of deterioration.
     In addition to in-filling the entrance of the main tomb, the Italian heritage authorities have also covered most of the outside surface of the tomb area with a concrete skin, further destroying the potential external context of the site. According to officials, this act of conservation was undertaken in order to protect the tomb from looters and vandalism. However, in contradiction a report on the Sa Pala Larga group published in 1997 claimed that the project formed a wider policy of promoting cultural heritage.
     Observations made by the team at the nearby Sa Pala Larga No.3 site noted that the chambers are flooded, probably up to 0.10m deep in stagnant water. Standing water can have adverse affects on this most fragile of archaeological resources. Active water percolation, absorbed upwards through sedimentary rock will cause long-term damage. Sa Pala Larga No.3 tomb contains rare bas-relief images and engravings including a bull head with extended bas-relief horns that are carved into the ceiling. Flanking either side of this carved beast are two vertical rows of fours spirals and two symmetrical carved bands. Recorded elsewhere are traces of red ochre on the walls of the chamber. It is clear that the conservation solution applied to this and other nearby monuments has been detrimental.
     Although a report on the nearby Tomba della scacchiera has yet to be issued, the excavation was undertaken to the highest standards. However, sealing a monument with such an important artistic repertoire is unethical and restrictive. By excavating the Tomba della scacchiera site without considering its long-term future and to deny access for research and education contravenes various articles of the Valetta Convention, of which Italy is a signatory.
     The international team who recently visited the ancient necropolis expressed its concern that no rock art specialist has been invited to inspect the artistic repertoire to verify its significance and to advise upon the long-term conservation of the site. As the specialists have witnessed at the neighbouring Tomba delle Spirali, the rotting timber planks covered with a layer of fibrous membrane and then sealed with concrete is visual proof that this type of conservation has had detrimental effects on the long-term protection of this and probably other monuments within the region.
     In order to address these and other issues the experts urged Italian heritage authorities to consider the commissioning of a Conservation Management Plan (CMP), outlining monument context in relation to other monuments within the vicinity; collating all the available archaeological information about the site; addressing the conservation issues and considering its value in terms of cultural heritage tourism. The full press release, including photos, is available here.

Source: Stone Pages (30 October 2010)

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