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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access February 20, 2023

The State of the Debate: Nuragic Metal Trade in the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age

  • Valentina Matta EMAIL logo and Helle Vandkilde
From the journal Open Archaeology

Abstract

This study examines the role of the Nuragic metal trade in the Mediterranean setting, seeking to advance the debate on this subject. Published metal-related data are considered alongside current interpretations. Although Sardinia is geologically rich in metals, including copper and lead (silver), scholars have nonetheless disagreed about the role of these metals in shaping the political economy of Nuragic Sardinia and its interaction with the outside world (c. 1350–720 BC). Traditionally the island has been seen as passively relying on the agency of foreign merchants from the eastern Mediterranean region. Lately, however, a divergent view has credited Sardinia with a more active and autonomous role in the Mediterranean marketplace. This study provides an analytical review of the complexity of such opinions, alongside isotope-derived and other archaeometallurgical evidence. As a scaffold for future inquiries, key features based on theoretical and historical perspectives are pulled together to form an exploratory model of Sardinia’s changing geopolitical position in the interlinked world of the Mediterranean between the Bronze and Iron Ages. The time around 1200 BC is identified as a major historical threshold.

1 Introduction

This study seeks to advance the debate over the role of Nuragic Sardinia in dealing with the circulation of metals (in the form of trade or exchange) and with its maritime neighbours during the Late Bronze–Early Iron Age world (Figure 1). Past research has identified metal trade connections both through exogenous objects and materials on Sardinia and through discovery of Nuragic artefacts elsewhere (e.g., Ferrarese Ceruti, 1987; Lo Schiavo, 2018a; Lo Schiavo & Campus, 2013; Taramelli, 1921; Usai & Lo Schiavo, 2009; Watrous, Day, & Jones, 1998; Figure 2). Sardinia’s connections with a wider world have deep roots (see below). Its association with the metal trade, however, flourished in the time of the Nuragic culture in the Recent Bronze Age (RBA; 1350–1200 BC), then evolved over the succeeding periods of the Final Bronze Age (FBA; 1200–950 BC) and the Early Iron Age (EIA; 950–700 BC), with Sardinian contacts likely extending over the entire Mediterranean region. It seems, however, that both preferences and possibilities for trading routes and partnerships shifted over time in alignment with major historical transformations, especially after the 1200 BC watershed. Ongoing discussions interpret the role of the island’s communities in the metal trade system either as autonomous or as dependent on Aegean (e.g., Mycenaean) and Levantine (e.g., Cypriots, Philistine, Phoenicians) trading (e.g., Bernardini & Rendeli, 2015; Botto, 2015; D’Oriano, 2012; Fundoni, 2013; Lilliu, 1989; Lo Schiavo & Campus, 2013).

Figure 1 
               Sardinia’s geographical position invites seaborne connections with other Mediterranean regions and even the Atlantic region. The island’s large size and central position in the western Mediterranean Sea is favorable, c. 700 km beeline from Gibraltar as the access point to northern tracts. Eastern cargo ships, by comparison, had to pass Sicily before arriving at Sardinia, c. 1,200 km beeline from Cyprus (map V. Matta).
Figure 1

Sardinia’s geographical position invites seaborne connections with other Mediterranean regions and even the Atlantic region. The island’s large size and central position in the western Mediterranean Sea is favorable, c. 700 km beeline from Gibraltar as the access point to northern tracts. Eastern cargo ships, by comparison, had to pass Sicily before arriving at Sardinia, c. 1,200 km beeline from Cyprus (map V. Matta).

Figure 2 
               Nuragic trade and networks: first discoveries. The image shows the location of some of the sites mentioned in the text. List: 1. Monte Sa Idda; 2. Monte Arrubiu; 3. Nuraghe Antigori; 4. Lipari; 5. Cannatello; 6. Kommos; 7. Chania; 8. Cadiz; 9. Huelva; 10. Pyla Kokkinokremos; 11. Uluburun. Map (V. Matta).
Figure 2

Nuragic trade and networks: first discoveries. The image shows the location of some of the sites mentioned in the text. List: 1. Monte Sa Idda; 2. Monte Arrubiu; 3. Nuraghe Antigori; 4. Lipari; 5. Cannatello; 6. Kommos; 7. Chania; 8. Cadiz; 9. Huelva; 10. Pyla Kokkinokremos; 11. Uluburun. Map (V. Matta).

Given that Sardinia is naturally rich in metals, the key questions are what kind of role the island should be ascribed in the broader bronze-driven network and how these interconnections may have been configured against the backdrop of mobility infrastructures and geopolitics within and beyond the island. Discussion centers on three problem areas: first, the Sardinian use of its own metals to meet local demands; second, the parallel Sardinian importation and local use of Cypriot and other exogenous metal resources, particularly copper and tin; and third, the possible Sardinian export of its rich metal resources to the outside world, both near and far, especially regarding copper and silver.

Section 2 presents up-to-date interpretations by several key researchers who have sought to clarify Sardinia’s contribution to the Bronze Age (BA) metal trade. Section 3 discusses the benefits and limitations of lead isotope analysis (LIA), assessing the potential of current results to shed light on the relations between indigenous and exogenous metal use on Sardinia, as well as the question of whether, and to where, the island might have exported its metal. This section considers a number of sites, finds, and results that may help to clarify the involvement of Nuragic communities in the external metal trade of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages. In Section 4, a theoretically informed discussion is presented, highlighting selected approaches to considering Sardinia’s place in the wider world of the time. We conclude by proposing an exploratory model that considers how Nuragic Sardinia may have engaged with the world both near and far, with a view to the overall rhythms of time and historical change: a consideration that involves assessing aspects of the Nuragic political economy.

A note regarding the use of the terms “Bronze Age” and “Europe”. For the practical purposes of this study, “Europe” is simply intended as a geographical description. The region we study extends from Scandinavia down to the Mediterranean Sea toward Cyprus, Crete, and the area recognized as Phoenicia. Although the BA extends roughly from 2500 BC to 800 BC, this study specifically addresses the time frame 1300–700 BC, corresponding to increasing contact and metal trade in the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age (LBA/EIA). Nuragic chronology may be divided into four main periods with these very approximate absolute ranges (Depalmas, 2009a,b,c): the Middle Bronze Age (MBA: 1775/1750–1350 BC), two subdivisions of the LBA, into RBA (1350–1200/1150 BC) and FBA (1200–950 BC), and the EIA (950–720 BC).

2 Current Nuragic Archaeology – Metals and Trade

2.1 The Metals

The Nuragic culture boasts of an astonishing metal production throughout the BA. This production has been investigated since the nineteenth century (e.g., Spano, 1876; Taramelli, 1921) – yet Sardinia has the sparsest archaeological evidence of prehistoric mining and primary smelting processes in Europe. The explanation for this near absence may be that significant exploitation of the island’s mineral resources in the modern period obliterated all trace of previous mining activities. Iron, silver, and lead have been extracted since Punic and Roman times, and zinc minerals from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries until now (Cauli, 1996).

According to Lo Schiavo (2014, p. 93), despite the significant presence of ingots, metal-sheets, and scraps in Sardinia, there is no association of these remains with general indicators of primary smelting workshops, such as crucibles, tuyeres, or charcoals. There is a little more evidence attesting the presence of “secondary workshops,” metallurgical workshops in which the product was made, refined, or fixed (Lo Schiavo, 2014, p. 94). Traces of what may have been metal workshops have been discovered in Santu Antiogu-Villanovaforru, nuraghe Santa Barbara-Bauladu, the Nuragic sanctuary of S’Arcu is Forros-Villagrande Strisaili, and the Nuragic village Brunku’e S’Omu-Villa Verde (Lo Schiavo, Giumlia-Mair, Sanna, & Valera, 2005a, pp. 219–220; Serra, Cannas, Montisci, Paglietti, & Cicilloni, 2016).

The large number of stone-moulds, hammers, tongs, and other tools at these sites constitutes evidence of the most common techniques used in the workshops: the casting in moulds, the lost-wax technique, and the laminated bronzes (for synthesis cf. Lo Schiavo, 2014). Some Sardinian scholars tend to assume that some of these techniques – the lost-wax technique, for instance – were introduced by Cypriot craftsmen in Sardinia (Lo Schiavo, 2013; Lo Schiavo, Macnamara, & Vagnetti, 1985). However, both Russell and Knapp (2017, p. 23), and later Depalmas, Bulla, and Fundoni (2017) have argued that there is no archaeological evidence for this, and they consider the possibility that Nuragians were inspired by Cypriot’s typological and technological production; however, the authors admit that there is no physical presence of Cypriot artisans or evidence of Cypriot tutelage on the island (Depalmas et al., 2017, p. 67).

Figure 3 shows the location of the Sardinian mineral resources (lead, copper, and tin) that may have been exploited during the Bronze and Iron Ages (Pinarelli, 2004; Valera, Valera, & Rivoldini, 2005a). The highest concentration of copper and lead-silver deposits lie in the so-called metalliferous ring in the southwest of the island and the Sarrabus in the southeast; however, significant deposits were also located in the northwest (Calabona and Argentiera), as well as at Funtana Raminosa in the central region of Sardinia. Sardinia has a few cassiterite mineral outcrops at Perdu Cara and Canale Serci in the area of Vallermosa–Fluminimaggiore (southwest Sardinia, Valera et al., 2005a, p. 95; Valera, Valera, & Mazzella, 2005b), but because near-surface tin minerals are so scarce, Sardinian archaeologists have deemed it unlikely that Nuragians used Sardinian tin (Valera et al., 2005b). On Sardinia, tin ingots have been located in the Nuragic sanctuary of Abini-Teti, in the hoard of Forraxi Nioi-Nuragus, and in the “foundry” of La Maddalena-Silanus/Lei; and a few years ago, more tin ingots were discovered in the Nuragic sanctuary of S’Arcu is Forros-Villagrande Strisaili (Fadda, 2003; Lo Schiavo, 2003). In all these contexts, tin ingots were found in association with copper, lead, and iron bars. This combination led Lo Schiavo (2003) to the interpretation that melting and alloying operations could have taken place at these sites even though no trace of furnaces has so far been discovered (Lo Schiavo, 2003). LIA demonstrates mostly the use of local mineral resources, particularly from the southwest of Sardinia. Until now, however, there is still not enough data to support the hypothesis of extraction from superficial deposits (Figure 3) (Lugliè & Lo Schiavo, 2009).

Figure 3 
                  Sardinian mineral deposits possibly exploited during the Bronze and Iron Ages. The majority of the copper (Cu) and lead-silver (Pb, Ag) ores are located in the southwest of the island, in the so-called “metalliferous ring” (Iglesiente, Sulcis, Arburese, Fluminese). Important copper and lead-silver deposits were also located in the northwest (Argentiera and Calabona ores) and in the center of the island (Funtana Raminosa and Barbagia). Data source: Valera et al., 2005a, map: V. Matta ©.
Figure 3

Sardinian mineral deposits possibly exploited during the Bronze and Iron Ages. The majority of the copper (Cu) and lead-silver (Pb, Ag) ores are located in the southwest of the island, in the so-called “metalliferous ring” (Iglesiente, Sulcis, Arburese, Fluminese). Important copper and lead-silver deposits were also located in the northwest (Argentiera and Calabona ores) and in the center of the island (Funtana Raminosa and Barbagia). Data source: Valera et al., 2005a, map: V. Matta ©.

2.2 Metal Trade

The history of contact between Sardinia and other regions does not begin with the BA. Human migration to the island began very early. There is clear evidence of inter-island connectivity in the Neolithic period, with the circulation of obsidian as a raw material (Broodbank, 2013, pp. 229–233; Lugliè, 2016; Tykot, 1996). Later, in the Eneolithic, the spread and adoption of Bell Beaker material culture attests to Sardinian connections, in particular with the western Mediterranean and western Europe (Usai & Lo Schiavo, 2009). Not least in the Early Bronze Age (EBA), exogenous input is visible in Sardinian metal production, for instance in derivatives of Iberian-Argaric long daggers (e.g., Usai & Lo Schiavo, 2009). Such local translations and cultural integration of external elements are not necessarily linked to the agency of professional foreign or Sardinian traders but should rather be seen as the outcome of a commonplace – the presence of interlinked networks in operation in the central and western Mediterranean (e.g., Lo Schiavo, 2014). Thus, the metal trade at this early stage is hardly linked to routine mercantile enterprises.

The role played by Nuragic communities in the BA metal trade is part of an ongoing debate. One prevalent stance includes scholars who ascribe Sardinia an active role mainly in the FBA/EIA in trade with Tyrrhenian and Iberian regions, but only through the initiative of the Cypriots and the Phoenicians (e.g., Bernardini & Rendeli, 2015, p. 142; Depalmas & Fundoni, 2015, pp. 157–158; D’Oriano, 2015, p. 153; Lilliu, 1988). A second stance now gaining ground argues that Nuragic representatives began maritime enterprises very early, culminating at the end of the RBA, when close contact was first established with Sicily and the Aegean region (Crete and Cyprus) (e.g., Campus & Leonelli, 2012, p. 152; Gradoli et al., 2020, p. 13; Lo Schiavo, 2013). A third view, by contrast, questions both of the above interpretations. Russell and Knapp (2017), for example, argue that archaeologists should avoid coupling “traded artefacts” with “trading agents.” They do, however, concede that Nuragic polities may have been involved in the Mediterranean metal trade and maritime enterprises jointly with other communities (Knapp, Russel, & van Dommelen, 2021, p. 15; Russell & Knapp, 2017, p. 22). Kassianidou has hypothesized that Sardinian mineral resources may have been exported, but often with insufficient scientific data support (e.g., Kassianidou, 2001, 2005, 2006). The most recent discoveries have now brought into the debate the possibility that Nuragic communities were involved in the long-distance metal trade (Ben-Yosef, 2019; Eshel, Erel, Yahalom-Mack, Tirosh, & Gilboa, 2019; Ling et al., 2014; Montero-Ruiz, 2017; Radivojević et al., 2019; Sabatini & Lo Schiavo, 2020). For example, Sabatini and Lo Schiavo (2020) have reassessed the maritime-based role of Nuragic Sardinia, drawing on recent discoveries (the overall geographical distribution of oxhide ingots and copper with assumed Sardinian provenance, and finds of Nuragic pottery at sites located between Sardinia and Cyprus) which have significant implications for understanding the long-distance metal trade. In addition, besides weighing the significance of oxhide ingots, Sabatini and Lo Schiavo (2020) attempt to incorporate politico-economic theory, which provides one route toward improving the understanding. Conversely, Sardinia has also been interpreted both as a redistributor of metal (e.g., Cornwall tin, Iberian copper) and as a metal traffic “bottleneck” (cf. Earle, Ling, Uhnér, Stos-Gale, & Melheim, 2015). These interpretations would entail Sardinian traders taking advantage of the island’s key geographical position to acquire the rare metals: in particular tin would have been used in large quantity for the presumed Nuragic metal production. These ideas spring from LIA-based studies by Ling, Hjärthner, Grandin, Billström, and Olof-Persson (2012) and Ling et al. (2014), which suggest that Sardinian copper reached faraway Scandinavia. Ling’s work, although requiring further analyses and evaluation, brings extra-Mediterranean connections into the discussion (see further below for opposing views and other recent trends).

2.3 Nuragic Sardinia and Trade in Metals: Eastern Mediterranean Sea Links

Much of the debate about Sardinian participation in the metals trade has focused on the import of oxhide ingots – ostensibly from Cyprus – in the RBA/FBA (e.g., Lo Schiavo, 2001; Lo Schiavo et al., 1985; Russell, 2011; Sabatini & Lo Schiavo, 2020). The acquisition of exogenous metal supplies by Nuragic communities is generally explained with reference to the lack of an appropriate local resource, or to the sheer convenience of using ready-made raw material in ingot form. This would have decreased the costs of a long local commodity chain from ore extraction to crafted bronze products like weapons or figurines (Lo Schiavo et al., 2005; Lugliè & Lo Schiavo, 2009; Russell, 2011).

Sardinia is indeed rich in copper deposits (Figure 3), but Lugliè and Lo Schiavo (2009, p. 281), and recently Grigoriev (2018) have contended that the severe depletion of indigenous mineral resources and the superior quality of Cypriot copper were factors that prompted Nuragic polities to import copper from Cyprus in the shape of oxhide ingots. The presumed overproduction of Cypriot copper around 1200–1000 BC allegedly led Cypriots westwards. The argument is that in Nuragic Sardinia, they found a new market for trading their copper, not only to Nuragic residents, but also to other merchants landing on the island (e.g., Kassianidou, 2001; Knapp, 1998).

Despite the absence of any archaeological trace thus far of Cypriot presence on Sardinia, Cypriot tutelage over Nuragic communities is often asserted regarding all stages of metal production, from the preparation of the metal to the manufacture of tools (e.g., Lilliu, 1982; Lo Schiavo, 2013). By contrast, Russell (2011) maintains that quantifying Sardinian copper exploitation against the scale of Cypriot copper overproduction by archaeological means could prove very difficult.

There is in fact no evidence for the depletion of Sardinian copper deposits. Instead, other factors should be explored to explain the possible import of Cypriot copper and the ample presence of oxhide ingots on Sardinia. Interestingly, LIA implies that most analyzed Nuragic artefacts show a local isotopic signature (Figure 4; OXALID Database) (Begemann, Schmitt-Strecker, Pernicka, & Lo Schiavo, 2001; Lo Schiavo et al., 2005). This leads to the following questions: how did Nuragic people use oxhide ingots, and why are there hundreds of fragmentary oxhide ingots in hoards if these were not intended for immediate use in local metalwork?

Figure 4 
                  LIA carried out on Sardinia between the 1990s and early 2000s. The plot summarizes the provenance of the ingots and artefacts. The majority of the metalworks overlap with Sardinian ores, especially the ores in the Iglesiente and Sulcis districts. Data source: OXALID database (Plot: Valentina Matta ©).
Figure 4

LIA carried out on Sardinia between the 1990s and early 2000s. The plot summarizes the provenance of the ingots and artefacts. The majority of the metalworks overlap with Sardinian ores, especially the ores in the Iglesiente and Sulcis districts. Data source: OXALID database (Plot: Valentina Matta ©).

Several possible motivations seem feasible. Lilliu (1982, p. 114) and Sabatini (2016a,b) launched the idea of oxhide ingots as a pre-monetary unit, regulated by weight, shape, and elemental composition (pure copper or not). That oxhide ingots could have developed into a generally accepted means of payment – in effect, “primitive money” – would accord well with Rahmstorf’s (2016; Ialongo, Hermann, & Rahmstorf, 2021) findings of well-established systems of weights and measures across the LBA world, and equally with Kuijpers and Popa (2021, pp. 8–9), who maintain that different geographical zones of the central European EBA based their trade on rings and axes of standardized weight.

Difficulties, however, have also been pointed out. According to Kassianidou (2001) and Lo Schiavo et al. (2005), even if Nuragic Sardinians actually used Cypriot copper in metal production, the added high quantities of lead have masked the true provenance of the copper in the LIA. Still others, like Russell and Knapp (2017), maintain that the value of the oxhide ingots may have been symbolic, which would explain why they were not used as a resource in metalworking (cf. Begemann et al., 2001; Gale, 2006; Lo Schiavo et al., 2005; Montero-Ruiz et al., 2018). A similar vein of thought is that the large format and double-horned shape of intact oxhide ingots may have been particularly attractive to Nuragic Sardinians; from the twelfth century BC this would find a cultural expression in the bull’s horns motif largely used by the Nuragians in the bronzetti and, later in the EIA, in the gigantization phenomenon seen in the statues of Monte Prama (Matta & Vandkilde, 2022; Vandkilde et al., 2022). Fragmentation may have been seen as a way of sharing such powerful items and sentiments in a social group, while over time the fragments could have been recycled.

2.4 Nuragic Sardinia and Trade in Metals: Western Mediterranean Sea Links

Exotic goods known from the western Mediterranean are reportedly rather few in the BA–EIA (e.g., the Etruscan fibulae, amber, and possibly, some Atlantic weapon). This has given rise to the opinion that the use and circulation of metal in the west at that time was restricted to privileged groups (Fundoni, 2009; Tronchetti, 1988; Vilaça, 2012). As for the Eastern Mediterranean connections, the interaction with the BA western communities is identified mostly through the finding of Atlantic or Etruscans artefacts in Nuragic contexts (Figure 5). While it is not within the scope of this study to analyze each context in detail, it is worth noting that the majority of foreign metal objects (oxhide ingots, Iberian artefacts, Etruscan fibulae) have been recovered predominantly at sanctuaries dating to FBA/EIA, and especially to the transition c. 950 BC (Figure 6; e.g., Camara Serrano & Spanedda, 2014; Lo Schiavo, 2012, p. 26). This is the period of maximum expansion of both the Nuragic metals trade and the Nuragic sanctuaries (e.g., Bernardini, 2017; Ialongo, 2013), also directly linked to metal hoarding. The economic function of the sanctuaries and the control of wealth through the hoarding of metals have been much discussed (e.g., Bernardini, 2017; Depalmas, 2014; Ialongo, 2013). Nuragic sanctuaries tend to be explained as multifunctional arenas where political power was built through the mobilization of collective support and consent. Ritual actions in the sanctuaries took place alongside institutionalized markets in which local and foreign commodities, such as oxhide ingots, were traded, and whereby legitimacy was provided for overriding economic control (Ialongo, 2013, p. 200; Lilliu, 1988).

Figure 5 
                  Foreign metal artefacts imported in Sardinia between the RBA and the EIA. The map shows the location in which oxhide ingots, Iberian-like weapons, and Etruscan fibulae have been found on the island. Generally, objects have been discovered evenly all over the island, although there is a more significant distribution of Etruscan fibulae on the north of Sardinia.
Figure 5

Foreign metal artefacts imported in Sardinia between the RBA and the EIA. The map shows the location in which oxhide ingots, Iberian-like weapons, and Etruscan fibulae have been found on the island. Generally, objects have been discovered evenly all over the island, although there is a more significant distribution of Etruscan fibulae on the north of Sardinia.

Figure 6 
                  Foreign artefacts and archaeological contexts. The plot shows the number and type of contexts in which the majority of foreign Bronze and Iron Age metalworks were discovered in Sardinia. The graph includes oxhide ingots, Iberic metalworks, and Etruscan fibulae (Fundoni, 2013; Lo Schiavo, 2018a; Tronchetti, 1988; Plot: Valentina Matta ©).
Figure 6

Foreign artefacts and archaeological contexts. The plot shows the number and type of contexts in which the majority of foreign Bronze and Iron Age metalworks were discovered in Sardinia. The graph includes oxhide ingots, Iberic metalworks, and Etruscan fibulae (Fundoni, 2013; Lo Schiavo, 2018a; Tronchetti, 1988; Plot: Valentina Matta ©).

Sardinian material connections with the Iberian Peninsula have been studied since the 1990s, and particularly over the last two decades. Recently, the debate over major or minor involvement of Nuragic communities in the BA metal trade system has intensified as a result of new studies of interconnections in the Atlantic and the Tyrrhenian regions, founded on typological and archaeometric analyses (e.g., Botto, 2015; Fundoni, 2009, 2013; Minoja, 2015; Sureda, 2020). Based on a typological analysis of Iberian and Nuragic artefacts, Depalmas and Fundoni (2015) argue that Sardinian contact with the Iberian Peninsula was driven by Cypriot and Levantine polities in the twelfth to tenth centuries BC, and together with the Phoenicians from the ninth century BC (Depalmas & Fundoni 2015, pp. 158–159). A major involvement of Nuragic merchants is also proposed, for example, by Botto (2015), D’Oriano (2012) and Lo Schiavo (2013) with a possible Nuragic presence in the Huelva region. While the traffic involving metals has been considered chiefly in terms of prestige objects (Armada Pita, Rafel Fontanals, & Montero-Ruiz, 2008; Fundoni, 2009), recent LIA may suggest that ingots and raw materials traveled both ways (see further below; cf. Sureda, 2020).

Several authors credit Nuragic communities with an independent role in the Tyrrhenian metal trade (e.g., Botto, 2012; Milletti & Santocchini Gerg, 2015; Russell, 2010). Nuragic pottery was notably discovered at the Lipari Acropolis (Bernabò Brea & Cavalier, 1980; Cavalier & Depalmas, 2008; Ferrarese Ceruti, 1987), although the chronology of the Nuragic sherds (and consequently of the contacts) is still disputed. Cavalier and Depalmas (2008, p. 294) placed the indisputable Nuragic finds at the FBA/EIA transition. In a recent revision of the Lipari documentation, Paglietti (2013) does not exclude the scenario that trade between Nuragians and Aeolians was under way from the LBA (RBA) to the end of the FBA (Paglietti, 2013, pp. 180–181).

Recently, analysis of the metal hoard found below Hut Alpha in Lipari brought up the question of a metal exchange between Nuragic and Aeolian communities.[1] Although a connection between the Lipari metal hoard and Sardinia has not yet been proved, Lo Schiavo, Albanese Procelli, and Giumlia-Mair (2018) noted that some fragments of planoconvex ingots of copper with high tin content (Lo Schiavo et al., 2018, p. 172, n. 63, 66, 67) are similar to ingots found in Olmedo in Sardinia. Similarly, Giardino refers to the hoard from Castelluccio-Ragusa as an example of objects supporting likely western connections, including Sicily and Sardinia, during FBA/EIA (Giardino, 2000, p. 104; 2016). Likewise, the recently published Nuragic-looking axe found in Motya, which dates to the tenth century BC, may support metal trade between the islands (Bernabale, Nigro, Montanari, Niveau-de-Villedary, & De Vito, 2019).

For the EIA, Milletti (2012) and Milletti and Santocchini Gerg (2015) divide networks between Late Nuragic Sardinia and the Etruscans into three main phases. These contacts were based on the exchange of prestigious artefacts, notably the Nuragic askoi, weapons, votive boats, and, in one case, the remarkable bronzetto from Cavalupo-Vulci (Milletti & Santocchini Gerg, 2015, p. 2202, Figure 1). In the first phase, an advantageous contact was established between Sardinia and northern Etruscan communities during the ninth to eighth centuries BC, particularly with the cities of Vetulonia and Populonia, which were situated next to important mineral deposits. In the second phase, with the rise of a new market during the seventh to sixth centuries BC, the argument is that joint participation by Nuragic and Phoenician polities would have led to maritime endeavors in southern Etruria. Finally, despite the Phoenician consolidation on Sardinia from the end of the seventh through the beginning of the fifth century BC, two separate market systems seem to have emerged: what one might call a “Nuragic market” and a “Phoenician market.” Both of these systems supposedly coexisted in Sardinia, while at the same time developing separate and dissimilar relations with Etruscan merchants (Milletti & Santocchini Gerg, 2015, pp. 2210–2212). By contrast, Tronchetti (1988; 2016, p. 239) argues in favor of the Phoenicians as intermediaries between the Nuragic peoples and Etruscans, arguing against an autonomous Nuragic economy after c. 600 BC. As for possible contacts along the Atlantic façade towards Scandinavia, these most likely would have matured post-1000 BC up to c. 700 BC as an expansion of the above koiné of networks (cf. Vandkilde, 2021).

3 Tracing Nuragic Connections with the Outside World Through Isotopes

Since the mid-1960s, LIA has been used in archaeology, often in conjunction with chemical-based trace elemental analysis, as a method for establishing the provenance of ancient metal (e.g., Artioli, Canovaro, Nimis, & Angelini, 2020; Pernicka, 2014; Brill & Wampler, 1965, 1967). LIA has its roots within isotope geology and petrology (Faure, 1986; Ixer, 1999). Building on lead (Pb) isotope ratios, the method determines the age of ore formation, and it has recently become a prominent tool in evaluating the provenance of metal used in the past. Put simply, every mineral deposit has a precise Pb isotopic composition, its “isotopic fingerprint,” dependent on its age and on the concentration of uranium (U), thorium (Th), and lead (Pb). Because the isotope composition of lead, including as a trace element in copper, is not affected by the metallurgical processes from ore to artefact (Pernicka, 2014), a comparison of the isotopic fingerprint of an object and the mineral deposit is possible. In other words, a match may reveal the provenance of the metal used to craft the object (Giardino, 2010; Pernicka, 2014). However, as re-stated recently by Pernicka (2014, pp. 249–250), caution is always required in interpreting LIA results. Chemical-based trace elemental analysis routinely needs to be consulted in the described LIA procedure when attempting to distinguish the isotope signature of two ore bodies with the same geological age. Because interpretation of provenance is based on the exclusion of non-compatible ores, it is not possible to firmly establish the origin from a specific ore (Cattin, Guénette-Beck, Besse, & Serneels, 2009; Knapp, 2000; Pernicka, 2014; Radivojević et al., 2019).

Even with this proviso, LIA remains a promising field, especially when combined with geochemical and geological information about the ore region and groundwater as well as archaeological and historical background knowledge (Artioli et al., 2020; Ixer, 1999; Killick & Stephens, 2020). Overall, some tentative conclusions may be reached through comparisons between metal ores and analytical signatures in metalwork (e.g., Cattin et al., 2009; Gale, 2011; Gale & Stos-Gale, 1989; Melheim et al., 2018; Stos-Gale, Maliotis, Gale, & Annetts 1997; but cf. Knapp, 2000). Object typology and analytical patterns of metals conducted together can help to shed light on the complexity of connections between BA societies (Artioli et al., 2020; Nørgaard, Pernicka, & Vandkilde, 2019; Radivojević et al., 2019). Importantly, copper rarely stays “clean” for long periods after the trading phase and may re-enter the network at some point. Degrees of recycling take place locally. The signature of the original provenance can be tracked even when two sources are mixed, hence the evidence of long-distance travel is preserved (Nørgaard et al., 2019). Subject to this cautious note, the availability of a sufficient number of isotope measurements of an ore deposit (especially for lead ores) increases the likelihood of identifying the provenance of an artefact (Pernicka, 2014, p. 249; Artioli et al., 2020).

In Sardinia, several chemical and provenance studies have been carried out since the early 2000s on numerous different types of artefacts, such as oxhide ingots, bun ingots, metal scraps, votive swords, axes, and other items (Figure 7). Much of the current debate on metal production and metal trade in Nuragic Sardinia stems from archaeometallurgical analyses and studies (e.g., Cincotti, Massidda, & Sanna, 2003; Lo Schiavo et al., 2005; Serra et al., 2016), a situation that can sometimes lead to inconsistent interpretations. Nonetheless, it appears that recent LIA-based data, especially in conjunction with supplementary data, may provide useful insights into how Nuragic Sardinia engaged with the wider world at different points in time. Below, we examine a number of recent studies and sites related to the discovery of both foreign metals in Nuragic contexts and Sardinian metals in foreign contexts. The section presents the metals of copper, tin, and lead-silver separately.

Figure 7 
               Chemical and lead isotope analysis carried out on metal artefacts in Sardinia. The map shows the provenance of the artefacts on which past and more recent metal analyses were conducted on the island. List: 1. Ottana; 2. Maracalagonis; 3. Sant’Iroxi-Decimoputzu; 4. Baccu Simeone-Villanovaforru; 5. Baradili; 6. Nuraghe Santa Barbara-Bauladu; 7. Sa Sedda è sos Carros-Oliena; 8. Nuraghe Antigori-Sarroch; 9. Ittireddu; 10. Ozieri-Bisarcio; 11. Pattada; 12. Serra Ilixi-Nuragus; 13. Funtana Janna-Bonnanaro; 14. Settimo San Pietro; 15. Oliena; 16. Funtana Coberta- Ballao; 17. Monte Sa Idda-Decimoputzu; 18. Nuraghe Arrubiu-Orroli; 19 Abini-Teti; 20. Nuraghe Flumenlongu-Alghero; 21. Nuraghe Albucciu; 22. Belvi; 23. Capoterra; 24. Nuraghe Is Paras-Isili; 25. Perda’e Floris-Lanusei; 26. Funtana’e Cresia-Ortueri; 27. Sa Mandra’e sa Giua-Ossi; 28. Santa Maria-Paulis; 29. Nuraghe Nastasi-Tertenia. (Data source: Begemann et al., 2001; Lo Schiavo et al., 2005; Montero-Ruiz et al., 2018; Sureda et al., 2019 (conference poster); OXALID database. Map V. Matta).
Figure 7

Chemical and lead isotope analysis carried out on metal artefacts in Sardinia. The map shows the provenance of the artefacts on which past and more recent metal analyses were conducted on the island. List: 1. Ottana; 2. Maracalagonis; 3. Sant’Iroxi-Decimoputzu; 4. Baccu Simeone-Villanovaforru; 5. Baradili; 6. Nuraghe Santa Barbara-Bauladu; 7. Sa Sedda è sos Carros-Oliena; 8. Nuraghe Antigori-Sarroch; 9. Ittireddu; 10. Ozieri-Bisarcio; 11. Pattada; 12. Serra Ilixi-Nuragus; 13. Funtana Janna-Bonnanaro; 14. Settimo San Pietro; 15. Oliena; 16. Funtana Coberta- Ballao; 17. Monte Sa Idda-Decimoputzu; 18. Nuraghe Arrubiu-Orroli; 19 Abini-Teti; 20. Nuraghe Flumenlongu-Alghero; 21. Nuraghe Albucciu; 22. Belvi; 23. Capoterra; 24. Nuraghe Is Paras-Isili; 25. Perda’e Floris-Lanusei; 26. Funtana’e Cresia-Ortueri; 27. Sa Mandra’e sa Giua-Ossi; 28. Santa Maria-Paulis; 29. Nuraghe Nastasi-Tertenia. (Data source: Begemann et al., 2001; Lo Schiavo et al., 2005; Montero-Ruiz et al., 2018; Sureda et al., 2019 (conference poster); OXALID database. Map V. Matta).

3.1 Review of Recent Discoveries. Foreign Metal in Nuragic Contexts: Copper Provenance

Copper occurs commonly both on Sardinia and in other BA regions (e.g., Gale & Stos-Gale, 1982). In fact, large-scale copper mining during the BA is known to have taken place across a wide swathe of Europe, from the Great Orme in Wales and the ores of Cornwall, to the eastern Alps at Mitterberg and the Slovakian Ore Mountains, to the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus in the east and the Sierra Morena España range in southern Iberia to the west (O’Brien, 2015, n. 1), in addition to the Kargali mines in the Urals (Černykh, 2003) and the Timna and Feinan regions of the southern Levant (e.g., Bimson & Tebes, 2009; Conrad & Rothenberg, 1980), only some of the mines supplying metal to consumers both near and far have been mentioned.

The Funtana Coberta Hoard (Ballao, Southeast Sardinia) (13th–11th centuries) Montero-Ruiz et al. (2018) have published LIA results for bronzes from a Nuragic hoard at the sanctuary of Funtana Coberta-Ballao (Figure 7, n. 16; Figure 8). The hoard was discovered during the 2003 campaign, inside the Alpha Room next to the sacred well. Hundreds of fragmented pieces of plano-convex ingots, sheet-shaped ingots, hack metal, some fragmented votive swords, and 31 oxhide ingots were contained in a large pot, the total weight being 20 kg. In addition to copper ores identified as consistent with Cypriot or Sardinian production, the analyses also pinpointed ores consistent with production from the Red Sea region (southern Sinai, the eastern Egyptian desert, and the western Arabian Peninsula) as potential sources for the copper used for several of the ingots (Montero-Ruiz et al., 2018, p. 148). A sword piece from the hoard and two very similar pieces of Nuragic votive swords from Arzachena (Sassari) are argued to be likely of Cypriot copper. For the first time, therefore, there are indications that Cypriot copper was used to craft local Nuragic artefacts (20974 M; 20974 H; 186031/08 – Begemann et al., 2001; Montero-Ruiz et al., 2018, p. 146). In summary, data provided by the Funtana Coberta hoard can suggest Nuragic consumption of Sardinian copper, alongside copper from Cyprus and the Red Sea region, during the transitional LBA/FBA period (13th–12th centuries BC: Montero-Ruiz et al., 2018).

Figure 8 
                  Recent LIA carried out in Sardinia. The table summarizes the number of artefacts analyzed and possible metal sources. In the table, there is no distinction between raw material (ingots) and artefacts. The majority of the metalworks reveal a provenance from local mineral resources, but an import of copper resources is attested from different Eastern and Western Mediterranean regions from the LBA–FBA until the EIA. It is important to stress that the majority of artefacts with a Cypriot signature are oxhide ingots (Data source: Begemann et al. 2001; Lo Schiavo et al., 2005; Montero-Ruiz et al., 2018; Sureda et al., 2019 (conference poster); OXALID database; Plot: Valentina Matta ©).
Figure 8

Recent LIA carried out in Sardinia. The table summarizes the number of artefacts analyzed and possible metal sources. In the table, there is no distinction between raw material (ingots) and artefacts. The majority of the metalworks reveal a provenance from local mineral resources, but an import of copper resources is attested from different Eastern and Western Mediterranean regions from the LBA–FBA until the EIA. It is important to stress that the majority of artefacts with a Cypriot signature are oxhide ingots (Data source: Begemann et al. 2001; Lo Schiavo et al., 2005; Montero-Ruiz et al., 2018; Sureda et al., 2019 (conference poster); OXALID database; Plot: Valentina Matta ©).

Nuraghe Arrubiu ingots (Orroli, Southeast Sardinia) (14th–10th centuries BC): The Nuragic complex of Arrubiu was first occupied in the LBA, with architectural additions and habitation in the FBA/EIA (Lo Schiavo, 2017; Lo Schiavo, 2018b; Montero-Ruiz, 2017; Figure 7, n. 18; Figure 8). This complex is the earliest known example of contact between Nuragic Sardinia and the Aegean region, documented by a Mycenaean alabastron found in the foundations of the central tower and dated to the LH IIIA2 (14th century BC) (Lo Schiavo, 2017; Perra & Lo Schiavo, 2012; Vagnetti, 2017). During recent excavations, three ingot pieces were found in a niche of central tower A, and another fragment in the corridor leading from Courtyard B to Tower F (Lo Schiavo, 2017; Perra & Lo Schiavo, 2012).

Chemical analysis revealed the ingots to have been made of unrefined copper (93%), with inclusions of copper sulfides and iron oxides. LIA revealed a potential isotopic correlation with the Sinai mines (i.e., Timna and Feinan, cf. Montero-Ruiz, 2017). Notably, some overlap in lead isotope ratios means that southwest Sardinian ore deposits cannot be excluded (Montero-Ruiz, 2017, p. 174).

In sum, although the site testifies to involvement with the Mycenaean Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean at the beginning of the early LBA, the chronology of the ingots remains uncertain. The same excavators date the ingots in between the second half of the 14th century BC and the 12th century BC (e.g., Sabatini & Lo Schiavo, 2020, p. 6). However, judging by the find context of the ingots and the chronology of exploitation in the Faynan mines (e.g., Ben-Yosef, Levy, Higham, Najjar, & Tauxe, 2010), we argue that the pieces of copper from Nuraghe Arrubiu likely date to the EIA.

The Monte Sa Idda hoard (Decimoputzu, Southwest Sardinia) (11th–8th c. BC): Sureda et al. (2019, poster and abstract) presented LIA results from the hoard of Monte Sa Idda-Decimoputzu (Cagliari, southwest Sardinia). Published by Taramelli (1921), the hoard contained more than 300 fragmentary artefacts, most of them associated with the Iberian Atlantic BA II-III (11th–8th century BC). Although in tune with Sardinian hoarding practices, the metal revealed both local and foreign traits. Eleven copper-based artefacts were selected for LIA (Figure 7, n. 17; Figure 8). The results indicated that six objects could refer to at least three different copper ore deposits in the Iberian Peninsula, while the remaining five artefacts are linked to Sardinian ores (Sureda et al., 2019, poster and abstract). Overall, the situation appears to be hybrid regarding both objects and copper ore provenance. While previously several of the Atlantic-like objects found on Sardinia have been attributable to local Sardinian craft production using local copper (Begemann et al., 2001; Fundoni, 2013), these recent results pinpoint a possible traffic or exchange of ingots from the Iberian Peninsula to Sardinia in the FBA–EIA. Simultaneous use of local Sardinian copper ore is, however, clearly maintained.

3.2 Foreign Metal in Nuragic Contexts: Tin Provenance

Because of the rarity of naturally occurring cassiterite (tin oxide) and the difficulty of unveiling its provenance through isotope analysis, discussion concerning the origins of the tin used during the BA is still ongoing (Berger et al., 2019; Haustein, Gillis, & Pernicka, 2010; Lo Schiavo, 2003; Mason et al., 2016; Valera et al., 2005b; Wang, Strekopytov, Roberts, & Wilkin, 2016). Rare tin deposits are located in Europe and Asia in certain locations (i.e., Artioli et al., 2020; Berger et al., 2019), and some of these deposits are large enough to have satisfied a major part of the huge demand for this primary alloying material in the BA world (Berger et al., 2019, Figure 1; Vandkilde, 2016, p. 111, Figure 2). Of the ancient European tin sources, those in Cornwall (southwest England) and Erzgebirge (central Germany) stand out, but there are also minor sources of interest in northwest Iberia, Tuscany, Sardinia, Serbia, and southeast Anatolia. The difficulty of identifying tin provenance through isotope analysis is well known (Artioli et al., 2020; Giardino, 2010). Recent work, however, has now brought Sardinia into the picture (Berger et al., 2019).

In the early 2000s, Valera et al. (2005b) conducted LIA of the tin ingots from S’Arcu is Forros-Villagrande Strisaili. They interpreted the data as indicating an exogenous origin for the tin, possibly Tuscany (Monte Valerio) or the Iberian Peninsula. The recent study by Artioli et al. (2020, pp. 21–22, Table 4, Figure 12) compares lead isotope values of a number of central Mediterranean tin ingots and notes some similarity between these and the tin ingots from wreck deposits along the southern Levantine coast (Galili, Shmueli, & Artzy, 1986).

In 2019, the question of tin in Nuragic Sardinia was raised again when Berger et al. offered a new isotope-based method capable of discriminating between west European and Near Eastern/Asian tin. A combined application of tin and lead isotopes in conjunction with trace elemental data narrowed down the potential sources of the tin (Berger et al., 2019). Based on this method, a revised analysis of tin ingots from the Uluburun shipwreck (on the south coast of Anatolia) c. 1330 BC revealed a match with some of the LBA Nuragic tin artefacts (Berger et al., 2019, pp. 46–47). Thus, the question of Sardinian tin deposits and their possible exploitation has been reintroduced. Analyses of other tin ingots in the Levant and the Aegean point to Cornwall and Afghanistan as the main sources of tin during the second millennium BC. Based on ancient Near Eastern written sources and their own new isotopic results, Berger et al. (2019) posit that during the early second millennium BC, the Aegean and the Levant depended mostly on Asian tin sources, while from around 1400 BC, with the Mycenaean expansion and following decline, the tide turned toward trading interests in the west, notably tin sources along the Atlantic rim as far as the rich Cornwall tin deposits (Berger et al., 2019, pp. 36–38)

3.3 Sardinian Metal in the East Mediterranean: Silver and Lead Provenance

Silver use in Anatolia and the Levant dates back to the sixth millennium BC; in other Mediterranean regions, it dates back to the transition from the fifth to fourth millennium BC (Kassianidou & Knapp, 2005). Sardinia is rich not only in copper but also in lead deposits, especially argentiferous lead (Figure 3), an excellent source of silver (Melis, 2014; Valera et al., 2005a). Oddly, though, Nuragic metal production is known for the absence of silver artefacts (Kassianidou, 2001; Lo Schiavo et al., 2005). Early traces of possible silver exports have been identified in the circulation of Sardinian silver toward the Italian mainland in the early fourth millennium BC Rinaldone culture. The EBA burial recently excavated at Alba, Piemonte (northern Italy), reportedly contained a ring made of Sardinian silver (the Iglesiente “metalliferous ring”: Artioli et al., 2020; Melis, 2014; Venturino, Ferrero, Artioli, Canovaro, & Angelini, 2018). The rarity of silver items on Sardinia itself recalls that of amber use in the Nordic Bronze Age, where Baltic amber was collected for trading with large parts of the BA world rather than used locally (e.g., Jensen, 2000; Shennan, 1982).

Although multiple sources could be considered (Knapp, 2000), the earliest evidence of Sardinian metal outside the island comes from another copper-rich island, namely Cyprus. Stos-Gale and Gale (2010) conducted several LIAs on Cypriot artefacts (mostly fragments) and arrived at intriguing results. They state: “Some of the lead pieces from the Late Cypriot sites of Hala Sultan Tekke and Maa Palaeokastro were identified already in 1994 as originating from deposits in Sardinia” (Stos-Gale & Gale, 2010, p. 392). Another large group of artefacts found on Cypriot sites, consisting of 16 pieces of lead and 7 tin bronzes, dated mostly to the twelfth and eleventh centuries BC, have lead isotope ratios consistent with the Sardinian ore deposits (Figure 9), although the copper signature overlapped with the Spanish deposits (Stos-Gale & Gale, 2010, p. 394). Metallography and LIA on metalworks from Hala Sultan Tekke suggest the use of copper, not only from Cyprus, but also from abroad (Fischer, 2018).

Figure 9 
                  Sardinian metal found abroad. The table summarizes the number of artefacts and their provenance. Nuragic metal ores have been traced through LIA in the Mediterranean and Europe in the BA and EIA. In the graph, there is no distinction between raw material (e.g., ingots) and artefacts. In the case of Sweden, the data refer to the publication of Ling et al. (2014). However, recently Melheim et al. (2018) and Nørgaard et al. (2019) have argued that the more plausible copper source for the Swedish artefacts was in the Alpine region (Data source: Bernabale et al., 2019; Eshel et al., 2019; Ling et al., 2014; Stos-Gale & Gale, 2010; Wachsmann, 2020; Plot: Valentina Matta ©).
Figure 9

Sardinian metal found abroad. The table summarizes the number of artefacts and their provenance. Nuragic metal ores have been traced through LIA in the Mediterranean and Europe in the BA and EIA. In the graph, there is no distinction between raw material (e.g., ingots) and artefacts. In the case of Sweden, the data refer to the publication of Ling et al. (2014). However, recently Melheim et al. (2018) and Nørgaard et al. (2019) have argued that the more plausible copper source for the Swedish artefacts was in the Alpine region (Data source: Bernabale et al., 2019; Eshel et al., 2019; Ling et al., 2014; Stos-Gale & Gale, 2010; Wachsmann, 2020; Plot: Valentina Matta ©).

More recently, Sardinian lead-silver, along with Iberian silver sources, have moved into the foreground as the chief incentive for Mycenaeans, Cypriots, and particularly Phoenicians in their move westward, or for Sardinians in sailing east. The provenance analysis of lead is closely correlated to that of silver, especially lead of the type galena argentiferous. Despite the absence of silver in indigenous Nuragic metalwork production, silver sheet and ingots found at the sites of Dor and Akko (southern Levant) are argued to be Sardinian in origin. Publications by Thompson and Skaggs (2013) and most recently Eshel et al. (2019) have pointed to a Sardinian provenance closely matching the ores of the Iglesiente region (Figure 9). These studies maintain that the sources of the silver shipped to the Levant included both Anatolia (Taurus) and Sardinia in the mid-tenth century BC, and from the ninth century BC, Iberia. However, the chronology seems still uncertain since the two silver hoards at Dor and Akko have been dated by Wood, Montero Ruiz, and Martinon-Torres (2019) as early as the eleventh century BC. It is surprising to think that Phoenicians or Nuragic peoples may have traded silver 200 years before Phoenician colonies were established on the island. Eshel et al. (2019) describe the early quest for silver, somewhat dubiously, as part of a long phase of Phoenician “pre-colonization” in Sardinia during the tenth to ninth centuries BC.

In addition to these assumptions, Wachsmann (2020) mentions fragments of lead ingots found scattered along the coast of Kibbutz Hahotrim (Israel), together with other metal artefacts such as fragments of oxhide ingots, blades, chisels, and socketed blades, all similar to those of the Cape Gelidonia shipwreck. According to Wachsmann (2020, p. 224), the isotopic signature of the lead ingots matched the Iglesiente ore district of Sardinia (Figure 9).

In summary, it is possible that Sardinian argentiferous lead reached Cyprus and the Levant as early as the end of the eleventh century BC. If correct, this means that movements of silver from western to eastern Mediterranean date back earlier than hitherto assumed. This in turn raises the possibility that the transport of this metal occurred through the agency of Nuragic maritime traders operating in the eastern Mediterranean, rather than the often-cited Phoenicians cruising the western Mediterranean (Ben-Yosef, 2019; Eshel et al., 2019).

3.4 Sardinian Metal in the Western Mediterranean Region: Various Metals

Sardinian lead also reached neighboring regions in the western Mediterranean. Recent finds document the spread of Sardinian lead in the Tyrrhenian region, particularly during the end of the FBA and early EIA, c. 950–800 BC.

Nearby Corsica, recent excavations at the site of Cuciurpula yielded a fragment of an ingot dating to the end of the FBA, c. 950 BC. Trace elemental analysis showed the ingot to be a copper–lead alloy. Furthermore, LIA suggests a possible provenance for the lead in the Iglesiente, the metalliferous ring in southwest Sardinia (Lachenal, Montero Ruiz, & Peche-Quilichini, 2018, p. 188; Figures 9 and 10). The particular chemical composition of the ingot pinpoints lead for the enrichment of copper and bronze. A similar practice is widespread in the FBA/EIA in Atlantic Europe – in Minorca, Slovenia, and also in Sardinia (Lachenal et al., 2018; Montero-Ruiz et al., 2003). There is currently no trace of Nuragic metal on the other Balearic Islands, although both the Balearics and Nuragic Sardinia have in common the presence of Atlantic-style weapons (Armada Pita et al., 2008).

Figure 10 
                  Total distribution of Nuragic metalwork (ingots and artefacts) in the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. The map includes Nuragic artefacts found in the Iberian Peninsula and the Italian Peninsula (red) dated to the EIA (albeit no LIA available). (Data source: Bernabale et al., 2019; Eshel et al., 2019; Ling et al., 2014; Milletti & Santocchini Gerg, 2015; Stos-Gale & Gale, 2010; Wachsmann, 2020; elab. Map Valentina Matta ©).
Figure 10

Total distribution of Nuragic metalwork (ingots and artefacts) in the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. The map includes Nuragic artefacts found in the Iberian Peninsula and the Italian Peninsula (red) dated to the EIA (albeit no LIA available). (Data source: Bernabale et al., 2019; Eshel et al., 2019; Ling et al., 2014; Milletti & Santocchini Gerg, 2015; Stos-Gale & Gale, 2010; Wachsmann, 2020; elab. Map Valentina Matta ©).

Recent LIA on lead artefacts from the Etruscan necropolis of Montevetrano (Campania) suggests the presence of Sardinian as well as Iberian lead there (Milletti, 2012). Besides confirming some level of networking between the Nuragic communities and the Etruscans, the available data may indicate a direct connection between Sardinia and southern Etruria, without the mediation of the northern Tyrrhenian region (Minoja, 2015, p. 164; Salis & Minoja, 2015, p. 158). The connection of Sardinia with northern Etruria, and in particular with the island of Elba, may be confirmed by LIA on tin-bronze fragments dating to the FBA at Cima del Monte (Chiarantini et al., 2018). The samples revealed an isotopic signature resembling various Sardinian copper deposits of the Iglesiente. The small island of Elba, then, may have formed a bridge between Sardinia, Corsica, and the Tuscan mainland – although according to Chiarantini et al. (2018), Elba was not exploited for copper during the FBA/EIA. Overall, a cycle of metal exchange seems likely to have existed between these islands, and probably between Sardinia and mainland Etruria (Figure 10).

Sardinian metal is only sparsely reported in Iberia, but recent LIA interestingly shows that ingots and raw materials did in fact travel both ways (Sureda et al., 2019; Sureda, 2020), even though Iberia had ample metal resources of its own, particularly copper, lead, silver, and even some tin (Artioli et al., 2020 for a summary of LIA evidence). If the analyses are correct, this might indicate professionalized trading in metals and other desired goods.

3.5 Adding the Atlantic Fringe and the Scandinavian Link

The mining, production, and trade in metals appear to have been complex, with several regional actors. If much recent LIA is anywhere near correct, the scale and range of the metals trade from the RBA to FBA/EIA was vast, in a manner we are only beginning to grasp (e.g., Berger et al., 2019). The Sardinian provenance of Early Nordic Bronze Age artefacts from Sweden has lately been disputed by Nørgaard, Pernicka, and Vandkilde (2021). A small group of Late Nordic Bronze Age sword pommels, knives, daggers, and socketed axes has a lead isotope signature consistent with production from ores in the copper mine of Calabona-Alghero in northwest Sardinia (Figure 9), or, alternatively, with the Alpine region (Ling et al., 2014, p. 20; Melheim et al., 2018, pp. 93, 99; Nørgaard et al., 2021). From the FBA in Sardinia and the western Mediterranean, the copper trade appears to have been closely linked to the amber trade. Some scholars have hypothesized that the major copper providers for northern Europe are often also those with the largest number of amber trinkets, including Sardinia (Bellintani, 2014; 2016, p. 284; Ling et al., 2014; Rowlands & Ling, 2013). This potential situation of amber-for-metal is observable already at the outset of the BA and well into the MBA (Vandkilde, 2017, pp. 142–144, Figures 85–86; Vandkilde, 2020, p. 39, Figure 7). The amount of imported amber on FBA/EIA Sardinia is striking. The immediate source seems to be trading connections with the Tyrrhenian region or the Iberian Peninsula, most of this amber, of course, are ultimately derived from the Baltic or Nordic area. For this reason, some scholars opened to the possibility that Sardinia might have been a center for the production and redistribution of amber beads in the western Mediterranean, especially of the so-called “Allumiere type” (Bellintani, 2014; Fois, 2014). However, it is worth mentioning that, currently, no production center has ever been found on the island, and therefore more investigation is needed on this topic. Amber finds on Sardinia are mostly linked to the Nuragic sanctuaries, with a small proportion from settlements and graves. The site with the largest number of amber beads is the sanctuary of Romanzesu-Bitti, from which also non-Baltic amber was recovered – which may perhaps suggest additional providers of amber to Sardinia (Fois, 2014).

4 Theoretical and Historical Perspectives on Networking, the Metal Trade, and Control

While LIA may give hints as to the content of the trade networks, theoretical perspectives can help in the understanding of the strategies behind the trade in metals during the BA. Metals may have had a currency value as well as a functional purpose; thus, its circulation may have been intended both to mediate, exchange, and/or to be collected as a precious primary resource for the production of objects (e.g., Ialongo & Lago, 2021; Vandkilde, 2016). BA communities may have obtained their metal resources in a range of different ways, which might also have depended on the local availability of that resource in their region. Moreover, some BA regions, such as Sardinia, acquired particular metal resources (e.g. copper) from abroad even though equivalent goods were available locally. According to Dillian and White (2010), multiple factors might explain this behavior. One factor could be that regions with unevenly distributed resources, territorial limitations, or lacking in technology might use the foreign exchange in a local redistributive strategy. Local variation in resource availability created demand for materials from neighboring regions, eventually turning into proper trade (Dillian & White, 2010, p. 8; Renfrew, 1984, p. 91). Another aspect to consider is the distance of a specific resource, and the meaning given to long-distance trade. Long-distance materials were imbued with a special or high value that favored the exotic over the local. Additionally, the traders who carried these objects consequently had high social status and a prestigious position within their communities (e.g., Dawson, 2016; Knapp, 1998; Spielmann, 2002).

In order to promote the trade in metal (and most other goods), one or more of the following assets were needed: rarity, laborious, and/or expensive extraction technology, beliefs prompted by visual qualities, refinement through specialized craft production, alloying (e.g., of copper with the rare tin), trading locations that were geographically advantageous, and costly transport. Most of these were not available to ordinary folk, because capital investments were required in the form of money or other convertibles, in addition to essential additional resources like timber, slaves or other forms of labor, and property rights. Building and staffing ships for long-distance journeying is a case in point (cf. Ling et al., 2014).

Controlling, and profiting from, the production and trade of metals may appear to be an obvious motivation, but this assumption may have inbuilt obstacles. In small-scale societies, the political economy may be driven by the ceremonial consumption of prestige goods, something that is critical to both cultural tradition and social reproduction (e.g., Iacono, 2019; Knapp, 1998; Spielmann, 2002). Exoticness and distant origins are factors to take into account when trying to comprehend the long-range dispersal of goods along BA trading routes and networks (e.g., Dawson, 2016; Kassianidou & Knapp, 2005, p. 238). This is why some communities may prefer to acquire raw material from geographically distant places with “the power of geographic distance” (Helms, 2016; Spielmann, 2002, p. 199) over the easier access to similar raw material in their own region – not because they need it, but rather to attract social recognition (Knapp, 1998; Spielmann, 2002). From a similar insular perspective, Dawson discusses how places that were difficult to reach may have yielded “powerful experiences” lending value to raw materials and objects as “pieces of places” (Dawson, 2016, p. 326).

In short, trade within and between BA societies is integrated in a political economy as a potential source of enrichment for high-ranked individuals or equally for broader corporate groups of families, clans, and lineages. Corporate strategies could even have come increasingly under pressure, hence opening a gateway to a clearcut social hierarchy (i.e., Furholt, Grier, Spriggs, & Earle, 2019; Vandkilde, 2017). A corporate structure should not be understood as devoid of social power; rather, such a form of society is highly competitive on a personal level as well. In other words, several factors may have conditioned the metal trade system – cooperation/competition, the nature of the goods, and social, economic, or ideological status (Kassianidou & Knapp, 2005, p. 237).

Given the available data, it is probably premature to attempt to resolve conclusively and precisely the question of how the metal trade was organized, and by whom. The most likely scenario is tied to the politico-economic model of commodity and prestige exchange at play. Significantly for Sardinia, a distinct change takes place at the transition to the FBA, giving rise to a ranked and centralizing social system that elevated a metal-centered political economy to be the core of the Nuragic economy.

4.1 Metal-Trade Exchange with Nuragic Sardinia 1350–1200 BC

The interpretation of the structure of the Nuragic society in the RBA are based on two societal categories: (1) The tribal mode is kinship structured and wealth is distributed rather than accumulated. Social stratification is thus absent, but competition for social status and authority is often a foremost characteristic. (2) The chiefdom mode is usually based on kinship combined with centralized power, wealth accumulation, and a stratified social order (for a detailed synthesis see Perra, 2014, pp. 137–150). The model for exchange in the RBA is based on these two opposite views. On the one hand, scholars such as Lo Schiavo, Usai, or Webster interpret the circulation of prestigious goods as an indicator for the presence of prominent individuals within the Nuragic communities which legitimate their power through the acquisition of those goods. On the other hand, scholars such as Russell and Knapp (2017) go as far as to maintain that the “acephalous structure” of Nuragic society would not have permitted a coherent trading system, and to argue that evidence is lacking for elite control of metal resources (Russell & Knapp, 2017, p. 20). In RBA Sardinia, there is accordingly no evidence of political forms of legitimization maintained by the acquisition of foreign artefacts, commodities, or raw materials (Russell, 2010, pp. 112–113). Our analysis summarized in Figures 6, 8, 9 may lean towards the latter view for the RBA. The following description models Sardinia’s changing geopolitical situation in the interlinked world of the Mediterranean between the Bronze and Iron Ages.

In the fourteenth century BC – at the onset of the Sardinian RBA – Aegean explorers turned westwards (Broodbank, 2013, p. 431). Their destination was, however, mainly coastal southern Italy (Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicily) (Blake, 2014; Jung & Mehofer, 2013). Aegean involvement in Italy even intensified after 1200 BC, when their trading contacts linked Apulian ports of trade with the Po Valley and the Frattesina entrepot at the Caput Adriae. Sardinian copper and lead ores match relatively few Italo–Greek objects (such as derivations of Naue II swords: Jung & Mehofer, 2013, p. 179, Figure 5). Despite the presence of some Mycenean finds in Sardinia, we favor the interpretation proposed by Blake (2014) and Russell (2010). They argue that the relations between Nuragians and Mycenaean were indirect and conclude that the scarcity of Mycenaeans’ finds in Sardinian contexts does not allow an interpretation of these finds as the results of direct contact. Rather, the few finds may indicate an indirect relationship that passed via Lipari and Cannatello. Sardinia does not seem to be related directly to this trading circuit and contact with the Mycenaean culture instead passed via Lipari and Sicily (Russell, 2010) with which Nuragic peoples established a solid connection at least until the end of the FBA (Paglietti, 2013). As shown through the data for the RBA, it seems not possible to confirm a physical presence of Aegeans or Cypriots on Sardinia (e.g., Depalmas et al., 2017; Russell & Knapp, 2017), and likely, the metal-exchange might have happened in other RBA hubs, such as Lipari. Even so, Sardinia and the Aegean referred to Cyprus as a major hub in the RBA/FBA metal trade system. Indeed, Jung and Mehofer’s analyses (2013) led them to suggest that contact between the Aegean and the Italian Peninsula did not involve raw metal (copper), this was likely because Cyprus was at the time the major copper provider to the Aegean (Jung, 2009; Jung & Mehofer, 2013).

Despite consistent production of copper in Cyprus and Egypt, both those regions lacked lead and tin deposits as alloying materials (Kassianidou, 2005, Stos-Gale & Gale, 2010; Weeks et al., 2008). During the fourteenth to thirteenth centuries BC, the main source of tin for Cyprus seems to have been Afghanistan; it came via the Near East, in particular the Levantine coast (Kassianidou, 2005, 2009; but cf. Berger et al., 2019, p. 37). According to some interpretations of the written sources, Egypt received quantities of silver from Cyprus, the Levant, Anatolia, and the Aegean as means of payment (Kassianidou, 2009). After the collapse of the northern Levantine site of Ugarit and the fall of the Aegean states around 1200 BC (cf. Molloy, 2022), the Cypriotes may have moved their quest for silver and tin westward, perhaps finding new sources for these two coveted metals on Sardinia and in the Iberian Peninsula. Connections between Sardinia and Cyprus may be illuminated through theoretical and historical arguments. In the course of their search for inter alia silver in the west, Aegean traders, followed by Cypriotes and Levantines/Phoenicians, found in Nuragic Sardinia a new partner offering them silver at a low cost, eliciting new aspirations among FBA, and later EIA, Nuragic leaders.

This may be the context in which the arrival of Cypriot copper in Sardinia in the RBA/FBA is to be understood. For Sardinia during the years 1300–1100 BC, Cyprus may have been an important partner, judging from the steady presence of Cypriot copper/oxhide ingots on Sardinia (Figure 8). Driven by the need to finance its commercial transactions, Cyprus/the Levantine communities would have been in need of silver. It was likely acquired from different sources toward the west in the Mediterranean, including Sardinia, as suggested by the Sardinian argentiferous lead found on Cyprus, Dor and Akko (Figure 9). Interests were directed toward the Iglesiente metalliferous ring region, rich in galena argentifera, from which it was possible to extract silver using the cupellation technique (Figure 9; e.g., Pearce, 2018). In this sense, the lack of silver artefacts in Nuragic contexts may be the consequence of a straightforward exchange strategy, with demand for copper and luxury items among Nuragic communities matching the demand for silver among Cypriot and Levantine communities (Ben-Yosef, 2019; Kassianidou, 2006). Sardinians could also mediate a number of products to the Cyprus hub, in addition to Sardinian products, these would have included Iberian copper and silver, and Cornish tin. The Cyprus hub may also have facilitated Sardinian contacts with Levantine traders and polities.

4.2 Metal-Trade Exchange with Nuragic Sardinia 1200–720 BC

In the FBA and the EIA the situation may have changed radically especially after 1200 BC. Within Sardinia, settlement nucleation now occurred, with the mobilization of ritual-ceremonial forces to legitimize power beyond local habitats (e.g., Bernardini, 2017). Change was furthermore implied by the amplification of hyperspecialized production, for instance, the Nuragic bronzetti. In addition, intensified hoarding of metals indicates recurrent acquisitions of raw materials by trading near and far (e.g., a “ritual strategy” – Ialongo, 2013). These are indications that some form of elites now controlled the metal resources. This is precisely the kind of political environment in which there would have been sufficient capital and power to equip ships for trading expeditions. Such involvement would not however be without fierce competition from other polities, perhaps including Cyprus. The reformation of Nuragic society described above coincides with the changes all over Europe around and after 1200 BC. When placing Sardinia on geopolitical maps, this date is surely significant.

Before the beginning of the first millennium BC and after the crisis of the Mycenaean polities, Sardinia emerged as a new hub for commercial transactions between the Levantines/Phoenicians and the Iberian Peninsula (Broodbank, 2013, pp. 492–494; Depalmas & Fundoni, 2015; D’Oriano, 2015). Interactions with the Tyrrhenian polities were presumably independent throughout the ninth and at least up to the sixth century BC (Milletti & Santocchini Gerg, 2015).

During the long 1100–720 BC period, the new setup focusing on Sardinia is then, on the one hand, characterized by the rise of Phoenician demand for west Mediterranean metal-led resources, and, on the other hand, by changes in the Tyrrhenian and Atlantic regions, with the Nordic LBA perhaps a related factor. Although one Sardinian collection of tin ingots may have come from the Iberian Peninsula or Etruria (Valera et al., 2005a), Nuragic trade with the Tyrrhenian region (Etruria and Corsica) seems to have emphasized the transfer of prestige objects, notably including Etruscan fibulae and dress pins in addition to Nuragic bronzetti boats found mostly in northern Etruria, and some possible Sardinian lead in southern Etruria (Drago Troccoli, 2012; Milletti, 2012; Milletti & Santocchini Gerg, 2015; Salis & Minoja, 2015). In this perspective, Sardinia links up with the Tyrrhenian circuit of trade, in which Frattesina figures importantly as an entrepot during the FBA, as previously mentioned (Artioli et al., 2020; Bellintani, 2014, 2016). Frattesina played a key role in trading Alpine copper, and Mediterranean glass beads northwards and Baltic amber southwards in considerable quantities (Bellintani, 2014; Cwaliński, 2014; Ling et al., 2014).

In this complex system, Nuragic Sardinia also received copper and fine objects from the Iberian Peninsula (shown by object typology and LIA results from the Monte Sa Idda hoard). Further traffic may possibly have transferred such objects to the Italian Peninsula and Sicily, as demonstrated by the axe found in Motya dated to the tenth century BC (cf. Bernabale et al., 2019). If correct, this may all be a result of a trading strategy in which regional trading hotspots focused on different commodity types and partners. Via Frattesina, a small quantity of Nuragic copper may even have traversed central Europe to reach Scandinavia. An alternative to Frattestina as transfer point is a west Mediterranean–Atlantic Sea route, passing Cornwall for tin as well as other ports en route to Scandinavia. Although it remains problematic to assume direct contacts between Scandinavia and Sardinia, these data need to be taken into account in any broader discussion of how long-distance trading networks operated. Two different amber–metal routes from/to Scandinavia may therefore be envisioned: (1) a land-based transalpine route via Frattestina near the Alps, and (2) a sea-linked route heading west and turning north along the Atlantic fringe. Sardinian and Iberian copper may in some measure, and especially after 1000 BC, have reached the Nordic region during that region’s LBA, which was truly rich in objects of bronze and gold. The Nordic Bronze Age was extraordinary, since every bit of metal was imported from a limited number of copper sources in Europe (Ling et al., 2014; Nørgaard et al., 2019, 2021).

This proposition fits with the Sicilian situation revealed by the Salcombe find (Wang et al., 2016) and other metal-laden shipwrecks found off the coast of Devon near the Cornwall tin mines, as well as other, similar finds from the thirteenth century onwards attesting contacts between the Mediterranean and northern Europe (e.g., Broodbank, 2013, p. 431). According to Needham and Giardino (2015), these finds illustrate the first penetration into northwestern Europe of material originating in the central Mediterranean. Similarly, a long-drawn spread of a shared weighing system was recently unveiled by Ialongo et al. (2021). This metal-related technology traced back to a Mesopotamian source and by c. 1000 BC, it had reached the British Isles in northern Europe.

Finally, it is important to stress that even if the LIA analyses may fail to prove either the movement of people or direct contact between them (cf. Knapp, 2000; Russell & Knapp, 2017), a (seasonal) presence of Nuragic traders in other BA regions appears from other types of artefacts, such as the typical Nuragic cooking pottery discovered in several regions of the eastern and western Mediterranean. In the past few years, besides metalwork, a range of other Nuragic products have been discovered at sites abroad: fine vessels, askoi, dolia, pans and vasi piriformis, the reverse elbow-vases, and now also metals matching Sardinian ores (e.g., Botto, 2015; Fundoni, 2013). Cyprus continued to prosper in the twelfth century BC, maintaining trading links with the near east, Egypt, and as far as Sardinia in the west (Kassianidou, 2001, 2005; Knapp, 2008, p. 367). The fact that Nuragians were still active in the east this late may be inferred from Sardinian-style burnished pottery at Kommos and Chania in Crete in LM IIIC (Deger-Jalkotzy, 2008, p. 395). The presence of Sardinians on Cyprus is indicated at Pyla-Kokkinokremos, revealed by Sardinian plain pottery, which was perhaps used by Sardinians on location (i.e., Bretschneider, Kanta, & Driessen, 2017; Gradoli et al., 2020) in a short period between the end of the thirteenth and the early twelfth centuries BC. In particular, the presence of cooking pots restored with the technique of lead clamps (Bretschneider, Kanta, & Driessen, 2015, pp. 50–52, 91), typical of Nuragic culture, may be a sign of the presence of Nuragic traders in the eastern Mediterranean. At Huelva in coastal southwest Iberia, a similar situation appears between the tenth and ninth century BC. Botto (2015) and D’Oriano (2012) both stress that among the retrieved Nuragic pottery, plainware (teglie) links up with specific Nuragic cooking habits, indicating a Nuragic presence in Huelva.

Summing up the discussion above: After c. 1200 BC, Sardinia may well have moved into the center of affairs as a hub centered on metals and related goods. This new position was sustained towards the north by the Tyrrhenian-Etruscan region, towards the west by the Atlantic BA region (Iberia, Britain, Scandinavia), and towards the east by the old nodes of Cyprus and the Levant (Phoenicia), and even the Aegean region during the Iron Age on a smaller scale. Local Sardinian copper is substantially present in Nuragic artefacts, but the possibility to acquire copper from eastern Mediterranean regions, or later the Iberian Peninsula, attracted some Nuragic communities more than utilizing Sardinia’s own copper, perhaps due to infrastructural constraints. In other cases, the exoticness and the ritual consumption of these items created the perfect political environment for the rise of high-rank individuals within the Nuragic communities. In the Early Iron Age from c. 950 BC (or even earlier), while the contacts with the Tyrrhenian regions were likely independent, metal trading with the Iberian Peninsula may have involved Nuragians under the patronage of Phoenician trading ships.

5 Conclusion: Nuragic Sardinia, A Major Actor in the BA World?

Sardinia was never an isolated backwater. It was often a meeting point, and at times even a hub, with densely accumulated knowledge and resources originating in, and accessible to, many regions near and far. “Insularity does not mean isolation” (Usai & Lo Schiavo, 2009, p. 1), but rather reiterations and alterations in exchange with the outside world through the movement of objects, persons, knowledge, and images. The central role of the Mediterranean islands as places of connectivity and redistribution of resources, especially metal commodities, is well understood (Dawson 2016, 2021; Horden & Purcell 2000, p. 346; Kassianidou & Knapp, 2005; Knapp, 1990; 2015, p. 26; van Dommelen & Knapp, 2010). However, the ways in which the indigenous pre- and protohistoric communities responded to changes in connectivity and networks are yet to be identified.

The question of whether Nuragic communities were autonomously involved in long-distance metal trade is difficult to settle unequivocally at present. This is owing to the current state of archaeological knowledge, which lacks in-depth research in this particular subject area. Although caution is needed with the recent interpretations of LIA, encouragingly, collateral studies now provide some databased indications that Nuragic copper and silver traveled much farther than we had thought (Eshel et al., 2019; Ling et al., 2014; Wood et al., 2019). Such studies are not focused on Sardinia. Rather, their concern is general patterns of connectivity, including an early wave of Phoenicians in the western Mediterranean, and the role of Iberian communities in stimulating the metal trade.

This state-of-the-debate analysis of Sardinia in the BA concludes by emphasizing the period around 1200 BC as the crucial threshold at which the historical tide began to turn, both within and beyond Sardinia. A whole new world emerged post-1200 BC. It was propelled by new cultural ideas, as well as more effective commodity-based trade operating over long distances, which were certainly not limited to the Mediterranean Sea. Models are a useful guide for research, but they are not set in stone. Stronger databased results from the regions involved with Sardinia are needed. Opportunities for future research lie in adopting suitable theoretical tools along with cutting-edge techniques (such as metal-based isotope analysis for lead, tin, copper), in addition to research questions targeting the different kinds of transfer of ideas and goods in and outside Sardinia, including interlinkage, geographical reach, and impact.

Acknowledgements

The research presented in this article is the result of Valentina Matta’s article-based PhD thesis (AU Arts). The authors would like to express their gratitude to Dr. Heide W. Nørgaard for her valuable suggestions during the development of this article; we extend our gratitude to Dr. Pau Sureda for giving permission to cite his upcoming paper on Monte Sa Idda hoard. We further wish to thank the anonymous peer-reviewers who provided valuable comments that helped to greatly improve this article.

  1. Conflict of interest: Authors state no conflict of interest.

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Received: 2022-07-07
Revised: 2022-12-16
Accepted: 2023-01-09
Published Online: 2023-02-20

© 2023 the author(s), published by De Gruyter

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