Sardinia’s ancient underground tombs might look like something out of Lord of the Rings, but they are as real as they are enchanting. Known locally as Domus de Janas or ‘Fairy Houses’, these aren’t natural caves; these are chambers that were carved into rock by hand over 5,000 years ago.
There are around 2,000 of these rock-carved burial tombs scattered across the island, which range in date from 4400 – 2300 BC, spanning the Neolithic, Copper and Bronze Ages. Most appear to have been created by the Ozieri culture, a prehistoric pre-Nuragic culture who inhabited Sardinia, alongside the Arzachena culture.
Used for collective burials, some only have a single chamber, but others are a winding labyrinth of rooms. Their walls are often decorated with reliefs, of bull horns, spirals, or zig zags, often with traces of ochre – a natural red pigment. Many even mimic the architectural features of the Ozieri’s timber-framed homes – with roof beams, columns, mock door frames, and hearths.
Used over generations for collective burials and decorated to resemble house interiors, these cemeteries are often referred to as villages of the dead. Often they are connected with each other, forming underground necropolises, with a common access corridor (dromos) and an atrium, sometimes spacious and with a high ceiling.
The archaeologist Giovanni Lilliu writes: “… not infrequently the corpses were buried under white heaps of mollusc valves. But taking with them all tools and jewels of their earthly life: points of obsidian arrows, knives and axes of stone, and also necklaces, bracelets and rings of twisted copper wire, and many ceramics”.
But the main challenge for archaeologists today is the elusive nature of the living villages. Did Neolithic villagers live nearby or far away? How easily could they visit their ancestors? Did landscape features play a role in shaping these relationships?
In the last few years, recent archaeological field surveys have started examining the surrounding areas. The Ossi project found 14,000 ceramic and stone artefacts on a hill close to Mesu ‘e Montes – a cemetery with 18 rock cut tombs, and further surveys seem to reveal a pattern of hilltop settlements provided villages for the living, while cemeteries with rock-cut tombs in nearby valleys provided villages for the dead. Excavated in rock with stone hammers, each one is a unique and extraordinary site.
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