Blog Post #41: Animals, Isotopes, and Bronze Age Elites on Sardinia with Emily Holt

At Peopling the Past we’re continuing our Earth Day month theme by featuring occasional posts by researchers who study human-environment relations in the past and the role of the natural world in human history.

When we think of how people express power, food may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Big houses, fancy cars, and expensive clothes may seem more obvious. But the foods people eat, where those foods come from, and how people eat them are all ways of expressing power, too. Consuming foods that take a lot of resources to produce (like steak) or foods that are imported from far away (like champagne) can be a way of demonstrating power over wealth and territory.

Photo of the site of Nuraghe Arrubia which has several trees in the foreground, behind which stands a large stone structure.
Fig. 1 Nuraghe Arrubiu by E Holt

I study the relationship between food and power in the Nuragic Culture of Bronze Age Sardinia. The Nuragic Culture flourished between 1700-900 BCE, when Nuragic communities built thousands of monumental stone towers called nuraghi all over their island. They built a few hundred at first, expanding over the centuries to build thousands more, many of which were also larger and more architecturally complex than the early towers. The towers took a lot of labor and resources to build, and the pattern of expansion over time suggests that rising Nuragic elites were consolidating their power, supported by changes in how they used their natural resources.

The early development of power in the Nuragic Culture is not well understood, which led me to partner with my Sardinian colleague Mauro Perra to start an excavation at the site of Sa Conca ‘e sa Cresia in central Sardinia. Sa Conca ‘e sa Cresia is part of an early Nuragic settlement system. Excavations at the site have recovered thousands of animal remains, which are a gold mine of information for me. I’m a zooarchaeologist – an archaeologist who specializes in reconstructing human-animal dynamics by studying animal remains. My current research project ZANBA – ZooArchaeology of the Nuragic Bronze Age – uses the animal remains from Sa Conca ‘e sa Cresia to investigate three ways Nuragic elites may have expressed their power through food: by controlling more territory for grazing and herding, by intensifying their production of domestic animals, and by consuming animals in impressive feasts.

Image of several archaeologists digging up a feature. Several buckets are strewn across the excavation.
Fig. 2 Excavating Conca ‘e sa Cresia II 2010 scaled

Relating animals to territory requires analyzing the strontium isotopes in the animals’ teeth and comparing these isotopes to the strontium isotopes in the regions around the site. Strontium isotopes come from the particular geology of a region, and they get into animal teeth through the food chain: plants take up strontium from groundwater and soil, herbivores absorb strontium through the plants they eat, and carnivores absorb strontium through the animals they consume. Fortunately, the strontium isotopes aren’t really changed by going through the food chain, so the isotopes in animal teeth at the end of the chain are closely related to the isotopes of the plants at the beginning.

Photo of a desk on which sits a laptop and several bones on a tray, ready for analysis.
Fig. 3 Siddi lab desk
Animal bones on a red tray ready to be sorted.
Fig. 4 Sorting organized bone

Understanding intensification of animal production relies on several methods. First, I’m using the characteristic morphology of the excavated bones to identify the species they come from, as well as the animals’ size, sex, and age when they died. Changes in these patterns can indicate that animals were being raised more intensively. Analyzing the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the bones can also identify special ways of feeding the animals, including grazing on heavily farmed land, that would indicate the animals were being raised intensively.

Photo of a hand holding a small bone with evidence of burning.
Fig. 5 burned Prolagus sardus
Image of a person wearing white protective gearing preparing samples in vials in a lab for testing.
Fig. 6 Preparing samples in the lab

Finally, evidence for feasting requires looking closely at the excavated bones, most of which are badly broken. Feasts are meant to be impressive (think of the whole turkey on the table at an American Thanksgiving), which means particular ways of raising and preparing animals. Animals for feasts are often large, and they’re usually roasted rather than being cut up and added to stews because roasting has a greater visual effect. Increasing evidence for large animals being roasted at Sa Conca ‘e sa Cresia could mean that Nuragic elites were holding feasts to show off their power.

ZANBA is an ongoing project, and I don’t know yet what I’ll discover by the end. What I do know is that when I’m done, I’ll have a much better idea of what it was like to be a member of the would-be Nuragic elite: strategizing to gain control of the territory around my home, using the best farming techniques to increase my herds, and trying to show off just enough to impress my followers – but not enough to upset them. It must have been a delicate balance, and many of the incipient elites probably failed. But I’m rooting for the folks at Sa Conca ‘e sa Cresia.     

You can follow updates on the ZANBA project on my personal blog, or follow @ZANBA_Project on Twitter and zanba_project1 on Instagram.

Photo of Dr. Emily Hold Crushing plants in a lab. She wears a white coat and turquoise gloves.
Dr. Emily Holt – Crushing Plants in the Lab

Dr. Emily Holt is an environmental archaeologist and anthropologist, and is currently a Marie Sklodowska Curie Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University. Her project ZANBA – Zooarchaeology of the Nuragic Bronze Age – uses isotope analysis of animal remains to understand patterns of human and animal mobility, economic structures, and political expansion in ancient Sardinia (c. 1700-1000 BCE). Dr. Holt also directs the Pran’e Siddi Landscape project, an archaeological survey in south-central Sardinia.

Interested in learning more about the study of animal bones? Check out Peopling the Past’s video with Hannah Lau and Peopling the Past’s podcast with Flint Dibble.

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