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Zooarchaeology of the Nuragic Bronze Age

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ZANBA (Zooarchaeology of the Nuragic Bronze Age)

Reporting period: 2020-01-06 to 2022-01-05

The archaeology of the Nuragic Culture, a Bronze Age culture that developed on the island of Sardinia between c. 1700-900 BCE, has been understudied in comparison with other cultures of the Mediterranean Bronze Age. However, as a culture with a trajectory that differs significantly from the cultures of the East Mediterranean, the Nuragic Culture offers important alternative understandings of developing social inequality, adaptations to climate change, and responses to political and social unrest. The project ZANBA – ZooArchaeology of the Nuragic Bronze Age – was conducted to address the gap in research by applying cutting-edge archaeological science to expand our understanding of these issues in the Nuragic Culture.

Zooarchaeology – the study of animal remains in archaeological contexts – can be used to understand decision making in ancient societies. Animal economies reflect human strategies like maximizing production and conserving water. By understanding the animals Nuragic people chose to raise and how and where they raised them, ZANBA is uncovering the social, economic, and environmental responses of Nuragic communities as they encountered political expansion, the development of social elites, and changes in environment and precipitation.

To date, ZANBA has completed the first step of the research that will allow evaluation of animal mobility patterns in the Nuragic Culture. The research of ZANBA is ongoing.
The progress of ZANBA was badly affected by the global pandemic. All planned research activities had to be put on hold for over a year. During that time, the lead researcher, Dr Emily Holt, pursued approved alternative research goals related to the themes of the original proposal, resulting in three scientific publications and a fourth publication under review. It was possible to begin the originally proposed research when pandemic restrictions were lifted, and Dr Holt, Co-PI Dr Richard Madgwick, and team member Dr Davide Schirru were able to complete the first part of the project. The research for the second part of ZANBA is ongoing.

ZANBA is achieving its goals through three related initiatives. First, ZANBA is mapping the strontium isoscape of central Sardinia. Strontium isotope analysis is increasingly used in archaeology to study the mobility patterns of humans and animals. For ZANBA, understanding the changing mobility of domestic animals provides insight into territorial control, cooperation networks, and political consolidation. However, the strontium ratios of ancient animals must be interpreted against a map of the bioavailable strontium in a landscape, and no such map exists for Sardinia. Dr Holt selected 128 sampling locations representing 19 lithological zones across central Sardinia, then Dr Schirru collected multiple plant samples from each of the locations. These samples were freeze dried, crushed, and mixed to produce a homogenized sample that was then processed and analyzed for strontium. The results of these analyses are being used to produce an isoscape map that will enable ZANBA's specific goals and will also have legacy benefits for researchers of any time period who want to study mobility on Sardinia.

The second initiative of ZANBA is to conduct isotope analysis of zooarchaeological remains from Sa Conca ‘e sa Cresia, an early Nuragic site (c. 1750-1450 BCE) located on the Siddi Plateau in central Sardinia. These remains will be analyzed for carbon, nitrogen, and strontium: isotopes that will allow Dr Holt to interpret how and where the animals were raised. ZANBA is the first study to use strontium isotope analysis to understand Nuragic animal remains.

ZANBA’s third initiative is to complete a detailed morphological study of the zooarchaeological remains from Sa Conca ‘e sa Cresia. The assemblage from Sa Conca ‘e sa Cresia includes more than 6000 individual bones and bone fragments from stratigraphic contexts that are securely dated by a sequence of seven radiocarbon dates. When the morphological study is complete, it will be one of the largest and most detailed zooarchaeological studies available for an early Nuragic site.

Dissemination of the results of ZANBA is ongoing. To date, the work has been presented at two international conferences. Publication of the strontium isoscape of central Sardinia is expected in 2023, with the results of the morphological and isotopic analysis of the animal remains from Sa Conca ‘e sa Cresia to follow.

Public dissemination of the results in both English and Italian has also been a priority. Updates on ZANBA’s ongoing progress are available in both English and Italian on Dr Holt's blog Errant. ZANBA’s research has been featured in English-language guest posts on the blogs Peopling the Past, Stable Isotopes in Zooachaeology, and Celebrating 100 Years of Archaeology: Archaeology and Conservation at Cardiff University. ZANBA has also been featured in the Italian-language newspaper Unione Sarda. Dr Holt has presented ZANBA research in public outreach activities with schools in Europe and the United States, as well as in Cardiff University’s European Researchers Night 2020.
ZANBA is pushing beyond the state of the art by applying homogenized strontium sampling to a large, densely sampled geographical region. In many strontium studies, a single sample is used to represent a sampling location; however, maps that rely on unique specimens for each location can be distorted by outliers. Homogenized sampling decreases the effect that potential outliers will have on the results of the analysis, creating a map that more reliably represents the geographic distribution of bioavailable strontium.
Dr Emily Holt crushes freeze-dried plants as part of the homogenized strontium sampling process
Dr Emily Holt prepares resin to use in strontium extraction chemistry
The view from a strontium sampling location, taken by Dr Davide Schirru