June 11, 2019





Such has been the influence of ‘connectivity’ as a concept for historians of the medieval Mediterranean, that certain parts appear in danger of becoming misrepresented by over-connection; on the other hand, some important regions have fallen between these same bonds. Sardinia is precisely one of these. Between the sixth and eleventh century, the island remained unconquered and had absorbed little influence from beyond its own shores. Indeed, degrees of disconnectivity are precisely why Sardinia is outstanding as a model of study for Mediterranean and European history. Unfortunately, neither the traditional and recent historiography of Sardinia has helped to widen or deepen understandings: the horizons of historical inquiry have been limited by introspection and politically inspired regionalism that emphasises its ‘uniqueness’ vis-à-vis the rest of Italy. What is required is a fundamental re-evaluation of the island’s links with surrounding areas in terms of its geopolitical, commercial and socio-economic connectivity. To explain levels of, one of our main research aims is to address these anomalies with wide-ranging historiographical and contextual studies of Sardinia’s in- and inter-dependence vis-à-vis the western Mediterranean.

Many scholars now argue for a strong Muslim presence on the island on the basis of later chroniclers’ accounts as well as from bronze and silver coins and recent discoveries of lead seals and Arabic epigraphy. Although this evidence is very much in the balance, no Arabist has ever tackled the ‘Muslims in Sardinia’ question. We will redress this from an interdisciplinary perspective by drawing on historiography, chronicles, charters, and archaeological finds to produce an integrated and authoritative account aimed at both academics and the wider public interested in the ‘Islamisation of Europe’ debate.

Until recently, Byzantine influence in Sardinia was assumed to have become ever more superficial over time. However, the discovery of dozens of Byzantine lead seals in a field near from Cabras has changed all that. They show the development of a Sardinian archontate and the survival of Byzantine ruling infrastructure into the C11th. The seals also corroborate evidence for the development of a militarised society and an expression of the power connected to land ownership through the presence of farmer-soldiers (kaballarioi) whose excavated grave goods of weaponry and personal items associate them with the Byzantine military and as people of consequence in the countryside. We believe that this group hold the key to understanding the development of power and society in Sardinia’s transition from Byzantine to medieval, and yet very little research of any type to date has been conducted on this evidence. To determine key questions of context, provenance and use, we will employ a range of cutting-edge archaeometric analyses (radiocarbon dating; isotope analysis; petrography and geochemical tests) on metals and ceramics (mainly weapons, jewellery and pots) excavated from graves of Byzantine rural elites. This will be the first time that such scientific tests have been conducted on this evidence of this type.

In documentary terms, some of the most important finds relating to Sardinia come from outside the island (Genova, Pisa, Camaldoli in Tuscany, Marseille, and Montecassino). As such, we will conduct a systematic search for, and compile an inventory of, all charter evidence located outside Sardinia. As for the island’s charter collections and cartularies written in Sardinian, these have received more attention from linguists than historians until now. From these, we will create, for the first time, a prosopography for the island as part of a complex this relational database, using this as a tool to describe and explain the shifting positions and community groups that made up the layers of society before the arrival of external dominant forces. We will integrate the database and documentary findings with our archaeological data to compose the first comprehensive socio-political history of independent medieval Sardinia. Throughout, we will seek to offer important comparative perspectives by drawing out analogies and contrasts with other areas of former Byzantine influence beyond Sardinia (e.g. Sicily, Calabria, Apulia, Tyrrhenian coast, and North Africa).




Over a four-year period, our inter- and transdisciplinary approach will multi-test both the documentary and archaeological record with regard to the two main research themes of the project:

  1. (Dis)connectivity. We will de- and re-construct Sardinia’s traditional historiography in the light of new and old evidence for its geopolitical role in the formation of Euro-Mediterranean states and frontiers.
  2. Power and Society: we will explain and evaluate the Sardinia’s unique political authority and the rulers’ interactions with its society to show that Sardinia offers a model of exceptional importance to the historical development of Europe from Late Antiquity to the C11th.

The problem of Sardinia’s historiography and its relative oversight is not limited to issues of understanding the island itself. For example, many Arabists will be astonished to find that Muslim raids on Sardinia, as related in moralising ‘histories’ such as that of Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, which tell of fabulous booty, are taken literally in most modern studies. Then again, the earliest (and far more prosaic) chronicle, that of Khalifa ibn Khayyat, has never been taken into consideration. As a result, the notion of sustained large-scale Muslim incursions and even the colonisation of Sardinia has barely changed since the 1800s. Such is the enduring influence of this view that it is still the dominant model to explain the island’s slow emergence from the historical ‘Dark Ages’. We believe that a decisive resolution to this problem lies in a thorough and balanced comparative study of both medieval and modern historiography in tandem with a re-assessment of extant and new material and documentary evidence, and the scientific testing of objects and artefacts.

Of recent archaeological finds, some of the most important are lead seals with Greek or Arabic legends excavated from San Giorgio di Cabras. Some of these have been badly published (and without photographs), incorrectly read and without discussion of context. We will redress this by publishing the seals as well as the extant coin finds in Sardinia relating to the Islamic world. Lead isotope analysis will reveal the provenance of the seals since Sardinia has a distinctive lead signature. Had they been made in Sardinia by Muslims or brought from outside? Moreover, it is often claimed that Aghlabid interest in Sardinia was for its silver resources, which the island may have exported in bullion. If so, then this should be detectable in the archaeological record, and isotope testing on silver coins is likely to reveal the extent of circulation of Aghlabid currency; in turn, this can shed important new light on this dynasty’s supposed (non-)payment of tribute to Abbasid Iraq.

Key evidence with regard to Arabic epigraphy are five large inscriptions. Of these, three are funereal stele; all are legible, and two were badly published in 1980. Crucially, but only on the basis of a cursory macroscopic inspection made in 1969, they are believed to be produced from local stone – unlike most medieval Arabic inscriptions in Italy today which were imported from Spain post-1500. We will determine the provenance of these inscriptions by geochemical analysis of the mineral composition. This will resolve whether they were the in situ product of a medieval Sardinian Muslim community or not.

Central to our investigation of power and society will be a study of soldier-famers whose presence as prestigious landholding kin-groups in the countryside is shown by their choice of grave goods. These combined martial and high prestige objects (weapons, jewellery, precious belt buckles, and shield appliques – almost every example of a ‘military’ burial has been found with a gold or a silver coin). 

Another of our key aims is to detect elements of social display. Thus, positions of graves will be plotted using GIS with regard to key topographic features of landscape and routeways (e.g. for visibility and viability), as well as the use of conspicuous structures (e.g. the choice of rural Bronze Age towers for medieval burial sites). We also believe that we can test if this was a genuinely militarised social class (e.g. had their weapons been made for war by skilled smiths? Or were they ceremonial? Had their swords ever been used? How old were they? Were they, and other grave goods, locally produced or imported?). For these inquiries, we will conduct a number of tests from archaeological science. Prominent among these will be: radiocarbon dating to establish period of manufacture. Since steel is an alloy of carbon and iron, so even in low-carbon steel from the carbon rich areas can be examined.

We will also examine the metallic microstructures to determine the homogeneity of the iron/steel, the construction methods as well as the application of heat treatment which will indicate if a blade was the work of a weapon smith or a product of a lay smith. Typological studies for military equipment along with use-wear analysis on the presence of cut-marks, angles, handling of swords will establish if the swords had been used in battle or were designed for ceremonial use or else had been made roughly for burial purposes only. Petrography and geochemical analyses will determine the mineralogical composition of ceramics and of stone inscriptions, and thus to narrow down the possibilities of provenance and ‘connectivity’ with surrounding regions. Put simply: what were these objects used for? Were they manufactured in Sardinia or not?

To date, scholarly considerations of geopolitical landscapes in Sardinia have tended to focus on ‘legalistic’, state-driven systems and structures. While this has shed much light on these unusual medieval polities, the privileging of legal categories has come at the expense of considering local social configurations. Instead, we intend to understand the geopolitical landscape as entangled with sociological concepts of authority and local order. Indeed, the Sardinian vernacular charter materials (the carte volgari) and a unique corpus of cartularies (condaghes) from churches around the island lend themselves to this approach. The condaghes provide a wealth of relatively unexplored vernacular material with which to reconstruct social, economic and political interactions. A study of cartularies and charters will thus be central to the documentary research. From these rich sources, we will elicit a large corpus of contextual and action-specific data into relational databases. A prosopographical component will pay special attention to the typology, both legal and transactional, which was used to distinguish social groups, communities, kin-groups and classes in order to test the extent to which autonomous Sardinian polities existed in parallel to burgeoning rural aristocracies and overlapping rural networks. 

The elaboration of this data, together with the archaeological evidence, will allow us to construct a model of social and political interaction to explain the long-term processes of ‘re-Byzantinisation’ (in the wake of the Arab Conquest of North Africa) and ‘de-Byzantinisation’ (from the archontate to four autonomous rulers by the 1000s). The research will therefore not only paint a new, richer and more inclusive political and economic picture of the period, but it will also provide the first comprehensive, multi-voiced sociological study of independent medieval Sardinia.




In greater detail, the project has four overlapping strands:

Sardinia after the Arab Conquests

Can Sardinia offer paradigm-shifting evidence for the Arab Conquests and the formation of Muslim-Christian frontiers? Evidence elsewhere shows a ‘light-touch’ Muslim rule after the Arab Conquests: no large-scale displacement of Christians; churches continued much as before, and families of ex-Byzantine officials remained in positions of local authority. But events in Byzantine Sardinia suggest a very different model: the relics of St Augustine were transferred; the Byzantine mint at Carthage closed and re-opened in Cagliari, and the appearance of Byzantine solder-farmers in rural parts suggests an emigration of monks, clerics, officials, administrators, the military and nobles from North Africa. Could this explain the rapid decline of Christian communities in North Africa, but their preservation in Egypt and the Fertile Crescent?

Sardinia and Mediterranean ‘connectivity’

Was Sardinia an isolated periphery in the middle of the Mediterranean? The Mediterranean has come to be characterised by its ‘connectivity’. Yet, its second largest island is typified by the exact opposite: a paradigm of political and socio-economic isolation. These two assertions cannot both be correct. But how can Sardinia’s unusual liminality help to explain its transition to autonomy with the rise of its own rulers?

Insular power and social interactions in Sardinia

From 700–1100, unconquered ‘Byzantine’ Sardinia experienced high and precocious levels of autonomy: its rulers were even the first in Europe to write charters and cartularies (condaghes) in vernacular using either Greek or Latin characters. We will use this unique documentary record to rediscover a lost memory of political and social networks. We will integrate this with archaeometric analysis of recent finds of coins, weapons, seals, ceramics and epigraphy to identity and explain the interactions of key kin-groups both horizontally and vertically.

Paradigm shifts and changing perceptions

Can a museum exhibition fundamentally transform history? We will design and install a major new exhibition at the Museo Nazionale in Cagliari. This will also tour to provincial museums. There has never been an exhibition of this size and type. An exceptional feature of the display will be its emphasis on graded explanations of context as well as the specific importance of material objects and documents from a historical perspective.

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