Their eyes are concentric circles that go on forever.

text
Kyre Chenven

photography
Ivano Atzori

THE GIANT SHAME

In its long and complex history, one thing about Sardinia becomes heartbreakingly clear: it is a place that has gotten used to being exploited. Ever since the arrival of the Phoenicians, the island has seen one people after the next arrive on its shores to take control of resources and - at times fiercely, at times loosely - impose their culture, religion and language upon the resident population. Aside from a fascinating and brief decade of liberation in the Middle Ages, in which practically the entire island was united under one Sardinian banner, there has been no time in its history since 500 BC when the native population was in charge. Which is why the powerful and glorious Sardinian prehistory is a bit of an obsession for scholars and farmers, factory workers and intellectuals, shopkeepers and historians, artists and lawyers and schoolchildren - for, in fact, every Sardinian.

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Unfortunately, that same history is practically unknown outside the island.

In 1974, a stone head was found by two farmers plowing a field. But they had been finding these large, shaped stones for years, removing them from the area reserved for planting and throwing them into a pile at the edge of the field. Each year, these piles of stones conspicuously disappeared but the farmers were not bothered - after all, Sardinia has plenty of stones, and stones are no help in planting. However, this time, when the farmers hit another large stone, it was different than the others. This one had been carved into the shape of a head, with a strong, linear nose and extraordinary eyes made of perfect concentric circles. It is said that the farmer was alarmed by the discovery and called the authorities, who quickly turned to the most renowned archaeologists on the island. It was immediately apparent that this was no small discovery. Giant sculptures of this type weren't seen in Europe until the famous Kouros of Greece in the seventh century B.C. but these seemed to be dating to a century before then. Was it possible that this farmer had found the earliest known oversize stone statues in Europe? Did European art history need rewriting?

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In the end over 5000 pieces of sandstone were pulled out of the field and excavations continue to this day. Two small exhibitions (one in Cagliari and one near the excavation point in Cabras) now display over 30 restored and recomposed statues. The giants’ faces grace everything from wine bottles to t-shirts to coffee mugs in the islands’ gift shops. Yet practically no one, who isn’t Sardinian, knows they are there.

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Along with prehistory comes conjecture. And conjecture, unchecked, takes little time to turn into conspiracy theories. For 30 years the statues were kept in the basement of the Archeological Museum of Cagliari, a decision justified by a lack of funds for restoration. Now that they are on display, there are few scholarly texts in any language other than Italian. Indeed, why would the Region of Sardinia place so little weight on such a find?

Depending on who you ask it could be:

  1. because the Giganti, as they're called, and the resulting research of the Nuragic society in which they were created, would require the rewriting of history books and there are people that won’t allow for that.
  2. part of an Italian plot to isolate and demean the island, so it can be used primarily for military weapon experiments and as a dumping ground for destructive industrial projects.
  3. because the people in charge are simply incompetent.
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As with most gossip, there is a level of truth in each of these scenarios - sometimes only oblique hints, other times more concrete:

  1. Until his death in 2012, Sardinian prehistory was lorded over by a passionate and charismatic archaeologist named Giovanni Lilliu. He persevered in finding funding to excavate a hill near his childhood home which ended up being an extensive Nuragic village. He followed up on farmers’ tales and old people’s memories of stories from long ago and was therefore able to recreate numerous incredible sites from Sardinia’s prehistory. He also had a developed theory about who the Nuragic people were and how they lived, which he and his pupils wrote about purely and consistently only in Italian, minimizing the possibility of interest from foreign scholars and researchers. His views were untouchable while he was alive and, even today, his detractors find that it's an uphill climb.
  2. Sardinia is home to over 60% of the military bases in all of Italy. Most of the land was expropriated from farmers and shepherds without adequate compensation. Since then, there has been a constant battle for freedom of information about what is happening on these various bases - members of the military have implied that birth defects and high cancer rates in these communities are a result off inbreeding. The communities involved, who often have issues with their livestock as well as their own family’s health, are convinced it has something to do with radioactive materials.
  3. The founder of the Centro di Conservazione Archeologica of Rome, Roberto Nardi, who was in charge of the restoration of the pieces “re-excavated” from the museum’s basement, wrote in 2008, “The fragments were found during an archaeological excavation in the early 1970s, focusing on a sacred area in a Nuragic zone. Straight after the excitement over the discovery, the fragments (except for three pieces displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Cagliari) were deposited in a basement store. What could have been a dramatic discovery, capable of throwing light on the origins of the Nuragic civilization (and notwithstanding the fact that the fragments were the only stone sculptural representations ever found on the island), incredibly, the find was temporarily forgotten.” Even today, when a handful of online articles are all that has been published by the foreign press regarding the Giganti in the last 40 years, what exactly are the region’s press offices busy doing?
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Arguably the statues could have been sculpted by artisans from another land. Or they could have come from exactly the same period as the Greek kouros and not earlier. No one knows who carved them. No one knows exactly when. No one knows exactly why. In other words, further research could bring answers that would slightly diminish the numerous claims from proud Sardinian supporters. Even so, they are a beautiful and mysterious army of ancient stone sculptures unlike anything else found in the Mediterranean, and recent excavations are revealing more and more answers about the uses and history of the area where the Giants were found. The statues taken on their own are gorgeous and imposing blocks of sandstone. They have eyes that stare into infinity with long straight noses, heavy brows and cryptic semi-smiles. Their arms are tense; their hair is braided; they are poised and ready. They exist.

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