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.
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?
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.
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:
As with most gossip, there is a level of truth in each of these scenarios - sometimes only oblique hints, other times more concrete:
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.