Throughout all of the island of Sardinia are collections of caves carved into the sides of hills and mountains. Over 3000 domus de janas have been recorded and registered so far. Domus de janas translates directly to fairy houses, though the true meaning of the Sardinian word jana is endlessly complex. These fairies could be young or old, good or bad. They were often ravishing and always quick tempered. They could be drawn down to the village by the sound of music and dancing, but there was always the risk of them entrancing the young men and seducing them away to their own world. Many stories about the janas include fire; they would continuously beg villagers for fire or ask men to control it to prove their power. Denying a jana her request ended in ruin, with some families convinced that even today they are paying penance for a snub made by an unwise ancestor.
In the small town of Villaperuccio, some people remember spending their childhood days up at the domus de janas that are set into a nearby hillside. While their parents would collect wood or stones, they would amuse themselves by crawling into the tight spaces and exploring. Sometimes they would come out victorious with a set of bones or a ceramic pot that could be sent down into the valley with a satisfying crash. It was a place that the townspeople went often with their herds of sheep and goats. They would light fires in the caves to roast meat or to keep warm. Up until the 1970’s, it was a popular place to organize picnics and lunches. And at one of these lunches, held after a day of hunting, the professor and archaeologist Enrico Atzeni realized the importance of this site.
The hillside, now known as Montessu, is covered with around forty domus de janas. It is an enormous, ancient necropolis from 6000 years ago. The tombs were carved into the natural amphitheater that overlooks the valleys, for Montessu sits over both Villaperuccio and the ruins of ancient settlements nearby. There are caves decorated with various prehistoric symbols representing the afterlife - spirals and bulls and small sculptures of the Dea Madre (the Mother Goddess). Of these small terra-cotta representations, only one was still in place in the late 70’s, when the area was turned into an archaeological site, however there are many empty carved recesses where they would have been placed. There is a large sanctuary that seems to have been used as a sort of reception room for the family members of the deceased, and signs of outdoor plazas where the bodies would have been laid prior to burial. It seems as though they were never fully abandoned; the better-preserved graves contained burials as recent as 1900 BC and artifacts have been found that suggest some were then transformed into houses, before becoming hideouts for shepherds and playgrounds for their children.
The park now has paved roads, marked hiking trails and guided tours. However, the archaeologist Remo Forresu, who was responsible for the excavations at Montessu, says it is clear that half of the hillside is still covered in the oldest of the tombs which have never been discovered or opened, and most likely never will be under the current economic conditions. There is a long list of archaeologists, he says, that would line up to continue the dig, if only the region were willing and able to dedicate the necessary funds.
Sadly, for the first time in their history, the tombs of Montessu have now been abandoned.
“These monuments are not just charred pieces of dead history to be ignored. They breathe. They breathe when children touch them and are touched by them; and both come alive - the object for the millionth time; the child, maybe for the first.”
— Phil Beadle, on prehistoric sites in Heritage Today