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General features of Phoenician-Punic necropolises

The Phoenicians always buried their dead some distance from the town and their necropolises were never particularly monumental, at least judging by the material evidence known so far. We know about the use of tombstones (called sema, from the Greek: "sign") in some necropolises of the Western Phoenician world. In the case of Sant'Antioco we know of two baetyls, i.e. stones symbolising the gods, found inside tomb no. 12 (figs. 1-2).

Fig. 1 - Plan of Tomb no. 12 in Sulky (from BERNARDINI 2010, p. 1263, fig. 1).
Fig. 2 - The two baetyls in the left cell of tomb no. 12 (from BERNARDINI 2010, p. 1264, fig. 2).

The Phoenicians always kept a certain distance between the town and the necropolis; in Sardinia, in the peninsular site of Nora, the distance between the village and the necropolis is 500 metres and sometimes there was more than one necropolis for the same town, as occurred in Tharros, which had two, one on Cape San Marco towards the sea at the end of the peninsula, and the other inland, in San Giovanni di Sinis, under the modern settlement (fig. 3).

Fig. 3 - Schematic map of the end of the Sinis Peninsula with indication of the ancient ruins of Tharros (from ACQUARO, MEZZOLANI 1996, p. 8, fig. 1).

The choice of two suburban areas for placing the necropolis is also documented in Cagliari. The city in fact had two burial sites, one to the west and the other to the east of the urban centre: the western necropolis is the colle of Tuvixeddu ("small holes") where underground chambers with a vertical well entrance, in use from the sixth to the third-second century B.C. (fig. 4), predominate, while the eastern necropolis is still partially visible on the hill called of Bonaria.

Fig. 4 - Aerial view of a portion of the necropolis of Tuvixeddu (CA) (from

Only Sulky unequivocally documents the presence of tombs within the city walls; in a case like this it is possible to assume that the original necropolis arose on what were the outskirts at the time and that the urban centre then incorporated a part of it for expansion reasons.

A feature of the Phoenician and Punic necropolis is the lack (at least apparently) of a particular orientation of the tombs; the graves are reused several times and they do not seem to have been built according to a plan (fig. 5).

Fig. 5 - Part of the Sulky necropolis highlighting the irregular orientation of the graves (

The main types of Phoenician tombs, albeit with significant variations, are based on those used in the Syrian-Palestinian area, as early as during the Bronze Age (3000-1200 B.C.). The burials are individual more often than not, however, in the East as in the West some great tombs accommodated, over time, many bodies: the latter were probably "family graves".

In general, we can therefore distinguish at least five different types of tombs: a - a natural ravine in the rock, which could possibly be expanded, where burials could take place (with or without deposition in amphorae, a burial reserved for children, called enchytrismos burial); in the case of ritual cremation the burnt bones could be placed on the bare rock, placed in an appositely built tomb or stone tray, or placed inside an urn (fig. 6);

Fig. 6 - Enchytrismos graves (from Bartoloni 2009, p. 154, fig. 94)

b - vertical shaft burial, narrow, deep, often expanded at the base, with a chamber intended for the deceased, dug laterally to the well itself which could also be used for cremation remains (fig. 7)

Fig. 7 - Cagliari, necropolis of Tuvixeddu, plant and sections of an underground pit tomb (from BARTOLONI 2009, p. 107, fig. 71).

c - rectangular grave which usually contains a single body. This type has been used both for burial and for cremation (fig. 8). Various different techniques were used for burials: the deceased could be simply placed into the pit, which was then closed with stone slabs; the slabs could also be used to clad the interior of the pit, inside which, alternatively, a sarcophagus could be buried;

Fig. 8 - Single pit tomb of a Punic necropolis found in Sanluri (from

d - rock-cut tomb, with an irregular square chamber, sometimes divided by a partition, or supported by a “free” pillar with an underground dromos entrance, namely a corridor with stairs leading to an landing and to the entrance to the burial chamber (the latter two cases are the most common in Sant'Antioco) (fig. 9);

Fig. 9 - Dromos tombs in the necropolis of Sulky seen from above (detail from

e - built tomb. This is the only type of tomb which falls within the field of architecture. These are graves that are built with large underground square blocks, at a variable depth with a parallelepiped shape: access is through a door along the short side. Often, access was via a vertical shaft rather than via the dromos. Examples of this type of tomb are also found in Sardinia, in Othoca (Santa Giusta, OR) (fig. 10).

Fig. 10 - Underground tomb built near the necropolis of Othoca, Santa Giusta (OR) (from BARTOLONI 2009, p. 156, fig. 96).



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