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The lions of Sulcis

During the excavations of October 1983, two monumental sculptures in the round came to light near the necropolis of Is Pirixeddus (literally: "the small pools"), representing two lions which originally probably guarded a gate of the ancient Punic city of Sulky, or perhaps some temple structure adjacent to the Roman amphitheatre, where the statues were last placed during the second century A.D., for decorative purposes or as supports for a platform.

The lions, sculpted in local limestone, are sitting on their hind legs, with the front left paw advancing and the right one pointing to the ground; the jaws are wide open as if in the act of roaring, their tail is curled around the left thigh (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 - One of the lions of Sulcis, now on display in the Municipal Archaeological Museum "F. Barreca" (photo by M. Murgia).

The front legs are massive and the claws are still visible despite the wear of time (fig. 2).

Fig. 2 - Detail of the lion paws, claws still evident (photo by M. Murgia).

The massive and squared head is refined by the flowing mane which frames it with its broad "flame-style" strands and the animal’s muscles are simply evidenced (fig. 3).

Fig. 3 - Detail of one of the lions where the mane’s texture, the stylised musculature of the thigh and the architectural elements part of the sculpture are evident (photo by M. Murgia).

The statues are inserted in a sort of architectural structure which joined them to a building: an Egyptian cornice base and a rectangular lintel which on one side rests on the heads of the animals merging with them and on the other flows into a rectangular shaped pillar which acts as a connection between the base and the lintel adhering to the statues from the rear, may be observed. The total height of the sculptures is 156 cm (figs. 3-4).

Fig. 4 - Detail of the base of one of the lions of Sulcis (photo by M. Murgia).

An immediate comparison, as concerns Sardinian findings, may be made with the well-known lion of Tharros (fig. 5), which deviates significantly from the lions of Sulcis in the general features of the animal. Although suggesting the same iconography of a crouching "guardian" lion, the example from Tharros is altogether more natural and less rigid. It too was originally connected to some structure by lintels, today there are obvious light traces on its head.

Fig. 5 - Lion of Tharros (from MOSCATI 1980, p. 172, fig. 2).

The lions of Sulcis may be interestingly compared with many artefacts from the Near East and Greece. In fact, they are reminiscent of the lion heads carved on the jambs of a door in the city of Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite Empire (fig. 6) and, especially of some neo-Hittite sculptures from the X-VIII centuries B.C. which certainly influenced Phoenician craftsmen. As is the case of the lions of Arslantepe, guardians of one of the gates of the city (X-IX centuries B.C.) or of those squatting, as a column base, from Tell Tainat (figs. 7-8).

Fig. 6 - The Lions’ Gate of Hattusa in Anatolia (from
Fig. 7 - The Lion of Arslantepe (Malatya), in Anatolia (from BITTEL 1997, p. 269, fig. 307).
Fig. 8 - Column base in the form of crouching lions, from Tell Tainat (from BITTEL 1997, p. 245, fig. 277).

It is therefore very challenging to attribute a precise chronology to the lions of Sulcis; based on the stylistic elements which we have listed, some scholars are inclined to place them around the end of the sixth century B.C., while other researchers, who believe that the statues are contemporary to the construction of the town boundary wall, date them from around the first half of the fourth century B.C.


  • P. BARTOLONI, Il museo archeologico comunale “F. Barreca” di Sant’Antioco, Sassari 2007.
  • P. BERNARDINI, I leoni di Sulci, Sardò 4, Sassari 1988.
  • K. BITTEL, Gli Ittiti, Milano 1997.
  • S. MOSCATI, Il mondo punico, Torino 1980.
  • S. MUSCUSO, La necropoli punica di Sulky, in M. GUIRGUIS, E. POMPIANU, A. UNALI (a cura di), Quaderni di Archeologia Sulcitana 1. Summer School di Archeologia Fenicio Punica (Atti 2011), Sassari 2012.