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A Sardinian step pyramid
by Philip Coppens A ziggurat on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia? As strange as it may sound, this is precisely the conclusion – or suggestion – that archaeologists have reached. For the structure of Monte d’Accoddi is not only something that is set apart from anything else found in Sardinia, it is unique in the entire Mediterranean region.
As such, Monte d’Accoddi is an oop-construction, on par with the oop-arts – out of place artefacts – that have generated great interest, and controversy. Situated between the coastal town of Porte Torres and the city of Sassari, the site of Monte d’Accoddi in the northwest part of the largest island of the Mediterranean, is sometimes not even indexed on maps. As such, it doesn’t attract many visitors, despite a very impressive car park, suggesting that when the site was finally fully excavated and opened for tourists, two decades ago, the mass influx of tourists that was expected, never came. Monte d’Accoddi is a pyramid. It is the only pyramid known on Sardinia. It is a large platform pyramid. With a causeway, which is why it is more commonly referred to as a ziggurat. But it also has a menhir (a standing stone). And a dolmen. And a stone sphere. Which makes it even more unique, not just on the island, but the entire Mediterranean Sea, in fact – as too few people have pointed out – in the entire world. For there is no other site in the world that has all of these items all in one place. And that’s what makes Monte d’Accoddi an oop-construction, as it has a bit of everything, but brought together in a manner that no-one else has done as such. Monte d’Accoddi for some means Monte de Code, “stone mountain”, and for others “mountain with tail”. Whichever one is the correct translation, both are correct in their labelling, as that’s precisely what the construction is: a stone platform pyramid with a ramp.
The main structure itself resembles, in appearance, the ziggurats of Mesopotamia. A ziggurat is defined as a “temple tower, either stepped in tiers or spiral, symbolizing the mountain peak where the gods dwelt and where the skies met with the earth.” Ziggurats are thought to represent a cosmic axis, a bridge between heaven and earth and unlike the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, they had a temple on top – like most Mexican pyramids. It is therefore interesting that Monte d’Accoddi shares more with the ziggurats of Mesopotamia than with Egypt, which is closer and easier to reach (by sea) from Sardinia.
The mound measures almost 36 by 29 meters, is nine metres high, tapers inwards, with a long – 42 metres – ramp ascending one side to a flat top. It is orientated north-south, thus conforming to the general rule that pyramids are aligned to the cardinal points. Along the ramp, today, a stone sphere is posed on the right hand side where the ascent begins; along the way, to the left, rises an impressive, 4.7 metres tall standing stone (5.75 tonnes heavy), while to the right, is the “altar” stone of a dolmen, measuring 3.15 by 3.20 metres, weighing 8.2 tonnes. Both standing stone and dolmen are typical of the megalithic remains one can find in so many other locations all over Europe – and beyond – as well as elsewhere on Sardinia. The only differentiator is that these stones are somewhat bigger than your average standing stone or dolmen – the standing stone is in fact the second biggest in Sardinia, after the one of Villa Sant’Antonio (Arborea).
The dolmen differs from many other dolmen because its top surface has a number of cupola – circular indentations – which along the sides are clearly manmade, and enhanced to become little “run-off tunnels”, which run from the top to the side of the stone.
Why a standing stone and a dolmen would stand on either side of the ramp is impossible to explain, as it is unique to this site. The closest parallel to a standing stone one might find elsewhere in this position, is with the obelisks that often stood at both sides of an entrance into an Egyptian temple.
The causeway itself leads to one of the platform levels of the pyramid; to reach the upper level of the pyramid, a series of steps needs to be climbed, which are offset from the centre, and which give access to the flat surface. At one point, this housed a wooden construction, a veritable temple. Archaeologists speculate that right below, at ground level, is a “cave”, on top of which the entire construction was built. Though the cave is likely to have been man-made, construction-wise, it echoes the reasoning behind the Great Pyramid, which was constructed on top of a natural cave. However, the cave’s existence remains somewhat speculative. Sardinia’s culture goes back thousands of years, and was rich, as its megalithic remains, from Giant’s tombs to nuraghis (megalithic stone towers), demonstrate. The area around Monte d’Accoddi has a number of necropoleis, some in the near vicinity of the site. This might suggest that this pyramid might be linked with a cult of dead. But if so, the question is why only one pyramid was ever constructed on the entire island. And why it looks so much like a ziggurat, rather than have a more unique nature, or resemble more e.g. the platform pyramids of Tenerife and the not too distant Sicily. It invites speculation, and a conclusion that someone from elsewhere came here, and he or they alone wanted to be buried in such fashion – their tradition – is a tempting answer.
The problem with this theory is: who? The present construction is dated by some to 2450-1850 BC. However, carbon-dating of three items connected with the second phase of this structure have given a date of 2590 BC. In Sardinia, Mankind was in the Copper Age at that moment in time. But that is just the dating for the structure we see today. It is known that the present construction was built on top of an older, identical but smaller complex.
In fact, there is evidence that this was a sacred spot as early as 5000 BC. Why that would be so, is hard to tell, but perhaps it has to do with the nearby necropoleis. The ziggurat sits in the middle of a plain, whereby some mountains along the horizon can be discerned, but it is not immediately obvious that these would play an intricate spectacle that would involve the sun or the moon, as one is wont to find when it comes to pyramids and like. Still, Anthony Aveni, with the help of E. Proverbio and G. Romano, has found that Monte d’Accoddi was linked with the observations of the moon. It might explain why the structure was erected here and why the site was deemed to be sacred for centuries before the pyramid construction began.
It is known that a village existed here as early as 4200 BC. The menhir itself has been dated to 3500 BC and is ascribed as being part and parcel of the “Ozieri culture”. This was the time when the dead were buried inside the island’s carved-out hypogea, some of which (as mentioned) can be found in the immediate vicinity of the pyramid.
Most interestingly, carbon-dating has revealed that the first phase of the pyramid was built in 3020-2970 BC. Around 3000 BC, it would still be four centuries before the ancient Egyptians would construct their first pyramid, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, in 2630 BC. Even so, that pyramid has no visual resemblance with Monte d’Accoddi. However, ca. 3000 BC, step pyramids that resemble Monte d’Accoddi were being built in Mesopotamia. Coincidence, or evidence that someone from the Middle East at one point came to Sardinia? Though perhaps therefore of foreign influence, the pyramid is dated to the Ozieri culture, named after a local culture in the northwest of Sardinia. Near the platform on the top of the structure, archaeologists have discovered typical Ozieri stiff nude alabaster sculptures, greenstone axes, loom weights, and vases, decorated with circles, spirals, horns, zigzags and triangles. Amongst the finds was also a dish depicting dancing women. These have an hourglass shape and three-toed feet that look like bird claws. The famed archaeologist Marija Gimbutas queried whether some form of ritual dance was perhaps performed on the platform.
As mentioned, the current pyramid measures 36 by 29 metres, with a height of 9 metres and a ramp that is 41.8 metres long. The flat top structure is almost square, 23.80 by 23.40 metres. This platform once housed a structure that is commonly referred to as the “red temple”, as it was painted in red ochre, with its walls and floors plastered. Apart from red ochre, traces of yellow and black colouring have also been found. Its size is described as 5.5 by 25 metres.
The original pyramid measured 23.8 by 27.4 metres, and reached a height of 5.4 metres. The upper platform would have measured 12.5 by 7.25 metres, with a ramp that was 5.5 metres wide and 25 metres long.
After 500 years of use, the structure was therefore enlarged, suggesting its popularity demanded something “more”, but that the alterations did not seriously alter its primary purpose – whatever that precisely was. It is known that the site was inhabited and looked after until after 2000 BC, revealing that a further 500 years of use came out of the improved ziggurat. Still, in use for more than one millennium, it never seems to have been copied elsewhere on the island, suggesting it served a rather unique task. This might mean that no-one else elsewhere on the island was interested in what occurred here, or that the tasks performed here, did not need replication elsewhere. As such, a link with burial practices – which archaeologists have pushed forward for this, like almost all other pyramids – is extremely unlikely.
And why its usage was abandoned, is equally unclear. The next phase of this structure is during the Second World War, when trenches were dug as part of the installation of anti-aircraft batteries, which damaged the construction. In fact, archaeologists, were only let loose on the structure in 1954, initially led by Ercolu Contu (until 1958), with a second series of excavations carried out by Santa Tiné, from 1979 till 1990. One side of the pyramid reveals how it was built: walls built with great stone blocks lined sections, which were then filled with earth, with another level created by adding another “wall” of stone blocks, each interior one built with slightly larger blocks.
Though the interior burial chamber or cave – if there truly is one – has never been uncovered, there is a singular secondary burial of a six year old child. The grave was dug into the southeast angle of the pyramid at a height of three metres above ground, and contained offerings of a tripod vase and a hemispherical bowl. However, by the time the child was buried here, the site was no longer in “original” use.
At the base of the pyramid, archaeologists have also found remains of several animals, which have been interpreted as having been used in sacred meals used on the site. Contu speculated that the meals were linked with the beginning of the agricultural year, in which fertility rites were normally put on, with a marriage of heaven and earth – noting that the pyramid/ziggurat was often seen as a meeting place between heaven and earth. The fact that the structure incorporates some lunar alignments, adds weight to this possibility.
However, Gimbutas said that the structure – which she described as a platform, rather than a pyramid – “may have been used for excarnation”. It would mean that the dead were exposed on the platform, and that animals – most often birds – were allowed to eat away the flesh of the dead. It is a practice in common use in the Middle East and other cultures, but there is insufficient evidence to draw this conclusion for Monte d’Accoddi.
Others have called the site a “prehistoric altar”, shying away from identifying it as a ziggurat or pyramid. However, Leonardo Melis has gone where few dare to tread. He even wonders whether the name Accoddi refers to Akkad, which was the name of a region of the Middle East – containing ziggurats – under the reign of Sargon I. However, ingenious and interesting the linguistic parallels are, Sargon only ruled ca. 2270–2215 BC, at a time when the pyramid was already long constructed. Though the pyramid is the site’s dominating construction, various other structures on the site are equally interesting. The stone sphere sitting near the entrance of the ramp is 0.9 metres high, 4.85 metres in circumference and weighs 1.3 tonnes. Relatively small and to many perhaps unimportant, it is nevertheless another oop-art. Nearby sits a second stone, made from calcium, 0.6 metres high. The bigger stone has cracked and is egg shaped. And, indeed, some archaeologists refer to this stone as an omphalos stone, and compare it to similar stones found in Delphi. The omphalos stone identified a site as a “centre of the world”, as well as a meeting place of heaven and earth.
However, in Greece, the stones are much smaller. If anything, this stone sphere has more in common with the stone spheres of Costa Rica or Bosnia, though in those countries, what they precisely symbolised, has so far not been adequately explained. However, such stones do normally share a common denominator: they were normally located at sites that were deemed to be places of emergence, where heaven and earth had come together. This should begin to sound familiar by now… However, despite almost forty years of excavation on the site, we know little as to what Monte d’Accoddi was, beyond the “visually obvious”. We do not know its use, nor why it was built, or why it was unique. However, the fact that there are so many questions, illustrates how little we truly know about “the pyramid movement” and how it inspired people all over the world, whether in Egypt, Peru, Mesopotamia or here in Sardinia, to begin the construction of pyramids. Currently, the oldest pyramids have been found in Peru. And though in the “Old World” we link pyramids specifically with Egypt, one group of people in north-western Sardinia had built one long before the Egyptian Pyramid Age ever began. That’s all we know, and that’s not much, is it?