Bible and Beyond
Tharros, the site of an ancient city in Sardinia, is best approached by sea. A scattering of ruins near a small village, it lies on a tiny peninsula that hangs south off the western coast of the island. The site’s easily defensible location and its ample harbor on the Bay of Oristano have shaped its history.

To get to Tharros, we take a boat from the modern city of Oristano, cross the bay and sail past the sheltering waters of the nearby lagoon. Soon the two tall columns that mark the remains of the fallen Roman city come into view.

My husband Dick and I first came to Tharros when we joined a team of Israeli underwater archaeologists as volunteers working in Sardinia during the summer of 1984. The purpose of the expedition was threefold-

• To study the ancient history of the island from remains that can be seen only there.

• To test a side-scan sonar device designed to locate underwater anomalies that are created by archaeological remains.

• To explore the shoreline and underwater installations for evidence of the people who traded and colonized the site in antiquity, especially the Phoenicians, who established a colony on Tharros in the ninth century B.C. and perhaps even earlier.

The expedition was sponsored by the Center for Maritime Studies at Haifa University in Israel and by the Harvard Semitic Museum. Dr. Elisha Linder, from the Center of Maritime Studies, was the director of the group. Professor Frank Moore Cross, Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages at Harvard and a well-known expert on ancient Semitic epigraphy, represented the Harvard Semitic Museum. From Massachusetts Institute of Technology came Harold Edgerton, famed as a teacher, engineer and inventor, who developed the side-scan sonar device that we wanted to test.1

Sardinia bears traces of many cultures. Even before the Phoenicians landed on the island, there flourished on Sardinia an indigenous culture whose traces can still be found at Tharros. Evidence of this indigenous culture survives in the form of remains of great stone towers called nuraghi. Rising like truncated cones in the fields and farmlands, thousands of nuraghi still dot the landscape of Sardinia.

Most of the nuraghi were constructed between 1300 and 1000 B.C., but a few were still being built in the Punic era, between 600 B.C. and the Roman conquest in 238 B.C.2 Nuraghi survive as single structures and as intricate complexes of towers, which sometimes reach as high as three stories.
The nuraghi were built of huge boulders skillfully fitted together without mortar. Corbel construction extending from the stone walls supported spiral staircases, guard chambers, concealed rooms and interior passages.3

The nuraghic towers may have been used as fortresses or military outposts, or as homes to chiefs or nobles, but their primary function was to provide an impregnable defense system.4 They could have been conceived and erected only by a highly organized society that depended on skilled workers directed by a sophisticated administrative authority.

The artistic gifts of the nuraghic culture are revealed in the beautiful bronze figurines that have been found in Sardinia, usually in association with sacred wells. The wells were often constructed with remarkable precision and craftsmanship. Because of their exemplary design and because many votive figures have been found near them, scholars believe that the wells had religious as well as functional significance.5 About 400 of these figurines, or bronzetti, have been discovered. Now on display in Sardinian museums and in other major museums of the world, they include warriors and chieftains wearing cloaks and swords or armed with shields and spears. Some carry offerings; some are wrestling or fighting together. There are many boats, a cart with musicians and a seated woman cradling a child (in the Cagliari museum this figurine is labeled “Woman with Dead Child”). The bronzetti provide a graphic picture of an ancient culture of which we have no written record.

Some archaeologists think that the bronzetti reflect a Phoenician influence. In design and technique they resemble figurines found on the Levantine coast and dated to as early as the 11th century B.C.6 Indeed, many of the bronzetti were fashioned by the indigenous Sardinians long after the arrival of Phoenicians. Recent metallurgical studies indicate that the inhabitants of the nuraghic culture not only knew where to find the ores to support a metalworking industry, but were also accomplished metal workers who understood how to smelt copper.7

The nuraghi builders offered the raw materials and the markets that the Phoenicians were seeking as the latter extended their network of Mediterranean trading partners. And, as one prominent scholar has put it, the Phoenicians initially “sailed the seas simply to trade, not to conquer.” Only later did they settle down as colonists.8

The Phoenicians were originally Canaanites who lived along the Mediterranean coast of what is now northern Israel and Lebanon. They developed a distinctive civilization that flourished in the great cities of Byblos, Tyre and Sidon. Hiram of Tyre was an ally and trading partner of King Solomon in the tenth century B.C. (1 Kings 5-10–12; verses 24–26 in Hebrew).

Hiram provided cedar, gold and craftsmen for the great Temple to the Lord that Solomon built in Jerusalem (1 Kings 9-10–11). Hiram also helped Solomon build a navy, supplying “seamen who were familiar with the sea [1 Kings 9-27], … For the king had a fleet of ships of Tarshish at sea with the fleet of Hiram. Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks” (1 Kings 10-22).

The Phoenicians are well known as sailors, shipbuilders and keen traders. Their pursuit of tin, copper and silver took them to Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa and as far west as the Atlantic coast of Spain and Great Britain. They established trading posts at many of these sites that together formed a chain throughout the Mediterranean, enabling the Phoenicians to send ships to sea for very long journeys.

Lionel Casson, a leading authority on ancient maritime history, notes that the Phoenicians’ sailing routes were determined by prevailing winds. Because northwestern winds dominate the African coast in summer, the Phoenicians, starting from the northern coast of the Mediterranean in locations like Sardinia, may have preferred to sail southwest at the outset, traveling homeward to the Levant by way of Utica in North Africa.9

Classical writers tell us that the Phoenicians were driven from Tyre in about 815 B.C. (or 825 B.C.—authorities differ on the precise date).10 At that time the Phoenician queen, Elissa, established a colony at Carthage on the northern coast of Africa.11 In the sixth century B.C., Carthaginian Phoenicians initiated a second wave of colonization, bringing with them the Punic culture, which, centuries later, would clash with the Romans.

One chilling reminder of the Phoenician presence at Tharros is the tophet, or sacred burial ground. Over the ruins of a nuraghic village on the eastern section of the hill known as Su Muru Manno, the early Phoenician colonists in the eighth century B.C. established their tophet, or burial area, where the ancient ritual of child sacrifice was conducted. At the time, the tophet was separated from the rest of the complex, but, with the arrival of the Carthaginians in the sixth century B.C., the exterior walls of the city were extended and modified to include the tophet.

In the museums of archaeology in Oristano and at Cagliari some of the finds from ancient Tharros are preserved- from the tophet, sculptured stelae (burial memorial stones) with characteristic symbols of, and inscriptions to, the goddess Tanit; two sandstone lions that may have guarded the city gates; and typical mushroom-lipped Phoenician jars. Also on display were some burial jars; they resembled those found at Carthage and Sulcis (in southwestern Sardinia) that once contained the bones of infants and small children.

Pottery from the Tharros tophet indicates that Tharros was founded in the time of the early Phoenician colonial expansion when Carthage itself was first established in North Africa (c. ninth century B.C.).12

We learned more about the hill of Su Muru Manno from the late Professor Ferruccio Barreca when he invited the Israeli group to walk with him over the site of Tharros. Below the tophet, he pointed out the massive walls of a Phoenician-Punic temple near a 17th-century tower from the Spanish period. Barreca said the temple appears to be of Semitic origin.

He showed us where he thought a canal had cut through the isthmus and where two heavy walls, once intended to defend against invaders, faced north. The newcomers from Carthage, who arrived in the sixth century B.C., extended the city wall to include Su Muru Manno, where the tophet is located. A stone gate with peaked stone slabs, part of the new city-wall, provided entry to the city.
Barreca believed that this fortification protected a naval stronghold much broader in scale than the usual Phoenician port. The massive wall also provides evidence of a political shift. Tharros was no longer simply a successful commercial trading post. It had become a Punic naval stronghold. By the end of the sixth century B.C., Carthage had consolidated its sovereignty over Sardinia and began to fortify the island against incursions from Rome.13

Eventually Rome prevailed. Below the tophet the ruins of the Roman city reach to the shores of the bay. A well-engineered road of black basalt, the cardo, leads through the Roman city to the impressive temple of Demeter. Among the rubble of residential dwellings, market stalls and Roman public buildings, one can see typical Phoenician walls. Remains of the Imperial Roman period, beginning with Augustus’s occupation of Sardinia in 6 A.D.,14 were sometimes superimposed on structures from the Republican Roman period, which began with Rome’s defeat of Carthage in 238 B.C. and lasted until Augustus’s ascendancy in 27 B.C. Among the Roman remains, traces of the earlier Punic-Phoenician settlement can be detected.

Our expedition team stayed in Oristano, on the eastern side of the bay. On our first day we took our motor launch, the Sea Horse, to the peninsula. As we approached Tharros, we saw the two tall columns marking the ruins of the Roman city silhouetted against the hills of the peninsula. Cruising south around the bottom of the peninsula, we passed under the high basalt cliffs of Capo San Marco. Proceeding north on the western side of the peninsula, we could see the remains of gaping shaft tombs and stone sarcophagi that had tumbled down the cliff into the sands below. In the 19th century, looters tore apart a vast Phoenician-Punic necropolis here, taking with them a treasure of gold jewelry and precious objects. The finds that survive now in the British Museum attest to the wealth and sophistication of Punic Tharros.

On the beach the tourist season was in full swing. Families gathered in the shelter of ruined stone structures—archaic staircases and arches offering shade to bathers and picnickers along the beach.
The team worked along the shore, probing outcroppings that might be walls, searching the Roman market area for signs of docks and jetties, and diving in the waters close to the isthmus in search of signs of an early canal.

Dick and I were assigned to work in the shallows at the foot of the Roman city. Encased in our wet suits, with weights and snorkel gear, we peered through our masks as Udi Gallili (one of the expedition’s underwater archaeologists) pointed to a depression close to the sea’s edge and overturned a large rock a few feet from the shoreline. Udi filtered the sand through his fingers. Six Roman coins, hooks and nails and a Roman arrowhead came into view. When the coins were cleaned, we could distinguish the name of Constantine on one of them.15

Meanwhile, on the shore, Harold Edgerton was setting up his side-scan sonar device. A professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Edgerton is best known as the inventor of electronic flash photography. He is also famous for his innovative experiments with stroboscopic light. After a distinguished career as an inventor, he was still exploring new avenues of discovery and new ways to make his scientific know-how available, not only to engineers and physicists, but to social scientists as well. He had joined the Tharros expedition to see if his side-scan sonar system could uncover information that would be useful to archaeologists.

Edgerton’s device consisted of a small black box with a recording drum that was mounted, under a sheltering canopy, on a Boston whaler. The whaler would cruise back and forth in front of the shoreline, while Edgerton and his group watched the recording instruments for signs of an anomaly under the seabed.

While Edgerton’s group shuttled back and forth in the waters bordering the coast, the rest of us explored beneath the surface with masks, fins, snorkels and a few aqualungs. We worked along the basalt blocks that had tumbled into the bay from the ruins of the ancient city, trying to determine the outlines of earlier harbor installations.

Poseidonia, the heavy sea-grass that covers the rocks beneath the surface of the water, impeded the readings of Edgerton’s sonar device, but eventually the instrument detected a strange anomaly, a kind of platform. Was it a natural formation or a manmade structure? Divers were then sent down to investigate further.

In the evenings, members of the expedition gathered to hear from Sardinian archaeologists, visiting scholars and group members with special expertise. From a local diver-geologist, Roberta Sanna, we learned about the formation of the rocks on the peninsula, and we heard diverse opinions on an issue critical to an understanding of the harbor’s underwater structure- whether or not water levels had shifted since ancient times.

We also took time to visit other sites on the island. One excursion was to the Museum of Archaeology at Cagliari. There Frank Cross showed us the Nora Stone with its famous inscription. Found in 1773, on Sardinia’s southern coast, at the site of Nora—a Roman city built, like Tharros, over an earlier Phoenician-Punic settlement—the Nora Stone is a slab of stone, called a stela, 3.5 feet high and nearly 2 feet wide, on which there is an eight-line inscription.

Cross believes the top of the stela has been broken off and that two lines from the top of the stela are missing. The Semitic letters are incised in Phoenician style. Based on an analysis of the letters’ shape and stance, Cross has concluded that the Nora Stone was inscribed in the second half of the ninth century B.C. His reading of the inscription supports the idea of a Phoenician presence in Sardinia as early as the ninth century B.C. According to Cross, the two missing lines told that Phoenicians fought with the local Sardinians. The inscription begins with the words “at Tarshish,” perhaps a reference to the place where the battle may have occurred.

We wondered whether there might be a connection between the ships of Tarshish, mentioned in the Bible, and Tharros, the Phoenician port-city we were exploring in Sardinia? The Bible frequently speaks of Tarshish ships (see, for example, 1 Kings 10-22, 22-48 [verse 49 in Hebrew]; Isaiah 2-16; Ezekiel 27-25). Scholars cannot agree whether “ships of Tarshish” refers to a place, to a kind of ship or to a complex set of trade routes. Jonah, when ordered to go to Nineveh, instead took a ship going to Tarshish (Jonah 1-3). Biblical commentators often explain that the Tarshish referred to here and in other biblical passages was probably a place called Tartessus, which they associate with a Phoenician colony near Cadiz, in Spain.16

Cross thinks that the Tarshish of the Nora Stone was probably a metal-refining town in Sardinia, since the Semitic root means “to smelt.” There were, in fact, many places known as “Tharsis” or “Tarsis” or “Tharros” or “Tarshish” in the ancient world. Other scholars, too, have noted that these places take their names from the Semitic root—that they were the “Smelt-towns” of the ancient world.17

The Nora Stone declares that someone drove out the Sardinians and “Among the Sardinians he is (now) at peace and his army is at peace.” Cross believes that two missing lines contained a kind of introduction stating that the Phoenicians fought the Sardinians. Then the inscription names a Phoenician general—Milkaton. He is said to be a general of the Phoenician king Pummay. Pummay, also written “Pu’myaton,” ruled in Tyre from 831 to 785 B.C. (In Greek translation, Pu’myatan is known as Pygmalion.) Cross concludes that the Phoenicians sent an army to Sardinia in about 825 B.C. to pacify the natives and protect Phoenicia’s mining interests there.

The Cagliari museum displays another inscription of great interest. Also found at Nora in the 19th century, it is a small stone only 18 inches high and 24 inches wide. Known as the Nora Fragment, it was once part of a stela of more monumental proportions, which was broken up and reused for building stones. It contains a two-line inscription with just nine letters, which are deeply and clearly engraved. Like the Nora Stone, the Nora Fragment was written in Semitic letters in Phoenician style. Although the text has not yet been translated, Cross has been able to date the inscription on the basis of the shape and stance of the letters. He analyzed each of the letters for us and told us that the inscription was first published upside down! The inscription was written in boustrophedon, that is, it was intended to be read following a path from right to left in one line, then from left to right in the next, and so on, “as the ox ploughs” (which is what “boustrophedon” means). This style of writing, Cross explained, died out before the end of the 11th century B.C. Based on this fact and on his analysis of the shape and stance of the letters, Cross dates the Nora Fragment to the 11th century B.C.

The Nora Fragment is thus the oldest Semitic inscription ever found in the central or western Mediterranean. It strongly supports the theory that Phoenicians were present in Sardinia in the 11th century B.C., or even earlier.

Dick took a picture of the Nora Fragment and Cross used Dick’s photo in a scholarly article he later published about the inscription. On the basis of his examination of the fragment, Cross wrote, “I believe there can be little doubt that the Phoenician merchant marine and Phoenician traders in metal visited Sardinia on their western reaches at least as early as the eleventh century.”18 Cross sent us a copy of the article, and as I read those words I could hear them echoing in the museum of Cagliari, where we saw the Nora Fragment for the first time.

In 1985 and 1986, Elisha Linder and his team returned to Tharros to investigate the anomaly located by Harold Edgerton’s side-scan sonar device. Despite the impenetrable sea-grass, Edgerton’s device had located a major wall or harbor installation buried in the seabed off the shoreline of the eastern harbor. Linder and his divers have charted the structure, which appears to be the remains of a seawall or of a fortified harbor installation, sunken in the silt of the sea bottom some 300 feet offshore. In about 15 feet of water, it runs parallel to the coastline for nearly 400 feet. It was built of flat pavement stones and single rectangular blocks, with a deeper stratum of stones beneath the top layer.

According to Linder, “such a structure would have functioned as a breakwater enclosing a body of water to form a protected harbor. It might also have been used as a type of ‘emporium’ where larger merchantmen could unload their cargo on small boats, to be carried to shore.”19

Further investigation may establish that the structure was part of an important Phoenician-Punic harbor. If so, it may shed more light on the role played by the Phoenicians at Tharros and on the trading networks they established throughout the western Mediterranean.

1. The 1984 expedition worked in close cooperation with directors of antiquities in both the southwest and northern regions of Sardinia. Fulvia Lo Schiavo was director of antiquities for Sassari and Nuoro; and the late Ferruccio Barreca was then director of antiquities for Cagliari and Oristano.

2. Margaret Guido, Sardinia (New York Praeger, 1963), p. 21.

3. Miriam S. Balmuth, “The Nuraghi of Sardinia- An Introduction” in Studies in Sardinian Archaeology, ed. Balmuth and Robert J. Rowland, Jr. (Ann Arbor- Univ. of Michigan Press, 1984), p. 28.

4. Lenore Gallin, “The Prehistoric Towers of Sardinia.” Archaeology 40 (Sept./Oct. 1987), p. 29.

5. Balmuth, “The Nuraghi of Sardinia,” p. 34.

6. Enrico Acquaro, “Bronzes,” in The Phoenicians, ed. Committee of Palazzo Grassi (Milan- Bompiani, 1988), p. 422.

7. Balmuth, “The Nuraghi of Sardinia,” p. 40.

8. Sabatino Moscati, “Colonization of the Mediterranean,” in The Phoenicians, pp. 46–48.

9. Lionel Casson, The Ancient Mariners (London- Gollancz, 1960), p. 71.

10. Frank Moore Cross, private communication to the author, September 1988- “The date of the founding of Carthage is also put at 825 B.C. by Pompeius Trogus, and confirmed in the Annals of Tyre, as reported by Josephus.”

11. Moscati, “The Carthaginian Empire,” in The Phoenicians, p. 54. Elissa’s name was linked with that of Dido, and thus she appears in Virgil’s poem.

12. Ferruccio Barreca, “The City and the Site of Tharros” in Tharros- A Catalogue of Material in the British Museum from Phoenician and Other Tombs at Tharros, Sardinia, ed. Trustees of the British Museum, R.D. Barnet and C. Mendelson (London- British Museum, 1987), pp. 25–26.

13. Barreca, “The City and the Site,” p. 26.

14. Carlo Tronchetti, “The Cities of Roman Sardinia,” in Studies in Sardinian Archaeology (see note 3), p. 241.

15. The coins, like all our finds, were turned over to representatives of the Sardinian museums that sponsored our expedition.

16. See Cyrus H. Gordon, “Tarshish” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4, ed. George A. Buttrick, et al., (Nashville, TN- Abingdon, 1962), p. 517.

17. William Foxwell Albright, “New Light on the Early History of Phoenician Colonization,” Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research 83 (1941), pp. 14–23.

18. Cross, “Working With No Data,” in Semitic and Egyptian Studies- Presented to Thomas O. Lambdin, ed. David M. Golomb (Winona Lake, IN- Eisenbrauns, 1987) p. 71.

19. Elisha Linder, “The Maritime Installation of Tharros (Sardinia)- A Recent Discovery,” Estratta da- Rivista Di Studi Fenici, vol. 15, no. 1 (1987), p. 50.