ARCHAEOLOGY | Nora, the fascination of an ancient Sardinian town

Nora stands on the peninsula that closes the Gulf of Cagliari to the south-west and was one of the major centers of Sardinia in Phoenician, Punic and Roman times; apart from the enchantment evoked by nature and the surrounding landscape, what is surprising is the sight of archaeological finds that testify to three thousand years of Sardinian history.

From the flowering to the decline

Thanks to its privileged geographical position within the commercial network of the ancient Mediterranean, it was inhabited since the Phoenician age (7th-6th century BC) and experienced a considerable development during the Punic phase (5th-2nd century BC). During the sixth century B.C., thanks to the domination of the Carthaginians, the city experienced a period of economic wealth due to the trade with Africa.

Sardinia becomes Roman in 238 B.C. After having entered in Rome’s political sphere, the city of Nora had a first phase of flowering in the second half of the I century B.C., when it became a municipium; the moment of maximum vitality was between the end of the II century A.D. and the following century. From the Severan age the town assumed its definitive urban structure, with the construction of a good part of the monuments that we still see today.

The slow and progressive abandonment occurred from the fifth century AD, probably due to the invasion of the Vandals, which led the population to move to safer areas of the hinterland, until complete abandonment in medieval times.

Currently, in the ancient Phoenician, Punic and then Roman commercial center we can observe the Phoenician necropolis, the housing complex and the Punic tophet.

Among the ancient paved streets in andesite, you can still admire one of the best preserved buildings of Nora, the beautiful theatre, built in the early first century BC. Impressive are the thermal baths, often decorated with magnificent mosaics dating from the 2nd to 4th century AD.

Mosaics in Nora

Various are the religious structures, such as the Punic Temple of Tanit, located on the hill which bears the same name, and the II-III century AD sanctuary of Aesculapius.

There are also numerous private houses, often equipped with water cisterns, built with walls in opus caementicium and africanum (a building technique invented by the Romans), sometimes particularly prestigious, such as the house with the tetrastyle atrium, with the III-IV century AD suggestive mosaics. Near the sea there is the forum, with its regular shape, which preserves bases of honorary statues of famous people.

The Stele of Nora
The Stele of Nora

The Phoenician presence is testified by the discovery of the Stele of Nora, the most important and, in many ways, enigmatic epigraphic document in Phoenician characters found in Sardinia, among the oldest in the western Mediterranean.

It is a document of exceptional importance: if after 244 years of studies the content of the eight lines engraved in porous sandstone is still debated, it is evident that, behind those signs, the stele still hides its intimate truth. Exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari, it can be dated around the 8th century B.C. and bears an inscription in the Phoenician alphabet, on  the interpretation of which scholars are still debating.

For some researchers the characters of the alphabet would not be only and purely Phoenician, but it would be a mixed Phoenician-Sardinian alphabet; however the data are still not completely reliable. In the stele, moreover, it is likely that there is the oldest attestation of the name of Sardinia.


We inform the kind readers that the column Archaeology in Italy will be published in the new bimonthly magazine ArcheoMe starting from February 2021… See you soon…

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