Power, society, and (dis)connectivity in medieval Sardinia

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: History


This is a four-year project to explain the history of Sardinia in its medieval Mediterranean context. We are an international team of historians and archaeologists with transdisciplinary skills who will test key hypotheses about Sardinia's unique political development as well as its society and the ways that the island has been understood in the past. With our eleven international collaborating partner institutions, we will establish a major new exhibition of medieval Sardinian history at the Museo Nazionale in Cagliari. With short tours to smaller museums too, we expect more than 300,000 visitors during the project itself, at the end of which the exhibition will be hosted on a permanent basis.

The team will study four interwoven research strands. The first deals with the island's 'connectivity', which is often used to characterise the medieval Mediterranean. However, the second largest island in the Mediterranean--Sardinia--is also understood as a model of isolation. Clearly, these ideas cannot both be correct. We will thus re-evaluate Sardinia vis-à-vis its surrounding regions through a new study of its geopolitical context. We believe that a new and integrated historiography will resolve the paradox of Sardinia as 'the periphery at the centre', redefining the ways we understand the island and its Mediterranean setting.

Sardinian history has been overlooked - but not because it is unimportant. Indeed, its unique development as an unconquered liminal polity among the major powers of the Mediterranean offers important new perspectives on formative phases of Euro-Mediterranean history. For example, the migration of Byzantine monks, soldiers, officials and nobles from North Africa to Sardinia provides paradigm-shifting evidence for the Arab Conquests and the creation of Muslim-Christian frontiers, showing how the dynamics of the Muslim conquest of North Africa were very different to those elsewhere. We will re-assess evidence from the Arab historiographers along wih new archaeological evidence from seals, coins and inscriptions for the earliest phase of the 'Islamisation of Europe'.

We will also examine the autonomous forms of insular governance that emerged between 700 and 1100 through early charters and church records. We will elicit the social and political relations between the rulers, the rural elites, small landholders, and the wider population to offer a new multidisciplinary explanation of networked and negotiated modalities of power and social interaction. Particular emphasis will be laid on the identification of prestige kin-groups and actors in the countryside mentioned in the island's rich documentary record. We will test grave goods from rural parts using a scientific archaeometrical approach to establish the provenance, composition and political, socio-economic and sociological functions of coins, ceramics, weapons, and jewellery. Comparison, integration and elaboration of the data will give new insights into the formation of Sardinian society, both horizontally and vertically, across a complex social network from its rulers to powerful families, and to those holding lands and benefices or giving labour in services.

Finally, we will assemble a major exhibition of documents and artefacts at the Museo Nazionale in Cagliari. There has never been an exhibition of this size and type on the island, nor outside it. An exceptional feature of the display is its emphasis on explaining contexts from a historical perspective, rather than plainly asserting what the assemblages are. Some objects will be reproduced using cutting-edge modelling techniques: full-size, high-quality replicas of inscriptions, coins, seals as well as facsimiles of key documents including charters written in Sardinian vernacular. By measuring 'impact', we will see if a museum exhibition of this type can fundamentally transform understandings of the history for both academics and the wider public for many years to come.

Planned Impact

Today Sardinia is well-known to the wider public because the island is a major tourist destination. It attracts around 2.9 million visitors per year - almost twice its own population. It is not only famous for its beaches, but also for its cultural landscapes and world-class historical sites. Of the latter, the most important remains are displayed at the Museo Nazionale in Cagliari, the island's administrative centre and home to half the island's inhabitants. The museum is the largest of five museums that form part of a cultural complex (the Cittadella dei Musei) within the city's historic ramparts. Attracting up to 85,000 visitors per year, the Museo Nazionale is an enduring hub of international tourism, playing a key role in the island's economy and cultural heritage.

The primary mode of delivering impact in this project is by way of a major new exhibition at the Museo Nazionale, which is one of our international collaborating partners. In year 1, the exhibition will be designed and installed. Initially, it will be held at the Museo Nazionale in years 2 and 4 of the project. In year 3, it will tour provincial museums (il Museo multimediale del Regno di Arborea, Las Plassas; il Civico museo archeologico 'Villa Abbas', Sárdara; il Civico Museo Archeologico, Sinnai, and Il castello giudicale, Sanluri) before returning to the Museo Nazionale. Both the Museo Nazionale and the town council of Sanluri have expressed their desire to host the exhibition on a permanent basis after the lifetime of the project. The museums will capture and measure impact through questionnaires, sales and entry data, and statistics from their online media. As such, the centrepiece of this project will deliver impact in cultural, social and economic terms. It will do so on a wide scale, in a measurable way, and over a long duration.

The exhibition will be housed in a large exhibition space on the third floor of the Museo Nazionale. The museum's permanent exhibitions span from prehistory to he end of the Roman era, so an exhibition on medieval Sardinia will not only be the first of its kind, but it will also open up new experiences of history, archaeology and culture to a varied mix of overseas visitors (mainly European) and the local population (mainly Sardinians and Italians).

In addition to the public, there will be impact benefits for museum staff, heritage professionals, regional businesses as well as teachers and children from local schools. School trips (both local and overseas) to the Museo Nazionale are regular events offering early exposure to key historical themes as encountered through material culture, documents and archaeology. We will ensure that the exhibition engages with school-children by providing a teacher's guide to the display to facilitate a graded and successful learning experience. The teachers' pack will be freely available in Italian, English and Spanish.

In Sardinia, museum staff are from diverse backgrounds, but few have detailed knowledge of the medieval period. Since museum staff and heritage professionals are transmitters of the island's past to a wider audience, they will benefit from combined resources and assistance being invested in this major new display. Via the project's web portal with its podcasts, events page and blog, we will also reach an interested wider public, and an international network of heritage and museum professionals, historians and archaeologists.

In collaboration with the island's main museums, we will boost the importance of cultural heritage a resource for tourist experience on the island. We will convene outreach events at the Italian National Research Centre (ISEM-CNR) in Cagliari to engage local businesses, heritage professionals, student and university staff as well as tour guides (including self-employed guides) in order to highlight the importance of Sardinia's cultural tourism as a vibrant, but underexploited, economic resource.


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