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Journeys to the Underworld:

Ritual Transformations of Persons, Objects and Caves in Prehistoric Central Sardinia

A research project of the Department of Archaeology


Rarely has it been possible to evaluate ideas about the ritual transformation of persons, objects and caves using a range of modern scientific techniques, on an entirely new and high-quality archaeological dataset. Such an opportunity was provided by the discovery (by Dott. Giusi Gradoli, COMET – Valorizzazione Risorse Territoriali) and initial contextualization (by Dr. Terrence Meaden, Oxford University Department of Continuing Education) of an extraordinarily large and well-preserved group of at least nine ritual caves in the territory of Seulo, situated in the deep interior of Sardinia.

Each cave contains rich intact prehistoric mortuary deposits (including substantial secondary deposits of human bones, animal bones, charcoal and ashes, pottery, mollusc shells, obsidian artefacts) and one has rare anthropomorphic cave paintings. The majority of this material can be assigned to between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. The utilized caves range from wide rock-shelters to small chambers, long corridors, and large complex cave systems with elaborate speleothems, and – together with numerous unexplored natural caves – are distributed along valleys formed by tributaries of the River Flumendosa. These dissect an extensive limestone plateau, which may have formed the focus of settlement and subsistence in later prehistory, to judge by the presence of scattered surface remains.

This research programme, directed by Professor Robin Skeates, therefore sought to establish:

  1. the diversity of natural caves and their human uses, over space and time, in the territory of Seulo;
  2. how some of these caves and their natural features were selectively and variously modified from natural spaces into sacred places;
  3. the character and variety of rites of passage performed and experienced in these sacred caves by different members of society;
  4. the degree to which these persons and the material dimensions of their cave ritual traditions were connected to (or marginalized from) wider patterns of life over space, on different geographical scales, and transformed over time (from prehistory to the present).

This project was funded by The British Academy (£52,384), the Fondazione Banco di Sardegna (20,000 Euros), the Max Planck Institute for History and the Sciences (£4125) and The Prehistoric Society (£350).

The fieldwork was undertaken with the permission of the Direzione Generale per i Beni Archeologici (Roma), and in collaboration with the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Sardegna and the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici per le Provincie di Sassari e Nuoro.

Archaeologists excavating a cave and finds from the excavation


Published Results

Edited book

  • Bergsvik, K.A. & Skeates, R. (2012). Caves in Context: The Cultural Significance of Caves and Rockshelters in Europe. Oxbow Books.

Journal Article

  • Marcus, J.H., Posth, C., Ringbauer, H., Lai, L., Skeates, R., Sidore, C., Beckett, J., Furtwängler, A., Olivieri, A., Chiang, C.W.K., Al-Asadi, H., Dey, K., Joseph, T.A., Liu, C.C., Der Sarkissian, C., Radzevičiūtė, R., Michel, M., Gradoli, M.G., Marongiu, P., Rubino, S., Mazzarello, V., Rovina, D., La Fragola, A., Serra, R.M., Bandiera, P., Bianucci, R., Pompianu, E., Murgia, C., Guirguis, M., Pla Orquin, R., Tuross, N., van Dommelen, P., Haak, W., Reich, D., Schlessinger, D., Cucca, F., Krause, J. and Novembre, J. (2020). Genetic history from the Middle Neolithic to present on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. Nature Communications, 11, 939.
  • Key, F.M., Posth, C., Esquivel Gomez, R., Hübler, R. Spyrou, M., Neumann, G., Furtwängler, A., Sabin, S., Burri, M., Wissgott, A., Kumar Lankapalli, A., Vågene, Å.J., Meyer, M., Nagel, S., Tukhbatova, R., Khohlov, A., Chizhevsky, A., Hansen, S., Belinsky, A.B., Kalmykov, A., Kantorovich, A.R., Maslov, V.E., Vai, S., Zavattaro, M., Riga, A., Caramelli, D., Skeates, R., Beckett, J., Gradoli, M.G., Steuri, N., Hafner, A., Siebke, I., Lösch, S., Selim Erdal, Y., Alikhan, N.-F., Zhou, Z., Achtman, M., Bos, K., Reinhold, S., Haak, W., Kuehnert, D., Herbig, A. and Krause, J. (2020). Emergence of human-adapted Salmonella enterica is linked to the Neolithization process. Nature Ecology and Evolution
  • Olivieri, A., Sidore, C., Achilli, A., Angius, A., Posth, C., Furtwängler, A., Brandini, S., Rosario Capodiferro, M., Gandini, F., Zoledziewska, M., Pitzalis, M., Maschio, A., Busonero, F., Lai, L., Skeates, R., Gradoli, M.G., Beckett, J., Marongiu, M., Mazzarello, V., Marongiu, P., Rubino, S., Rito, T., Macaulay, V., Semino, O., Pala, M., Abecasis, G.R., Schlessinger, D., Conde-Sousa, E., Soares, P., Richards, M.B., Cucca, F. and Torroni, A. (2017). Mitogenome diversity in Sardinians: a genetic window onto an island's past. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 34(5): 1230–1239.
  • Skeates, R.G., Beckett, J. & Gradoli, M.G. (2013). The cultural life of caves in Seulo, central Sardinia Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 26(1): 97-126.
  • Skeates, Robin (2011). The Seulo caves project, Sardinia: a report on archaeological work undertaken in 2009 and 2010. Cave and Karst Science 38(3): 131-136.

Chapter in book

  • Skeates, R. (2016). Experiencing darkness and light in caves: later prehistoric examples from Seulo in central Sardinia. In The Archaeology of Darkness. Dowd, M. & Hensey, R. Oxford: Oxbow Books. 39-49.

Staff from the Department of Archaeology

  • Professor Robin Skeates

Related Seulo Caves Project download links