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Caerdroia - the Journal of Mazes & Labyrinths
The Tomba del Labirinto, Luzzanas, Sardinia
Jeff & Kimberly Saward
The labyrinth inscribed inside the Tomba del Labirinto, Luzzanas, Sardinia
Photo: Jeff Saward, February 2005
Reprinted from Caerdroia 35 - 2005 - pp.5-11
The labyrinth incised on the wall of a rock-cut tomb, popularly known as the "Tomba
del Labirinto," at Luzzanas on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, off the west
coast of Italy, has been the subject of some discussion ever since it was first 'discovered'
and published by the archaeologist Ercole Contu in 1965.(1) Most notably this debate
concerns the age of the inscription and the unusual additional lines extending from
the entrance of the labyrinth. Whilst visiting Sardinia during February 2005, we
resolved to find this little-visited labyrinth location, to study and photograph
the inscription, and attempt to clear up at least some of the confusion.
Finding this site is a challenge. It is not marked on even the most detailed of Sardinian
maps, nor mentioned in any of the archaeological guides generally available on the
island. To the best of our knowledge, the first written description of its location
was given by David Singmaster in Caerdroia 30, subsequent to his successful visit
in 1997, and without his notes and a detailed map of the area we would have struggled
to find it.(2)
Luzzanas itself is a vaguely defined area of agricultural land to the south and east
of the confluence of the rivers Mannu and Tirso, to the north of the minor road that
leads between the villages of Bultei and Benetutti, approximately 20 km northwest
of Nuoro. The nearest signposted landmark is the spa building at Terme Aurora, from
where any attempt to find the site should begin. The tomb is situated about 1.2 km
to the north of the spa, in open fields, on the southeast bank of the River Tirso.
To find the Tomba del Labirinto, we parked at the gates of a construction site, apparently
another uncompleted spa building, at the end of the small road that leads off north,
into the fields, opposite the Terme Aurora spa. We walked out through the field behind
the construction site down to the riverbank and then headed upstream, to the northeast.
Following the upper edge of the riverbank for around 600 metres, climbing over or
round two field walls along the way, a few scrubby trees and bushes growing around
the rock outcrop containing the tomb provides a clue to the exact whereabouts, about
150 metres before the river makes a sharp turn to the northwest. A small hole, around
one metre deep, on the north side of the rock outcrop, leads down into the tomb.
Fortunately there were no livestock in these fields when we visited, but as sheep
flocks in Sardinia are usually guarded by 'wild' dogs, which bark and bite, we would
advise considerable caution to anybody else attempting to visit this site. The tomb
also contains a number of roosting bats by day, and efforts should be made not to
disturb these, or the wasp nests on the ceiling!
The entrance to the Tomba del Labirinto, looking northwest Photo: Jeff Saward, February
The tomb itself is of a remarkable form, popularly known as a Domus de Janas (Fairy
House), consisting of a series of chambers excavated with stone tools and picks directly
into solid rock, usually the limestone that outcrops widely across the island, either
underground or directly into a cliff face. Well over a thousand of these tombs are
known in Sardinia, and they belong to the Ozieri (or San Michele) culture, an advanced
society of hunters, herders and farmers who worked copper as well as flint, obsidian
and ceramics, and flourished during the Neolithic period, between c.3400 to c.2500
BCE. Their tombs continued to be used for secondary interments through to the time
of the Roman occupation of Sardinia, indeed a few were even re-used during the Early
The example at Luzzanas is of the underground type, carved into the limestone that
outcrops in the field adjacent to the riverbank. The tomb consists of four or more
interconnected chambers, which as they have never been excavated, are still partly
filled with soil and debris. The northernmost chamber was flooded with water on the
occasion of our visit in February 2005, although the central and western chambers
were essentially dry, if a little damp and muddy.
The interior of the Tomba del Labirinto Photo: Jeff Saward, February 2005
There is a small hole in the eastern side of the central chamber, which admits a
little daylight, but it is difficult to determine if this was the original entrance.
Currently, the central chamber, about 2.5 x 1.5 metres wide, is entered through a
narrow carved doorway on the south side, from the base of the hole in the rock, which
may once have been the original entrance, or a separate ante-chamber, the roof of
which has collapsed. Another chamber, completely filled with debris, leads off from
the opposite side of this small chamber, back into the rock outcrop.
Inside the tomb, the walls of the chambers are essentially plain, apart from the
pick and hammer marks remaining from the original construction of the chambers. However,
on the wall on the northwest side of the central chamber, to the right of the narrow
doorway that leads into the western chamber, are a number of items of graffiti. By
far the most prominent, is a labyrinth of 'classical' design, 30 cm wide and 33.5
cm high, the uppermost circuit of which almost reaches the ceiling of the chamber.
The lines that form the labyrinth have clearly been carved by a confident hand with
a sharp implement, probably a metal blade, as the groove is fairly consistent in
width and is deeply incised (3 to 5 mm deep in places), although the line is shallower
in places where the undulating rock surface has caused the carving tool to skip.
As is common with incised labyrinth graffiti of this free-hand nature, the procedure
for constructing the labyrinth design can still be discerned. The central cross has
clearly been constructed first; the lines are somewhat bolder and more deeply incised.
Then the arcs that mark the ends of the path loops have been inserted in the angles
of the cross, and finally, four short strokes have been added to mark the ends of
the 'walls' of the labyrinth - the familiar 'seed pattern' encountered worldwide,
wherever the classical labyrinth symbol is found. In particular, the central 'seed
pattern' of the Luzzanas labyrinth is remarkably similar to the much smaller example
inscribed on the Tragliatella vase, although the Luzzanas labyrinth has the opening
to the left rather than the right.
In addition to the labyrinth, there are a number of other marks on the rock surface,
including a number of linear gouges and deep scratches that may have been made by
either human or animal activity in the tomb over the years, especially lower down
on the wall. To the left and partly overlapping the labyrinth are a number of modern
characters and numbers, evidently drawn sometime in the early or mid 20th century,
with a thick blue wax crayon, now thankfully beginning to flake off from the rock
surface in places. It is known that the tomb was used, prior to its discovery by
archaeologists, by local farmers as a shelter in bad weather.(3)
Also to the left, and below the labyrinth, are a number of shallow scratch marks,
vertical, horizontal and diagonal, that fail to form any obvious coherent pattern,
but appear, possibly, to have been scratched in one single episode. Several of these
shallow scratches impinge against the outermost circuit of the labyrinth, and two
in particular meet at the line leading out from the entrance of the labyrinth. It
is quite clear from their appearance and their shallow grooves, scratched with a
sharp point, not deeply carved as is the case with the lines of the labyrinth, that
these were surely added at a later time and clearly do not form part of the original
This point is significant, as several authors have commented on these additional
lines projecting from the lower edge of the design, assuming they are part of the
labyrinth.(4) Hermann Kern comments that the "guiding line… points left towards the
door" to emphasize his point that the location of the labyrinth beside the entrance
doorway into the adjacent chamber is "evoking a door or a threshold through which
the deceased had to pass."
This confusion is understandable, as the only photograph of the Luzzanas inscription
commonly published is the one supplied by Rainer Pauli in the late 1970's to Kern,
that was subsequently reproduced in his monumental Labyrinthe in 1982, and has been
widely copied from this source ever since.(5) However, this photograph has clearly
been 'doctored,' the lines of the labyrinth have been inked-in to emphasize the design,
including the incidental lines that touch the line below the entrance.
The wall with the labyrinth and other graffiti, and a hibernating bat! Photo: Jeff
Saward, February 2005
Above: the 'enhanced' photo taken by Rainer Pauli in the late 1970's, published by
Kern, 1982 Right: as photographed by Jeff Saward, February 2005
With this matter resolved, attention must now turn to the question of the age of
the Luzzanas labyrinth. In his original description of the inscription, Contu simply
regarded it as prehistoric, though he admits that it could be much more recent, even
modern. Pauli ascribed it to the Early Nuraghic period of Sardinian history, when
many of these Neolithic Domus de Janas tombs were re-used, dating the labyrinth to
c.1500-1000 BCE, although he provides no evidence of Nuraghic activity at this location
to support his dating.(6) Kern on the other hand was clearly convinced that the tomb
and the labyrinth on its wall were contemporary, and he gives an implied dating of
2500-2000 BCE, which like his illustration, has been widely and uncritically repeated
Staffan Lundén was probably the first to express serious concerns about these differing
and rather arbitrary dates, and basing his reasoning on the apparent use of an iron
knife blade to carve the labyrinth, suggested a date-range from around 850 BCE, when
iron tools first appear in Sardinia, to as late as the 5th century CE.(7) This later
date is based on the virtual disappearance of the simple 'classical' labyrinth in
the Mediterranean area after the Roman period. This would certainly seem to be a
valid terminal dating, indeed a Roman origin for the Luzzanas labyrinth would seem
quite likely, as other Roman labyrinth inscriptions and graffiti are known from around
the Mediterranean and both the labyrinth legend and symbol were clearly widely known
at this time.(8) There was a considerable Roman presence in Sardinia and examples
of apparent Roman or Punic graffiti are known in other prehistoric tombs on the island.(9)
It is, of course, possible that the labyrinth is relatively recent, but the damp
conditions inside the tomb have already smoothed the edges of the carving, and the
overlying later additions to the graffiti on the wall are certainly suggestive of
a considerable age for the labyrinth itself.
While Lundén concedes that the labyrinth could have been carved with a sharp stone
tool, rather than an iron blade, the notion that the labyrinth is contemporary with
the tomb can be almost completely ruled out. While the majority of the Domus de Janas
tombs are entirely plain, apart from the carved doorways between the interconnecting
chambers, a small number have extensive carved decoration inside, including bull's
heads and stylised bull's horns. A few are even carved to imitate the interior of
contemporary wooden buildings, complete with doorways, windows and roof beams, but
the key feature of these Neolithic decorations is that they are all carved in relief
and in a very distinctive style; incised designs like the Luzzanas labyrinth are
unknown in this context.(10)
Carved blocks with geometric designs, Nuraghe Nurdole, Sardina - Bull's horns decoration,
Domus del'Elefante, Sardinia
Incised geometric designs are found, however, on ashlar blocks formerly decorating
the walls of the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age Nuraghe towers and temples that
form such a distinctive feature of the Sardinian landscape.(11) Although many concentric
circular designs, coupled with rectangular and diagonal design elements, often very
angular and precisely inscribed, are known on both stone and ceramic objects, to
date no labyrinths have been reported amongst this Nuragic material, so the Luzzanas
inscription would be quite unique if it were from this cultural context and timespan.
There are also occasional incised carvings and graffiti found in association with
the late Bronze Age Tomba dei Giganti (Giant's Tombs), including two inscriptions
found at Rio di Palmis, near Sulcis, with depictions of people, animals and wheeled
carts, which have been compared with the carvings of Val Camonica in Northern Italy
- a location famous for its labyrinths, the age of which is a matter of some debate,
but they are commonly dated to around c.700-450 BCE.(12)
We have already noted the apparent similarity between the construction technique
of the labyrinth at Luzzanas and the labyrinth incised on the Etruscan Tragliatella
vase, found on the west coast of Italy, and dating from c.650-600 BCE. Another two
labyrinths drawn alongside each other in a very similar fashion, albeit inverted,
found at Gordion in Turkey, date to around 750 BCE.(13) While it can be argued that
the universal nature of the labyrinth construction technique might render these similarities
no more than a coincidence, it is perhaps interesting that four examples, at three
locations in the Mediterranean area, two of which are securely dated within a century
or so of each other, should be so similar. Perhaps the Luzzanas labyrinth also fits
within this timeframe, and this precise way of drawing a freehand labyrinth was the
widespread technique in circulation at this time?
Either way, judging on the scant evidence for the dating of the Luzzanas labyrinth,
it seems fair to say that it could be from almost anywhere between the early Iron
Age, c.900-850 BCE in Sardinia, to the end of the Roman occupation of the island
in the early 5th century CE. Unless future excavation of the Tomba del Labirinto
provides some obvious evidence of the visitors that have entered the tomb over the
years that can be linked to the labyrinth itself, we will probably never know more
precisely than that.
Of course, the question of what the labyrinth on the wall at Luzzanas means is another
matter. Contu, admitting the problems of interpreting the symbol, saw it as a symbol
of initiation, life, death and rebirth, quite at home in the tomb. Kern saw it as
a funerary symbol within the "womb of Mother Earth." Lundén conjectures that if there
were evidence for Roman activity in the tomb, then it might be seen as serving an
apotropaic, or protective purpose. If the labyrinth was carved by a casual visitor
to the tomb, long after its original construction, as seems likely, then maybe this
descent through a hole in the ground into an 'underworld' of gloomy interconnecting
chambers reminded them of the Theseus and the Minotaur story, prompting the carving
of the labyrinth on the wall. If this were the case, then an origin in the second
half of the 1st millennium BCE or the Roman period, when these stories were well
known in the Mediterranean world, would be all the more likely.
Jeff Saward & Kimberly Lowelle Saward; Thundersley, England, March 2005 (Revised, May
Notes and References:
1. Contu, E. "Nuovi petroglifi schematici della Sardegna" in Bollettino di Paletnologia
Italiana, Bd.74, 1965, p.65-122.
2. See Singmaster, D. "The Oldest Labyrinth in Sardinia" in Caerdroia 30 (1999),
pp.17-21. Our thanks go to David for his original article, and the photographs and
maps he provided, that allowed us to retrace his steps and find the tomb again. During
the winter month of February 2005 there was considerably less vegetation obscuring
the entrance to the tomb than when David visited in June 1997.
3. Contu, ibid.
4. The late Jacques Hebert had previously questioned the validity of the extra lines
at the entrance - see his website www.labyreims.com - but he assumed a drawing error
5. Kern, H. Labyrinthe. Prestel, 1982. See page 88, catalogue no.76. Kern, H. Through
the Labyrinth. Prestel, 2000. See page 66 & 67, catalogue no.76.
6. Pauli, R. Sardinien. Geschichte, Kultur, Landschaft. Entdeckungsreisen auf einer
der schönsten Inseln im Mittelmeer. Feengrotten, Nauraghen und Kastelle. Köln, 1978.
7. Lundén, S. "The Labyrinth in the Mediterranean" in Caerdroia 27 (1996), pp.28-54.
8. E.g.: three labyrinths at Pompeii, Italy; and another at Kom Ombo, Egypt, probably
of Roman origin.
9. A mosaic labyrinth pavement is also known from the Roman town of Nora, in the
south of Sardinia; fragments of this mosaic are still visible near the theatre area.
10. Notable examples of relief carvings in Sardinian Domus de Janas tombs are to
be found at Anghelu Ruju, S. Andrea Priu, Puttu Codinu and La Domus del'Elefante.
Public access is available to all of these sites.
11. Melis, P. The Nuragic Civilization. Sassari, Carlo Delfino Editore, 2003. pp.47-52.
See also Lilliu, G. La Civiltŕ Nuragica. Sassari, Delfino, 1982. Particularly interesting
geometric stone carvings have been found at the Nuraghe Nurdole, near Orani.
12. Guido, M. Sardinia. London, Thames & Hudson, 1963. See p.99-100. Margaret Guido's
study of Sardinian archaeology remains a classic in the English language, although
inevitably it has dated a little.
13. See Lundén, 1996 for further details of these labyrinth inscriptions, also Saward,
J. Labyrinths & Mazes. Gaia/Lark Books, 2003, especially pp.36-49.
Note: this article is reproduced from Caerdroia 35, published December 2005. This
edition is still available for sale.