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What are bucrania doing in tombs? Art and agency in Neolithic Sardinia and traditional South-East Asia

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)603-635
Number of pages33
JournalEuropean Journal of Archaeology
Issue number4
Early online date22 Mar 2017
Publication statusPublished - 11 Oct 2017


The interior of Neolithic tombs in Europe is frequently decorated with carved and painted motifs. In Sardinia (Italy), 116 rock-cut tombs have their walls covered with bucrania (schematic depictions of cattle head and horns), which have long been interpreted as representations of a bull-like divinity. This article reviews similar examples of bucranium ‘art’ in the tombs of three traditional societies in South-East Asia, focusing on the agency of the motifs and their roles within social relationships between the living, the dead and the spiritual world. Using the ethnographic examples and discussing the archaeological evidence in Sardinia, it is suggested that bucrania in Neolithic tombs were a specialised form of material culture that had multiple, cumulative effects and functions associated with social display, memory, reproduction, death and protection.

    Research areas

  • neolithic art, agency, rock-cut tombs, Sardinia, cattle, South-East Asian Ethnography

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