The riddle of the Coracodes Portus

1. The origins
2. The earliest evidences
3. The secular controversies
4. The most recent discoveries

1. The origins

S'archittu's bay has played a strategic role since the most remote historical ages: near its natural arch there was indeed the Coracodes Limen, the harbor of Cornus, that was one of the most important Sardinian-Punic cities, then Paleochristian.

The first and main evidence about the existence of the Cornus seaport dates back to the second century after Christ. Claudius Ptolemy (about 100 - about 178), the famed Egyptian geographer-astronomer, talks about it in his Geographia (Book III, Chapter III), which is a catalog of the most important places known at that time. Among them, Ptolemy puts in Sardinia the city of Cornus and its harbor, which he calls, in greek, Coracodes Limen (that in Latin means Coracodes Portus).

The maps drawn by Ptolemy have not survived to the present. However, he has provided the exact coordinates (according to a pattern designed by himself) of all the mentioned places, so it is possible to reconstruct its maps. Alberto La Marmora already had tried successfully to do this work. Today, an accurate reconstruction of the whole Ptolemaic cartography has been edited by the University of Kansas.

In any case, according to the Ptolemaic coordinates, the Coracodes Portus (30*20, 37°35) is located in the south-west of Cornus (30*30, 37 °45), close to the city. Therefore, it may be the place of S'Archittu, with a very good approximation, taking account of the typical  distortions of ancient maps.

Details of two reconstructions of Ptolemy's map, showing the relative positions of Cornus and the Coracodes Portus. Above is the version by Alberto La Marmora, below is the one realized by the University of Kansas.

Back to top

2. The earliest evidences

Over the last few centuries there has been a considerable debate on the exact location of the Coracodes Portus, swinging his identification between Alghero and Capo Mannu. The main reason for this uncertainty was that for a long time even the position of Cornus was not accurately identified, because the ruins of the citywere almost invisible, buried under the Corchinas Hill.

In the sixteenth century Giovanni Francesco Fara (1543-1591) has been the first historian who has located the city of Cornus in the position in which it is really.
In his work In Sardiniae Chorographiam he's very explicit, and he clearly locates the Coracodes Portus in S'Archittu.
We report here the passage by this Sardinian author, which is particularly interesting because it is the oldest attestation (we are around 1585) of the names "Torre del Pozzo" and "S'Archittu":

«Occidentalis lateris descriptio et misura litoralis. (...) 1 m. pass. Ad stationem Putei ubi est turris speculatoria ; 2 m. pass. Ad Architum, portum Coracodes a Ptolemaeo dictum, cui vicina iacet prostrata urbs antiqua Cornu a Livio, Ptolemaeo et Antonino Pio memorata».

Translation: «Description of the west coast and measurement of the seaboard. (...) One mile to Stationem putei [Torre del Pozzo, Tower of the well], where there is a sighting tower; two miles to Architum [S'Archittu], known by Ptolemy as Coracodes Harbor: nearby is situated, destroyed, Cornus, an ancient city mentioned by Livio, Ptolemy and Antoninus Pius».

As you can see, according to Fara the identification Coracodes Portus - S'Archittu is a certainty. However, in the centuries after the writing of In Sardiniae Chorographiam, several authors continued to locate the harbor in other places. The reason is also that Fara's work has remained a manuscript until 1835, the year of its first publication.

Back to top

3. The secular controversies

In 1840, the historian Giuseppe Manno, in his Storia di Sardegna (History of Sardinia), Tome I, Book III, states that the Coracodes Portus must be located "On the beach of Pitinuri, according to Fara," and he rejects the suggestion advanced ​​by the cartographer Cluverius, who located the harbor at Alghero. Manno doesn't name explicitly  "S'Archittu", and it would seem that he locate our harbor in Santa Caterina di Pittinuri. However, he mentions G.F. Fara and it suggests that, for him, the site of "Pitinuri" must be understood in a broad sense, and also it includes the bay of the Arch.

In 1881, the scholar Ettore Pais, in his book Sardegna prima del dominio romano (Sardinia before the Roman rule), seems to upset the Fara's theory, when he places the Coracodes Portus near Capo Mannu:

«Cornus was located a short distance from the sea, where you can see the remains of a tuna fishery and where you recognize the clear traces of man in some small bays: while perhaps somewhat more to the south there was the the Coracodes Portus (Koracodes Limen) name that recalls also North Africa. (...) On the position of the Coracodes Portus, now Cape Manno, v. La Marmora (...).».

Pais, therefore, appears cautious ("perhaps somewhat more to the south") on the assumption that the Coracodes Portus could be far to the south of Cornus, at Capo Mannu, and in any case he refers to La Marmora, which we discuss below.

Alberto La Marmora (1789-1863), in his famous work Viaggio in Sardegna (Trip in Sardinia), written in 1826, deals in great detail the problem of the location of the seaport of Cornus, taking into account two possibilities. The first is that of Capo Mannu:

«(...) Then we will seek the Coracodes Portus at the required distance between these two points, and we will place it under the Capo Mannu, in a beautiful cove not far from the Tower of the Mora.».

After that, however, La Marmora investigates a second hypothesis, which is closer to the Fara's one about S'Archittu:

«If you prefer to refer to some sort of tradition and to a resemblance between the ancient name of Coracodes and the modern name of Corchinas, by which is meant the maritime region of ancient Cornus, (...), these data would agree quite well with the actual measurements (...). Cluverius is wrong when he says that the Coracodes Portus is the harbor of Alghero».

We recall that the Corchinas hill is located between S'Archittu and Santa Caterina. About the possibility of Alghero, it is also flatly excluded by this author.

La Marmora, in this passage, does not mention specifically S'Archittu, but he's quite explicit when he says that the Coracodes Portus could be in the «maritime region of ancient Cornus», and S'Archittu is, as the crow flies, the landfall closer to the Punic city. Must also be ruled out that the writer wants to locate the harbor in Santa Caterina di Pittinuri, because he speaks extensively about that village, so if he wanted to, he would have named it explicitly here.

In the map of the Ancient Sardinia, designed by Alberto La Marmora in 1840, both his hypothesis about the Coracodes Portus are represented.
In a later work, Itinerario dell'isola di Sardegna (Itinerary of the Sardinia island), in 1868, La Marmora appears much more confident when he says that the Cornus harbor is in close proximity to of the ancient Punic city. It should be noted in this context that this paper is subsequent to 1835, the year of publication of the of Fara's work:

«The seaport which is near these ruins, at the region generally described as Corchinas, seems to be the ancient Coracodes Portus of Ptolemy».

As you can see, even here La Marmora talks about a landing place that is near Cornus, but not in Santa Caterina di Pittinuri. In fact, just after La Marmora speaks about that beach, and he explains that there are difficulties in docking:

«The beach of this little bay is covered with pebbles, and so you can pull to ground the small boats: but the larger ones are not very safe, because the west wind that dominates this area when the sea is in motion, prevents the cargo and discharge of the merchandise».

So La Marmora could allude to only one place: the Arch.

Moreover, in the Itinerary, La Marmora expressly mentions S'Archittu, only in passing, with a remark that seems interesting:

«After leaving the ruins of this ancient city [Cornus], near an old tower called "Su Puttu" (the well) there are the remains of an ancient tuna fishery. From the sea can be seen a small headland above which I call the attention of the geologist who will go into these places. The rock that forms the main bulk of this promontory is composed of different layers of rough limestone (...).
I will not talk about some small bays of that promontory, and of the near side: some one of them seems dug by human hands: one of these is called S'Archittu, and the other su Fossigheddu».

It's clear that the "small headland" is the so-called "Balena" ("Whale"), and it is probable that "Su fossigheddu" is the current "Scoglio del Genovese" ("Genoese's rock"). About the tuna fishery, there are other books on geography of the '800 that talk about it. However, it is remarkable that La Marmora suggests that the arch may have artificial origins.

Back to top

4. The most recent discoveries

Coming now to the twentieth and twenty-first century, we can see that the most important contemporary Sardinian historians have examined the question of the Coracodes Portus. However, most of them haven't added important elements to the controversy of the past centuries and they have often opted for the hypothesis of Capo Mannu.
Among these authors, however, is an exception Massimo Pittau, renowned professor of sardinian linguistics at the University of Sassari. He brings new arguments in support of the positioning at S'Archittu. Pittau held a speech on the Cornus harbor during a Congress about Ampsicora held in Sassari in 1998, on which we will briefly discuss.

Pittau's thesis is based on the analysis of the toponymy of S'Archittu. He argues (and at this point it is difficult he's wrong), that the ancient name "Coracodes" is at the root of the name "Cagaragas" which means today the area behind the Genoese Rock. Pittau says:

«Cagaragas therefore would be the modern version, due to a popular etymology, of Korhacódes. In our opinion, the doubts (...) must fall because of this important fact: the city of Cornus had to have his harbor very close and not far away at Cala Su Pallosu or Cala Saline, as some historians have Recently written. These sites are about 10 km from Cornus. (...) Instead the location of S'archittu is just 500 meters away from Cornus as the crow flies».

Pittau's also provides us with the solution on the etymology of the name Coracodes Portus, which literally means "harbor like a beak's crow".

This author, in the same speech, also takes up the argument (which, ultimately, is the strongest), which  S'Archittu is the only landing place actually protected and safe in a long stretch of coastline. In fact, it is the only natural harbor between Capo Mannu and Bosa.

A bitt for mooring of boats, such clearly man-made, carved into the limestone near the Arch.
Pittau talks about this subject also on its website, where he published a classification of the Sardinian toponyms:

«Korhakódes limen is the port of Cornus in the seaside town of S'Archittu, where have recently been found traces of the harbor now under the sea level due to a positive bradyseism that interested him for over 10 meters. It is possible that the old name continues in the modern "Cagaragas tip"».

As we have seen in the last text quoted, in the twentieth century the search for Coracodes Portus has moved from the theoretical to the practical method, and the assumptions by the historians have given way to the surveys on-site by the archaeologists, that latter took place in 1998. They finally dispelled any doubt about the presence of the ancient harbor at the Arch, as reported by the police of the Provincial Command of Oristano in a statement mentioned in an article published by Romolo Concas on L'Unione Sarda, on 11 June 1998:

«We have established (...) that close to the existing rock arch (S'Archittu) there is a corridor carved into the bottom of the sea to ten meters deep. We found a navigable canal dug in the rocky bottom that allowed access to the harbor, from the open sea, of the many boats arriving and departing. We found traces of a quay mooring with a regular floor for loading and unloading of goods and passengers. We have discovered a docking point, at which, on the surface, there are two rudimentary mooring bitts with a section of one meter, and the distance between them than ten meters, dug in the limestone. we discovered many archaeological finds such as pottery, amphoras, vases of all kinds, so we understand how the harbor in the past was intensely frequented by merchant traffic».

Nineteen centuries after Ptolemy's Geographia, this time, the riddle of Coracodes Limen has been really revealed.

November 2001

Thanks to prof. Massimo Pittau for his courtesy and helpfulness, when he provided us with the text of his report before the publication.

Back to top

Basic bibliography

Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita, book XXIII, chapter VI, 40.

Claudius Ptolemy, Geographia, cook III, chapter III.

Giovanni Francesco Fara, In Sardiniae chorographiam Libri duo, Liber I, in Opere, critical edition by Enzo Cadoni, italian translation by Maria Teresa Laneri, 1992, Ed. Gallizzi, Sassari, p. 94.

Alberto La Marmora, Viaggio In Sardegna, Edizioni della fondazione Il Nuraghe, Cagliari, 1927, Book II, Chapter III, pp. 313-314.

Alberto La Marmora, Itinerario dell’isola di Sardegna, translated and summarized by can. Spano, facsimile edition by A. Alagna, Cagliari, 1868, Ed.Trois, Cagliari, tome II, chapter VI, pp. 344-355.

Giuseppe Manno, Storia di Sardegna, facsimile of the original edition of 1840, ed. Gianni Trois, Cagliari, tome I, pp. 74-75, 218-221.

Ettore Pais, Sardegna Prima del dominio Romano, facsimile edition of the edition of the Accademia dei Lincei of 1881, ed. Gianni Trois, Cagliari, p. 336.

Ettore Pais, Storia della Sardegna e della Corsica durante il dominio Romano, facsimile edition, ed. Gianni Trois, Cagliari, tome I, pp. 58-59.

Gustavo Strafforello and others, La Patria, Geografia dell’Italia. Sardegna, Torino, Unione Tipografico-editrice, 1895. pp. 232-235.

Romolo Concas, Ecco il porto di Cornus, in L’Unione Sarda dell’11-6-1998

Massimo Pittau, Il porto di Cornus, in the conference proceedings about Ampsicora, Sassari, november 1998, now published in Lingua e civiltà di Sardegna, edizioni della Torre, 2005.

Main websites visited


University of Kansas


Professor Massimo Pittau website

L’Unione Sarda

Creative Commons - Attribuzione

This work is published under license Creative Commons - Attribution
It may be freely reproduced, with the same license, specifying that it has taken from this site.

The representations of the three maps, which are property of their respective publishers, are reproduced here in accordance with the rules on copyright, in particular the article 70, paragraph 1-bis, of italian law April 22 1941, n. 633.

Back to top


Home page