The Nuragic civilization of the island of Sardinia presents a mystery—what were their huge stone towers?
The island of Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and was home to ancient cultures. To its north lies Corsica, to its east the Italian peninsula, to its south Tunisia, and to the west the Balearic Islands. Sardinia was a key stopping point for sailors and traders for millennia and has a deep and ancient cultural heritage. The characteristic and indigenous Nuragic civilization of Sardinia stretches from the Bronze Age (c. 18th century B.C.E.) to the Roman period. This civilization derives its name from a characteristic form of monumental, stone-built tower structures known as nuraghe—some 7,000 of these enigmatic structures still dot the Sardinian landscape.
During the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, the first human settlers of Sardinia arrived, most likely from various parts of the Mediterranean basin and Europe. The Ozieri (also known as San Michele) culture is the first identifiable settled culture in Sardinia, dating c. 3200 to 2800 B.C.E. The Ozieri people are known for village-size communities and their material culture includes “mother goddess” figurines that are common in the Mediterranean and Near East. Perhaps due to migrants arriving from the western Mediterranean, some similarities may be observed between artifacts in Sardinia and those of the Balearic islands. The altar site of Monte d’Accoddi is one such example, with its earliest phases dating c. 4,000-3,650 B.C.E. (below).
By c. 2,000 B.C.E., peoples of the Beaker culture had arrived in Sardinia, in turn producing the Bonnanaro culture (c. 1800-1600 B.C.E.), a protohistoric culture of Sardinia. This culture group represents the first stage of the so-called Nuragic civilization. The Bonnanaro culture was responsible for architectural innovations, notably the so-called “Giants’ grave,” a type of megalithic, covered gallery tomb (below).
The development of the nuraghe (nuraghi in the plural—the monumental structures that Nuragic civilization takes its name from) in Bronze Age Sardinia is both an important and interesting architectural phenomenon. A nuraghe is a megalithic stone structure that usually takes the form of a truncated conical tower. The interior profile of the built tower is usually beehive-shaped, while the exterior resembles the more familiar image of a Medieval tower. The construction is dry stone (no bonding material is used). Different degrees of stoneworking are used in the structures—ranging from packed rubble to cut and dressed (shaped) stones. About 7,000 nuraghi are still evident in Sardinia, but scholars estimate that 10,000 or more originally existed. The central tower can be surrounded by an outlying wall and can sometimes be accompanied by an attendant settlement. The tower itself could stand up to 30 meters in height.
While nuragic architecture is well understood, the function of the nuraghe itself is a matter of continuing scholarly debate. Complicating this debate is the fact that very few of the island’s extant nuraghe have been scientifically excavated and studied. Some theories hold that the nuraghi were defensive structures, others that they represented cultural status symbols. Many nuraghi show evidence of continued use and re-use after the Bronze Age, mostly during the Punic and Roman phases of the island’s history.
The site of Su Nuraxi di Barumini
The site of Su Nuraxi di Barumini (Barumini is the name of the region in south-central Sardinia) is one of the most thoroughly studied of Sardinia’s nuraghi. The oldest part of Su Nuraxi is a central tower that stands approximately 18.6 meters high and was built from basalt between the seventeenth and thirteenth centuries B.C.E. In later phases four ancillary towers connected by a curtain wall (an outer, non-structural wall) were built surrounding the central tower. This outlying wall created a central courtyard that included a well. In the Iron Age, a curtain wall with seven lobes (heptalobate) was added to the complex.
Later in the Bronze Age—the so-called “Final” Bronze Age (c. twelfth to ninth centuries B.C.E) a village of approximately 200 huts grew up outside of the outer wall of the nuragic complex. Some of these huts showed evidence of ritual activity, and a bronze model of a nuraghe was also found. The village continued in use during the Iron Age (ninth through seventh centuries B.C.E.), again with evidence of ritual activity as well as some evidence for organization of the settlement. The complex experienced widespread destruction at the end of the Iron Age. In later Punic and Roman phases, parts of the site were reused, and there is evidence for sporadic occupation continuing to the seventh century C.E.
The site was excavated by archaeologist Giovanni Lilliu (1914-2012) who concluded that the site had a defensive nature, a fairly traditional interpretation. The site was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.
The Nuragic civilization, and the nuraghi themselves, remain somewhat enigmatic, but it is clear that this architectural tradition is deeply rooted in the Mediterranean. By way of material culture evidence it is possible to trace the influences of Sardinian culture to the Italian mainland where Etruscan and Italic people seem to draw inspiration from Sardinian traditions of metalworking and architecture, among others.
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Giovanni Lilliu, La civiltà dei sardi: dal neolitico all’età dei nuraghi (Turin: ERI, 1963).