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The towers of Sardinia

The nuraghi on the Italian island of Sardinia are one of the least known, but most remarkable legacies of the “Stone Age”. If ever the Flintstones were real, it seems they were natives of Sardinia.

Philip Coppens

On the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, the southern – Italian – neighbour of the French Corsica, stand extra-ordinary megalithic constructions known as nuraghi. They are stone towers, quite similar to the Scottish brochs and similar round towers elsewhere. But what sets the Sardinian structures apart from all others, is the fact that in their construction, and number, they supersede all others. Indeed, the nuraghi of Sardinia could, as a whole, be seen as one of the world’s greatest unknown treasures.
Nuraghi are everywhere on Sardinia, though are on Sardinia only. The construction most closely resembling the nuraghe elsewhere is the torre of Corsica, and to some extent the stone towers, the brochs, of Northern Scotland – though these date from a far later period of time. Either way, in numbers, Sardinia has no competitor.
There are almost 7000 nuraghi on the island, 200 of which have been excavated. Their era of construction is roughly dated from 2300 to 500 BC; it is believed that the arrival of the Phoenicians in the second half of the 8th century halted the growth of the nuraghic culture, shortly afterwards coming to a complete stop. It underlines that the nuraghi are quite unique, and not a foreign import… or at least, that seems to be the case.
However, though typical of Sardina, what the nuraghi were, remains unclear. Some have ascribed them a religious purpose, others – of course – see them as defensive structures, others as veritable castles, two if not three millennia before the medieval castle rage would hit these and other parts of Europe. But there is little evidence that they were monumental residences of a landholding aristocracy, though they might have become so later on, in the Iron Age. It is generally assumed that they were fortified nuclear family farmsteads, incorporating the roles of towerhouse, livestock barn and repository of valuables. If so, it reveals to what extra-ordinary lengths the local population went in their house construction, though it equally begs the question whether it was all truly needed for the purposes ascribed to them.

In Alghero is the Nuraghe di Palmaverra. It is one of the most complete village complexes and was the first site to be scientifically excavated in 1905. The primary nuraghe is a large circular tower built during 1500 to 900 BC. It has an interior height of seven metres, with a secondary adjunct, a smaller tower linked to the first by a small corridor. Around the nuraghe is a circular walled compound with four small towers and a larger circular “meeting building”, where people are believed to have come together in assembly. Circa fifty stone huts nearby suggest that other people lived nearby, in less grand accommodation. Alternatively, of course, the nuraghe itself was a type of community building, used by all, and no doubt for certain special occasions.
Another famous complex nuraghe – encompassing more than just a round tower – is the Nuraghe Santu Antine, in Torralba, whose construction started in ca. 1600 BC, with the central cone reaching over twenty metres high, its walls up to five metres thick, and comprising three storeys. The uppermost level was demolished in the 19th century. It was surrounded by a compound, set with three round towers, constituting the typical form of the nuraghic triangular complex. The complex has a well in the inner courtyard, which might have been for pure practical reasons, though Sardinia had an extensive water cult, of which this complex might have been part.
The nearby village was, like at Palmaverra, made up from stone huts. This particular complex is deemed to be a royal palace – hence why it was labelled Nuraghe Majore – and considered to be technically the most refined prehistoric structure of the entire island.
The valley beyond Santu Antine is known as the “Valley of the Nuraghe”, as there are several such towers in the countryside, though the nearest and best visible (from the rooftop of the nuraghe at Santu Antine), is a reconstruction. But as the valley is known for its nuraghi, it also suggests that few, if any, had true defensive qualities. The distances between them make it clear that the people whom lived here, had to be friends. Equally, there is little strategic placement that would suggest that the valley as a whole might be a defensive structure against invaders, which by default would have to be other tribes or people from the island itself.

The largest nuraghic complex on the island, dated to ca. 1500 BC, is Su Nuraxi. Despite excavations that have been occurring there since 1949, its origins remain obscure, though it too has been labelled a “palace complex”.
The central tower was built of dark-grey basalt blocks reaching 21 metres and contained three chambers, one above the other, of which two now remain. At the end of a corridor, a tholos-type lower chamber with alcoves once lined with cork, and an opening halfway up the wall suggests the existence of a wooden flight of stairs to reach the next storey. In construction, this round tower is therefore very similar to Santu Antinu… and many others. Like Santu Antinu, Su Nuraxi has a central courtyard, with a well that still contains water. The surrounding village itself is a later addition, probably from the 10th-6th century BC.

With so many nuraghi to study, some general trends have been identified. The work of Juan Belmonte and Mauro Zedda has studied 272 simple and 180 complex nuraghi; they noted that the orientation of the door was always turned towards the south-east, where the sun was known to rise. Indeed, they argue that several of the windows in the nuraghi have solar, lunar and/or stellar alignments. One such astronomical phenomenon was observed in the Nuraghe Aiga di Abbasanta. Here, the summer solstice sun entered into the construction itself and creates an impressive solar display. Such solar alignments argue strongly for a religious function, if only partial, as such alignments clearly have no defensive qualities.
Still, and unsurprisingly, most archaeologists are reluctant to give a religious purpose to these structures. But it is a fact that nuraghi were often located next to temples, specifically water temples, so one cannot completely deny a link.
Santa Cristina is the most famous example of this alliance and its water temple is one of Sardinia’s most popular historical tourist attractions. But look elsewhere in this complex, and you will see a 15 metres high, single nuraghe and a neighbouring building, dating back to 1800 BC. Known as a “capanna lunga”, it is a long, stone open topped structure of unknown function, which has yielded Roman finds from the 3rd century BC, but which do little to explain its original function.
Nearby, along the main road that connects the north to the south of the island, is the Nuraghe Losa, which saw continuous occupation from 1500 BC to 700 AD. What is immediately striking about this complex is its amazing perimeter wall, which encloses the remains of a prehistoric village. The nuraghe itself had three, now shattered, external towers, which provided secondary entrances to the complex. The walls here are smoother than most other nuraghi, reaching a height of 13 metres. Climbing upwards, one finds narrow slits in the wall for viewing, but there is little evidence to what use this structure was put. Directly in front of the nuraghe’s main entrance is a circular meeting chamber.

A final interesting example of a nuraghe comes from the north-eastern part of the island: the Nuraghe Albucciu, a most remarkable construction which has been worked into the surrounding rock. Here, there is just one chamber, on the right of the main corridor – as is customary. Built on an almost rectangular plan, the jutting supports for a wooden roof are still visible. What is remarkable, is how the nuraghe interacts with the surrounding rocks, and how, on either side, two rock faces seem to once have been used as niches, which might have held statues. Though archaeology so far offers little answers, this nuraghe is once again further evidence that they were far more than defensive structures, and seem to have been integral to a religious cult.
Nearby is the Tempietto Malchittu, a roofless ruin, with little to see, but nevertheless an equally enigmatic oval structure from the First Nuraghic Phase (1500-1200 BC) and a place of worship where sacrifices were made. A granite wall encloses two rooms that are connected by a low doorway; very few examples of this type of structure have been found, and hence, once again, science is unable to provide answers. But it again underlines a religious connotation to the entire nuraghi phenomenon.

With no written evidence, trying to figure out what purpose the nuraghi served, is not easy. It is widely thought that indigenous Sardinians built them, though what is less reported, is that Sardinia had extensive contacts with the outside world. Various stone and bronze figures have been found, which do offer some insight.
On a historical timeline, archaeologists have created a “proto-nuraghi” phase, where the towers were more squat and were usually with an irregular floor plan, had no large circular chamber, but instead had an internal corridor or small cell. They too had massive walls and were at most ten metres high. About 300 nuraghi have been classified as proto-nuraghi. It shows that the nuraghe has always been a key identifier of the community life of these people.
The Nuraghi Phase itself started in ca. 1600-1500 BC. Most are now in ruins or have disappeared completely. Rather than the test of time, it was the “Enclosure Law” of the middle of the 19th century that resulted in their disappearance: several were dismantled to use the stones to enclose pastures, or develop roads.
The typical nuraghe was constructed without grout, using the dry stone method. In the upper part of the tholos, the stones were normally dressed with care, to ensure a perfect fit, and to make sure that rain did not enter the inner structure. This suggests detail to attention, of a type one encounters rarely with defensive structures.
Access to the tower was almost always through an entrance at ground level, though some have raised entrances. On entering, there was normally a long passage to a ground floor chamber. Usually on the left was the beginning of the spiral stairway within the wall, though the oldest nuraghi sometimes have the stairway beginning inside the chamber, and not starting at ground level either. In some cases, like at Is Paras nuraghe, the access was raised six metres, suggesting a wooden ladder was used to reach the actual entrance to the upper structures. In fact, in some nuraghi, there is no internal stairway at all. Some walls have niches, others have cells, and sometimes these communicate with each other by means of shafts or acoustic channels within the walls. All of this is once again too complex to be of purely defensive use.

Between the 14th and 9th century BC, single tower nuraghe were often reinforced with the addition of other towers; some of the complexes became… more complex. But it is known that the complex nuraghe was planned as a single project, with no lapse of time between the construction of the main tower – the keep – and the surrounding, smaller, towers. It are these that are often referred to as palaces, whereas the single structures are often described as a “simple” lookout tower. But if so, why were they not placed on high land? Why were they made in stone? Even when they are on raised land, there is no immediate need for them. In short, the traditional explanation for these structures does not make sense.
The climax of this building frenzy is no doubt the Nuraghe Arrubiu, which had 17 towers, with walls several metres thick. It is the only five-towered structure on the island. Unsurprisingly, it is a “late” development, dated to the 7th century BC. It is thought that the central tower was originally thirty metres high, but today, nothing remains of it. For Paolo Melis, this is “undoubtedly the fortified residences of political, civil and military (probably also religious) authorities of the region.”
If true, its inhabitants were the real Flintstones. However, if true, life inside the nuraghi cannot have been pleasant: it was dark, and often damp. If this is a royal palace, than it is clear that no-one would have been envious of being king. Indeed, other archaeological evidence shows that most people lived in the surrounding village, in dwellings that were made of stone, with a wooden roof. And whomever was king, he would definitely have preferred to continue living in the village. If not, it was clear that kingship was seen as a public duty, and that whatever went on inside the nuraghi, was linked with a king’s royal, if not sacred, tasks that needed to be performed for the greater good. And that might be absolutely true – though still does not mean it was also his residence.

With archaeology struggling to provide answers, can anyone else help? The Sardinian water cult was noted by Classical writers, who reported that in the waters of some spring, an ordeal, or divine judgment, was performed: those accused of theft became blind on contact with the water if they were guilty, while the innocent had their sight improved. Seeing there is a direct link between some of the wells and the nuraghi, this could shed some light on the nuraghic enigma, though it is clear that there would be no need to have this many nuraghi if they were purely linked with the judicial system.
Not too many stone objects have been found from that period, but some other objects have been found all over the island. Often, they represent the bull. Sometimes, and most interestingly, the nuraghe is reproduced in miniature format. Often, a single tower is made. Some bronze statues of the complex nuraghi have also been recovered, with a realistic representation of the keep rising above the turreted bastion, revealing a high level of workmanship in creating these objects. The bronze statuettes date from the 9th century BC onwards and range in size from a few to 39 centimetres. Apart from nuraghi, animals, boats, women and imaginary beings were created too. It suggests an organised society, with a well-developed, if not shamanic, religion. Amongst the imaginary beings is a man with the body of a quadruped, a warrior with four arms and legs, etc. In one case, even a monkey, which is not found in Sardinia, has been depicted. Interestingly, also carved were nuraghic vessels – boats. About 120 scale models of seagoing craft have been found in Sardinia up to the 6th century BC. Interestingly, the same objects were also found on mainland Italy, prevalently in those areas populated by the Etruscans.
The Sardinian people therefore reached mainland Europe frequently and it is known that it was the trade in precious metals that brought Sardinia in contact with e.g. the Mycenaens in the 14th and 13th century BC. It is even possible that the first smelters came from Cyprus to teach the nuraghic people how to smelt. And this shows how well-connected Sardinia was with the rest of the Mediterranean cultures.

But Sardinia’s culture nevertheless remains enigmatic. Still… seeing Sardinia was an island to the west of Italy, it might have been the Western island, where the sun set and where the dead joined the gods. As such, one could pose the question whether the nuraghi were perhaps linked with a cult of the dead, which could also explain links with the wells, as sacred washings were quite often part and parcel of death rituals. Just like some have suspected that Crete had a “deadly link” with ancient Egypt, perhaps another island – Sardinia – had a similar link with the prehistoric people of Italy, and perhaps the Etruscans as well? Only the future will tell what the past was about. Meanwhile, the nuraghe will remain standing on Sardinia, as reminders that we still know so very little about our past.