by Cornelius Myers
Down through history, ancient civilizations have left inscrutable and symbolic artifacts for us to ponder and puzzle over. Stonehenge, the Nazca lines, the Pyramids at Giza, the Sphinx, the Easter Island Moai and Machu Picchu all have remained largely unexplained and mysterious. Similarly, the Nuraghe of Sardinia today are still a complete enigma and the focus of fierce academic and archeological discussions as to their origins and purpose.
Some archeologists maintain that the structures were royal palaces or religious temples; others say they were simply dwellings, military strongholds, the house of the chief of the village, or a meeting place for wise men or kings. What is known is that these ancient megalithic edifices – having the shape of a truncated conical tower resembling a beehive – have come to be the symbols of Sardinia and it’s distinctive cultural history.
Today, there are more than 8,000 nuraghes still standing from what is estimated to have numbered more than 30,000. They were most prevalent in the northwest and south-central areas of the island and are usually located in a panoramic spot – strategically located on hilltops to control important passages.
They have no foundations and stand only by virtue of the weight of the stones – some of which weigh as much as several tons. Some of the structures stand more than 20 meters (60 feet) in height. Everything in the nuraghes is made of stone laid upon stone, with no lime or concrete used. Considering the frequency of invasions and conquests through the millennia, it is tribute to the ancient builders that so many have survived.
The most important complex of nuraghes is Su Naraxi di BaruminI, centered around a three story tower built around 1500 BC. It has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The highest and most imposing is the Nuraghe Sant’ Antine, near Torralaba. However, even the smallest of the structures is awe inspiring and unstintingly mysterious.
They all are incredibly accessible and available to explore. When you enter a nuraghe, stand in the middle of the cone and stare up at the opening above you, the presence of it’s former inhabitants is almost palpable. The stone stairs to the various interior levels wind-up the sides of the structure leading to antechambers and strange rooms. There is a strong sense of design and intention.
It is generally agreed that they were constructed in the middle of the Bronze Age – 18th-15th centuries BC; although some have been dated at 3500 BC. Scholars also agree that the Nuragic civilization produced the most advanced and monumental architecture for this time frame in the western Mediterranean, including the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia.
Having stated that, it remains a complete mystery as to who were the Nuragic people. Some clues can be found at The National Archeological Museum in Cagliari. It holds most of the materials discovered in the Nuraghes. They did produce art in the form of beautiful small bronze statues; typically representing Gods, the chief of the village, soldiers, animals and women. There are also stone carvings or statues representing female divinities.
They venerated water and celebrated it’s sources with magically designed springs, sacred wells and sanctuaries. Forty Nuragic wells have been uncovered. The interiors have a monumental staircase leading to an atrium and the spring. The wells are all built of stone and similar to the Nuraghe’s architecture. They are underground and womb shaped to honor the Earth Mother and fertility.
The sacred well of Santa Cristina has a hole in the vault. Every 18 and a half years, when the moon reaches is lowest point in orbit, the moonlight strikes the hole and is reflected on the surface of the water. Sunlight is also reflected during the autumn and spring equinoxes. Through these processes we know they possessed a great knowledge of celestial cycles.
The Tombs of the Giants are scattered throughout the island. So far, 320 have been found. They are monumental structures of huge granite stone stellas, placed upright, side by side, forming a semi-circle. They are all oriented toward the constellation of Taurus. The tombs are from the megalithic period and housed collective graves without distinction to status or family. It is believed that they were gateways to the afterlife.
But that is where the certainties end. Scholars are not even sure of the correct name for the civilization, or even the real meaning of nuraghe. The name itself derives from the meaning of mound and cavity, and the nuraghes are built by laying big stones of similar size on top of each other, leaving a cavity in the middle which is then covered by a stone domed roof. For lack of a more informed identification, scientists accordingly have called them the Nuragic peoples.
Sardinia is the oldest region of Italy. This archaic world has it’s roots shrouded in the mists of time. From the Neolithic period it has been inhabited by populations that have left fascinating, monumental traces of their presence, but none more mysterious and intriguing than the builders of the Nuraghe.
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About the author:
Cornelius Myers is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster, feature writer with publications in many travel magazines and newspapers including the New York Times. He’s based in Monaco and Miami.
All photographs are by Charlotte Otto Bruc.