Part 1 : Land of the Nuraghe.
From about 2,000 BC onwards buildings called Nuraghe’s dotted the Sardinian landscape, their robust archaic forms arose from hilltops and bluffs, dominating fertile plains and guarding river crossings, trade routes, ports and sacred sites across the island. Wherever there was importance connected to the land these structures castled the ancient countryside. They stood as single towers or as groups connected by ramparts, standing like mounds of perfectly manicured rubble from which protruded anything from 3 to 5 towers up to 3 stories high surrounding a larger central one. Around the Nuraghe grew hut villages with thatched conical roofs, expanding outwards in bewildering wheels of irregularly placed roundhouses, cramped together, connected by winding lanes that snaked between the labyrinth of homes. These were sometimes protected by a town wall, but even then they tended to spill past boundaries.
Their appearance of a Nuraghe, rising out of the rugged landscape, gives the impression of deep antiquity, of the strange and foreign, the unknown, in ancient times Sardinia was the beginning of the Mediterranean Wild West.
Portrait of a lost landscape.
To understand something of the mysterious inhabitants of early Sardinia it is useful to understand that the world around them had a huge impact on their culture and way of life.
Ancient Sardinia was a rugged land of hills and mountains wrapped in a coast of towering cliffs and beguiling beaches. It’s rocks are the oldest in Europe, yet it has a relatively low profile because of erosion and climate. It’s highest range is found in the Gennargentu massif, an ancient formation scarred by canyons, grooved by rivers and undermined by yawning caves. One sixth of its surface is now shaded by forests of oak, juniper and cork. In ancient times almost all of non habitable Sardinia was forested, Deer and boar roamed the hills and forests, alongside scuttling Martens, Foxes, Hares and Wildcats. All forming part of the totemic religion of the inhabitants, deer especially were common motifs.
The foundations of the island are granite and basalt. These muscular formations are as ancient as the sky, wind and sea that shaped them. The vast forests grew over a rugged terrain of rock and scrub, hill and mountain. Watered and divided by four great rivers, the Tirso, the Flumendosa, the Coghinas and the Mannu. The oak and juniper dominated, and are still kings in Sardinia, noted by Strabo. Bird life was rich and between observing the patterns of birds, plants and animals the people could detect the changing seasons in advance.
The northeast of Sardinia is a particularly rugged place, bounded to the south by the Limbara mountain range, while the belt of the Coginhas river and the broad bulwarks of the sea act as natural defences. It’s most effective guardian is the ring of jagged mountains which become more accessible to the northwest where much of the human population clustered. Here during the summer they can catch the Maestrale, the life giving northwesterly wind that made life bearable before air conditioning. Strabo was of the opinion that the summer in Sardinia was deeply unhealthy, and the prevailing winds were known to experienced sailors. The landscape is varied, typified by granite formations which due to erosion gives way to carpets of common Mediterranean scrub, composed of lentisk, rock rose, arbutus, on the low ground, while the mountains are often clothed in verdant coats of stunted holm-oak, juniper and cork-oak, known as Macchia, plus the usual oak and juniper forest.
In places the forests and hills slope and flatten down into eye stretching plains such as the Campiano. It was on her waving fields, and from the minerals of her mountains that the prosperity of Sardinia depended. The wheat and cereal production made the island a granary for powerful neighbours who also coveted the riches of her mountains. Another type of plain that existed was the Giara, basalt plateaus home to rich diversity of wildlife and fauna. In the spring, Paulis’ (basaltic seasonal lakes), bloom with loose flowered orchids and common water crowfoot. These plants turn the Giara White with their flowers. The ponds disappear in the summer due to lack of water but the usual canopy of oak and cork offer shade. During the hot season the lakes are covered with a frosting of pink buttercups that suffuse the air with their delicate aroma and when the autumn returns the pools fill and the tamarisk blooms red.
On the western coast are high rock cliffs, and on the sheltered East Coast the prevailing wind whips up dunes from the sand. Sheltered lagoons pierce both coasts, giving shelter to seafarers and give a home to flocks of pink flamingoes that spend their days admiring themselves in the still water. In the southwest the turtles come to lay their eggs on the white sand beaches.
These mysterious ancient people, named for their distinctive tower houses, flourished in independent but ethnically connected clans who controlled the island for centuries until the coming of the Phoenicians and the Romans. The buildings were utilised as military, governmental and sacred centres for the entirety of that time. Of the Nuraghes there are two distinct types, the Tholos Nuraghe and the Corridor Nuraghe. Of the first type there are complex and simple types, the simple being a plain tower built as a truncated cone and the second as a series of towers connected by bastion walls around a central cone. They are typified by massive drystone walls, inside which were often built staircases in between floors, or else ladders were used. There is no evidence of doors and there is a distinct difference between the Nuraghes of the South and the North. In the North corridors lead to upper levels and in the south they do not, indicating a increasing improvement scheme, or a subcultural & geographic gap in technique. They did not choose the highest parts for their settlements, at first, rather they cleverly chose altitudes varying between 150m asl or between 4-500m asl. The climate at this level is milder and the living conditions are better. There is a commonality that most are orientated to face the southeastern quadrant of the sky. Study has shown that Nuraghe’s were articulated so they faced the declination of the sun at the winter solstice and the moon at its most southern rising position. And indeed may indicate their position to face the brightest stars in the sky at that time, and often towards the southern cross and Rigil Kent and Hadar.
Nuragic civilisation originated in the north and spread south. That the buildings were astronomically oriented and well defended, sited in places of strategic as well as cultural importance, their entrances and corridors mostly correlating to catch the sunrise of the winter solstice or the rising of the moon at the southernmost lunastice, suggests that they were multi purpose buildings much like castles.
The Nuragi built impressive communal graves, tagged as “giant’s graves”, with long central chambers capable of holding over 100 people, with wings arcing out of either side of the entrance to form a sort of open forecourt were funerary rites might have been undertaken. It is thought that the Nuragi took great care to either let bodies decompose or cremated them before laying them to rest. Such places quickly became sacred as they are likely to have held the dead in reverence as heroes and Demi-gods. Indeed Nuragic people often lived close to graves indicating their continued importance in spiritual life. Temples and sacred places were governed by symbolism of the land and likely the night sky. In harsh environments water is usually seen as the giver of all things, and the cult of the water goddess, centred around sacred well springs typify much of what is thought to be Nuragic temples.
Sacred sites usually centred around fertility, and water with the possibility of sacred flames in some temples. There is circumstantial evidence of the presence of a male “Bull Sun” and a female “Water Moon”, there was also a Babai or father god, and they would have had predetermined holy periods of the year for gatherings.
Interaction with the divine seems to have been governed by offerings of bronze and other goods. Votive figurines that either represent a person’s dedication to a particular deity, or representing a specific request, such as healing of a child, or prowess and protection in war must have formed the basis of religious interaction. Given that it is possible that the wildlife, such as the fox, deer and boer were seen as spiritual, totemic elements, offerings to these might explain the presence of animal figurines found at Nuragic sites.
The people relied on hereditary Chiefs to lead them though it is not impossible that they would band together under an elected head if need be. They operated on sanctuaries of federal and religious significance, in meeting places policy was discussed by headmen who oversaw a complex civil society based around benched meeting houses. Economy was based on a number of factors, principally that of agriculture and on the coast, fishing. But being a land rich in mines, with lead and copper predominating, metallurgy would soon become as important as farming, which is evidenced in the furnaces found in towns. The Nuragic people become skilled metal workers for distribution to the wider Mediterranean, they may possibly have been among the main metal producers in Europe. Their production of tin would have drawn traders form all points,moor bronze manufacture. Which brings us to the aspect of trade.
In addition, being an island, Nuragic people had strong connections to the sea, from which came a main source of food and trade, as is proved by numerous votive ships made with animal heads. Fishing and watercraft were important, and allowed interaction with the Minoan and Mycenaean East, from where they might have derived their Tholos roof style and bull motifs.
In a society of clans internecine warfare was common. A cycle of raid and festival dominated life, much as it did on the Celtic mainland, according to later geographers and historians. It is clear that ancient Sardinian boys grew into tough and formidable fighters. Warrior statues were a common votive offering, and weaponry was highly prized as a status symbol. Especially their distinctive short dagger. The nature of life on Sardinia bred warriors who’s skills might have attracted rich patrons. Mercenaries were big business in the Mediterranean.
There is fragmentary written evidence that the Sardinians made expeditions to the east, perhaps to raid or trade, it’s impossible to say. However it is also possible that the Sherdan of the Sea Peoples, who later became a Pharaonic bodyguard, were Sardinians as they shared certain characteristics notable in Nuragic bronzes. Even if the Sherdan did not come from Sardinia, it is possible that whoever they were, they went to the island after the failure of the Sea People’s invasion in Egypt. These invaders came from the “Islands of the Sea”, name is also similar to some such names used to describe Sardinian people, such as Shardana. In fact Ramses III captured a chief who belonged to the “Shardana of the Sea”, at any rate the Nuragi were most definitely “sea people”.
The Nuragic civilisation lasted on its own for centuries, but the natural resources of their island, and their connections to neighbours by trade links brought the riches of Sardinia to the attention to some of the greatest traders and colonisers of the ancient Mediterranean, the Phoenicians.
I must say that I owe a debt of gratitude to Paolo Nurra, who introduced me to the art and architecture of ancient Sardinia, hopefully I have done his native island justice. Grazie.
Thanks for reading. See you again for another Adventure in Historyland.
Sources used in this series.
Ancient translations: Historical Library: Diodorus. Geography: Strabo.
Sardinia Duncan Garwood.
The Phoenicians by Glenn Markoe
The Etruscan World John MacIntosh Turfa
Archeology and History in Sardinia. Stephen L. Dyson Robert J. Rowland Jr.
Punica Book 12 Silius Italicus.
Polybius the Histories Vol. I.
Livy. Books XXI.-XXV.
The Carthaginians 6th 2nd Century BC. Andrea Salimeti & Raffaele D’Amato.
Roman Centurions 735-31 BC Raffaele D’Amato.
Carthage Must be Destroyed. Richard Miles.
Justin. History of the World.
Sea Peoples of the Bronze Age Mediterranean. Andrea Salimeti & Raffaelle D’Amato