Ancient Sardinia: The Mediterranean Wild West.

Nuraghi of Barumini. Timeless in a timeless landscape.
Nuraghi of Barumini. Timeless in a timeless landscape. Wikipedia.

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 concentric 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.
The appearance of a Nuraghe, seemingly rising out of the rugged landscape, gives the impression of deep antiquity, of an organic, rough hewn civilisation, and of the land being slowly tamed. Sardinia was the beginning of the Mediterranean Wild West, & this is it’s story.

Portrait of a lost landscape.
To understand something of the mysterious inhabitants of early Sardinia it is useful to understand the world around them as it had a huge impact on their culture and way of life.

The Cork Oak Forest that alongside other common trees draped Sardinia. .
The Cork Oak Forest that alongside other common trees draped Sardinia in it’s crisp verdure. .

Ancient Sardinia was a rugged land of rocky hills and proud mountains, wrapped in a coast of towering cliffs and smooth beguiling beaches. It’s sun bleached granite & basalt rocks are the oldest in Europe, yet it has a relatively low profile. It’s highest range is found in wild and wonderous highlands of the Gennargentu massif. An ancient formation scarred by canyons, grooved by rivers and undermined by yawning caves in the east of the island. These muscular formations are as ancient as the sky, wind and sea that shaped them and like all wild places represent an idyl of frozen time.

One sixth of the island’s surface is now shaded by forests of oak, juniper and cork but in ancient times almost all of non habitable Sardinia was forested. Watered and divided by four great rivers; The Tirso, the Flumendosa, the Coghinas and the Mannu. The oak and juniper dominated, they are still kings in Sardinia, and were noted by Strabo. Deer and boar roamed in their shade, alongside scuttling Martens, Foxes, Hares and Wildcats. All forming part of the totemic religion of the inhabitants, deer especially were common motifs. 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 glistening 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 a body 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 as well known to experienced sailors as old friends.

Where the tree roots could not hold on the landscape is varied. Typified by granite formations which due to erosion gives way to verdant carpets of common Mediterranean scrub known as Macchia, composed of lentisk, rock rose, and arbutus in the lowlands & swathes stunted holm-oak, juniper and cork-oak in the highlands.

The Gennargentu massif.
The Gennargentu massif. Wikipedia.

In places the forests and hills widen and diminish into eye stretching plains such as the Campiano. It was on her waving fields, good pastures, and from the minerals of her mountains that the prosperity of Sardinia depended.

Another type of plain that existed was the Giara. Porous basalt plateaus home to a 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.

Where the forest gives out, the Macchia scrub pervades. Corsica. Wikipedia.
Where the forest gives out, the Macchia scrub pervades. Corsica. Wikipedia.

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 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.

The Nuragi.

The Nuraghe, a symbol of a civilisation. Ruju, Chiaramonti. Wikipedia.
The Nuraghe, a symbol of a civilisation. Ruju, Chiaramonti. Wikipedia.

These mysterious ancient people, named for their distinctive tower houses, flourished in independent but culturally connected clans who controlled the island for centuries until the coming of the Phoenicians and the Romans. Nuragic civilisation is thought to have originated in the north and spread south. Due to the fact 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 medieval castles. Therefore the implication is that they were used as military, governmental and sacred centres for the entirety of the pre-classical era. 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 type 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 partition doors to close the entrances 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 an increasing improvement scheme, or a subcultural & geographic gap in technique. The builders did not always choose the highest parts for their settlements, instead 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, Rigil Kent and Hadar.

Tholos (beehive) roof.
Tholos (beehive) roof.

The Nuragi built impressive communal graves, tagged as “giant’s graves”, with long central chambers capable of holding over 100 people, with wings that arch out of either side of the entrance to form a sort of open forecourt were funerary rites might have been practised. 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 the people are likely to have held the dead in reverence, as heroes and Demi-gods. Indeed Nuragic people often seem to have lived close to graves indicating their continued importance in daily life. Temples and sacred places were governed by a symbolism connected to the land and likely the night sky also.

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.

Nuragic boat figurine. Wikipedia.
Nuragic boat figurine. Wikipedia.

Sacred sites therefore 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.

Nuragic chief figurine. Wikipedia.
Nuragic chief figurine. Wikipedia.

Politically 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 precincts of federal and religious significance. Policy was discussed by headmen who oversaw a seemingly complex civil society based around benched meeting houses. The topics of debate would of course relate to economical, mercantile, religious & political matters. Economy was based on a number of factors, principally that of agriculture and 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 became skilled metal workers, crafting goods 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, as it is a component in bronze manufacture. Which brings us to the aspect of trade.
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. There are striking similarities to be found, especially between  the island cultures.

Figurine of a Nuragic archer. Wikipedia.
Figurine of a Nuragic archer. Wikipedia.

In a society of clans, internecine warfare was common. A cycle of raid and festival probably dominated life, much as it did on the Celtic mainland. 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 probably bred warriors who’s skills might have attracted rich patrons and 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 specifically. 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”, and at the very least 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. Which forms the next part of our story.

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.….35…85Z&db_key=AST&page_ind=20&plate_select=NO&data_type=GIF&type=SCREEN_GIF&classic=YES
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


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