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Those Sophisticated Cave Men--Sardinia's "Prehistoric" Towers........Page 34

Sardinia's Prehistoric Towers

Sardinia is home to an immense population of mysterious prehistoric stone towers called "nuraghi." (Singular form is "nuraghe.") Over 7,000 of these remarkable dry-stone edifices exist -- a concentration of monumental stone architecture unparalleled in Europe.

Remains of a Large, prehistoric Nuraghe.
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'Nuraghe' derives from the prehistoric Sardinian root 'nur' which means both 'hollow' and 'heap.' But the nuraghi are neither hollow nor are they haphazard heaps of stone.

The nuraghe interior often presents a complex plan of chambers, winding staircases, dead-end corridors, concealed rooms with trap doors, and a variety of niches and compartments.

Standing up to three stories high with magnificently corbelled domes one on top of the other, some structures have as many as 18 subsidiary towers attached to the main keep. Large complexes were sometimes completely enclosed by enormous stone walls punctuated with still more towers."

Over 3,000 years old, the nuraghi have withstood the depredations of weather and later humans by virtue of their excellent design and construction. As with many other such ancient structures, one is impressed with the size of the stones used.

How were they moved? How were the stones -- usually hard basalt -- cut and dressed by artesans with no metal tools harder than copper or bronze?

And what was the purpose of the nuraghi? A quick answer to the last question is that they were fortresses, but they might also have been dwellings or storehouses.

(Gallin, Lenore; "The Prehistoric Towers of Sardinia," Archaeology, 40:26, September/October 1987.)

The Nuraghi: Prehistoric Times

Nuraghe, restored by artist.
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Nuraghi, domus de janas (“house of the fairies” or “house of the witches,” actually tombs carved into the rock face), stone age burial sites and so-called giant’s graves (tombe dei giganti) all bear mute witness to long-vanished cultures.

Sardinia has been inhabited since the stone age, with the latest findings dating back 200,000 years, which is when the first “real” Sardinian culture evolved. The peaceful farmers, fishermen and shepherds of this era were influenced by older cultures to the east.

Sardinia reached its economic and cultural peak during the pre-Christian era (circa 1800-500 BC), when the island was dotted with thousands of defensive towers and hundreds of settlements.

Granite houses and megalithic towers were constructed that blended into the rocky landscape, a living expression of the symbiosis between man and nature.

Nuraghi – megalithic fortresses made of large boulders and consisting of one or more conical towers – are found throughout Sardinia. Most are neither fenced nor guarded and as a result animals are kept in many of them.

They are totally dark inside, and their massive stones date back eons, to the time when Sardinia jutted straight out of the water and present day Italy was seabed.

The aforementioned stone fortresses, wondrous as they are to behold, clearly show that Nuraghic culture was also very warlike. There was apparently great enmity amongst the various tribes despite the fact that they shared the same language and culture.

Nuraghic cultured flourished not in isolation but rather through extensive economic and cultural contact with other Mediterranean cultures.

Three architectonic elements survive from the Nuraghic period: natural stone or “dry” dividing walls (muri a secco), circular and semi-circular buildings and natural stone, mainly granite, as a building material.

History and Archaeology of Sardinia & the Nuraghi
From Papers of the British Sclwol at Rome

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The early history of Sardinia is entirely unknown. The various accounts of Greek writers of the early colonizations of the island cannot be accepted, and it appears rather to have been the case that though there were various schemes formed by Greeks for occupying it or parts of it (eg. that recorded by Herodotus in 170 B.C.), when it was proposed, after the capture of Phocaea and Teos in 545 B.C., that the remainder of the ionian Greeks should emigrate to Sardinia) none of them ever came to anything.

On the other hand, the island contains a very large number of important prehistoric monuments, belonging to the Bronze Age, Nuraghi during which it must have been comparatively well populated.

The most conspicuous and important of these are the nuraghi (the word is said to be a corruption of muraglie, i.e. large walls, but it is more probably a native word). These there are, as has been estimated, as many as 6000 still traceable in the island.

The nuraghe in its simplest form is a circular tower about 30 ft. in diameter at the base and decreasing in diameter as it ascends; it is built of rough blocks of stone, as a rule about 2 ft. high (though this varies with the material employed); they are not mortared together, but on the inside, at any rate, the gaps between them were often filled with clay.

The entrance almost invariably faces south, and measures, as a rule, 5 or 6 ft. in height by 2 feet in width. The architrave is flat, and there is a space over it, serving both to admit light and to relieve the pressure on it from above, and the size decreases slightly from the bottom to the top.

Within the doorway is, as a rule, a niche on the right, and a staircase ascending in the thickness of the wall to the left; in front is another similar doorway leading to the chamber in the interior, which is circular, and about 15 ft. in diameter; it has two or three niches, and a conical roof formed by the gradual inclination of the walls to the centre.

It is lighted by the two doorways already mentioned. The staircase leads either to a platform on the top of the nuraghe or, more frequently, to a second chamber concentric with the first, lighted by a window which faces, as a rule, in the same direction as the main doorway. A third chamber above the second does not often occur.

Nuraghe Interiors.
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The majority perhaps of the nuraghi of Sardinia present this simple type; but a very large number, and, among them, those best preserved, have considerable additions.

The construction varies with the site, obviously with a view to the best use of the ground from a strategic point of view. Thus, there may be a platform round the nuraghe, generally with two, three or four bastions, each often containing a chamber; or the main nuraghe may have additional chambers added to it.

In a few cases, indeed, we find very complicated systems of fortification walls of circumvallation with towers at the corners, protecting a small settlement of nuraghe-like buildings, as in the case of the Nuraghe Losa near Abbasanta and the Nuraghe Saurecci near Guspini.

In neither of these cases have the subsidiary buildings been fully traced out. The plan of the former is given by Pinza and that of the latter by La Marmora. The latter seen from a distance resembles a medieval castle crowning a hill-top.

As is the case at Nuraghe Lugheras near Paulilatino, or at the Nuraghe de Sorcu near Domusnovas, the entrance may be protected by a regular system of courtyards and subsidiary nuraghi. Roughness of construction cannot be regarded as a proof of antiquity, inasmuch as in some cases we find the additions less well built than the original nuraghe; and it is often clear from the careful work at points where it was necessary that the lack of finer construction was often simply economy of labor.

That the simpler forms, on the other hand, preceded those of more complicated plan is probable. The manner of their arrangement seems to indicate clearly that they were intended to be fortified habitations, not tombs or temples.

The niche at the entrance, which is rarely wanting, served, no doubt, for the sentry on guard, and would be on the unprotected side of any one coming in,; the door, too, is narrow and low, and closed from within.

The approach is, as we have seen, often guarded by additional constructions; the fact that the door and window face south is another argument in favor of this theory, and the access from one part of the interior to another is sometimes purposely rendered difficult by a sudden vertical rise of 5 or 6 ft. in the stairs; while the objects found in them include household pottery, …....and near them (in some cases silos containing carbonized grain and dolia) point to the same conclusion.

Numerous fragments of obsidian arrow-heads and chips are also found in and near them all over the island. The only place where obsidian is known to be found in Sardinia in a natural state is the Punta Trebina, a mountain south-east of Oristano. The choice of site, too, is decisive.

Sometimes they occupy the approaches to tablelands, the narrowest points of gorges, or the fords of rivers; sometimes almost inaccessible mountain tops or important points on ridges; and it may be noticed that, where two important nuraghi are not visible from one another, a small one is interpolated, showing that there was a system of signaling from one to another.

Or again, a group of them may occupy a fertile plain, a river valley or a tableland, or they may stand close to the seashore. Generally there is, if possible, a water-supply in the vicinity; sometimes a nuraghe guards a spring, or there may be a well in the nuraghe itself.

A final argument is the existence in some cases of a village of circular stone buildings of similar construction to the nuraghi, but only 15 to 25 ft. in diameter, at the foot of a nuraghe, which, like the baronial castle of a medieval town, towered above the settlement.

Those of the Giara are fully described by A. Taramelli and F. Nissardi in Monumenti dei Lincei, vol. xviii; Nissardis map of the Nurra, published by G. Pinza, ibid. vol. xi. sqq., may also be consulted.

Tombs are distributed over the whole island, but are perhaps most frequent towards the centre and in the Nurra. They seem to be almost entirely lacking in the north-east extremity, near Terranova, and in the mountains immediately to the north of Iglesias, though they are found to the north of the Perda de sa Mesa.

In the district of Gennargentu they occur, rarely, as much as 3600 ft. above sea-level. The tombs of their inhabitants are of two classes the so-called tonzbe dei giganti, or giants tombs, and the domus de gianas, or houses of the spirits.

The former are generally found close to, or at least in sight of, the nuraghe to which they seem to belong.

They consist of a chamber about 33/4 ft. or less in height and width, with the sides slightly inclined towards one another, and from 30 to 40 ft., or even more, in length; the sides are composed sometimes of slabs, sometimes of rough walling, while the roof is composed of flat slabs; and the bodies were probably disposed in a sitting position.

At the front is a large slab, sometimes carved, with a small aperture in it, through which offerings might be inserted. On each side of this is a curve formed of two rows of slabs or two small walls; the semicircular space thus formed has a diameter of about 45 ft., and was probably intended for sacrifices.

The tomb proper was no doubt covered with a pound of earth, which has in most cases disappeared. Close to these tombs smaller round enclosures, about 4 ft. in diameter, covered with a heap of stones, like a small cairn, may sometimes be seen; these were possibly intended for the burial of slaves or less important members of the tribe.

Dolmens (probably to be regarded as a simpler form of the tomba dei giganti, inasmuch as specimens with chambers elongated after their first construction have been found) and menhirs are also present in Sardinia, though the former are very rare that are known as Sa Perda e Saltare, near the railway to the south of Macomer is illustrated by A. Taramelli in Bullettino di Paleoelnologicr, xxxii. (1906), 268, but there are others.

The latter, however, are widely distributed over the island, being especially frequent in the central and most inaccessible part. The domus de gianas, on the other hand, resemble closely the rock tombs of the prehistoric cemeteries of Sicily.

They are small grottos cut in the rock. We thus have two classes of tombs in connection with the nuraghi, and if these were to be held to be tombs also, habitations would be entirely wanting.

The whole question is well dealt with by F. Nissardi in Atti del Congresso delle Scienze Storiche (Rome, 1903), vol. v. (Archeologia), 651 sqq.; cf. Builder, May 18, 1907 (xcii. 589). -

Nuraghe Culture art
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Among the most curious relics of the art of the period is a group of bronze statuettes, some found at Uta near Cagliari and others near Teti, west of Fonni, in the centre of the island, of which many specimens are now preserved in the museum at Cagliari.

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It is thus clear that in the Bronze Age Sardinia was fairly thickly populated over by far the greater part of its extent; this may explain the lack of Greek colonies, except for Olbia, the modern Terranova, and Neapolis on the west coast, which must from their names have been Greek, though we do not know when or by whom they were founded.

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