The Nuragic period: the Sardinian bronze age

The bronze age in Sardinia is characterized by the large number of stone towers that are still present in the landscape of the island. These towers are called nuraghe (plural nuraghi), a word derived from an Indo-european term nur which means hollow heap of stones. It has been estimated that there are still about 6500 of these towers. Many have been reduced to just a pile of stones or have been used as building material and to cast the underground for railroads and highways like the strada statale 131 “Carlo Felice” 1. The bronze age in Sardinia is therefore also called the Nuragic age or period. What was so special about this period that such a large number of towers was built? What we know today of the Nuragic culture has been obtained from archeological research and from the scarce roman and greek sources that are from a much later period. In this article we will first give a chronological overview of the Nuragic age and in the second part we will describe more the material remains that are still visible: the nuraghi, the sanctuaries, the burials, but also the ceramics and the bronze art in the museums. A separate article is dedicated on the Nuraghe itself which treats the architecture, the geographical distribution and what could have been possibly the functions of these megalithic towers.

The development of the nuraghi and the nuraghe-culture

The Nuragic is divided into five distinct periods between 1800 and 238 BC when the Romans took possession of the island (see: the Chronology on the previous page). Since neolithic times agriculture, commerce and navigation had been known to Sardinia but with the introduction of bronze and bronze melting around 1800 BC, the spread of the vine and the olive and the introduction of iron around 900 BC the external contacts intensified. Through these products social and political structures underwent a change, a proces that took fifteen centuries of gradual change but also with moments of great tension and impact.

a. The culture of Bonnanaro (Nuragic I 1800 - 1500 BC)

About 1800 BC on Sardinia a homogenuous culture develops that is called after the main archaeological site of it's first finds the Culture of Bonnanaro 2. In this earliest phase of the nuragic period the first simple structures were built that looked much like raised platforms with a corridor and a stairway that gave access. These structures are commonly called protonuraghi, or nuraghi a corridoio passante (corridor, passway). An important example of this type of building is the protonuraghe of Brunku Madugui that is located on the highland plateau of the Giara di Gesturi 3. Culturally the communities on Sardinia were part of a broader geografical horizon that comprised Sicily, Corsica, the Italian peninsula and the south of France (the Midi). The use of copper, silver and bronze was known to these people 4. The means of subsistence of these communities was above all the herding of cattle and in a lesser measure agriculture. The herding of cattle is especially linked to the fact that watersources played a central part in their religion, as for example follows from the existence of sanctuaries like that of Sardara. The communities are described as pastori-guerrieri (shepherd-warriors) who made use of strongholds to watch over their territory and to keep an eye on their herds 5.

b. Nuragic II (1500 - 1200 BC)

When exactly the first classical nuraghe appeared, the single tower with one tholos vaulted (called also false cupola) central room, is still subject to discussion amongst archaeologists (see: The Nuraghe). In the Mediterranean area changes occurred around 1500 BC that have been noted in cultural changes in Spain, France and on the Italian peninsula, while at the same time on the islands of Corsica, the Balearics and Sardinia the construction of megalithic towers intensified. On Maiorca and Minorca these towers are called talaiots and on Corsica torreani (culture of Torreana I) 6. In the east the Mycenean palace culture flourished and the Myceneans established contacts with the western mediterranean, including Sardinia. It is probable that they influenced the building of the nuraghi, but the main architecture was not copied from them as has been assumed previously by historians 7.

The Nuragic II is characterized by the large number of single towers, the nuraghi monotorre. In some areas the density of towers could arrive at nine nuraghi on ten square kilometers. In the absence of a clear hierarchy it is supposed that the nuraghi were owned by an average family of six people headed by the oldest member of the clan, and that the clans formed a more or less egalitarian society where leadership within a tribe could be temporary 8.

c. Nuragic III (1200 - 900 BC)

This relatively egalitarian society would change after 1200 BC. In the Mediterranean unrest followed the Dorian invasion of Greece, the disappearance of the Mycenean palace culture and it was the period that is known from Egyptian sources as the invasion of the Seapeoples at the times of Ramses II 9. It is in this time of crises that the complex nuraghi were built, like Nuraghe Losa, Su Nuraxi, Genna Maria, Palmavera, Santu Antine, and that the society evolved into a more hierarchical social structure with chiefs who made the complex nuraghi their strongholds 10. It is a sign that the society became more complex and that economical and political power became more concentrated in the hands of the chiefs.

The contacts with the eastern Mediterranean continued even with the disappearance of the Myceneans. Cypriotic merchants took over the commercial routes to the west. Bronze and bronze melting became a more important factor in economic life, this can be seen in the many bronze hoards that contained axes and swords, but it has also been established with the finds of copper oxhide-ingots of Cypriotic origin marked with letters (Linear B) 11.

d. Nuragic IV (900 – 538 BC) and Nuragic V (538 - 238 BC)

With the arrival of phoenician and sirian-palestinese merchants society underwent a further change. No more nuraghi were built, even though the complex nuraghi remained in use as strongholds and others were transformed to cultus places 12. Local chiefs gained more power through concentration of economic means in their hands. On the coasts the first urban settlements arose under the influence of the merchants and slowly the first steps in urbanisation were made that attracted the Sards to the coasts. In inland Sardinia the nuragic village gained in importance, often near a large nuraghe, under it's protective walls 13. However the nuragic culture is far from urbanised and remained a society of shepherds-farmers who also worked bronze or mined for iron, lead, silver and copper 14.

It is in this period that the contacts with the phoenicians produced some of the finest architecture in nuragic sanctuaries like that of Santa Vittoria di Serri or the waterwell of Santa Cristina 15.

In the sixth century the Carthaginian conquest of part of Sardinia pushed the traditional Sards more inland. As of 238 BC Sardinia was completely subdued by the Romans. This last period of the Nuragic under Punic rule has been called by Lilliu the period of survival of the nuragic culture 16.

On the next page follows an overview of Nuragic architecture and religion and the art of the bronze statues.

Notes

1 Lilliu 2006, p. 36; Melis 2003, p. 10; Lilliu 2003, p. 562
2 Lilliu 2003, p. 319
3 Lilliu 2006, p. 48-49; Melis 2003, p. 8,9; Webster 1996, p. 70; Lilliu 1982, p. 14; Manca Demurtas e Demurtas 1992, p. 176 ; Tanda 2004, p. 56. On the chronology not all archaeologists agree. The method of dating with C14 has always a margin of 100-200 years which may make chronology differ.
4 Lilliu 2003, p343-344 ; Tanda 2004, p. 53
5 Lilliu 2003, p.361
6 Lilliu 2003, p. 365; Webster 1996, p.92
7 Tanda 2004, p.57
8 Webster 1996, p. 97-99
9 Lilliu 2003, p. 411-412
10 Lilliu 2006, p. 26; Webster 1996, p. 108
11 Webster 1996, p.198-206; Melis 2003, p. 55-62; Lilliu 1982, p.114; Stos-Gale and Gale 1992, p. 317
12 Tanda 2004, p. 66; Lilliu 2003, p. 481-485
13 Tanda 2004, p.67
14 Tanda 2004, p. 69
15 Lilliu 2003, p. 523-528, 605, 612; Lilliu 2006, p. 63; Santillo Frizell 1992, p. 262
16 Lilliu 2003, p. 485

Bibliography

1. Lilliu, G. 1982: La Civiltà Nuragica, Sassari
2. Lilliu,G. 2003: La civiltà dei Sardi dal paleolitico all'età dei nuraghi, Nuoro
3. Lilliu, G. 2006, Sardegna Nuragica, Nuoro
4. Manca Demurtas, L. e S. Demurtas 1992: Tipologie Nuragiche: I Protonuraghi con Corridoio Passante, in: Sardinia in the Mediterranean: A footprint in the sea, ed. R. H. Tykot and T.K. Andrews, Sheffield, p. 176-184
5. Melis, P. 2003, Civiltà Nuragica, Sassari
6. Santillo Frizell, B. 1992, Phoenician Echoes in a Nuragic Building in: Sardinia in the Mediterranean: A footprint in the sea, ed. R. H. Tykot and T.K. Andrews, Sheffield, p. 262-270
7. Stos-Gale, Z.A. and N.H. Gale 1992, New Light on the Provenience of the Copper Oxhide Ingots Found on Sardinia in: Sardinia in the Mediterranean: A footprint in the sea, ed. R. H. Tykot and T.K. Andrews, Sheffield, p. 317-346
8. Tanda, G. 2004: Dalla preistoria alla storia, in: Storia della Sardegna, ed. M. Brigaglia, Cagliari, p. 25-74
9. Webster, G.S. 1996, A Prehistory of Sardinia 2300-500BC, Sheffield

Last updated 29/11/2013

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