The Nuragic period: architecture, religion and arts

What archaeologists know about the nuragic culture in the Sardinian Bronze Age is obtained mostly from the remaining foundations of structures, the nuraghi, the nuragic villages, the sanctuaries, the grave structures, and the objects (artefacts) found during excavations of these structures, like earthenware and artefacts in bronze and stone that have been preserved in the course of centuries. Much of what humans have been using in the past has vanished: organic materials like wood and straw, iron artefacts or weapons (through rust), textiles and leather. The most important smaller finds have found their way to museums in Sardinia or outside. The nuraghi, the graves and the sanctuaries have remained, scattered around in the landscape, and attract the attention wherever they can be seen. They merit a visit if you want to know more about the past of Sardinia. In this article you will find some more information on the bronze age monuments and the material remains, the ceramics and Sardinian bronze statuettes of the nuragic age.

The architecture

a. the nuraghe

The development of the nuraghe has already been described on the previous page. Detailed information on the nuraghe can be found in the article on architecture distribution and function of the nuraghi. For an overview of nuraghi in Sardinia see the List of Nuraghi and the map of Nuraghi. Here will follow a short overview of the most important aspects of the nuraghe.

The classical nuraghe, which developed from the more simple proto-nuraghe, is a conical tower with a truncated flat top and an overhanging platform (which is no longer existent in any of the buildings). The construction method is with the use of natural stones without any kind of cement, starting with large blocks at the base of the nuraghe and a decreasing size towards the top of the tower. A single entrance provides access to a large round room, with a cupola like vault (called in classical architecture a tholos). In this room there can be found often one or more niches. Depending on the height of the tower there could be a second and a third floor, each with a single circular room with a cupola vault. These rooms and the platform on top are reachable through a staircase which is incorporated within the thick walls. Even though the towers look alike they are each unique in architecture and materials used, which depended on the type of stone available (mostly basalt, sometimes sandstone or marl). Scientists do not yet agree on the use of nuraghi as habitations, but this could well have been the case in the initial period 1. These first simple nuraghi are called monotorre.

In the later nuragic period the structures became more complex. Around a central tower one or more towers were added, reinforced with thick walls, bastions and extended platforms which made them look more like medieval castles. These complex nuraghi could be labyrinths of corridors and stairways and were considered impenetrable. Around some of the complex nuraghi additional walls with smaller towers were built, often with loopholes on the outside. The complex nuraghi definitely had a military and political function. They are called polilobato where the number of additional towers determined the division in: bilobato (two-tower), trilobato (three-tower) quadrilobato (four-tower) etcetera 2.

A few of the most important nuraghi of west-Sardinia are Nuraghe Losa (trilobato), Su Nuraxi at Barumini (quadrilobato) and Nuraghe Genna Maria at Villanovaforru (trilobato). These are examples of complex nuraghi with their own history, still in use in Roman or even Medieval times 3.

b. the nuragic villages

Around the nuraghi and near sanctuaries remaining structures have been found of what are called nuragic villages. The huts are circular of shape, built with a low stone wall that served as foundation for long poles that formed the roof, which was then covered with branches. The inside was sealed with clay to make the roof wind and water tight and cork was used to isolate against the cold draughts. The huts are very similar to the African kraal huts. Also a similar type of hut can still be found in the Sardinian landscape where shepherds build them as temporary shelters (the pinnettas) 4. In many villages one large hut with an internal circular bench in stone has been uncovered.

Reconstruction drawing of a typical Sardinian nuragic hut
Reconstruction drawing of a
typical Sardinian nuragic hut

This hut is considered by archaeologists to have served as the hut of the assembly, where meetings were held, it would have had a social function like the forum of the romans. During excavations of the huts often a ritual object was found that would have been placed in the centre; a large bowl that contained water or a miniature model of a nuraghe 5. Of a later period are the more complex houses made up of several rooms around a courtyard, where an entire extended family lived and worked, baked bread or melted and worked bronze. Examples of this type of house can be found near Barumini or Nuraghe Genna Maria. There was no open space in the villages, like the Romans had their forum or the Greeks their agora, in fact the passages between houses are so narrow that not even cattle would have been able to enter or be kept near the households 6.

c. the grave structures: The Tombe di Giganti

The grave structures that are known to be part of the nuragic culture are the Tombe di Giganti, megalithic structures of which still 321 have been counted. The name of the monuments derives from a popular Sardinian name, the graves of the giants, and has been adopted by the archaeologists. These graves can be up to 30 meters long and have developed from the megalithic grave structures of the Dolmen of pre-nuragic times, as an elongated form. The graves were built with monoliths or like the nuraghi with basalt blocks, and could have been intended for more than one burial, like a kind of comunal or family grave. In front there is one flat upright monolith (stele centinata) flanked by rows of stones decreasing in size and height, marking a semicircular open space in front of the grave where possibly rituals were held. The architecture seems to have derived from longhuts, of which also remains have been found in Sardinia, and resembles the gravestructures of other parts of western-Europe in megalithic times 7.

d. The sanctuaries, water at the center of devotion

A very special kind of sanctuary that is connected to the nuragic culture, but may even be older than that, is the holy waterwell (pozzo sacro), dedicated to the goddess of the earth, the bringer of life. There are about forty of these sanctuaries in Sardinia. In almost all cases the superstructure of the sanctuaries no longer exists and only the well itself is still visible. The sanctuaries were built in nuragic style with blocks of stone, more or less cut to fit, like the waterwell of Sant'Anastasia at Sardara, or they could have been built with astonishing mathematic precision like the waterwell of Santa Cristina near Paulilatino or that of Santa Vittoria near Serri 8. The well itself is often covered with a cupola (tholos) and accessible through a staircase. Where the tholos vault is still intact the highest point is at ground level and through an opening you can look down to the bottom. During excavation many votive artefacts have been found ranging from ceramics to very fine nuragic bronze statuettes 9.

Around the site of the well itself there have been found many structures that belong to the sanctuaries, huts and rooms. A large open space was delimited by huts and porticoes and was in use during religious festivities that could last for a number of days, where people prepared meals or even sold religious or other objects. The sanctuary of Santa Vittoria di Serri is a good example and this site could even have had a function as a pan-Sardic sanctuary, much like Delphi was a pan-Greek sanctuary 10.

With the rise of christianity many sanctuaries were transformed by building christian churches. It was a way of changing heathen feasts into christian ones and that is also why the sites now have the names of saints. Curiously enough the feasts in honour of the saints of later times also lasted several days and around the church small houses have been built where the people could stay during the festivities, the cumbessias 11

The material culture: Ceramics and bronze statues

Ceramics are for archaeologists of great importance to establish the chronology within culturally homogeneous areas. Earthenware does not perish and is often scattered around, left in pits that served to dump garbage or found in the floors of stamped earth of huts and nuraghi. Sardinian ware was not decorated in the initial nuragic period. Later vertical grooves were applied to the pots as a kind of decoration. Taste for form and decoration was quite homogeneous throughout the nuragic period in all of Sardinia 12

Interesting is the imported ware, which increased much during the nuragic period, and has been found in the context of nuraghi and bronze age settlements. Most reknowned is the Mycenean ware, and one of the nuraghi where extensive research was done on imported Mycenean ceramics is the nuraghe Antigori near Sarroch 13.

Not only the Mycenean ceramics, but also the discovery of copper ingots, the socalled oxhide ingots, proves that there were contacts with the eastern Mediterranean. Copper was used to obtain bronze and was one of the most important metals traded around the Mediterranean at that time 14. Bronze artefacts like axes can be seen as a pre-monetary means of payment. Often these bronze objects, the axes and swords as well as ingots, have been found in hoards, that were hidden in some pit 15.

With the bronze melting a figurative artform developed, especially after 900 BC possibly through increased contacts with the east. The bronze statues are the most conspicuous artform of the nuragic culture. The bronze statues have also been found outside Sardinia, most notably in Etruscan graves. The subject of the statues could vary; there were human figures like warriors and priests, animal figures like deer and shipmodels ornamented with birds. They were intended as votive gifts in religious ceremonies or as individual gift to beg the favours of the gods. Most bronze figures have in fact been found on the bottom of the wells of the watersanctuaries 16.
Large statues are not common for Sardinian art in the nuragic age. A very important exception though are the large sandstone statues of Monti Prama, discovered on the peninsola of Sinis. These man-high statues are figures of warriors, just like the small bronze statues, dressed with various warrior outfits 17.

Large part of the important finds are kept in the Museo Archeologico of Cagliari. There is for example a very large collection of bronzes which gives a good overview. Other museums in Sardinia have now too built up their own valuable collection of the nuragic era and are worthwhile paying a visit.

Notes:

1 Lilliu 2003: p. 571-590. Melis 2003: p. 12-17 see also the article The Nuraghe
2 Lilliu 2003: p. 582 e.v.. Lilliu 1982: p. 62-85. Melis 2003 p. 17-22
3 Manca 2004: p. 71, see Michels 1987: excavations of nuraghe Toscono established the use of the nuraghe also in roman times
4 Lilliu 2006, p. 29; Melis 2003, p. 27
Webster 1996, p. 121
6 Melis 2003, p.28
7 Lilliu 2006, p. 51-61; Webster 1996, p.78-80; Melis 2003, p. 30-36; Lilliu 2003: p. 597-602
8 Lilliu 2006, p. 63 ff.; Santillo Frizell 1992, p. 262 ff.; Lilliu 2003: p. 602-617
9 Melis 2003, p.39 ff. and Webster 1996, p.147, Lilliu 1982, p.160 ff.
10 Lilliu 2003: p. 523-533
11 Lilliu 2003: p. 533
12 Lilliu 2003: p. 345,357,358,396,397
13 Lilliu 2003: p. 400,464-465
14 Webster 1996, p.198-206; Melis 2003, p. 55-62; Lilliu 1982, p.114; Stos-Gale and Gale 1992, p. 317 e.v.: Lilliu 2003: p. 461
15 Lilliu 2003: p. 344,473-475
16 Lilliu 2006, p. 83-95; Lilliu 1982, p. 207
17 Lilliu 2003: p. 632

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, G. 2004: Il nuraghe Losa e la civiltà nuragica, Ghilarza
5. Melis, P. 2003, Civiltà Nuragica, Sassari
6. Michels, J.W. and G. Webster 1987: Studies in Nuragic Archaeology: Village excavations at Nuraghe Urpes and Nuraghe Toscono in West-Central Sardinia, Oxford
7. 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
8. 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
9. Webster, G.S. 1996, A Prehistory of Sardinia 2300-500BC, Sheffield

Last updated 11/12/2013

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