Famous structure of the Nuragic civilization. Su Nuraxi of Barumini, included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites since 1997

The Mysterious Nuragic Civilization of Sardinia

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Throughout the ancient island of Sardinia, the story of the indigenous Nuragic civilization lies obscured by unanswered questions.  Although one can examine thousands of their laboriously-assembled structures, megalithic graves, and meticulously-crafted artwork and figurines, the greatest ponderings remain.  What became of these ancient people of the Bronze to early Iron Age, and how does their existence tie in with other civilizations?  To ascertain these answers, one must begin with the nuraghi.

The nuraghi towers

Arguably the most well-known pieces the Nuragic left behind were their nuraghi structures or towers, of which approximately 7,000 have been discovered upon the island - but up to 30,000 may have been constructed.  Although similar in features to many other structures throughout the Mediterranean region, Sardinian constructs were most original and stately in their formation.  These structures are circular, most often created with a flat, truncated rooftop similar to those of other ancient populations, but with the earliest of this classification dating back to 18th century B.C.  

Some believe these types of rooftops were likely maintained and used as terraces. Others, however, form a conical bee-hive shape on top. Minimally-dressed stones were applied in cylindrical succession to form the building within which was typically a corridor, an inner space (some nearly 40 feet in diameter) and a stairwell leading to upper levels accessed via a ground level entrance.  Some more intricate dwellings additionally feature wells, ground-level silos or other spaces presumably for the storage of liquid or dry foodstuffs.  

The Nuraghe Arrubiu

The Nuraghe Arrubiu ( public domain )

Some nuraghi stand as high as ninety feet tall, such as the Nuraghe Arrubiu (see pictured), but many earliest erections are of much humbler heights, and the construction plans varied considerably from simplest versions as well.

Plans of different types of nuraghi

Plans of different types of nuraghi (Credit: Italo Curzio )

The purpose of the nuraghi

The purpose of these structures, the latter of which display increased mastery and efficiency in assembly, has been debated (from grain silos or observatories to temples or fortresses), but artifacts discovered within some (including stone tools, loom weights, hearths, cooking vessels, spindle whorls, and animal bones, to name a few) lead many to the conclusion that the nuraghi were utilized as homes or for predominantly household activities.  Several of such towers with varying complexity built in close proximity to one another with a common well and courtyard, usually surrounded by megalithic walls, are widely agreed upon to have likely been bastions, necessary for territorial protection in the age.

More complex construction with bastion. Nuraghe Santu Antine, Torralba

More complex construction with bastion. Nuraghe Santu Antine, Torralba (Credit: Italo Curzio )

Most complex groupings that developed into settlements, have also featured numerous huts of greatly varied complexity, many of which had basin-like arrangements around the walls for water to likely be held, spaces of enclosure for animals, antemurals and turrets with even lookout towers and other such structures of defense.  Pastures, wooded areas, mines, religious temples and other assets may have accompanied most of the more complex systems. Sadly, many of the original structures are now in ruins, possibly without prior excavation having been conducted, or have been destroyed, largely for more recent purposes of reusing the stones for other functions like roads and modernized enclosures.

The giants’ tombs

The megalithic graves, commonly referred to as "giants' tombs", have been most prevalently found in central Sardinia, although spaced evenly throughout.  These graves were likely the resting place of dozens of persons, up to possibly hundreds at some locations.  With such spacious, extended burial chambers of up to sixty feet and exterior enclosures of nearly ninety feet, it is asserted that the Nuragic took great care to remain close to their dead, believing they had transformed into gods or similar heroic figures.

Example of “giants’ tomb”. The doorway of the central stele was believed to be the barrier between the physical world and the afterlife

Example of “giants’ tomb”. The doorway of the central stele was believed to be the barrier between the physical world and the afterlife  ( Wikimedia Commons )

While the tomb may look like the grave of a giant, only regular-sized human remains have been found there

While the tomb may look like the grave of a giant, only regular-sized human remains have been found there ( Wikimedia Commons )

Religious rites and ceremony

It is likely they performed and later repeated rites of ancestral honor not only at the time of burial, but at significant interval periods in time, with some even suspected of sleeping aside the deceased for healing or magical purposes.  Adorned with various stones, holes, betyls and other decorative features with debatable spiritual or magical significance, it is widely speculated as to which inhabitants were buried within the giants' tombs.  Older tombs were likely less discriminating in the distinction of inhabitants, while more recent developments may have included smaller, more specific groups or clans. 

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