Quick! Which civilization are we talking about here: ancient megaliths dotting the landscape, mysterious Bronze Age culture, island in the Mediterranean?
If you said “Malta”, then we cannot blame you: that is the obvious answer. If you said “Crete” then you get partial credit because everyone loves the Minoans, but the surprisingly overlooked answer this time is Sardinia, home to one of the least understood Bronze Age civilizations in the world.
And if you said “Sardinia” then we can only conclude that you looked at the title. And that is cheating.
Lots and Lots of Stone Towers
In the last twenty years, many research studies have been conducted on Nuragic Sardinia. Thanks to the archaeological discoveries, new excavations, and review of previous excavation records give a more defined chronology to these people of the high Bronze Age.
They made the island of Sardinia their home for millennia, a conservative estimate running between nearly 1800 BC to 238 BC. We can thank the Romans for this precise end date, as it is the moment they decided to colonize the island in their usual brutal fashion, but actually there is some evidence that the Nuragic people lived on for perhaps as much as four more centuries.
But in that time, much like the ancient civilization of Malta, they permanently transformed their island. The Nuragic people were stonemasons, master builders who covered Sardinia in the great stone structures which give them their name: “nuraghe”.
The dating of 1800 BC for Nuragic Sardinia is entirely linked to these towers, which were constructed in great numbers from that point. We do not know where they came from before that point, and while it seems they migrated from mainland Europe some time in the early Bronze Age it is entirely possible they were always there.
Multiple uses have been theorized for these structures. They were certainly large enough for defensive structures, and with Sardinia being home to one of the earliest silver mines in history, the island was well worth defending.
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That said, they don’t look like fortifications. Perhaps they were religious temples, or otherwise used for ceremonial purposes. Perhaps they were communal homes, and certainly there is evidence in the archaeology that settlements grew around them: there must have been advantages to living near a nuraghe.
The Nuragic people do not maintain written records on their own, and so they are unable to tell us themselves what these buildings were for. However, many things are written about the Nuragic people of Sardinia by ancient Greek and Roman writers. Perhaps the answers lie there.
Well, sadly not. It seems that the Greeks were as baffled as we are, and had to speculate on these structures too. Their theories were somewhat fringe by modern standards, and they referred to magnificent constructions on the island they called “daidaleia”, named for Daedalus after he had finished the Minoan labyrinth and flown over from Crete.
Daedalus was unlikely to have been the architect, but the structures were certainly worthy of him. Some rise to more than 20 meters (66 feet) in height, with double layered walls to ensure stability and longevity, all dressed in fine masonry. You could climb them too, with many featuring spiral staircases in the interior.
Moreover, Nuragic people were also known as skilled metalworkers, and they had gained a name for their high-quality bronze objects. These included weapons, tools, and ornaments, and are far from limited to the island of Sardinia. It seems the Nuragic people were traded all around the Mediterranean region.
However, this offers us nothing of the internal workings of the Nuragic civilization. We can tell they were grouped into independent and small communities, which were governed by local leaders. These leaders were responsible for maintaining order inside their communities. Even these leaders often formed alliances with nearby communities to offer a mutual defense.
Moreover, a complex religious system seems to have existed among the people of Nuragic Sardinia that involved the worship of different gods and goddesses. Here, most of the deities were related to natural elements like earth, water, and fire. Even these deities were often illustrated in the form of human or animal figures.
In the 8th century BC, the Phoenicians, great seafarers of the Med, arrived at Sardinia. Their appearance was one of the most significant events in Nuragic history. It has been found that they were the ones who introduced new ideas and technologies to the people of Nuragic Sardinia, including the use of weapons, and for the first time iron tools.
Thus, it can be said that the Phoenicians played a crucial role in shaping the history of Sardinia Island. By the 3rd century BC, the Nuragic civilization declined, and the expansion of the Romans was on the horizon. With the arrival of the Romans, many of the structures were destroyed or abandoned, and the Roman custom replaced their tradition and culture gradually.
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Many nuraghe, especially those built on the farmable land of the plains of Sardinia, would be destroyed in the centuries that followed as they lost their significance and became artefacts of a lost culture. However, even today some 7,000 remain.
In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the Nuragic people and was responsible for one of the oldest written descriptions of them. The people of Sardinia were characterized by Herodotus as having blue eyes, fair hair, and a strange ritual of binding the newborns’ heads to lengthen their skulls.
This process, known as cranial deformation, has been observers in other cultures where it often serves to physically differentiate an elite “ruling” class. And we can see these people practiced it too, thanks to evidence we find today in Nuragic tombs.
Herodotus also explained that the people of Nuragic Sardinia were talented metalworkers who created bronze weapons and other items. This is corroborated by archaeological data, which demonstrates that the Nuragic people possessed sophisticated metalworking abilities and exchanged their bronze objects all around the Mediterranean.
Diodorus Siculus, another Greek author from a few centuries later in the 1st century BC, observed that the Nuragic people were separated into tribes and were headed by chiefs who were chosen for their bravery and physical prowess. He also noted the nuraghe, but his theory was that they were built by the cyclops.
Around the same time, Roman writer Sallust also gave some information about the Nuragic people, mentioning them as fierce warriors as they resisted Roman conquest over the years. If they had a mind to it, their towers would certainly have been beneficial in protecting the surrounding settlements, much like castles in more modern times.
Separating Myth from Reality
Much valuable information about the people of Nuragic Sardinia has been found in the Greek and Roman records, but this information is clouded with legends and myths. It has been identified that some descriptions of them and their culture and tradition are correct, while other written records are based on mythological beliefs.
They built towers, and crafted exquisite ornaments in bronze. They were great stoneworkers, and then they were gone. And thanks to their silence, we may never understand would the Nuragic people of Sardinia really were.
Top Image: Expertly constructed and obviously important for something: a nuraghe of the Sardinian Nuragic people. Source: Carlo Pelagalli / CC BY-SA 3.0.
By Bipin Dimri