Sardinia's Bronze Age Towers

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During the Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age, from 2000 to 600 b.c., the western Mediterranean island of Sardinia, now part of Italy, was home to a remarkable people, the Nuragic culture. For much of their history the Nuragic people lived in scattered farmsteads, practiced intensive small-scale farming and stock raising, and communicated without writing. In these respects they resembled many of their contemporaries in the western Mediterranean and Europe. However, the Nuragic people distinguished themselves from their mainland neighbors by channeling their creative energies into their architecture: the dramatic conical stone towers, known as nuraghi (singular, nuraghe), that give their name to the culture. To modern time these towers, some seven thousand of them, dot the island's landscape. Even after some four thousand years of wear and tear, they remain impressive and beautiful monuments. The neighboring islands of Corsica, the Balearic Islands, and Pantelleria all have monumental towers akin to the nuraghi. But their numbers are fewer, and they appear slightly later in history, so they are thought to be copies of the Sardinian towers. The Sardinian examples, then, justly have received the most study. Twentieth-century investigations of the towers greatly expanded understanding of the origins, construction, and development of the nuraghi and their social significance.

construction and distribution

The nuraghi are composed of large stone blocks constructed without benefit of mortar or any other binding agent. Construction styles vary: the blocks may be well dressed or only roughly hewn, and they may be arranged in horizontal courses of walling or stacked with progressively smaller stones used as the wall gets higher. The towers average 12 meters in external diameter and reached an estimated 15 to 20 meters in height when they were complete (most have lost the upper portions). Inside the towers typically consist of a windowless central circular chamber on the ground floor, with two or three shallow niches off it. The ceiling took the form of a corbeled vault. To the side of the entrance is a small niche, commonly called a "guard's chamber," though its function remains obscure. Often these towers had an upper story, and in the case of the largest ones two upper stories, reached by a staircase built inside the double walls. The builders used local stone: basalt and granite were preferred, but in some cases limestone was used. Although the nuraghi's ground plans are quite homogeneous, there is enormous variety in their appearance. The variation in size and building techniques suggests that these towers were not built under the direction of an islandwide authority but instead were the result of local decision making.

The nuraghi are found all over the island though in greatest densities in the hilly central region. Their distribution is dispersed, positioned no less than half a kilometer apart. Stone tombs known as "giants' tombs," consisting of an elongated chamber of large stone slabs and fronted by a semi-circular forecourt, are found near many nuraghi and were the sites of communal burials.

questions of function

Theories abound to explain the function of the nuraghi. For several hundred years scholars have proposed that they were temples, tombs, farms, storehouses, and forts. But finds from excavations over the twentieth century suggest fairly conclusively that the towers were habitations. Remains of vessels for cooking, serving, and storing food; animal bones and seeds; traces of hearths; stone tools; and implements for weaving and spinning all point to domestic activities in the towers. Given their rural setting, the towers seem to have been farmsteads, each, in all likelihood, occupied by a family who grew crops or herded sheep and goats on the surrounding land. However, this does not explain their monumental size. The towers' height, their location in prominent places such as hilltops, and the fact that many towers seem positioned to be in sight of each other all suggest that they functioned as watch-towers. Their solidity points to self-defense. In the absence of any evidence of external threats, many scholars think of them as fortresses for a society prone to chronic feuding between families, interspersed with moments of cooperation. Clearly such cooperation was needed from neighbors in order to construct these towers: a single family could not have done this alone. The towers took an estimated 3,600 person-days to build. However, this theory remains somewhat tentative as there is little evidence of warfare apart from the towers themselves, and it is perplexing why neighbors would help to build structures that would then be used as defense against them.

origins and chronology

Until the late twentieth century the nuraghi were thought to be Greek in origin: their vaulted ceilings and conical shapes resemble the tholoi, or "beehive" tombs, of Mycenae. However, subsequent work has laid this theory to rest. New dating has shown that the nuraghi are earlier than the Mycenaean structures, which date from the Late Bronze Age or fifteenth century b.c., and the construction techniques of the two types of monuments are different. It is widely accepted that the nuraghi emerged independently on the island rather than copied from somewhere else.

Dating the nuraghi themselves is difficult, and so the chronology for the emergence of the nuraghi is still hotly debated. There is no method for dating the construction itself, so the ages of the nuraghi are determined by carbon-14 dates from associated organic deposits and from the chronologies of the artifacts found in the towers. Unfortunately linking the artifacts or organic deposits to the moment of construction of the towers is problematic because of their long period of occupation. Still scholars have reached some consensus on the chronology and nature of the towers' development. The classic conical nuraghe is the product of a gradual architectural evolution. This evolution is evident from the remains of older structures labeled "proto-nuraghi" that are composed of monumental stone blocks but lack the interior vault and conical form. Most scholars favor a date for the appearance of the conical towers around 2000 b.c., though the ranges given vary from as early as 2300 b.c. to as late as 1700 b.c.

The nuraghi continued to be occupied for around a thousand years, and likewise Nuragic culture carried on, though with some changes to the social structure that are reflected in the architecture. After 1300 b.c. some of the simple single towers were expanded: new features included surrounding bastions, walls, and additional towers. In some cases these complexes were built from scratch, without having an older tower as a base. Though clearly belonging to the same architectural family as the simple nuraghi, these new multitowered nuraghi, numbering around two thousand, greatly exceed them in scale and grandeur. While the earlier homogeneous single towers were strong evidence that Nuragic society was egalitarian, these new complex towers suggest the emergence of a social hierarchy, with the elites residing in the grand nuraghi. These large complexes would have required considerable numbers of people to build them, far more than the cooperative neighboring families envisaged for the single towers' construction. Around the nuraghi, both the complex and the simpler ones, circular huts appear in the second half of the second millennium

b.c., suggesting a general population growth. The relationship between these modest huts and the complex nuraghi was perhaps akin to that between a medieval village and its castle. The clearest account of the progressive development of these towers is given at Nuraghe Su Nuraxi di Barumini, a site excavated in the 1950s. As the excavation showed, the complex began as a simple single tower and gradually expanded out to become an urban settlement (fig. 1).

In conjunction with these architectural and settlement changes, Nuragic life was changing in other respects in the late second century b.c., and the stimulus was perhaps due to greater contacts with the rest of the Mediterranean world through trade. There is evidence of increasing metallurgical activity at Nuragic sites: a variety of weapons, tools, and figurines in copper and bronze as well as some iron and some lead have been found. By 1300 b.c. the Nuragic people were clearly participating in the vast Mediterranean trading network, as evidenced by the pottery from Mycenaean Greece and Cypriot copper ingots found at Nuragic sites on Sardinia. In turn, Sardinian ceramics have been found in Greece as well as on the island of Lipari off the north coast of Sicily and in two Etruscan burials in central Italy. Phoenician colonies were established along Sardinia's western and southern coasts in the eighth century b.c., further influencing the island culture.

At this time, in the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age, from 1100 to 900 b.c., a new type of building appears that points to a change in ritual practices: a water cult practiced at newly constructed well temples. This period is also characterized by the introduction of ashlar masonry techniques and new pottery forms and decoration. No new nuraghi seem to have been built, and some were destroyed and abandoned at this time. The Nuragic period was on the wane, ending historically when the Carthaginians conquered the island in the late sixth century b.c. Since then the island's inhabitants have been under the rule of various foreign groups. However, the towers live on as extraordinary and enduring testaments to the creative vitality of this insular society.

See alsoEl Argar and Related Bronze Age Cultures of the Iberian Peninsula (vol. 2, part 5).


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Emma Blake