Drive any distance along a Sardinian road and you cannot fail to notice strange stone structures dotted across the landscape. These are prehistoric dry stone wall dwellings called Nuraghe (Nuraxe) and there are some 7 000 scattered across the island. Once you start to look out for them they appear everywhere – sometimes dilapidated, often missing their roofs, occasionally so well preserved you can only wonder at the architectural nous of our predecessors. Named after the people who built them, they were constructed during the Nuraghic period dated at 1900 – 7300 BC, part of the Bronze Age.
There are many ways to visit these conical shaped structures – some are located in fenced off areas where you pay an entrance fee, receive a brochure and visit the site along with a tour bus – if you are unlucky – and alone if you visit around lunchtime. As the song goes, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. This is particularly true in countries where lunch and siesta are the order of the day.
Some of the nuraghe are deserted due to their positioning on the top of a hill, surrounded only by the lowing of cows, the bells around their necks creating a mesmerising soundscape.
One such is the Nuraghe de Santa Barbara outside the town of Macomer in the Central Western area of Sardinia. Leaving the cows to watch over our car, we followed a sign pointing upwards and ambled up the path which wound uphill, flanked by hedgerows bursting with ripe blackberries which provided us with a welcome juicy snack.
Just when the younger members of our party began to wonder if we were there yet, we rounded a corner and there before us stood the nuraghe.
An old gate was held closed and bore a sign that made it clear that we were entering at our own risk. At least that is how we interpreted the do not enter message.
The huge stone structure towered above us. 15 metres high, it has been standing since the Bronze Age and so I reckoned it was safe to enter. It seemed rather Jenga-like; if you pulled out one stone would the whole thing collapse? In fact, these structures are a marvel of engineering. How were they built and balanced? How were these massive stones hoisted into position? Who designed the first tholos roof – a dome with concentric rows of stones decreasing in size until a final stone closes the top?
With light flooding through the doorway into the main chamber on ground level, it was possible to see the inside of a stone room where a fire would have been made in the centre to keep warm and cook. Three niches in the walls suggest that items were stored there or perhaps they were spaces for religious artifacts? A flight of stone steps led up the round wall like the inside of a snail shell. It was absolutely pitch dark. We used the torch on a mobile phone to enable us to ascend, feeling our way along the ancient walls and up the rudimentary steps. No doubt our ancestors availed themselves of a burning torch which would have thrown a better light than that on the Samsung Galaxy, but needs must.
On the first floor a window aperture let in light and views across the surrounding landscape.
Then we were back in darkness until we reached the roof terrace. The original structure would have gone up another floor and been finished off with a roof. We sat, blinking in the sun, feeling like characters from a Harrison Ford adventure movie.
We had seen similar structures in Haut Provence, built in a similar way. Around the time of their construction, the people populating Sardinia were trading with Corsica and France so clearly architectural exchange was taking place too. A bit of research reveals that this style of tholos roof – also called a corbelled ceiling – was found in Ancient Greece in the Bronze Age as can be seen in the tholos tombs at Mycenae. The technique was used widely across areas of Europe between 5 and 3 BC.
We assumed that these towers were used for defensive purposes as they provide good views over the surrounding countryside and were part of larger settlements. Archaeologists do not know what their precise purpose was but think that they were used for defence, housing, for religious purposes or meeting places.
The Nuraghe Losa outside the town of Abbasanta is a large complex with the remains of several towers.
Built of huge basalt blocks, it is estimated to be 3 500 years old. I read a quip that said that a Sardinian builder guarantees his work for 5 years whereas a bronze Age builder guarantees his for 5000 years. Now we can just marvel at the immensity of this structure, the power of its massive stones, piled on top of another with no mortar, standing up against the elements across the centuries.
I felt it to be one of those spiritual places that puts one in touch with one’s own insignificance. As my son said ‘these stones were here long before we were born and will still be here when we are dead’. Could these prehistoric builders have conceptualised that travellers would centuries later admire their engineering prowess, be dazzled by their ingenuity and physical strength? That we would be moved by the power of their structures that speak to a deep and primitive part of our psyches – the need for protection, for shelter, for community?
As if we had not already feasted on mind-expanding experiences, our final stop was Santa Cristina, outside the town of Paulilatino.Here there is a well which was used for religious purposes as the Nuraghic people worshipped the water goddess. This subterranean shrine – the sacred temple of Santa Cristina – consists of 25 steps descending 7 metres into the well.
The precision with which these tapering steps are cut, as well as the design of the sides and roof of the structure, bring to mind a contemporary architect having completed a recent commission. To consider that this was built in the Bronze Age is quite mind blowing. How were the rocks cut with such sharp edges, what tools did they use, how did they support the earth above them while they dug down into it?
There is a small aperture in the top of the roof which is aligned so that at the equinox the sun shines directly above, illuminating the water in the well.
The narrow stairway into the well is suggestive of entering the vagina of the goddess and provides a female counter balance to the phallic structures of the nuraghe standing erect across the countryside, displaying their power for miles around and defiantly challenging any enemies.
Our day of exploring the nuraghe was one of the undisputed highlights of our trip to Sardinia. Adults and children alike were moved by the evocation of past civilisations and the spirit of discovery. Clearly another visit is called for – after all there are thousands yet unseen.