Nuragic civilization

Nuraghe la Prisciona, a Nuragic village near Arzachena (Province of Olbia-Tempio) within the traditional region of Gallura in Sardinia.

The Nuragic civilization was a civilization of Sardinia, lasting from the Bronze Age (18th century BC) to the 2nd century AD. The name derives from its most characteristic monuments, the nuraghe. They consist of tower-fortresses, built starting from about 1800 [1] BC. Today some 7,000 nuraghi[2] dot the Sardinian landscape.


Pre-Nuragic Sardinia

Pre-nuragic complex of Monte d'Accoddi, 4th millennium BC

In the Stone Age the island was inhabited by people who had arrived there in the Palaeolithic and Neolithic ages from several parts of Europe and the Mediterranean area. The most ancient settlements have been discovered both in Gallura and central Sardinia; later several cultures developed in the island, such as the Ozieri culture. The economy was based on agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing and trading with the mainland.

Remains from this period include more than 2,400 hypogeum tombs called Domus de Janas, the 4th millennium BC statue menhirs representing warriors or female figures, and the stepped pyramid of Monte d'Accoddi, near Sassari, which has some similarities with the monumental complex of Los Millares (Andalusia) and the later Talaiots in the Balearic Islands. According to some scholars, the similarity between this structure and Mesopotamian ones is due to migrations, especially of Sumerian people, to the Western Mediterranean.[3]

During this period copper objects and weapons also appeared in the island.

Bronze Age

The altar of Monte d'Accoddi fell out of use starting from c. 2000 BC, when the Beaker culture, which at the time was widespread in almost all western Europe, appeared in the island. The introduction of bronze from the new people arriving from the mainland brought numerous improvements, such as in agriculture, in which more effective tools could be used, but also in war and hunting.

The Bonnanaro culture is the last evolution of the Beaker culture in Sardinia (c. 1800 BC), and shows several similarities with the Bronze-Age Polada culture of central-northern Italy. These have been connected to link with the Italian prehistoric settlements through Corsica. To this period date the construction of the platformlike so-called proto-nuraghe.[4]

Soon Sardinia, a land rich in mines, notably copper and lead, saw the construction of numerous furnaces for the production of alloys which were traded across the Mediterranean basin and nuragic people became skilled metal workers; they were among the main metal producers in Europe [5] and with bronze they produced a wide variety of objects and new weapons as swords, daggers, axes, and after drills, pins, rings, bracelets, typical bronze statuettes, and the votive bronze boats show a close relationship with the sea. Tin may have drawn Bronze Age traders from the Aegean where copper is available but tin for bronze-making is scarce;[6] The first verifiable smelting slag has come to light; its appearance in a hoard of ancient tin confirms local smelting as well as casting.[7] The usually cited tin sources and trade in ancient times are those in the Iberian Peninsula or from Cornwall. Markets included civilizations living in regions with poor metal resources, such as the Mycenaean civilization, Cyprus and Crete, as well as the Iberian peninsula, a fact that can explain the cultural similarities between them and the Nuraghe civilization and the presence in Nuragic sites of late Bronze Age Mycenaean, west and central Cretan and Cypriote ceramics, as well as locally made replicas, concentrated in half a dozen findspots that seem to have functioned as "gateway-communities.[8]

Sherden warriors represented in the temple of Medinet Habu.

Sea people connection

Sardinian warrior.

The late Bronze Age (15th-13th centuries BC) saw a vast migration of the so-called sea people, described in ancient Egyptian sources. They destroyed Mycenaean and Hittite sites and also attacked Egypt. According to some scholars the Sherden, one of the most important tribes of the sea peoples, are to be identified with the Nuragic Sardinians.[9] Another hypothesis is that they arrived to the island around the 13th-12th century after the failed invasion of Egypt. However, these theories remain controversial. A lost work by Simonides of Ceos reported by Zenobius, spoke of raids by Sardinians against the island of Crete, in the same period in which the Sea People invaded Egypt. This would at least confirm that Nuragic Sardinians frequented the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Further proofs come from 13th century Nuragic ceramics found at Tiryns and in the Agrigento area in Sicily, along the sea route linking western to eastern Mediterranean.

Bronze model of nuraghe. 10th century BC.

Recently the archaeologist Adam Zertal,echoing the theory already presented in 2005 by Leonardo Melis,[10] has proposed that the Harosheth Haggoyim of Israel , home of the biblical figure Sisera , is identifiable with the site of "El-Ahwat" and that it was a Nuragic site suggesting that he came from the people of the Sherden of Sardinia.[11][12]

Greco-Roman sources

In ancient times, Greek historians and geographers tried to solve the mystery of the nuraghe and their builders. They described the presence of fabulous edifices, called daidaleia, from the name of Dedalus, who, after building his labyrinth in Crete, would have moved to Sicily and then to Sardinia. Diodorus Siculus asserts that Sardinia would have been populated by Heracles, who sent here a colony of his children led by nephew Iolaus. He also speaks of the Ilienses tribe, who were repeatedly fought by the Carthaginians and the Romans, but in vain.[13]

Phoenician and Roman conquest

Around 1000 BC the Phoenicians began visiting Sardinia with increasing frequency. The most common ports of call were Caralis, Nora, Bithia, Sulcis, Tharros, Bosa and Olbia.

The Roman historian Justin describes a Carthaginian expedition led by Malco in 540 BC against a still strongly Nuragic Sardinia. The expedition failed and this caused a political revolution in Carthage, from which Mago emerged. He launched another expedition against the island, in 509 BC, after the Sardinians attacked the Phoenicians coastal cities held by the enemy. The Carthaginians, after a number of military campaigns in which Mago died and was replaced by his brother Hamilcar, overcame the Sardinians and conquered the coastal Sardinia, the Iglesiente with its mines and the southern plains. The Nuragic civilization survived in the mountainous mainland of the island.

In 238 BC the Carthaginians, as a result of their defeat by the Romans in the first Punic War, surrendered Sardinia to Rome. Sardinia became a Roman province. The Greek geographer Strabo confirms anyway the survival of the Nuragic civilization in Roman times.


Throughout the second millennium and in the first part of the first millennium BC, Sardinia was inhabited by the single extensive and uniform cultural group represented by the Nuragic people.

Centuries later, Roman sources describe the island as inhabited by numerous ethnic groups which had gradually merged culturally. They however maintained a political identity, and were often warring each other for the control of the most valuable territories. Tribes mentioned include the Iolei or Ilienses, the Balares, the Corsi and the Civitatas Barbarie, the latter living in what is now Barbagia and defying the Romanization process.

  • The Balares have been identified with the Bonnanaro culture, deriving from the Beaker culture, and were most likely of Indo-European origins. They lived in what are now the Nurra, Coghinas and Limbara traditional subdivisions of Sardinia. They were of the same stock from which the Talaiotic culture of the Balearic Islands originated.
Section of the nuraghe Santu Antine.
  • The Ilienses, identified by the scholars with a group coming from the Eastern Mediterranean (and perhaps with the aforementioned Sherden), lived in what is now central-southern Sardinia. Their mythical hero was Sardus, known among the Romans as Sardus Pater. The current name of the island comes from the latter's one.
  • The Corsi lived in Gallura and later colonized Corsica. They have been identified as the descendants of the Arzachena culture. In southern Corsica, in the 2nd millennium BC, the Torrean civilization developed alongside the Nuragic one.
North-western bastion of Nuraghe Losa.

Archaeological remains

The Nuraghe

Dating to the 2nd millennium BC, the nuraghe are megalithic towers with a truncated cone shape, which are widespread in the whole of Sardinia, about one nuraghe every three square kilometers. There has long been controversy among scholars. Theories about their utilization have included social, military, religious, astronomical role, as furnaces or sepulture places, but the modern agreement is that they were defensible homesites that included barns and silos.[14]

Around 1500 BC, archaeological studies have proved the increasing size of the settlements built around these structures, which were often located at the summit of hills. Perhaps for protection reasons, new towers were added to the original ones, connected by walls provided with slits.[15]

It has been suggested that some of the current Sardinian villages trace their origin directly from Nuragic ones, including perhaps those containing the root Nur- in their name (Nurachi, Nuraminis, Nurri, Nurallao, Noragugume[16]). The most famous among the numerous existing nuraghe, which have been included in the UNESCO Heritage List, are the Su Nuraxi at Barumini, Santu Antine at Torralba, Nuraghe Losa at Abbasanta, Palmavera (Alghero), Genna Maria at Villanovaforru, Santa Cristina at Paulilatino.

Model of Nuragic ship. Cagliari, Museo Archeologico Nazionale.

Giants of Monti Prama

Fragment of a Giant of Monti Prama

The Giants of Monti Prama are a group of 32 (or 40) statues with a height of up to 2.5 m, found in 1974 near Cabras, in the province of Oristano. They depict warriors, archers, wrestlers, models of nuraghe and boxers with shield and armed glove. They date to around the 10th-8th centuries BC.

They feature disc-shaped eyes and eastern-like garments. The statues probably depicted mythological heroes, guarding a sepulchre; according to another theory, they could be a sort of Pantheon of the typical Nuragic divinities.

Their finding proved that the Nuragic civilization had maintained its peculiarities, and introduced new ones across the centuries, well into the Phoenician colonization of most of Sardinia.

The Holy Pit of Santa Cristina.

Sacred pits

The Sacred Pits were structures destined to the cult of waters. Though initially assigned to the 8th-6th centuries BC, due to their evoluted buildings techniques, they most likely date to the earlier Bronze Age, when Sardinia had strong relationships with the Mycenaenan kingdoms of Greece and Crete.

The Nuragic Sacred Pits followed the same pattern of the nuraghe, the main part consisting of a circular room with a tholos vault with a hole at the summit. A monumental staircase connected the entrance to this subterranean (hypogeum) room, whose main role is to collect the water of the sacred spring. The exterior walls features stone benches on which were deposed the offers from the faithful and the religious objects. Some sites had also sacrifice altars: some scholars think that these architecture could be dedicated to Sardus, one of the main Nuragic divinities.

Giant's grave at Arzachena.

Giant's graves

The so-called "giant's graves" were funerary structures whose precise function is still unknown, and which perhaps evolved from elongated dolmens. They date to the whole Nuragic era up to the Iron Age, and are more frequent in the central sector of the island. Their plan was in the shape of the head of a bull.


The Nuragic economy, at least at the origins, was mostly based on agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as on fishing.[17] Navigation had an important role: historian Pierluigi Montalbano mentions the finding of at least 156 bronze navel models, some weighing 100 kg.[17] This has suggested that the Nuragic people used efficient ships, which could perhaps reach lengths up to 15 meters. These allowed them to travel the whole Mediterranean, establishing commercial links with the Mycenaean civilization (attested by the common tholos tomb shape, and the adoration of bulls), Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Lebanon. Items such as Cyprus-type copper ingots have been found in Sardinia, while Nuragic ceramics have been found in Spain (Huelva, Tarragona, Malaga, Teruel and Cadiz) up to the Gibraltar strait, and in Etruscan centers of the Italian peninsula such as Vetulonia, Vulci and Populonia (known in the 9th-6th centuries from Nuragic statues found in their tombs).

Etruscan sword from Nuraghe Attentu (Ploaghe).[18]

Sardinia was rich in metals such as lead and copper. Archaeological findings have proven the good quality of Nuragic metallurgy, including numerous bronze weapons. The so called "golden age" of the Nuragic civilization (mid-2nd millennium BC) coincided perhaps with the apex of the mining of metals in the island. Sardinian copper ingots have been found in Spain, France, Turkey and Greece. The widespread use of bronze, an alloy which used tin, a metal which however was not present in Sardinia if not in a single deposit, further proves the capability of the Nuragic people to trade in the resources they needed.

Nuragic ceramics have been found in the Italian peninsula, in Sicily, Spain and Crete.

Bronze sculpture of a Nuragic chief.


The Nuragic civilization was most likely based on clans. They were led by a chief and lived in villages with circular huts with a straw roof, very similar to the modern pinnettas of the Barbagia shepherds. Religion and military had a strong role in the society, which has led scholars to the hypothesis that the Nuragic civilization was a theocracy. An important role was that of mythological heroes such as Norax , Sardus, Iolaos and Aristeus, military leaders considered also as divinities.

The Nuraghe bronzes clearly portrays figures of chief-kings, recognizable from the presence of a staff with bosses and of a mantle. Also depicted are the other classes, including miners and artisans; numerous are the soldiers, which has led to think to a warring society, with a precise military hierarchy (archers, infantry, swordsmen, musicians, wrestlers and boxers, the latter similar to those of the Minoan civilizations). Different uniforms could belong to different cantons or clans, or to different military corps.

The priest role was perhaps fulfilled by women.

The small bronzes also gave clues on personal care and fashion. Women generally had long hair; men sported two long braids on each side of the face, while the head was shaved off, or covered by a leather cap.

Bronze sculpture of a warrior with four eyes and four arms.


The large stone sculptures known as betili (a kind of slender menhir, sometimes featuring crude depiction of male sexual organs, or of female breasts), and the representations of animals such as the bull, belong most likely to pre-Nuragic civilizations. The latter kept however its importance among the Nuraghe people, and was frequently depicted on ships, bronze vases used in religious rites and in the soldiers' helmets. Small bronze sculptures depicting half-man, half-bull figures have been found, as well as characters with four arms and eyes and two-headed deers: they probably had a mythological and religious significance. Another holy animal which was frequently depicted is the dove.

A key element of the Nuragic religion was that of fertility, connected to the male power of the Bull-Sun and the female one of Water-Moon. According to the scholars' studies, there existed a Mediterranean-type Mother Goddess and a God-Father (Babai). The excavations have proved that the Nuragic people, in determinate periods of the year, gathered in common holy places, usually characterized by sitting steps and the presence of a holy pit. In some holy areas, such as Gremanu at Fonni, Serra Orrios at Dorgali and S'Arcu 'e is forros at Villagrande Strisaili, there were rectangular temples, with central holy room housing perhaps a holy fire.[19]

The deities worshipped are unknown, but were perhaps connected to water, or to astronomical entities (Sun, Moon, solstices). Also having a religious role were perhaps the small chiseled discs, with geometrical patterns, known as pintadera, although their function has not been identified yet.

Some structures could have a "federal" Sardinian role, such as the sanctuary of Santa Vittoria near Serri, including both religious and civil buildings: here, according to Italian historian Giovanni Lilliu, the main clans of the central island held their assemblies to sign alliances, decide wars or to stipulate commercial agreements.[20] Spaces for trades were also present. At least twenty of such multirole structures are known, including those of Santa Cristina at Paulilatino and of Siligo; some have been re-used as Christian temples (such as the cumbessias of Sa Salvatore in Sisis at Cabras).


  • __. La civiltà in Sardegna nei secoli. Turin: ERI. 
  • __ (1981). Ichnussa. La Sardegna dalle origini all'età classica. Milan. 
  • Depalmas, A. (2005). Le navicelle bronzee della Sardegna nuragica. Cagliari: Gasperini. 
  • Foddai, L. (2008). Sculture zoomorfe. Studi sulla bronzistica figurata nuragica. Cargeghe: Biblioteca di Sardegna. 
  • Lilliu, G. (1982). La Civiltà Nuragica. Sassari: Delfino. 
  • Lilliu, G. (1967). La civiltà dei Sardi dal neolitico all'età dei nuraghi. Turin: Edizioni ERI. 
  • Lilliu, G. (1962). Sculture della Sardegna nuragica. Verona. 
  • Melis, P. (2003). Civiltà Nuragica. Sassari: Delfino editore. 
  • Montalbano, Pierluigi (July 2009). SHRDN, Signori del mare e del metallo. Nuoro: Zenia editrice. ISBN 978 88 904157 1-5. 
  • Navarro i Barba, Gustau (2010). La Cultura Nuràgica de Sardenya. Barcelona: Edicions dels A.L.I.LL. ISBN 978-84-613-9278-0. 
  • Pallottino, M.. La Sardegna nuragica edizioni Ilisso. Nuoro. ISBN 88-87825-10-6. 
  • Ugas, Giovanni (2005). L'Alba dei Nuraghi. Cagliari: Fabula editrice. ISBN 88-89661-00-3. 
  • 2002Shardana: I popoli del mare, PTM Editrice – Prima Tipografia Mogorese, Mogoro, ISBN 8887393028 (8th edition)
  • 2005Shardana: I principi di Dan, PTM Editrice – Prima Tipografia Mogorese, Mogoro, ISBN 8887393214

See also


  1. ^ Giovanni Lilliu, Sardegna Nuragica, (Edizioni Maestrali) 2006
  2. ^ There is no complete census, but the figure of 7,000 in E. Contu, "L'architettura nuraghica", in E. Atzeni et al., Ichnussa, 1985:5, is often repeated, and 'the Provincia di Cagliari website, estimatesmore than 7,000.
  3. ^ Ercole Contu, Sardegna Archeologica – L'Altare preistorico di Monte D'Accoddi, p. 65
  4. ^ Paolo Melis, I rapporti fra la Sardegna settentrionale e la Corsica nell’antica età del Bronzo
  5. ^
  6. ^ Tin as a draw for traders was first suggested in the essay on Sardinian metallurgy by N. Gale and Z, Gale in Miriam S. Balmuth, ed. Studies in Sardinian Archaeology 3 (Oxford, 1987).
  7. ^ R.F. Tylecote, M.S. Balmuth, R. Massoli-Novelli, "Copper and Bronze Metallurgy in Sardinia", Historia Metallica 17.2, (1983:63–77).
  8. ^ Miriam S. Balmuth, ed. Studies in Sardinian Archaeology 3: Nuragic Sardinia and the Mycenaean World (Oxford, 1987) presents papers from a colloquium in Rome, September 1986; the view of "gateway-communities" from the Mycenaean direction is explored in T.R. Smith, Mycenaean Trade and Interaction in the West Central Mediterranean, 1600-100 B.C., 1987.
  9. ^ "Sharden and Sardinians: the same people?"
  10. ^ Leonardo Melis, Shardana: i Principi di Dan, Mogoro, PTM Prima Tipografia Mogorese, 2002, ISBN 8887393028
  11. ^ [1]" Long time archaeological riddle solved, Canaanite general was based in Wadi Ara, Judy Siegel-Itzkovich, 07/02/2010, Jerusalem Pot.
  12. ^ [2]"Archaeological mystery solved," University of Haifa press release, July 1, 2010.
  13. ^ Pausanias, IX, 17, 5.
  14. ^ The strict patterning in the landscape of tombs and nuraghi was analyzed by Emma Blake, "Constructing a Nuragic Locale: The Spatial Relationship between Tombs and Towers in Bronze Age Sardinia" American Journal of Archaeology 105.2 (April 2001:145-161).
  15. ^ Sardegna Nuragica, by Giovanni Lilliu.
  16. ^ Francesco Cesare Casula, aBreve storia di Sardegna, p. 25. ISBN 88-7138-065-7
  17. ^ a b Montalbano, Pierluigi (July 2009). SHRDN, Signori del mare e del metallo. Nuoro: Zenia. ISBN 978 88 904157 1-5. 
  18. ^ Mauro Cristofani – Etruschi una nuova immagine – Giunti Editore – Florence, 2000 ISBN 88-09-01792-7
  19. ^ Giovanni Lilliu, Arte e religione della Sardegna nuragica
  20. ^ Lilliu, Giovanni. "Al tempo dei nuraghi". La civiltà in Sardegna nei secoli. p. 22. 

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