Nuragic – Behind the Giants

in , updated on

It was the time of heroes, of immortal warriors along the quartz shores of Sinis, on one side roaring and on the other as placid as the stars. It was the age of the giants, erected like vigilant sentinels of the centuries, on the threshold of worlds through life and death, flesh and stone. Hypnotic eyes looked out over the horizon, holding the carved memory and pride of Nuragic Sardinia, fierce and mighty arms recalled the valour of those ancient inhabitants.

A Giant of Mont ‘e Prama, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

The statues of Mont’e Prama were mute, due to the nature of their material, but they nevertheless told; they narrated, not with words but by a language of symbols, of the civilisation that had conceived them from the stone. Giants, but heirs to the men who had ruled Sardinia for millennia. Nuragic they were called, because of their unique constructions of boulders – the nuraghes – but who they really were is hidden among the folds of history.

Behind the Giants of Mont’e Prama

Who were the ancient Sardinians? This is a question full of enigmas and complex implications, more than the mere words suggest. It is difficult to characterise a people through common traits of belonging. These are ephemeral logical and cultural paradigms, as changeable and elusive as the present moment. If we wanted to understand their identity, we could not find a single, shared definition. Instead, the echoes of the past come to mind: the historical characters and moments; the roots of culture, customs and traditions; the countless material testimonies, such as monuments and written sources. It is easy to understand how such a challenge is so difficult for a civilisation of over three thousand years ago, lost and distant, which we know through a key witness of past events: the stone.

The silent power of stone

However, the stone is mute before the passage of time, it only tells without speaking or writing. Behind the Giants of Mont’e Prama there is a past of inevitable mystery, unknown and sometimes impenetrable, since it seems that neither engravings, nor paintings, nor parchments, nor anything else that time has given us was written by the Nuragic people. The question of the existence of a Nuragic language is a controversial and debated topic; we will deal with it later.

Stone permeates every essence of ancient Sardinia. It is an instrument of daily life and at the same time an expression of the sacred; the material that history hands down to us. Moreover, the etymology explains the term, nuragic, with which we identify that civilisation. It derives from the pre-Indo-European nur, the linguistic root of nuraghes, piles of stone [1], which the Sardinians built on a large number – there are more than eight thousand on the island – and whose function is still unclear. Made of stone are the giants’ tombs, monumental and scenic collective burials, the sacred wells used for water worship, and the giants of Mont’e Prama. All this makes it possible to imagine, to hypothesise the cultural aspects of the Nuragic civilisation, which otherwise could be totally obscure.

nuragic
Nuraghe Losa in Abbasanta

The Nuragic civilisation and a long cultural evolution

Faced the multiplicity of Sardinian lithic artefacts, bronze statuettes, Nuragic ships and much more, we have only a snapshot of the present moment. Like a road travelled by thousands and thousands of men, we observe all the archaeological evidence at the same time because we live today, after the entire cultural evolution of the ancient Sardinians. It is easy to fall into the trap, to think of the Nuragic civilisation like one of its monoliths: always the same, unchanged over the centuries. So, the Nuragics were both the people of the nuraghes and the giants of Mont’e Prama, but at different times. When the hero-warriors were erected on the hills of Sinis, no more nuraghes had been built for at least three hundred years. And the tombs of the giants were also a distant memory.

The Tomb of the Giants of S’Ena ‘e Thomes in Dorgali

Similarly, the Nuragic civilisation did not arise from nowhere, but from all those so-called Pre-Nuragic cultures. They developed on the island since the Neolithic (6th millennium B.C.), and were characterised by archaic cultural traits and clearly recognisable identities. Thus, on a ceramic vase near Alghero, someone drew the primitive anthropomorphic features of Sardinia [2]. In Cuccuru s’Arrius cave of the Bonu Ighinu culture (4000 B.C. – 3400 B.C.), or in its later declinations, several sculptures of a female idol, the Sardinian mother goddess, were placed. Also during these millennia, manifestations of megalithism began to emerge: dolmens, menhirs, burial chambers excavated in the rock…

The Mother Goddess of Sardinia, Museo nazionale archeologico ed etnografico G. A. Sanna of Sassari

From the Nuraghes to Mont’e Prama

From this cultural substratum, especially from that particular Bonnanaro culture [2], slowly emerged the seeds of a new and innovative civilisation, with its characteristic stone buildings. The construction of the first nuraghes is only dated to 1800 B.C. [3], more than four thousand years after the beginnings of the Pre-Nuragic cultures. Certainly, it is difficult to conceive of such a long period, but it is only from this time onwards that we can speak, fully and etymologically, of a Nuragic civilisation.

Proto-nuraghes, tholos vaulted nuraghes and fortress-nuraghes: the buildings of the ancient Sardinians increased in number and complexity over time. All that remains of them are ruins. However, originally they appeared as massive buildings, sometimes with several towers, in a way that seems astonishing to us today. Nuraghes were the distinguishing element of the Sardinian landscape then, as now.

To say great architecture and nuraghes is the same thing. And saying nuraghes and saying Sardinia is also, within certain limits, the same thing.

Giovanni Lilliu, La civiltà dei Sardi: dal Paleolitico all’età dei nuraghi, 1988, translation by the author
nuragic
The archaeological site of “Su Nuraxi” in Barumini

Social change in the Nuragic civilisation

The spread of this type of construction has raised crucial questions for a full understanding of the Nuragic civilisation. Lilliu, Sardus pater of the Island’s archaeology, assumed that they could serve as fortresses and were an expression of a society divided in clans. However, the function of these buildings is still largely obscure. From the Final Bronze Age (12th century BC), as new cults flourished, the nuraghes lost their importance and some were even converted into sacred wells, adorned with bronze statuettes and simulacra. This is a sign that the Nuragic civilisation was going through a period of profound social change. A change that was to guide the manifestations of the sacred to Mont’e Prama.

While the nuraghes probably represented centres of worship and control of the territory [4], Mont’e Prama instead reveals the rise of a much more complex and organised society. The Giants are the result of a “high” culture, of the effort of an entire civilisation that reached its figurative peak. Placed on individual tombs, the monumental warriors were now the testimony of an aristocratic and dominant class.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

[1] Giovanni Lilliu, I Nuraghi. Torri preistoriche della Sardegna, Ilisso, 2005

[2] Giovanni Lilliu, La civiltà nuragica, 1999, Carlo Delfino editore

[3] Mauro Peppino Zedda, Archeologia del paesaggio sardo, Cagliari, Agorà Nuragica, 2009

[4] Giovanni Ugas, L’alba dei Nuraghi, Cagliari, Fabula, 2005

Samuele avatar
error: Content is protected !!