Sardinia has a wealth of historical sites dating from as far back as 6000 BC. Evidence of Palaeolithic caves, Nuragic settlements, Phoenician ports and Roman colonies can be found all around the island and I managed to visit a few of the best during my two week tour.
Known locally as “domus de Janus”, these are not houses at all but tombs cut into the rock by the Ozieri culture between 3400 and 2700 BC. I visited the necropolis of Montessu which is set in the stunning natural amphitheatre of Sa Pranedda hill in the south west of Sardinia. I set off into the wilds with only a simple map embellished by the ticket vendor to indicate the best route and the most interesting tombs. Luckily, I also had my sun hat and some water because I spent nearly two hours trekking around the site and in that time I was completely alone. Whilst the 35 tombs are very intriguing, especially the large shrines with their face-like windows and the one decorated with spiral motifs, it is the 360 degree views which lifted my spirits the most.
According to the Archaeological Museum in Cagliari, there are 88 identified Nuragic sites in Sardinia, and there are probably even more yet to be discovered. However, there is only one which has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is there that I received my education in this ancient society. The Sardinian Nuragic remains date from 1800 BC to 300 BC and the site of Su Nuraxi has been dated to 1500 BC. I had a private tour with guide Pamela who explained the Nuragic lifestyle as she led me through the ruins of the village and up into the fortified tower which was built from large, dark, volcanic boulders. It was an adventurous route into the interior of the tower complex but I gained a better understanding of the building techniques and defensive engineering from inside. As I left, it began to rain but the result was a beautiful rainbow that could not fail to put a smile on my face.
The nearby local museum, in an Aragonese Governer’s Palace built over the site of another Nuragic site, was even more informative, with digital displays and videos in English. Unfortunately, their key exhibit, a statue of a Nuragic tower, was on tour in Milan!
While Su Nuraxi clearly functioned as a defensive structure during civil wars, other Nuragic sites are associated with peace and in particular the worship of water. I was able to visit three sacred wells during my tour of Sardinia and each was quite different.
The first is found close to the town of Olbia in the north east of the island. Unfortunately it is situated behind a modern shopping centre but once inside the site I discovered pleasant landscaped gardens with information about all the plants and trees along a stone footpath to the well. As I approached the remains of the site, I realised that the path had become a cover over a water channel which circles out from the source. The well itself lies within a covered chamber with 17 steps leading down into it.
Further inland, near the hilltop town of Orune and at the end of a 5km mountain road, is the sacred well of Su Tiempsu. Again, thoughtfully landscaped paths lead down to the site which was discovered by a farmer in 1953 and considerably restored to its present state by archaeologists. The temple building projects from the rocky cliff face with a steeply sloping roof and a tapering chamber where the water is collected. The keystone, which is adorned with 20 bronze swords, is now in the Nuoro Archaeological Museum, but the visitors centre has a very good replica, as well as a model of the well construction. I can easily understand how the Nuragic people felt about this holy site as it was a very peaceful spot and I was completely undisturbed during my visit.
The most impressive of the sacred wells that I visited is unfortunately now situated next to the dual carriageway which services the west coast. This means that it is a very noisy place and also very accessible but luckily I’d completed my visit before the coachload of students arrived. Sitting in the middle of a large olive grove is a low, oval, stone wall which conceals a perfectly constructed chamber leading down to the Santa Cristina well. The steps, walls and ceiling of the entrance are formed with perfectly cut blocks and its triangular form reminded me of the entrances to the Egyptian Pyramids. It is said that on certain days the sun or the moon are aligned to illuminate the water below.
The Phoenician traders chose the promontory of Nora as a settlement in the 9th century BC due to the wide protected bays on either side. A stone tablet was found at the site with a Phoenician inscription featuring the name “Sardinia”; the first recorded use of this name. There’s not much left of the Phoenician era as the Romans arrived in 238 BC and started building a provincial capital at the site. Francesca, a young, enthusiastic archaeology student, guided me around the site, pointing out the various rooms of the Roman bath complexes, as well as the courtyard pillars and mosaic floors of the houses owned by the wealthy elite. A well preserved Roman road took us past the shopping area and down to the port on the lagoon side.
Divers were working to uncover some of the former city which is now below the level of the sea, other areas are under military control and the Spanish watchtower, which could offer great views over the site, was out of bounds for safety reasons. They’re quite strict about the security of the site, as proven by the shrill loudspeaker which had caught two interlopers near the port. But it’s probably too little, too late as many of the archaeological finds have already been scavenged by treasure hunters over the years.
On the west coast, the Sinis peninsula was also chosen by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans for its strategic position and sheltered harbours. The site was first excavated in the 1830s and continues up to now but it looks extremely neglected. Apart from a few workers repairing the wooden footpaths which partially cover the Roman streets, I had the site to myself. There was no guide to herd me around and I was able to wander freely among the ruins. I was given a map which indicated the most important buildings such as temples, baths and houses but they were mostly overgrown with trees and weeds. The theatre seats were completely obscured by sand and if I hadn’t seen a black and white photo on the very useful website, I would never have known it was there. At the very top of the site is a Nuragic settlement with a fortified wall and moat, and to the west is a Spanish watchtower with a small chapel on the top.
Giants of Mont’e Prama
Although the giants found at the site of Mont’e Prama were discovered in 1979, they have only recently been restored and put on display in the Museums of Cagliari and Cabras (close to the site where they were discovered). They are large, carefully sculpted figures which bear a striking similarity to the many bronze votive statues found at Nuragic sites across Sardinia. The difficult reassembly of the 5178 fragments and the restoration work to enable them to be exhibited was recognised with a 2015 Europa Nostra Award. Archaeologists believe that the archers, warriors and boxers may be part of a temple related to a nearby necropolis and perhaps erected to commemorate Nuragic victories against Carthaginian invaders.
Menhirs of Laconi
I have a bit of a fascination with menhirs and when I read that there was a museum dedicated to them in the mountain town of Laconi, I simply had to visit. Obviously, it’s always better to see them in situ but I can understand the need to place them somewhere protected from the elements and they provide a good educational tool. Not as big or as numerous as the menhirs of Carnac in Brittany, they are more intriguing for their distinctive carvings, and the fact that there are male and female versions. Many more males have been discovered than females – why am I not surprised!