One town has
planted a
cement cross
on theirs.


The landscape of Marmilla is an amusing geological marvel. The plains slope flat and smooth and green around odd, sudden hills that seem to have popped their heads up at random. Years ago, the children of the town of Barumini would come to one of these hills where there was a deep stone well. Barn owls nested here and they would take turns crawling down the sides of the hole, feet and hands resting on the heavy misshapen stones that formed it. Inside a nook a few meters down were the nests, full of the fluff and warmth of baby chicks.

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Many years later, one of these children would go on to Rome to study the classics and archaeology. He came to believe that the well he played in as a child was actually a submerged tower which was part of a much larger complex. In 1951, the grown child, Giovanni Lilliu, began an archaeological dig at the well, which would eventually reveal a large prehistoric complex, Su Nuraxi, that today is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site on the island.

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Nuraghes are large, circular Stone Age buildings found almost exclusively on the island of Sardinia. Remarkably, there are few differences between the 7000 remaining nuraghes on the island. While the building material would vary from region to region, based on the type of rock or stone available, the structures were amazingly similar in layout, construction and astrological positioning. Most nuraghes appear to be simple towers from the outside, but reveal an inside corridor/staircase that would lead to a second (and sometimes a third) floor. The roofs were concave, and no mortar was used in the construction. The main room was simple and round, though most nuraghes have a small chamber just past the entrance to the right and the staircase to the left.

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Lilliu, the oft-contested father of Sardinian archaeology, proposed that the nuraghes served as fortresses, however their architectural conformity seems to counter their effectiveness: once you’ve stormed and conquered one nuraghe, you’ll be sure to be watching out for the guard that is always standing to the right of the entrance. Others propose them to be some sort of religious meeting place, though there are no signs of sacrificial offerings that have been found in other sacred sites like tombs or necropolises. Some suggest that they were used for communication between tribes, as most nuraghes seem to have others in view. Or perhaps they were simply markers that claimed the surrounding land for a particular tribe. Most likely, they served multiple purposes over the thousand year period in which they were built.

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While most experts date the nuraghes to the millennium between 1900-800 BC, others insist that the methods of carbon dating and stratification used are imprecise. Likewise, the question of who built the nuraghes remains unanswered. While the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians and the Etruscans most definitely passed through the island, earlier invaders or settlers are recorded nowhere. It is generally held that the Shardana (one of the ancient Sea Peoples that tormented many an Egyptian pharaoh) came from Sardinia. However there are serious doubts about whether they originated on the island or arrived here from farther East.

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The unanswerable goes deeper still, to the very word nuraghe. It has been proposed that the word comes from Turkish, Paleo-Basque or Latin origins; however, there is no solid argument that it came from any other language. Indeed the word nurra in the Sardinian language still means a mass of stones.

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There are over 7000 nuraghes that have been recognized today, most in a state of disrepair or abandon. Structures were often dismantled to build houses or delineate property lines. On farmland, many nuraghes were purposely removed, or disturbed by repeated plowing. Many, like Su Nuraxi, were submerged by dirt over the years. Numerous nuraghes have been incorporated into newer structures, like sheepfolds, and at least one town I've seen has planted a cement cross on top of their central, unexcavated nuraghe.

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Su Nuraxi di Barumini remains the most well-known and well-cared-for nuraghe on the island, but the significance of the stone towers can only be understood by visiting more than one. To a practiced eye, nuraghes can be picked out of the landscape everywhere. Some are undeniably unremarkable - true piles of rock - but others, whether they are simple towers or larger complexes, plainly carry the weight of their long and untold history. The desire to know more is overwhelming. And yet, there is some magic in the unknown; the idea of a past so remote and mysterious keeps us spellbound.

*Photos were taken at Su Nuraxi di Barumini, the only UNESCO world heritage site in Sardinia.

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