The Enigmatic Nuraghi of Barumini

During the late second millennium BC in the Bronze Age, a special type of structure known as nuraghi – for which no parallel exists anywhere else in the world – developed on the island of Sardinia. The complex known as Su Naraxi, consists of beehive-like circular towers with vaulted internal chambers. The use of these buildings remains unknown, although most archaeologists assume they were used as military strongholds. The complex at Barumini is the finest and most complete example of this remarkable form of prehistoric architecture and represents one of the major expressions of Sardinian Megalithic civilization.

The archaeological site of Su Nuraxi, a Sardinian term for the nuraghe, lies at the foot of the Parco della Giara near Barumini. These enormous monuments were brought to light in 1951 by the famous Italian archaeologist Giovanni Lilliu. The area was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997 and is the most important monument of the old civilization in Sardinia.

The importance of the nuraghe, which stands on a small plateau at a level of about 800 feet, is shown by its complexity. Su Nuraxi has an excellent state of preservation, especially the proximity of the huge fortress which consists of several towers. A central tower is surrounded by a rampart with four towers which in turn are surrounded by seven towers in a hexagonal shape. The vast, labyrinthine village with narrow lanes and houses, wells and meeting huts, quietly tells a mysterious story of 3500 years ago.

After analyzing an olive tree piece (using Carbon-14 dating method), which was found wedged between the large boulders of basalt that form the structure, results have shown that this part of Su Nuraxi dates back to 1478 BC. The four towers surrounding the central bastion, placed in the four cardinal points and originally built on two floors, were presumably built in the thirteenth century BC as well. About two centuries later the structure was reinforced by adding ten extra feet of basalt, making it even harder for unwanted guests to enter.

The principal and earliest feature of Su Nuraxi is a massive central tower built from large dressed stones. It consists of three chambers, one upon the other and linked by a spiral staircase with the ceilings of the chambers made of corbelled construction. The structure probably stood originally to a height of at least 60 feet. The four subsidiary towers added later are linked by a massive stone curtain wall. The courtyard that they form is entered through a narrow gate at ground level. This was later sealed, most likely for defensive purposes. Thus, to penetrate the nuraghe of Barumini enemies had to reach a small entrance located about 25 feet high, making Su Nuraxi in the eyes of the enemy an impenetrable fortress. Even today, after numerous excavations, the only entrance to the fortress is the “sky door.”

The central defensive structures of the site are considered to have been built by single families or clans. As Sardinian society evolved in a more complex and hierarchical fashion, there was a tendency for the isolated towers to attract additional structures for social and defensive reasons. The major effort towards the extension of the defensive works at Barumini is dated to the early Iron Age, from the 10th-8th centuries BC, when Sardinia was exposed to Carthaginian invasions.

Sometime in the 7th century BC, Su Nuraxi was sacked by the Carthaginians and the defensive works were slighted. However, it continued as a settlement; the houses were rebuilt in a different style. With the Roman conquest of the island in the 2nd century BC, most of the nuraghi went out of use. However, excavations have shown that Su Nuraxi was continuously inhabited until the third century AD.

The area is open for visitors who are able to view the fortresses and wander through narrow tunnels which were carved from the walls. Su Nuraxi is the preeminent example of a prehistoric island community making imaginative and innovative use of the materials at hand to create a society.

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