Let the Nuraghes be a UNESCO World Heritage Site

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Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / People / Published Date:3 December 2020/Last Updated Date:19 February 2021


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Nuraghes S’Arena is a 2017 short film, conceived, written and directed by Mauro Aragoni. It stars the Italian rapper Salmo. To enjoy the ancient and wild environment of Sardinia and its nuraghes (ancient stone structures) this film is a fine place to start as it portrays the Nuragic civilization on the big screen for the first time. But this is only the latest work to be inspired by this extraordinary civilization.

La Civiltà Cattolica’s interest in nuraghes dates back to 1886 when “Recent studies on nuraghes and their importance,” was published in several parts, then collected in a volume in 1888. Its author, Alberto Maria Centurione, SJ, boasted of how the nuraghes have a “singularity, . . . and noble antiquity which all in one voice proclaim,” recognizing the mystery, despite the many studies that seemed to be “flashes of fugitive lightning that leave the nuraghes in a chaos of conflicting opinions” (Civ. Catt. I 1886 3f).

Sardinia is the Italian region with the highest number of natural monuments, including geological, agricultural, irrigational and paleontological structures. A peculiar characteristic of this land are the nuraghes, which were built on Sardinian soil from the Middle Bronze Age to the Late Bronze Age during the course of 600 years (about 1600-1000 B.C.E.). Nuragic civilization existed over a period of about a thousand years, extending to the Iron Age (about 1000-510 B.C.E.).

La Civilta Cattolica

In the final phase of the Nuragic civilization there was an important work of restructuring and sacred reuse of the nuraghes, which were originally fortress houses. In the villages, sacred buildings were particularly in evidence. These were small jewels of architecture: water temples – like the sacred building of Su Tempiesu in Orune – or wells and spring-water temples, and heavenly temples. The nuraghes are hollow constructions made of natural stones of squared shape: each stone was placed in such a way as to fit in with the others, starting from the bottom and forming a cone shape. It’s significant that over time the nuraghes significantly changed their height and shape.

With the Punic and Roman occupation – beginning respectively in 510 and 238 B.C.E. – the nuraghes-temples were plundered, but some kept their sacred function at least until the first centuries after Christ, often taking their names from saints. During the Byzantine conquest they became places for burials, named after saints like St. Theodore of Siurgus Donigal.

The nuraghe’s nomination to be recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a “patrimony of humanity,” a World Heritage Site, is an opportune occasion to dedicate time to study and research the development of sacred itineraries on Sardinian soil.

In Italy, the prehistoric pile-dwelling sites around the Alps and the rock drawings of Val Camonica have already obtained this status.

Why ‘heritage of humanity’?

The archaeological complex of Su Nuraxi in Barumini – inhabited since the second millennium B.C.E. until the 3rd century B.C.E. – is already a UNESCO World Heritage site. Now the aim is to expand the listing to the whole Nuragic civilization of Sardinia: from Nughedu San Nicolò in the province of Sassari, to Nuraghe Arrubiu of Orroli in the province of Cagliari. Sardinia has about 7,000 nuraghes, many of which are still standing, alongside 3,500 domus de janas – which are prehistoric tombs dug into the rock, typical of pre-Nuragic Sardinia, whose name alludes to the house (domus) of Diana/Jana, the goddess of the moon – as well as menhirs fixed in the ground, and much more.

Without equaling the Nuragic structures of Sardinia in importance, there are other archaeological sites in the Mediterranean that are similar and seem to be part of the same cultural matrix, such as the talaiot of the Balearic Islands, the Towers of Corsica and the sesi of Pantelleria. Certainly, it would be fascinating to investigate these cultural connections in the Mediterranean, Mare Nostrum, an echo of those human relations between peoples who, at least in part, had a common ancestry and formed a Mediterranean unity, a value to be promoted today in every way.

The outcome of the submission will be announced on March 31, 2021. The promoting committee “Sardinia toward UNESCO” – chaired by Michele Cossa – which together with the Center for Research, Development and Higher Studies (CRS4: a website worth visiting http://nurnet.crs4.it/nurnetgeo/) and Dass (Aerospace District of Sardinia) has helped to create a detailed mapping of the archaeological heritage, thanks to the use of cutting-edge technologies such as the use of drones, augmented reality and geolocation. The recognition would join the one obtained in 2008 for the typical Sardinian pastoral “canto a tenore” as part of the heritage of humanity.

Undoubtedly, the promotion of the nuraghes by UNESCO will have a direct impact on Sardinia and Italy. It could be integrated into a broad model of sustainable development, respectful of local communities and the cultural and identity values of the Sardinian people. In short, the poetic imagining of the Nuragic era as one of blissful isolation, cannot and must no longer apply.

But the worldwide relevance of the recognition is also very clear. It is the official name of the areas registered in the list of the World Heritage Convention, adopted by the UNESCO General Conference on November 16, 1972. Its purpose is to identify and maintain the list of those sites – 1,121 in 167 states – that represent characteristics of exceptional importance from a cultural or natural point of view.

A masterpiece of human genius

The cultural relevance of the nuraghes is evident and meets the criteria of UNESCO. In fact, they are buildings that, because of their architecture and integration into the landscape, have an exceptional universal value from the historical and artistic point of view. They represent masterpieces of human creative genius, and are evidence of an important interchange of human values over a long period of time in the areas of architecture and landscape design. They are a testimony of a civilization as they are an extraordinary example of a building technique that illustrates a phase in human history. This suggests the exceptional universal value and uniqueness of the immense legacy of the Nuragic civilization.

The inclusion of it on UNESCO’s list could be greeted with the words of the aforementioned Fr. Centurione: “While all major nations compete in promoting the study not only of patriotic monuments but also of those of foreigners, goodness gracious!  Let Italy fix her eyes on its crowned Sardinia with her defiant towers of old!” (ibid., 3). Its worldwide valorization would be most opportune and a source of inspiration.