Sardinia – land of giants and ancient legends

The British novelist and poet D.H. Lawrence, who was always most interested in people, does not mention nuraghi in his book Sea and Sardinia (1921). He is not very complimentary about the Sardinians, but what does capture his imagination is the landscape.

“Away to the right the flat river-marshes with the thick dead reeds met the flat and shining sea, river and sea were one water, the waves rippled tiny and soft-foot into the stream. To the left there was great loveliness. The bed of the river curved upwards and inland, and there was cultivation: but particularly, there were noble almond trees in full blossom. How beautiful they were, their pure, silvery pink gleaming so nobly, like a transfiguration, tall and perfect in that strange cradled river-bed parallel with the sea.”

NuraghiIt is surprising that D.H. Lawrence, who subsequently travelled in Etruria and became fascinated by the world of the Etruscans, does not say anything about the Nuraghic civilisation of Sardinia. Early Sardinian culture simply passed him by or perhaps he had other things on his mind.

The nuraghe (plural nuraghi) is an ancient megalith found all over Sardinia. As early as the second millennium BCE, the Nuraghic people were burying their dead in rock-cut tombs, carved to resemble the houses of the living. They were also building stone towers – called nuraghi – which were probably for defensive purposes or for storing raw copper and bronze.

We do not know, because the Sardinians left no written records. Either they did not use writing or what they wrote on has failed to survive. The slender evidence of place names, as well as the Sard language still spoken on Sardinia, suggests that they spoke a dialect related to the non-Indo-European Basque.

Head of a warrior: one of the Giants of Monte Prama.Then there are the statues – reminiscent of the Moai on Easter Island. In 1974 at Monte Prama, near the town of Cabras in central Sardinia, more than 5,000 pieces of giant statues of warriors, archers and boxers were found. Carved in sandstone probably between the 9th and 8th centuries BCE, predating the founding of Rome, 25 of them have recently been put back together and placed on public view. They have curious eyes, consisting of two concentric circles. The statues were discovered at a necropolis, so one theory is that the stone warriors guarded the tombs. But it has also been suggested that they belonged to an as-yet undiscovered nearby temple.

The Sardinians of this period also used bronze to create smaller statuettes whose influence has spread down the centuries. Their long-legged human figurines even attracted the attention of the 20th century sculptor Alberto Giacometti.

D. H Lawrence only once mentions Grazia Deledda (1871-1936), the “Voice of Sardinia”, who was the first Italian woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in Nuoro, which the English writer found dull, she had little schooling but started to write at an early age inspired by nature and the life of the peasants. Her first novel was Fior di Sardegna (Flower of Sardinia), published in 1892. Deledda would have been familiar with nuraghi, but not the giants that invisibly and silently peopled one of Europe’s most ancient pieces of land.


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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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