The nuraghe (IPA [nu'rage]) (plural in Italian nuraghi, while in Sardinian nuraghes) is the main type of megalithic edifice found in Sardinia, dating back before 1000 BC. Today it has come to be the symbol of Sardinia and its distinctive culture.
The typical nuraghe is situated in a panoramic spot and has the shape of a truncated conical tower resembling a beehive. The structure has no foundations and stands only by virtue of the weight of its stones, which may weigh as much as several tons. Some nuraghes are more than 20 metres in height.
Today, there are more than 8,000 nuraghes still extant in Sardinia, although it has been estimated that they once numbered more than 30,000. Nuraghes are most prevalent in the northwest and south-central parts of the island . There is a similar type of structure which has a corridor or a system of corridors. Some authors consider it inappropriate to include this type of structure within nuraghe and prefer the term, "nuragic village".
The nuraghes were built in an undetermined epoch (not earlier than 6th millennium BC). Although some of them have been dated 3500 BC, most of them are thought to have been built between the middle of the Bronze Age (18th-15th centuries BC) and the Late Bronze Age. Many were in continuous use from their erection until Rome entered Sardinia in the (2nd century BC). The uncertainty in dating the nuraghes is noticeable when comparing Sardinian chronologies.
According to Massimo Pallottino, a scholar of Sardinian prehistory and an Etruscologist, the architecture produced by the nuragic civilization was the most advanced of any civilization in the western Mediterranean during this epoch, including those in the regions of Magna Graecia. Of the 8,000 extant nuraghes, only a few have been scientifically excavated. Interest in Sardinian archaeology has been minimal, except for the black market trade in bronze statues.
Some hold that round buildings, or circular plan buildings, are typical of nomadic peoples. Based on this premise, some propose that ancient Sardinians frequently relocated their settlements. This hypothesis, is however highly unlikely, as no nomadic population in the hystory of humanity has ever beign able to build structures of the size and complexity of even the smaller nuraghes.
The use of the nuraghes has not been clearly determined: whether religious temple, ordinary dwelling, ruler's residence, military stronghold, meeting hall of government leaders, or a combination of some of these. Some of the nuraghes are, however, in strategic locations from which important passages could be easily controlled.
Undoubtedly nuraghes had a meaningful symbolic content, and could have been the "national" symbol of the Nuragic peoples . Small scale models of nuraghe has often been escaveted in religious sites (e.g. in the "maze" tample at "Su Romanzesu" site, near Bitti in central Sardinia). Nuraghes may have just connoted wealth or power, or they may have been an indication that a site was a town. Recent theories tend to believe that Sardinian towns were independent polities (in a sense city-states although in a geographical sense they were not cities) that formed federations and that the building of these monuments might have depended on an preagreed distribution of territory among federated unities.
The nuragic civilization developed relatively advanced metallurgy. The nuragic people gained renown in many areas of the Mediterranean for the bronze they produced.
The most important complex is the Nuraghe in Barumini centered around a three-story tower built around 1500s BC. This site was recently made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At this site Dr. Giovanni Lilliu discovered a fortified village that at times had been covered by ground and had become a hill. Other nuraghes are in Serra Orrios, Alghero, Torralba, Tiscali Macomer, Abbasanta (see Losa and illustration), Orroli, Villanovaforru, Sarroch, Olbia.
A distinctive art form of the nuragic people is the bronze statuette called a bronzetto. The typical subjects of bronzetto include village chiefs ("sardus pater", singular), hunting or fighting men, animals, or more rarely, women.
Nuragic art includes stone carvings or statues representing female divinities (Thanit, the main religious entity, is a goddess); these works however have often been considered as partly a fruit of relationships with Phoenicians.