Category Archives: Sardinia

Pozzo sacro di Santa Cristina – a wonder of the Mediterranean

“the well of Santa Cristina is regal; it represents the apex of architecture for well temples. The balance of its proportions, the precision and refinement of the interiors make it hard to believe it dates back to around 1000 B.C. and that it is an expression of nuragic art, before the presence of prestigious ancient populations on the island”.

 Giovanni Lilliu, Sardinian archaeologist in New well temples of Sardinia nuragica, in Sardinian Studies, XIV-XV (1955-57), pp. 197-288

 As I indicted last month, Sardinia is one of the best places to experience the ancient water worship. Certainly, the most remarkable of all these structure is that found at the settlement of Santa Christina at Paulilatino. This has been a site on my to do list for many years and it wonder does not disappoint.

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 The well is made of basaltic blocks which are less permeable than other local stones. It is enclosed by an elliptical 26 by 20 metre external wall, making a vestibule. The well is keyhole shaped construction with a staircase fanning to a width of 3.47 m but consisting of 25 well cut steps narrowing as they lead deep down to an underground drum shaped chamber containing spring water. Looking upwards the ceiling resembles a back to front staircase. Stepping down into the well one is quickly divorced from the hot air of the outside and to the cooler waters which even at the height of August is quite full with clear water. Light filters down from a small aperture at the pinnacle of the beehive structure or tholos, a distinctive architectural feature of the Nuraghic civilizations.  The first mention of the Well Temple of Santa Cristina is found, probably in Itinerary of the island of Sardinia (1840) by Lamarmora. Referring to the Nuraghe Funtana Padenti in Baccai (Lanusei), Lamarmora wrote:

“built with rough stone, not like a small well nearby, funnel shaped and built with finely finished volcanic stones, which had been put together with care…”.


The enclosure around the well.

In the notes Lamarmora compared it to the Well of Santa Cristina, he wrote:

“a similar Well Temple is situated by the church of Santa Cristina, not too distant from Paulilatino; it was partly obstructed and full of water.”


The steps down the well.


Another brief mention is found in the Casalis Dictionary, under the voice of “Paulilatino”, Angius (1846) wrote:

“Two miles from the village there is the church of Santa Cristina. By the church there is a singular funnel shaped construction, accessible through the hole and the cone shaped stairs, made of well refined stones, that also make up the wall around the staircase, which looks like a tilted funnel. Among the people who descended into the Well Temple, nobody could explain the use of the construction.”


Looking from the tholos roof opening to the steps and end of enclosure.


In 1857, Giovanni Spano, in the Well of Santa Cristina in Paulilatino in Sardinian Archaeological Bulletin. Vol. III, Cagliari, 1857 describes the monument, as:

 “The work is cyclopean; it has been built with big volcanic black stones, from a local cave, and without cement in the same manner as nuragic constructions. The access is through an underground passage, with a perpendicular vaulted roof made with overlapping stones that create overlaying layers. From top to bottom it is over 4 meters high. A first layer of massive stones rests on the rounded wide base, on that first layer there is a second smaller layer and so on to the top with a total of 10 layers narrowing towards the top to form a shape of a cone cut short and the mouth of an ordinary well; a man at the bottom would not be able to climb out because the shape of the stones form an upside down staircase”.


Looking from the well chamber up the stairs.


A prison for a saint?

One of the reasons for the problems in identification was the build up of debris of the site. Spano notes that:

“whoever takes a look at the Nuraghi, will understand that they are from the same period as the Well Temple, although the former also shows a construction technique that used to be employed by the Egyptians. It was man’s first attempt to build vaults, an idea probably taken by the oval shape typical of Nuraghi. Therefore this work belongs to the first oriental populations that moved to Sardinia. It is very easy to guess its purpose is related to a prison system particularly if we consider the prison constructions typical of the Romans and the Etruscans.”

Spano believed that as there was a water supply nearby and the lack of cement; he did not believe its use as a well believing it too to be a prison!:

“These consisted in a well, or a hole in the ground, with a vaulted ceiling and a mere opening at the top to let the light through…this suggestion is also confirmed by the belief that it had been the prison where the tyrant had placed the Saint, and where the former had been tortured… It could not have been a well, firstly because there was a fountain near by, which is never missing from the edges of areas with Nuraghes; and second, the absence of cement would make it impossible for the structure to stand the water volume. Also the presence of the underground staircase makes it unlikely that it functioned as a well”.


Steps down to the well chamber.


This recognition of its use as a prison is related to the life of the saint associated with the site. A martyr of Bolsena, under Diocletian in the IVth century, the eleven year old virgin Santa Cristina also said to have been imprisoned in the central tower of the Nuraghe (or the well temple) being killed during a war between Paulilatino and Bonarcado.  Another legend tells that her father built the well because she had become a Christian and as she descended the well, her clothes were said to have touched the wall and created the offset in the structure. She is a significant saint to be associated with the site as one legend states that she was sentenced to death by drowning when a heavy millstone was tied around her neck when she was thrown into a lake. However, she was saved being floated back to shore helped by angels.


The well chamber.


Close up of the full well basin.


Or was it a tomb?

The Sardinian Archaeological Bullettin published drawings and stated that it:

“compares it to the old prisons described by Jeremy, although I believe it dates back to before the Roman age, therefore it would be an underground passage similar to the ruins in Lanusei. I also see some similarities with the famous underground passage in Mycenae in Greece, as described and illustrated by Giacomo Stuart.”

Finally the great early 20th century archaeologist Antonio Caramelli, after the discovery in 1909 of another site at Santa Vittoria of Serri together with the finding of sacred objects there, small bronzes, that it was related to well worship. Giovanni Petazzoni in his “Religione Primitiva della Sardegna of 1912 argued that the wells were of ancient origin related to the island’s first settlers despite claims that such edifices were either Carthagian or even Medieval in origin. However, Phoenician little statues found on the steps of the temple, anthropomorphic clay figures, figurative terracotta objects, pieces of necklace and other pieces suggest a date of XI century B.C.


The roof resembling the stair case.


A lunar clock

An astro-archaeological interpretation has been made by  for its structure. M. Cavedon, in Corriere della Sera taking a theory belonging to the astronomer G.Romano, published a drawing (plan and side section) in the Corriere della Sera on 16th of June 1992, with the following caption:

“The structure was used as an observatory of the maximum lunar declination towards the end of December and the beginning of January; at this point the moon’s reflection was in the water. During the vernal and autumnal equinoxes the sun light reflected all over the staircase and it reached the water”.

The only snag in this theory which has been developed into a fully fledged book is that the hole through which the light penetrates was not perhaps as open as it is now as surrounding the well was another building although this may have had an opening of course – but we cannot say but it can be read about here in depth.


Blurring light enters the tholos.


A modern festival

Beyond the well is a fascinating little settlement, laying between it and the prehistoric Nuraghi and other ruins suggesting that it may be based on an earlier establishment although the earliest date appears 1730. Central to this is the church of Santa Cristina which surely may have replaced whatever rituals predated it. Surrounding it are little terraced cottages called muristenes arranged in a su corrale or courtyard which itself has a well. This village is a ghost town called a novenario (only open for nine days), one of a number of such villagers in Sardinia and often associated with ancient wells which is uninhabited for the majority of days. Two main days the village swarmed by pilgrims for San Raffaele Arcangelo, the fourth Sunday in October and the most important, that in the second of May, Santa Cristina. The date is significant in Europe for being when springs were at their most powerful. Vittorio Angius in his Dictionary  (1841) notes:

“The main festival falls 10th day of the same very frequently, and devout procession to the well known by the saint, which is of a unique shape and structure. It makes feast day of July 24, when we commemorate the glorious death of the same.”


The church of Santa Cristina


The novenario.


However, when this procession started is unclear if the knowledge of the existence or rather function of the well was not known in the 1800s. Was it that no-one had thought to speak to these communities? Furthermore it would be impossible to think that the festival would not have arisen from whatever customs were enacted here many centuries before.

Whatever the origins of these great relic it is one of the greatest of the island’s sites..and does not disappoint for anyone enchanted by the technological advances of these ancient cultures.

The holy and healing waters of Sardinia an overview

This year’s monthly blog post theme will be Sardinian healing and holy waters and as so as an introduction to that theme, this is way of an overview. Perhaps no place in Europe does the clear relationship between the ancient worship of water all the way up to the Spa treatment  be seen as a continuous flow and furthermore clear patterns of development can be seen.

Since ages the insufficient supply of water was one of the main problems of Sardinia. For the Nuragic civilization, which has developed in Bronze Age on base of the local Neolithic and Chalcolithic cultures, the cult of water became one of the most important elements of religion. This resulted in construction of sophisticated monuments, such as well temples and sacred springs.  There are known to be around 40 well temples on the island dating from that of Pozzo Sacro sa Testa around 1300 BC to later Iron age ones such as Pozzo Sacro Santa Cristina from 900 BC. Styles differ by they all consist of an atrium or vestibule (oval or rectangular) where offerings were made and ceremonies conducted and then stairs down to a tholos chamber which contained the sacred well.

Santa Christina Holy Well looking up the steps from the well chamber

These wells appear to have been re-developed by subsequent invaders – the Greek and Punic influence can be seen and at some sites Roman finds were discovered.  The Romans influence on the island, slighter perhaps than elsewhere, typifies the next stage: the development of hot baths. The most substantial being those at Fordongianus where the baths and springs can still be seen.

No place in the whole of Europe can the ages of water worship be seen than in the underground chamber beneath San Salvatore church, where a Nuragic water shrine has been developed by every cultural invader of the island. The crowning of a church above this pre-historic holy site is typical of the island’s approach to Christianising springs. The capital of the island is one of the few places where Christian holy wells can be found in a number such as a spring associated with hypogeum. Christianity has developed around a number of nuragic well sites – Paulilatino in particular where festivals are associated with May suggesting an ancient origin.

San Salvatore Holy Well beneath San Salvatore church

Some springs, fall between the next two forms – being simple medicinal springs utilised locally by people for healing purposes but never fully developed, and example being Siete Fuentes di San Leonardo. Such springs were developed into more complex and commercial spas. This spa movement, called Therme on the island developed as elsewhere either developing upon under sites such as that of Terme de Sardegne based on the same spring on which the Roman bath houses or newly discovered ones.  This is most vibrantly shown by that of Fordin…where an 18th century bath house can be seen a few yards from the Roman site and a new Spa complex developed within the town.  The most famed being the Terme de Sardara established in 1895. Spas are a very popular activity in Sardinia and show how water still has a vital healing role on the Island…one dating back 4000 years or so.

Every month I will focus in more detail on a Sardinian site or theme…February will look at Paulilitano’s Santa Cristina Pozzo.