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Sardinia’s well temples and their votive objects and bronzetti


In my regular posts this year on the incredible prehistoric sacred spring history of Sardinia, I have referred to votive offerings the bronzetti and other votive offerings. I thought it would be worth a brief post examining these structures.

The range of votive offerings

A votive offering is an object given to a religious site for ritual purpose in hope of some intercession from a spiritual figure.

At thirty three pozzo sacro temple sites votive objects have been found out of seventy-five known sites. Of course all sites could have had such deposits and were lost as the sites were either robbed or converted to other uses. What is interested is the range of objects, some appear to have a direct link to the temple others more circumstantially linked. Many are linked to a cult usage of the site and probably represent worship at the site. Others appear are presumably linked to economic concerns, such as those upholding bread – although this could be considered sacred bread – or private or even military concerns. In many ways these objects reflect similar themes to those in British sites. However the bronzetti are the most curious.


What is a bronzetti?

Around 500 of these curious figures have been excavated. They are found in association with a number of sites across Sardinia, but particularly the Pozzo Sacro. The bronzetti are small bronze statuettes which greatly vary greatly in their appearance using being around 40 cm high but representing animals, ships and divinities. They were made via lost wax casting, a technique used by a number of ancient civilizations.

How were they found?

The bronzettis are associated with Bronze Age and early Iron Age sites, the Nuragic culture, dating from the ninth century BC and the sixth century BC, particularly the pozzo sacro and the megaron temples.

What were they for?

Unfortunately the Nuragic community left no written record so the usage of these votive objects can only be surmised. Niches are found in a number of pozzos and it is thought such figures were placed in these – similar to the placing of deities and saints in niches in modern religions. One of the most curious is that of Sa Testa, a wooden figure, perhaps the precursor of the bronzetti and similar in ways to the Dagenham idol in some ways. One particularly common bronzetti is a cloaked figure representing, it is thought, a priest. Alternatively the figure may represent a spirit of the spring.

©2008 Tutti i diritti riservati

©2008 Tutti i diritti riservati

©2008 Tutti i diritti riservati

©2008 Tutti i diritti riservati

Bulls are also found at sites. Horned creatures resonate around the prehistoric civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Nuragic communities were no different. A bull figure is associated with Predio Canopoli. The goat as noted at Sa sedda sos carros was clearly a sacred animal and indeed bronzetti showing a lamb being carried on a person’s back such as Santa Vittoria or lead on a leash at Serra Niedda do indicate animals being prepared for slaughter. These finds appear to link to the idea of animal sacrifice and indeed burnt bone fragments have been found at a number of Nuragic pozzo sacro sites.


Ships laden with soldiers are widely found as bronzetti figures and may have been given to ask for success in local conflicts or otherwise may represent the passing of the congregation into a watery afterlife. Perhaps the most curious is the finding of weapons and everyday objects. Weapons may have been deposited like those found in British sacred sites such as those inserted into the top of Su Tempiesu coping stones. However, the finding of some objects is more problematic. Such as stone hammers. Were they accidentally dropped by the masons of the well or given there to say thanks and offer protection to the structure? It is curiosities like this which make Sardinia’s sacred spring sites a fascinating subject.

Some excellent photos on this site and brilliant information on Sardinia generally

An amazing discovery…Pozzo Sacro Su Tempiesu Orune

DSC_0629 Imagine you are digging your allotment and soon something is revealed – one, two….more and more worked basalt blocks…soon one of the most remarkable pozzo sacros to be discovered in Sardinia was discovered. The only one which gives archaeologists an idea of what originally covered the other sacred wells of the Island.  Orune’s Pozzo Sacro Su Tempiesu is not remarkable not only for its good preservation but also for its exceedingly remote location.


In the summer of 1953, a member of the Sanna family was said to be either planning a vegetable patch or digging for coal, found some worked blocks. What soon revealed itself was something quite unique an intact, bar the very top of the arch, sacred well. The site was excavated in 1958 and then in 1981-86 resulting in consolidation to the appearance it is now.


Photos from the discovery.


Photos from the discovery.

A remarkable discovery…

The temple consists of the usual arrangement – vestibule, staircase and well chamber. The well chamber appears to have been set up between rock shale walls to cleverly channel a spring which erupts at the junction of a vein of rock.


The vestibule, quadrangular in plan, with a depth of 1.60, 1.85 width, and height of 4.50 m. The floor has a slight slope with projecting walls constructed of large perfectly jointed slabs, with perfect joints. There are decorative arches set into the upper wall. The cover of the well has a dual-pitched roof with double eaves, with an acute triangle gable roof with a truncated pyramid ashlar, which had twenty votive bronze swords inserted into it.  Two seat benches and two small rectangular cabinets are set into the side walls of the hall. A staircase reaches to a small room ‘tholos’ which covered the spring which has a flagstone floor with a central dimple.

DSC_0594 (2)

The engineering involved to ensure that the spring is clear and lacking in impurities is one of the most impressive features of the well.  The water enters its tholos chamber, as like Santa Christina. This one is smaller having a base of just below a metre and 11 rows of perfect layers which form the nearly 2m done. The cavity’s base in basalt paved and slopes towards its entrance which has a number of steps leading to a threshold step. The well has a porch or vestibule which is paved by slabs of gently sloping trachytes. This is bounded by a wall and these become a very narrow pointed arch.  However this arch was destroyed by landslip.

DSC_0587 (2)DSC_0585 (2)However the base which holds the water is circular in shape and has a dimple which allows decantation and collects impurities.  Furthermore, the water then flows through a moulded groove, running obliquely left to right into a smaller basin. The purpose of the smaller basin is unclear if it were built for domestic uses one would expect livestock use but as the site is ritual unlikely. Did it provide a location for ritual washing of objects to be placed in the niches and shale shelves which remain within the structure? Indeed, this site did yield a number of very interesting votive figures.

This well chamber’s arrangement in itself is of course impressive but the structure above the well is awe inspiring considering its neatness and that date between the 10th and 12th Centuries BC. The structure is made of trachytes igneous rock, very hard and very difficult to fashion – yet it is squared and cut perfectly without any crooked sections. There is no mortar but lead cramps and everything is iodomic – of equal size. What is equally remarkable is that as the natural rock here is shale it must have been moved probably from the district of Dorgali – this suggests perhaps that the culture recognised the importance of this rock either because of its durability and its ability to hold water.


Model reconstruction


To reach the well today consists of a long and undulating car journey from the town and an equally long pleasant downward walk (but a very tiring one going up!)…a location so remote one wonders why it was here. However, evidence does show that a short distance away was a nuraghic settlement of S. Lulla which may have used the site.


Two remaining votive swords in the top


Votive offerings

Inside the structure were a range of votive offerings. These consisted of bracelets, pins although these were weapon based, rings, swords and buttons which suggest a long period of devotion, from Bronze to Iron Age, although what is not clear is what each offering bestowed and meant. The most noted were three figured bronzes or bronzetti figures one showing a beared male figure, another holding bread and a pair of figures together said to be bidder.  The flat top of the well, had 20 swords stuck in the top…the reason unclear.

The Su Tempiesu is an amazing discovery which was fantastically restored and gives a vital view into the Bronze age water worship of the island….the other posts this month are all about restoring sites..

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.