Few places in the world allow visitors to climb on buildings and structures built by prehistoric peoples. But on the Italian island of Sardinia, you and your kids can do just that, climbing up stone stairways built 5,000 years ago.
All across this Mediterranean island, ancient stone towers known as Nuraghe dot the landscape. Their origins were long a mystery, but modern archaeologists have determined the earliest of them date from around 3,000 B.C.E. But these Stone Age people built for the ages, and many of the Nuraghe are still firm and sound, rising several stories, with interior staircases spiraling up inside drystone walls. No mortar was used; stone after stone was carefully fitted to construct walls, stairs and dome-shaped roofs with nothing but gravity and their weight holding them together.
Later peoples added parapets to some of the taller towers, giving them a fortress appearance, but most stand just as they were built, aided by some restoration to mend the damage of time. For kids, it’s like playing inside a castle, and even the smaller towers have a spooky air of mystery. And although archaeologists have learned a lot from these sites, much about the Nuraghes’ builders and uses remain a mystery.
While you’ll see remnants of towers all over as you drive around the island, the best place to begin is at the largest of these, a short drive from the capital city of Cagliari. Nuraghe Su Nuraxi in Barumini is the best preserved and interpreted, and also one of the largest. The impressive three-story tower and the village of stone hut foundations surrounding it are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The walls are 6 feet thick and contain spiral stairways connecting the levels. The main tower was built about 1500 B.C.E, the outer towers a few centuries later. The site is very well interpreted, with signage and a museum exploring their origins and construction so curious kids can learn about these Stone Age engineers.
The later Nuraghe Losa in western Sardinia was built in the Bronze Age, between the 12th and 14th centuries B.C.E., and was in use for 1,000 years, until the fourth century. Unlike most Nuraghe, Losa is made up of three connected towers around a larger central one. It is lighted inside by recessed lamps, so you can see the intricate stonework of its domed ceilings and explore the maze of passageways inside its massive walls.
Once kids have visited one or two of these, they will begin spotting smaller ones all over the island. Some have fallen in, looking like piles of stone, often victims of long-ago farmers using the stones for walls and foundations. Several more are open to the public, each revealing more clues about their builders.
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