Role: Archaeological Research, Hypothetical Reconstruction
Tools: Sketch-Up, V-Ray, Figma
In the archaeology of ritual and religion, water not only serves as a natural substance but also as a powerful, divine symbol. The life-giving properties of water, both as a source of nourishment and cleansing, has made it a substance, that has been consistently used since ancient times to today, in ritual practices and religious constructions. Remnants of sacred water temples from the Nuragic culture, have been found all over Sardinia, suggesting an ancient religious practice that involved the use of water in the rites of worship. These Nuragic water temples, are individual cult buildings that are centered around wells and water fonts – using various architectural constructions in their systems of water collection.
Dated back to 1000 BC, the sacred Nuragic well of Santa Cristina is one of nearly a hundred water temples of Sardinia - and one of the most well-preserved wells that reveals a high- quality construction that is impressively precise, with an intentional form. It has been suggested that these Nuragic water temples dispersed around Sardinia, may have been used in the same cult rituals (Webster 4).
Water is a medium which... bridges paradoxes, transcends the different human and divine realms, allows interactions with gods, and enables the divinities to interfere with humanity (Oestigaard 38).
The use of water is fundamental in prehistoric religions – both as a substance to use in religious rituals and as an embodiment of divinity itself. Physically and metaphorically, water is – and represents – the substance that sustains and nourishes all of life into existence. The water cycle in meteorological terms, shows an entity that rises and falls – reusing, renewing and constantly in flux. Water as matter, changes qualities and capacities, wherever it is – always taking new forms (Oestigaard 38) in an ever-changing environment. The essence of water is both life-giving and representative of transformation – the cleansing of impurities into something new.
The pervasive role of water-worlds in society and cosmos unites micro and macro-cosmos, creates life, and legitimizes social hierarchies and religious practices and beliefs. Water is a medium which links or changes totally different aspects of humanity and divinities into a coherent unit; it bridges paradoxes, transcends the different human and divine realms, allows interactions with gods, and enables the divinities to interfere with humanity (Oestigaard 38).
The study of water in ritual and religion can reveal insights into how a culture perceives themselves and the divine spheres that existed around them. The use of water in religion is centered around the idea that water either acts as a mediator that links humanity to the divine gods – or water is divinity itself. In order to clarify and understand this distinction – the definition of ‘holy’ and ‘sacred’ must be clear. The word ‘holiness’ references the embodiment of the divinity itself, or attributes that are derived from the divinity – whereas ‘sacredness’ addresses objects that are consecrated or esteemed, but not a reference to the divine itself (Oestigaard 39). The role of water in religious ritual is as a mediator in an interaction between life on earth and the cosmic spheres. It represents a “liminal zone” and substance that makes it possible to transcend the earthly realm, connecting gods and humans (Oestigaard 40).
Since archaeologists determined that the water wells of Sardinia were used for religious worship, it is clear that the entire architecture of the well is structured in reverence to the water contained in the well. The outside enclosure around the site was a wall that acted as a physical reminder of a separation, representing the entrance into a sacred space. The beautifully preserved and high-quality steps of Santa Cristina (fig.1), are wide at the top for worshippers to enter, narrowing in reverently and leading into the water well. The flux of water would rise up or down the stairs, depending on the season and rain fall – consistent with the transformative and dynamic properties that gives water its power. The walls of the well gradually ascend from the water, curving with precision, into a hole leading out of the ground. The water wells of Sardinia are generally referred to as “sacred” water wells – indicating that the water inside of the wells was not the divine itself, but rather acted as a medium that transcended up and out into the cosmic spheres.
Sardinia was home to the Nuragic culture, dating back to the Bronze Age, and characterized by their tower-houses called nuraghi. They were massive tholos structures constructed from stones and many of the structures are still standing in various states of preservation. The chronology of these nuraghes dates back to pre- and protohistory – before the Carthaginian rule came to Sardinia in 509 BC (Webster 4). Many nuraghi were surrounded by villages of stone huts and served as a function of a variety of uses, including: ritual saunas, rotundas, circular vestibule shrines and water-temples (Webster 4). Below is a compilation of sacred water wells around Sardinia for Nuragic architectural style and structural comparisons.
There are only estimations of how many sacred water wells are in Sardinia, since many of the nuraghis were similar in structure and may have been used for a different function. However, some structures have always been understood to be water-temples. Because of the number of water wells that are still partially intact around Sardinia, in depth studies and comparisons of the them, can provide clues to missing parts of the others.
The well of Santa Cristina represents the culmination of the architecture of the water temples. It is so balanced in proportions, sophisticated in the terse and precise vestments of the interior, studied in the geometrical composition of the membranes, so rational in a word not to be understood, at first sight, that it is a work close to the year 1000 BC and that the Nuragic art expressed it, before prestigious historic civilizations were established on the island. – Giovanni Lilliu (Moravetti 14)
The archaeological area of Santa Cristina is located 4 kilometers south of the town of Paulilatino in Sardinia. Covering approximately one hectare, the site is divided into three distinct regions and reveals the remains of an ancient village – including a small single Nuragic tower, tabernae, wall enclosures, a meeting hut and a well temple (fig.1) (Moravetti 5). In region A (fig.2), the largest and most central structure, are the remnants of an enclosed water well. Within the first phase of this archaeological complex – is a sacred Nuragic well sanctuary. It is known as Santa Cristina and is surrounded by enclosures, tabernae, huts and a meeting hut. This site is named after Saint Cristina, who is the honored saint in the nearby church of the archaeological site and still celebrated in yearly celebrations in May (Moravetti 5).
The archaeological remains of this water temple consist of surrounding outside enclosures, a keyhole structure with an inner space and some stone piles, access stairs with paralleled false stairs on top that lead to an underground chamber and a tholos. Because of the stone-lined, underground chamber that collects water – this structure is classified as a well, rather than a font. However, in the excavation history of the Nuragic wells of Sardinia, there was initial mystery as to their purpose.
The well of Santa Cristina represents the culmination of the architecture of the water temples. It is so balanced in proportions, sophisticated... so rational... Nuragic art expressed it, before prestigious historic civilizations were established on the island. – Giovanni Lilliu (Moravetti 14)
In the middle of the 19th century, archaeologists and researchers first began documenting the remains of these Nuragic structures and the purpose of these structures was initially unclear. Because the Nuragic structures were built using older tehcniques that were comparable to Egyptian styles, the archaeologist Giovanni Spano noted that the “oglival construction” that appeared in the nuraghes was one of the earliest methods of arch-making (Moravetti 5). Due to this distinct and older style of the structural work and the similarities to Etruscan and Roman influences. Due to the underground space with its vaulted ceiling, illuminated only by the opening above, Spano believed that these nuraghes were ancient prisons (Moravetti 5).
During the 1909 excavations of nearby nuraghes, the archaeologist Taramelli began to realize the significance of the wells as temples. In the analysis of the structures and materials that were found during the excavations of nearby nuraghis, the material objects that were found inside them supported the idea that they were temples that were used for cult rituals.
Bernardini, was the main archaeologist who did most of the excavation and restoration work of Santa Cristina. The nature of the small artifacts found, further reveal the story of the sacred water well of Santa Cristina. During the Bernardini excavations, four bronze Phoenician statues (fig. 5) were recovered on the temple steps, a simple arched fibula and a leech-like fibula, and some anthropomorphic clay figures (fig. 6). These are typical types of offerings made in religious rituals. In the area surrounding the well, numerous figured terracotta pots were found, vague of necklace and a balsamari, related to a votive, from the late Republic age (Moravetti 19). The investigations by Bernardini in the surrounding parts of the village, uncovered carinated vases, askoid jugs, a salt cellar vase, boat lantern, a bronze rod and an iron element. Based on this data, the construction of the sacred well of Santa Cristina can be dated to the 11th century BC. (Moravetti 19).
The architectonic features of the well of Santa Cristina repeats the planimetry layout that is common in the other Nuragic temples during this time – containing the atrium or vestibule and a staircase that descends into the underground chamber that houses the well. Unfortunately, only the floor plan of the well survives and not the elevated structure on top. The remaining structures include the inner perimeter wall (in the shape of a key lock), which encloses the rectangular atrium and the drum of the well. An elliptical enclosure is 26 x 20m and has a single entrance leading to the vestibule, separating the inner building from the rest of the sanctuary – creating a physical barrier that seems to represent the sacredness of the surrounding space of the temple. The stairway is trapezoidal and gradually narrows down to the last step in the well. The overall depth is around 6.50 meters (Moravetti 21) and the staircase is made up of 25 steps and is covered by a stepped ceiling that reproduced a sort of upside-down staircase ceiling. The cell is circular with a diameter of 2.54m, 6.90m high and gradually rises to the top into a small opening in the ground with a diameter 0.33m (Moravetti 21). The masonry of the staircase is of the isodoma type and consists of medium-sized basaltic blocks.
The structural remnants of the sacred well of Santa Cristina are impressive in the quality and precision of their construction, suggesting an intention in their composition - believed to be connected to religious ritual.
Santa Cristina stands out in particular from other wells because of the grandeur of the stairwell, the beauty of the room, and from the refined isodoma technique that was implemented by the Nuragic builders (Moravetti 21). The steps are smooth and polished, with precise angles and exact edges. Even today, the spring waters fill up to the level of the lower steps of the staircase (Moravetti 22). The structural remnants of the sacred well of Santa Cristina are impressive in the quality and precision of their construction. The descending and waning form of the staircase and the geometric angles of the well suggest an intention in their composition. The intentional construction was believed to be connected to religious ritual.
Beginning with the Santa Cristina site plans by Taramelli, the leading archaeologist of the site, I made the plans to scale in the virtual landscape of SketchUp (fig. 7a).
Using the exact measurements of floor plan and side plan simultaneously, I started to rebuild the underground chamber of the water well into 3D (fig. 7b). Attaching the chamber of the well to the circular pile of rocks that opens out into the air, revealed a very precise shape (fig. 7c) that was perfectly centered in the surrounding enclosure. Recreating the stairs was a gradual descent that was geometrically in-line, connecting to the opening of the well (fig. 7d). The stairs were mirrored by a second set of false stairs on top – held together by side walls whose bricks are attached with a nearly seamless quality of construction. Once the underground chamber was connected to the stairs and aligned with the holes of the surface floor plan, I added the outside enclosure that surrounded the entire site – separating the outside world from the territory designated as sacred space (fig. 7e). I also added the keyhole enclosure around the central area of the space, which are the remaining rocks from the foundation of an enclosed nuraghi edifice. Finally, in order to complete the current existing remains of the sacred well of Santa Cristina, I added a light stone texture to bring it to life (fig. 7f).
At this point, the site of the water temple corresponds to its state today.
With the current archaeological remains of Santa Cristina digitized, the next step is to gather comparative material from the remains of surrounding water temples of Sardinia (fig. 2). The temple that I found of particular interest, is the sacred water well of Su Tempiesu in Orune (fig. 2d) which was found nearly intact because it had been sealed by a landslide. The building once rose to a height of 6.65-6.85 meters at the roof peak (Webster 19). I decided that the height of the main building of Santa Cristina would be similar because a structural dome had to be high enough to balance and support the dome above, but also short enough to remain consistent with other nuraghes in the region. I raised the inner walls of the Santa Cristina to 6.75 meters (fig. 8a) and enclosed it with a rounded dome, leaving a small hole at the top to let in natural light (fig. 8b).
Once I raised the walls and the dome of the inner enclosure, I extended it to also cover the stairway entrance of the temple – as seen in the Is Pirois, Su Tempiesu, and the Funtana Coberta (fig. 9c). Like the Is Pirois and the Su Tempiesu, two of the Nuragic water temples with the most intact outer enclosures – I decided to make the entrance wide enough to enter the inner enclosure, narrowing together to the top – and with arches that were fitted for decoration and also support under the ceiling (fig. 9d). In the remains of the well of Su Tempiesu – there was a fallen block with small, carved holes that was presumed to have served as an acroterion, since 15 of the holes contained molten lead fixtures and five of these retained parts of bronze swords (Webster 19). This stone block is thought to have held 20 such swords, 50-70cms long, pointed upwards, on the top part of the pent roof (Webster 19). Since it is a temple that was used for religious ritual, I decided that an entrance of swords was appropriate to include as a sign of religious reverence in the sacred water well of Santa Cristina.
The final step was to position the temple of Santa Cristina in the actual direction that it was built, using a map of the earth. Because Sketchup has the capabilities to produce shadows, in accordance with the lighting of real life - the lighting on the Santa Cristina is accurate and produces shadows that can be adjusted to specific times and dates of the year. The final result of my digital reconstruction can be seen below (fig. 10).
Taking a closer look at the sacred well of Santa Cristina – from the remains of today, the history of its discovery and the 3D reconstruction of one of the temple’s many possibilities – an ancient religious monument from the pre-historic Bronze Age begins to unveil some of the secrets of the Nuragic civilization that built it. It is clear that in Nuragic culture, water was a sacred connection to the divine.
From the deliberate and elegantly precise construction of the underground chamber and staircase, the importance of water is central in their use of it in religious ritual and worship. The small offerings left at the foot of the staircase to the divinities of the water confirmed that these nuraghes were used for religious rituals. The measurements and angles of the underground chamber seem to correspond with the moonlight during specific astronomical phases. This would reveal that the Nuragic culture was possibly a highly astrologically advanced society and that the well was aligned to interact literally with the divine and cosmic sphere of their religious beliefs. Within the archaeology of ritual and religion, water is a recurring symbol connected to the divine with its life-giving, nourishing, transformative and cleansing properties. With the capabilities of digital reconstruction, it provides the ability to visually experience and appreciate the impressive construction of the well without physically being in Sardinia. It also provides a possible solution of what the ancient water well was like in the time of the Nuragic civilization and the ability to visualize entering the temple, going down the stairs and worshipping at the water.
Hermon, Sorin, et al. “Reasoning in 3D: Formal Knowledge Representation for the 3D Digital Reconstruction of the Santa Cristina (Sardinia, Italy) Sacred Well Site.” Digital Heritage 2015 - 3D in Knowledge Production, 2015, Moesgaard Museum and Aarhus University, Denmark.
Lebeuf, Arnold. “Nuraghic Well of Santa Cristina, Paulilatino, Oristano, Sardinia.” Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy, 2014, pp. 1413–1420., doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-6141-8_132.
Moravetti, Alberto. Il Santuario Nuragico Di Santa Cristina. Vol. 32, Carlo Delfino.
Oestigaard, Terje. “Water.” The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, by Timothy Insoll, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 38–50.
Webster, Maud. “Water-Temples of Sardinia: Identification, Inventory and Interpretation.” Uppsala Universitet, 2014.