Is Paras

Is Paras is one of an extraordinary type of prehistoric monument known as nuraghi that is found in copious numbers on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. Located near to the modern town of Isili, Is Paras was built during the Bronze Age, probably around the middle of the second millennium b.c.e. Despite some damage to the exterior, it contains one of the most impressive examples of the central chamber characteristic of all nuraghi, and this is preserved intact. Circular in cross-section at ground level, measuring over 6.5 meters (21 feet) across, the walls rise vertically for several meters before beginning to close in. From this point, layer upon layer of stone blocks are gradually corbelled inwards, each supporting the next so as to form a high vaulted roof. Although it is built entirely of dry stone, it rises to an incredible 11.5 meters (over 37 feet), making it the tallest example known.

Nuraghe Is Paras, Sardinia, viewed around noon close to the summer solstice. The dagger of light on the back wall is visible through the entrance. (Courtesy of Clive Ruggles)

It has been suggested that the tower functioned as part of a system of inter-nuraghe alignments marking solar and lunar events. Viewed from another nuraghe, Nueddas, a few kilometers away, it is a prominent skyline feature and marks the position of midsummer sunset. However, what makes Is Paras of particular interest is a distinctive light-and-shadow phenomenon that also seems to relate to the summer solstice.

The apex of the vaulted roof is unusual in having a small round opening, about forty centimeters (sixteen inches) across. A stone, possibly used to cover the hole, was discovered on top of the tower by excavators in the late 1990s, but it could be moved by one or two people and is too small to provide a permanent cover. While it is possible that a larger, more permanent stone was used at one time to cover the hole, there is no sign of it now. It is therefore a strong possibility, though by no means a certainty, that the hole was designed to be uncovered at least at certain times.

When the sun is high in the sky, sunlight enters the chamber and casts a dagger of light onto the chamber wall. This only happens around the middle of the day, and since the sun is toward the south at this time, the dagger appears on the northern wall, moving in a "U"-shaped curve down and to the left until local noon is reached, whereupon it starts to move upwards again, continuing to the left. At noon on the summer solstice, the sun is as high as it ever reaches in the sky and the noontime dagger reaches its lowest point of all. This is on the very lowest layer of stones, within two centimeters of the floor. For a period of about twenty minutes on this day, it moves across on this level before starting to rise up again.

This example epitomizes the problems of interpreting a "one-off" phenomenon. Nothing like it has been discovered at any other nuraghe, despite the fact that there are several thousand of them, and this must cast doubt upon its authenticity. Could it simply be a coincidence? Was the hole permanently covered? And yet the fact that the light dagger reaches so close to the floor without actually touching it—surely an incredible coincidence if unintentional—seems to argue otherwise. Without further contextual evidence we may never know whether this phenomenon was deliberately intended, or if it was deliberate, what it actually meant to the people who built and used this tower back in the Bronze Age.

See also:

Methodology; Solstitial Alignments.

Fajada Butte Sun Dagger; Nuraghi.


References and further reading

Belmonte, Juan Antonio, and Michael Hoskin. Reflejo del Cosmos, 185-188. Madrid: Equipo Sirius, 2002. [In Spanish.]

Hoskin, Michael. Tombs, Temples and Their Orientations, 183-185. Bognor Regis, UK: Ocarina Books, 2001.

Zedda, Mauro Peppino. I Nuraghi tra Archeologia e Astronomia, 24-34, 55-56. Cagliari: Agora Nuragica, 2004. [In Italian.]

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