Beyond the Pillars of Hercules – Excavating an Iron Age seat of power

5 mins read

A new discovery deep in the Guadiana Valley of the Iberian Peninsula is revealing the secrets of a little-known and intriguing Iron Age civilisation. Sebastián Celestino Pérez and Esther Rodríguez González tell CWA about the latest finds from a political powerhouse: the kingdom of Tartessos.

A bronze handle whose design features two doves on either side of a stretched oxhide, a recognised symbol of the Tartessic culture (Photo: Tartessos Project).

In the 5th century BC, the Greek historian and geographer Herodotus wrote of a harbour city called Tartessos. In his account, it lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules and flourished in the 1st millennium BC. This vanished city gives its name to the earliest-known civilisation west of the Mediterranean, and early antiquarians scoured the Atlantic coastline in an effort to locate it. It was eventually identified where the modern city of Huelva now stands, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River on the Atlantic coast of south-west Spain. Most of our knowledge of the Tartessic people comes through their artefacts, which show a fusion of influences, reflecting both the indigenous people of the region and Phoenician traders who came across the Mediterranean in search of Iberian silver and gold.

Now, thanks to the work of Sebastián Celestino Pérez, Director of the Institute of Archaeology of Mérida, and Esther Rodríguez González, from the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM), we are discovering more and more sites that belong to this little-known civilisation, both in the Tartessic heartland and beyond. Last year, they began work at Casas del Turuñuelo, at Guareña on the Guadiana river. At its peak about 2,500 years ago, this vast settlement wielded significant political influence across the region.

Who are the Tartessians?

The kingdom of Tartessos emerged in the Guadalquivir River valley in the early part of the 9th century BC, and enjoyed a period of splendour that endured at least 300 years. Then, in the mid 6th century BC, the civilisation suddenly collapsed. The reasons for this abrupt end are obscure. Perhaps the Tartessians suffered repercussions from the conflict between the Phoenicians and the Greeks, who struggled for supremacy over maritime trade across the Mediterranean. Or perhaps they were overwhelmed by adverse environmental changes: recent studies have shown that an earthquake and tsunami devastated the Atlantic coast in the 6th century BC. The consequences of such a disastrous event would have affected the natural resources in the Guadalquivir valley basin, the heartland of the Tartessos people, which, in turn, would have amplified any political instability that already existed.

Whether fleeing environmental catastrophe, conflict, or both, the population migrated further inland, into the Guadiana region in, according to the archaeological evidence, the late 6th century BC. Here, they encountered communities already familiar with the Tartessic culture for at least a century, as evidenced by the presence of the so-called ‘Warrior Stelae’.

An aerial view of Cancho Roano, a Tartessic palace-sanctuary. Though the quadrangular layout is typical of Tartessic sites along the Guadiana River valley, different sites fulfilled different and specific functions, while maintaining a similar design (Photo: Tartessos Project).

These enigmatic carved standing stones, discovered in 1898, belong to the Tartessic culture but are found beyond its core territory of the Guadalquivir River. Their meaning, however, remains a mystery: though we know the stelae were erected between the 11th and 7th centuries BC, they are not typically associated with any archaeological context.

Tartessic culture continued to thrive during this Late Tartessic period of the mid 6th century to late 5th century BC along the Guadiana River valley basin and further inland towards the Tagus valley. Then, at the end of the 5th century BC, it completely disappears from the archaeological record, to be replaced by artefacts that reflect instead Celtic influences brought into the region by people invading from the north.

Tartessian migration

The arrival of Tartessians from Guadalquivir is signalled by the appearance of enormous structures – some in isolated rural areas, others close to pre-existing settlements – along the entire length of the central Guadiana River valley and its main tributaries. Known as the Tartessic Tumuli of the Guadiana, these huge sites have several features in common, the most obvious being their geographical locations. Field survey along the central zone of the Guadiana valley recorded ten such sites, on both sides of the Guadiana River, but always at a confluence with a major tributary. It appears, therefore, that these locations were specifically chosen for their strategic advantage in both controlling river traffic and dominating the fertile land of the river plains.

Three prime examples are Casas del Turuñuelo, Cancho Roano, and La Mata. Casas del Turuñuelo sits on the right bank of the Guadiana at Guareña, near the mouths of the rivers Búrdalo and Guadámez; while Cancho Roano and nearby La Mata lie on the Ortiga River, one of the main tributaries that flows into the Guadiana at present-day Medellín, in the region of La Serena (Badajoz).

Though excavation is still in progress at Casas del Turuñuelo – just 7% of the site has been uncovered – already we can see that its architectural features have strong stylistic similarities with both Cancho Roano and La Mata, including defining characteristics of this type of settlement. All three face east, towards the rising sun, and are huge, square structures with mud-brick walls on solid stone foundations, with elements of Phoenician design. Their walkways were usually paved with compacted red clay, though some were covered with slate slabs. Decoration survives on some of the walls, which were lime-plastered or lined with fine pieces of slate. Wooden beams, branches, and mud were used to create the flat roofs, while inside benches and altars built of mud-bricks reflect the style of Tartessic monuments found in the neighbouring Guadalquivir valley.

Aerial view of excavations at the Tartessicsite of Casas del Turuñuelo in the Guadiana valley of the Iberian Peninsula (Photo: Tartessos Project).

All three sites are in rural areas, located at vantage points within the landscape. In this way, they maintained control over the surrounding countryside, which enabled efficient exploitation of natural resources. However, excavation is giving new insights into how individual sites functioned, with evidence emerging to show that each served a different purpose, acting as a discrete agent within a single system linked via the arterial river network.

Cancho Roano and La Mata have the same well-ordered layout: a courtyard at the front that leads into an entrance hall, with several rooms leading off it on each side. Casas del Turuñuelo, however, is different. Here, ongoing excavation is gradually revealing a much more complex spatial organisation, set around several corridors that lead from the main room – to date, the only area that has been completely explored.

Cancho Roano was probably a palace-sanctuary. It covered a huge area of about 50m², and was two storeys in height. It was enclosed by a narrow moat and accessed via a bridge on the east side, which was flanked by two towers. Some 24 rooms, crammed with local and imported artefacts, were organised around the main chamber, which has an altar at its centre, signifying ritual use. In fact, there were three altars here, placed consecutively one on top of the other, so that the new replaced the old; each altar was a different shape.

Archaeological evidence reveals that this site had an extraordinary and dramatic end: at the close of the 5th century/very early 4th century BC, a massive feast was held here, involving the sacrifice and consumption of about 60 animals – including 17 horses that were, according to analysis, probably sanctuary animals, since they had not been used for either labour or riding. As soon as the feasting was over, the whole complex was set on fire. The burnt remains were then carefully buried, suggesting this was a ritual closing of the site.

La  Mata tells a different story. More than a hundred amphoras and grinding stones were recovered from the site, an indication that the people here worked the land, processed and stored produce, and controlled food distribution.

This is an excerpt from an article published in CWA 83.  Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.

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