Jules Stewart travels to the little-known site of an early Iron Age community in the Navarre region of northern Spain.
Las Eretas was never meant to be on the beaten path. On the contrary, its inhabitants were determined to distance themselves as far as possible from hostile neighbours. Visitors should therefore not be discouraged by the relative remoteness of this Iron Age fortified settlement.
Berbinzana is a town of some 700 inhabitants, located 43km south of Pamplona, the capital of Navarre. In 1991, the town’s council approved plans for a public sports complex with swimming pool next to the town centre. That was when archaeologist Javier Armendáriz arrived on the scene to carry out a dig, suspecting historic treasures might be found beneath the proposed leisure centre.
‘We had reason to believe that Roman ruins were waiting to be discovered somewhere in or near the town,’ he says. ‘After initial tests, what we found were stratifications of an early Iron Age community dating back to the 7th century BC.’
It was during that period, from the 7th to the 4th centuries BC, that a new system of social organisation was introduced in Spain’s Upper Ebro valley region. The Urnfield Culture developed the system of cremating their dead, and placing the ashes in urns buried within well-defined cemeteries.
‘The area we excavated yielded some surprises,’ says Armendáriz. ‘In the space of a year, we unearthed a settlement of considerable historical importance.’ The remains were found just a metre below ground level, and revealed a cluster of dwellings along with a well-preserved defensive wall.
Armendáriz assembled a team to carry out excavation work, and later became the driving force behind the development of a museum adjoining the site. The museum, a former 1950s preserves factory, was opened in 2011. It is a treasure house of Iron Age artefacts, such as ceramic jars and cooking utensils, as well as a flour mill, a stone milestone marker, and bronze coins from the Roman period.
The settlement’s footprint remains something of a mystery because, to date, only a small part has been excavated. If it were built in a similar fashion to comparable sites, the houses would have had a semi-circular layout. Though the gate has not been discovered, Armendáriz’s team has established that the houses were organised around a central street and a small square paved with stone slabs. The rectangular buildings reflect later Celtic designs, and, interestingly, there are no notable differences in size between the dwellings, suggesting the absence of a social hierarchy.
It is assumed that the burial ground is located outside the walls, and is yet to be found. However, six graves of new-born babies were unearthed inside several of the houses. One revealed the burial of three-month-old infant, covered by a stone slab on which were placed a small ceramic cup and a food offering.
Succession of settlements
Las Eretas is, in fact, a series of superimposed villages, each built on the ruins of its predecessor. It is not known why they were abandoned, but each building retains certain similarities, such as a rectangular floorplan and a central hearth. The frames of the first level of houses were set on small ash pillars anchored in the ground. There are signs that these were destroyed, intentionally or accidentally, by fire, and buildings belonging to Phase 2, were established over them. Phase 2 houses were sturdier in design, with load-bearing stone foundations, and remained unaltered during the 7th and 6th centuries BC. The street paving was laid during the site’s 3rd Phase, and the village was finally abandoned in the 1st century BC.
Not a great deal is known about the day-to-day life of those who lived here. ‘We know they were skilled at weaving, as fragments of looms have been found on the site,’ says Belén Chocarro, curator of Las Eretas Museum. ‘The houses were attached to one another, though each had its own access to the walls, which they adorned with red-and-black geometric designs. The walls were made of adobe, an effective material for regulating interior temperatures in the extremes of winter and summer.’
Excavation at Las Eretas revealed an unexpected structure, as Armendáriz explains: ‘We found a sturdy stone wall, a metre thick, 5m high, and with two watchtowers. It would have encircled the dwellings, and gives us valuable new and detailed information on Iron Age fortifications.’
Unusually, while villages of the same period were built almost exclusively on hilly ground, to provide natural protection against attack by hostile neighbours, Las Eretas lies on a plateau, about 1,000ft above sea level. ‘This is surprising,’ says Armendáriz. ‘The Iron Age was a time of conflict, so security was a prime concern. We have found several hilltop fortifications in this region. We believe Las Eretas was established on lowland terrain to take advantage of natural crop irrigation by the River Arga, as the inhabitants relied entirely on the grain harvest for food. This would account for the near-impregnable stone wall.’
Though the excavated area covers only some 20 per cent of the settlement, there are no plans to continue digging. ‘There is no doubt Las Eretas extends well beyond the area we have excavated, and even here we have not unearthed every level of human occupation,’ Armendáriz says. ‘So I hope work will resume one day, to broaden our knowledge of Iron Age life.’
Images: Museo y Yacimiento Arqueológico Las Eretas