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Iron Age massacre in Iberia

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The remains of 13 individuals were found around the site of La Hoya, lying where they were killed, many with evidence of traumatic injuries. [Image: Antiquity, T Fernández-Crespo. Plan by A Llanos, modified by J Ordoño]

The site of La Hoya in north-central Iberia was a thriving political, social, and economic centre in the Iron Age, but this success was brought to an abrupt end by a violent attack, which took place at some point between the mid 4th and late 3rd centuries BC.

The settlement’s location in the fertile Ebro River Valley, close to important communication routes between the Cantabrian, Mediterranean, and Inner Plateau regions, allowed it to grow into a large, complex site of more than 300 buildings, and perhaps around 1,500 inhabitants, with a defensive stone wall, paved streets, and public squares.

However, its location in the valley lowlands made La Hoya vulnerable and – in the late Iron Age, before the Roman conquest of Iberia – the village was attacked and burned to the ground, with the bodies of people and animals left to lie where they were slaughtered, and houses abandoned with food and personal objects left behind. The site was discovered in 1935, and a small area was excavated in 1973-1990. Post-excavation analysis is now shedding more light on the final days of La Hoya and the devastating attack on the settlement.

The results of the first complete osteological study of human remains from the site have recently been published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2020.161). Excavations discovered the remains of at least 13 individuals thought to have died at the time of the attack: nine adults, two adolescents, a three-year-old child, and a six-month-old infant. Analysis has identified a decapitation, several amputations, and many signs of sharp-force trauma that were probably inflicted by bladed weapons. It also appears that some injuries were inflicted from behind, perhaps as the individuals tried to escape.

This apparently indiscriminate killing supports the interpretation of the event as a massacre rather than a case of armed conflict, as does the fact that the bodies bearno clear evidence of defensive wounds that would indicate they tried to fight back. The absence of any weapons belonging to the victims reinforces the suggestion that it was a surprise attack rather than a battle between warriors.

The circumstances surrounding the attack are uncertain, but it has been suggested that it may have resulted from conflict between rival local communities. Many tools and other artefacts were destroyed, while animals were killed and grain abandoned, suggesting that plunder was not the motive for the attack. Equally, the fact that bodies went unburied and valuable items were left behind indicates that most inhabitants were killed or abducted, or fled never to return. The attack may have taken place on a market day in late summer or early autumn, as craft objects and tools were found outside the entrances to buildings, as though they were advertising wares for sale, while hobbled pigs and vessels containing recently harvested grain were also present.


This article appeared in issue 104 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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