Travel: Discovering Spain

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Launching the Palarq Award

Panorama of Barcelona from terrace, with hills in background
Such a beautiful horizon! This panorama greets visitors on the terrace in front of the National Art Museum of Catalonia. From there, you gain a clear sense of how Barcelona lies on a fertile plain, surrounded by a ring of hills.

CWA’s editor-in-chief Andrew Selkirk takes us behind the scenes of a new archaeological award

‘Would you like to be a judge for a new Spanish archaeological award?’ I was asked. ‘The judging will be held in Barcelona, the award will be presented in Madrid, and we will fly you out and you can look around these two great cities as well.’ The offer was tempting.

My experience in setting up the British Archaeological Awards and more recently the Current Archaeology Awards qualified me as an expert on getting awards going. And, in any case, Spanish archaeology is on the up and I wanted to find out more. ‘Yes please,’ I said. ‘I would love to come out to Spain.’

The awards are given to both palaeontology and archaeology, and are therefore called the Palarq Award: the name combines the two subjects. They had been established by one of Spain’s leading philanthropists, Antonio Gallardo, who is a prominent figure in the Spanish pharmaceutical industry, but who wishes to encourage other Spanish industrialists to support the arts and culture. He has for many years been building up a fine collection of Spanish Romanesque art, which he gave to the National Art Museum of Catalonia: the foremost collection of the flourishing art of northern Spain in the Romanesque era. But he now wanted to stretch his interests into archaeology.

The awards were announced with a prize of €80,000 – there had been informal awards in previous years – and 18 applications were received, which were reduced to the six finalists that were put before us.

Antonio Gallardo (left), Sebastián Celestino Pérez (centre), and Esther Rodríguez González (right) around table, conversing
The winners of the inaugural Palarq Award have been excavating at Tartessos, a major Spanish site. The archaeologists Sebastián Celestino Pérez, Director of the Institute of Archaeology of Mérida, and Esther Rodríguez González, from the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM), are shown here in conversation with Antonio Gallardo.

The choice was between two strong palaeontology entrants, from early man in Olduvai and Neanderthals in northern Spain, then between four archaeological entrants: three from Spain and one from the Near East. I was glad to see that three of the entrants had already appeared in CWA! We have twice given a short account of the Neanderthals from El Sidrón in northern Spain. We had also covered two of the major archaeological sites. In CWA 69, we had a major article on the Bastida project in southeastern Spain. This is part of the El Algar culture of the late Bronze Age, which was remarkably sophisticated and a contemporary of the Mycenaean culture in the eastern Mediterranean.

Then there was Tartessos: Tartessos is the big new discovery in Spain. Tartessos is part of the Phoenician phenomenon, whereby the Phoenician sailors were bringing copper and silver from Spain at the behest of their Assyrian masters. For a long time, Tartessos was considered simply a Spanish version of the Phoenicians, but now they are being recognised as a self-standing civilisation – the Spanish equivalent to the Etruscans.

We had a long discussion as to whether we should divide the awards or choose a single winner, but eventually came to the conclusion that there should be one overall winner, and that was Tartessos. Tartessos is something new, it was something Spanish, and it made a good story about the successes of modern Spanish archaeology. Archaeology in Spain had a long sleep following the civil war and the Franco regime, but in the last 30 or so years it has been reviving strongly with new stories to be told everywhere. And with Tartessos, Spain can be seen to have a fascinating Iron Age story to equal those of France, Italy, and Britain.

ornate gold diadem
When this diadem was first discovered in 1920, part of a large hoard discovered at a village called aliseda, no one knew how to classify it. It is now recognised as being one of the masterpieces of Tartessian art.

Tartessos lies in a part of Spain that is little known: the Extremadura, the province of Spain that nestles up against Portugal along the river Guadalquivir, which flows out to sea near Cádiz. It is best approached today from Seville to the south, from which a 300km drive north will take you to the heart of Tartessos. Two major sites have been, or are being, excavated. There was Cancho Roano, a rectangular fortress-like construction that served as a major sanctuary, but which was eventually covered over, forming a huge mound preserving much of the older structure. This was excavated in the 1990s and has since been protected by an elegant cover building, though being somewhat remote it does not receive the visitors it deserves. The current work, however, is on a much larger site at Turuñuelo, which was the subject of a major article in CWA 83. Our article, however, was premature, for the really spectacular finds came in the following year, when more than 70 horses that had been sacrificed were discovered; the whole site had then been buried and turned into a necropolis. The Palarq Award of €80,000 is thus particularly valuable, in that it will enable further work to go ahead. It appears that less than 10% of this vast site has so far been excavated.

This little-known archaeological treasure house obviously needs further investigation. Indeed, Tartessos is not the only treasure in this part of Spain, for 200km further north is the Roman city of Mérida. This is one of the great unknown cities of the Roman Empire: there is a fine aqueduct, what is claimed to be the longest intact Roman bridge, an amphitheatre, circus, and temples. It is one of the best-preserved towns of the Roman Empire – and waiting to be visited. It would make a fine trip.

Visiting Barcelona

Having completed my role as a judge, I wanted to look round Barcelona. It is a wonderful city that I had not visited before, and Antonio generously suggested that we should stay on for three days. There is much to see in Barcelona, but a highlight was a visit to the National Art Museum of Catalonia, magnificently situated on the slopes of Montjuïc, the low hill to the south-west of Barcelona from which a marvellous view of the city can be obtained.

Inside the Sagrada Familia, with high, off-white columns. Yellow light streams in from the right, and blue from the left.
Inside Antonio Gaudí’s masterpiece, the unfinished church of the Sagrada Família. Note the yellow light streaming in from the right, symbolising birth, and the blue light on the left, symbolising death – Gaudí thought of everything, even the overall effect of the stained glass. There is also a balcony going round, two-thirds of the way up the window: this is to accommodate the choir of 900, which Gaudí ordained for when the basilica is finished.

The National Art Museum of Catalonia rivals the great Spanish National Museum in Madrid. Its great glory is its collection of Romanesque and medieval art. In the 11th to 15th centuries, when the south of Spain was under Moorish rule, Christian art flourished in the small churches of the Pyrenees with wonderful wall decoration. In the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries, much of this was at risk of decay, so it was taken down for conservation and ended up in the National Museum.

Then there is the Picasso Museum, with paintings left to the city by Picasso on his death. I found it slightly disappointing, as it was essentially the collection of the paintings he did not or could not sell. The real revelation was the paintings he made as a teenager, clearly showing that he could have had a great future as a classical painter. (He was led astray when he visited Paris…)

Another revelation was the still unfinished church of the Sagrada Família, the masterpiece of Gaudí. Gaudí is usually labelled as being part of Art Nouveau, but clearly he was away with the fairies, an utter genius who became a very devout Christian and who reimagined the church on an entirely different basis to all other churches. I imagine that most readers of CWA will be avid church visitors, if not churchgoers: if you want to find out more about Sagrada Família, visit the post on my website www.travellingthepast.com.

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 100 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

All images: Andrew Selkirk

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