- Andrew Lofthouse
- BBC Travel
Myths and mysteries surround the ancient society of the Tartessians, which came to be confused with the legendary Atlantis.
After walking along a gravel road, surrounded by dry plains, I finally arrive at the archaeological site of Cancho Roano, in the valley of the Guadiana River, in the region of Extremadura (southwest Spain).
As I watch, I wonder how different this flat, barren, dusty land must have looked 2,500 years ago, when it was a center of commerce and worship for the Tartessians — a mysterious society that developed on the Iberian Peninsula between the 9th and 5th centuries BC. , until, suddenly, it disappeared.
Today, ongoing research with new technologies brings more revelations about the lost civilization and its role in Iberian history.
Who were the tartesses?
Millennia ago, Greek and Roman texts mentioned Tartessus, but conflicting descriptions — and, for a long time, a lack of conclusive archaeological evidence — have prevented modern archaeologists and historians from even precisely defining what Tartessus is: a city? a kingdom? a river?
Herodotus, the 5th century BC Greek historian, wrote of a port city beyond the Pillars of Hercules (currently the Strait of Gibraltar), which has led some researchers to imagine that Tartessus was a body of water and others that it was a port (possibly near the present-day city of Huelva, on the southern coast of Spain).
There were also theories that Tartessus was the mythical Atlantis. Inspired by Aristotle’s texts, these theories were largely dismissed by the scientific community.
In the present day, the Tartessians are generally considered a civilization that formed from a mixture of locals and Greek and Phoenician settlers in the Iberian Peninsula. They were wealthy, thanks to their vast mineral resources and a thriving commercial economy.
Early discoveries have led historians to believe that civilization was concentrated around the Guadalquivir River valley in the Spanish region of Andalusia, but more recent discoveries in the Guadiana River valley (further west, near the Spanish-Portuguese border) made archaeologists rethink the expansive capacity of tartesses.
Altogether, more than 20 Tartessian sites have already been identified in Spain. Three of them were excavated in the Guadiana valley: Cancho Roano, Casas de Turuñuelo and La Mata.
The site of Cancho Roano
Archaeologists discovered Cancho Roano in 1978. The site revealed yet another piece of history.
It contains the remains of three Tartessian temples built in sequence, each on the ruins of the previous one, all oriented towards the sunrise. An interpretation center explains what is known about the history of the temples and the artifacts found inside.
The adobe walls of the more recent temple (built towards the end of the 6th century BC) enclose 11 rooms, covering an area of about 500 m².
But for reasons still unknown to archaeologists, at the end of the 5th century BC, the people who lived there conducted a ritual in which they ate animals, discarded their remains in a central pit, set fire to the temple, sealed it with clay and the abandoned, leaving a series of objects burning inside, such as iron tools and gold jewelry.
“The discovery of Cancho Roano was a revolution in the archeology of the Iberian Peninsula,” says Sebastián Celestino Pérez, who directed the excavation for 23 years and is now a researcher at the Instituto de Arqueologia de Mérida, Spain.
He explains that the walls, altar, moat and artifacts at the site (such as jewelry, glass, and a warrior’s stele) were well preserved despite the fire, and that many scientists did not believe such a place could be found outside. of Andalusia, where all the previous evidence had been discovered.
The archaeological site of Casas de Turuñuelo has only been studied in recent years, after its discovery in 2015.
It is the best-preserved proto-historical building (from the time between prehistory and history) in the western Mediterranean and the largest animal sacrifice site in the region — more than 50 animals. The site is helping scientists understand more about Tartessian culture.
“Turunuelo [foi] a sanctuary where the animals were also sacrificed and thrown into the pit”, says Celestino Perez. He notes that this place was also burned and sealed with clay, in the same way as Cancho Roano.
“But Turuñuelo has another, more ostentatious functionality — it’s like a symbol of power. It’s from the same era as Cancho Roano, but the construction techniques used in Turuñuelo are much more advanced and its materials are richer, brought from various places. of the Mediterranean”, explains the researcher.
Using a new technology called photogrammetry, archaeologists are taking photographs of the ruins at Turuñuelo and using software to combine them to create 3D images that virtually reconstruct the buildings.
This process helps them understand the types and techniques of construction, as well as the materials used. With this, it is now known that the ruins of Turuñuelo are Tartessian and not Roman, as previously believed.
The La Mata site was found long before the other two, in 1930. But the similarities are remarkable and the approach now being adopted in Turuñuelo could unlock more of its secrets.
“The most surprising thing for me is the very peculiar habit [dos tartessos] of destroying their houses, that is, in all the sites found, the same procedure was followed: emptying all the vases and amphorae, burning the building and burying it”, according to Ana Belén Gallardo Delgado, historian and guide in La Mata.
“With the new technologies, I hope it will be possible to clarify much more about the origins of this civilization and analyze a little more about its way of life”, she says.
“The Tartessian presence in Extremadura is proving to be increasingly important, thanks to new advances in archaeology. It is also believed that eight more tombs found in the region of Badajoz [também na Extremadura] may be Tartessian constructions, such as those already excavated.”
As research continues on the archaeological sites of Extremadura (Cancho Roano and La Mata are open to the public), history buffs can also see Tartessian tools, horse figurines and decorated ivory at the Archaeological Museum of Badajoz.
The museum is located inside the Moorish fortress of Alcazaba, built in the 12th century on top of a hill and surrounded by well-kept gardens, close to the border with Portugal.
the first writings
As I gazed at a gallery devoted to Spanish protohistory, museum attendant Celia Lozano Soto pointed to a stele (stone column) engraved with Tartessian inscriptions—the first known written record from the Iberian Peninsula.
“The language is still being studied and translated,” she says. “It’s a mixture of different things that make it unique.”
A curious writing from around the 8th century BC is derived from the Phoenician alphabet. It’s a palindrome — it can be read from right to left or vice versa, but the sounds represented by each symbol are still unknown.
In addition to language, mass sacrifices and fires, there is one more big puzzle about the Tartessians: why did this civilization suddenly disappear around 2,500 years ago?
The end of Tartessian civilization
Eduardo Ferrer-Albelda, professor of archeology at the University of Seville in Spain, indicated that, as Tartessian society was rich in metals, any reduction in trade could have created tensions.
“There are also records of a crisis in mining, but violence has to have played an important role,” he explains.
“Cooperation between the Phoenicians and the local aristocracies may have ended suddenly, which indicates that an anti-Phoenician and anti-aristocratic movement may have taken place among the population of the Tartessian region.”
Celestino Perez defends another theory. For him, “currently, it seems that there may have been an earthquake in the middle of the 6th century BC, followed by a tsunami that would have hit the main Tartessian ports. This would have been the cause of the rapid fall of the Tartessians”.
Understanding why civilization disappeared is important, but the sociocultural impact of the Tartessians is the focus of current research.
“What appears to be the Tartessian port of Huelva has been located. If confirmed, it could be a giant step towards understanding the Tartessian trade network. And the so-called Tartessian tombs of the Guadiana valley [Cancho Roana, Turuñuelo e La Mata] seem to be the key to getting to know this culture better”, explains Celestino Perez.
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