From Tartessos to Iberia

03/11/2018 10:56

Ancient Greeks and Phoenicians were fascinated by the myths and mysteries of the unknown lands of the West, the existence of an unknown sea, beyond the columns of Hercules or a garden called Hesperides and a land or city whose name was Tartessos. Although not to be misled, myths hide interests, in this case metals that come from the mines of Huelva or through the secret route leading to the distant mines in the lands of Cornwall and Wales.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Tartessos was no more than that myth although it had echoes of verisimilitude in the classic writings, the stories closest to the mythology trace three lines of characters, the one of Gerion, related to the works of Hercules, one of which was precisely to steal his cattle as narrated by Stesichorus in the Geryoneis and locating the fact in Tartessos while Hesiod places it in Eriteia, Cadiz; the one of Norax, son of Hermes and Eritia, as well Gerion’s daughter, credited with the foundation of Nora, in Sardinia; and the myth of Habis, transmitted by Gnaeus Pompeius Trogo in Historiae Philippicae et Totius Mundi Origines et Terrae Situs  who quotes an older king named Gargoris, whom he claims to have “invented the art of collecting honey”, in short, myths transmitting humanity evolution from food  recollection to agriculture and livestock.

Closer to reality is the presence of King Argantonius, about whom Herodotus narrates the friendship between him and the Phocaean Greeks, to the point where, in the face of Persian onslaught in Asia Minor, he offers them help to erect walls or to welcome them in Tartessos. It is common the mention to the wealth and the trade of minerals. Ephorus of Cyme, in his Universal History mentions that Tartessos’ bronze was known in Olympia, although its silver was more appreciated; Avienus goes further by pointing out, in Ora Maritima, that they trade with the bounds of the known world, in the British Isles: “Tartessisque in terminos Oestrymnidom negotiandi mos erat”. (“Tartessians also used to trade to the ends of the Estrimnides”).

Corroboration, or the will to find physical evidence of the existence of a Tartessian culture, will not come until the emergence of enlightened figures such as the German Adolf Schulten, who, inspired by the archaeological discoveries of Heinrich Schliemann and Wilhelm Dörpfeld in Troy and Mycenae, tried to emulate them by discovering a lost city in Doñana or at the mouth of the Odiel River, reflecting their researches in Tartessos und Atlantis in 1927. But he didn’t succeed. More time was needed to begin to find some clues, scarce and not very explicit, of the culture that surfaced in the peninsular southwest. It would not be until September 1958 when Carambolo treasure would be find out in the archaeologic site of that name in Camas, Seville, a fantastic set of twenty-one gold pieces worked in twenty-four carat gold believed to be used in ritual sacrifices. Would follow new discoveries, such as the building ruins, possibly temples or palaces and burial mounds, in Tejada la Vieja, Huelva, Cerro de la Cabeza, Santiponce, or, along the middle Guadiana River, the Tamborrio hills, Borreguero and, in 1978, Cancho Roano, besides pieces like the one called Bronze Carriazo, the Treasure of Aliseda or the Lebrija chandeliers. Although today there are few certainties about Tartessos what is undoubted is the influence that received from the first Phoenician and Greek explorers and that later would become the development of the Iberian cultures south of the peninsula.

Tartessos end was possibly linked to a great economic crisis that had its origin in the far Mediterranean bounds. In 573 BC, the invasion of Tire and the Phoenician cities by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, caused on the one hand a Phoenician exodus towards its colonies of Carthage and the West and, on the other, the end of commercial flow. Strabo, in its Geography, gives some clues about the first peoples linked to the Iberian culture would be related to the diffusion in the orb of Tartessos: “Turdetani are the most educated of the Iberians and they have writing and historical writings in prose and poetry and laws in metric form which, it is said, date back to six thousand years”.

Other classic authors, as Asclepiades of Mirlia, initially placed the lands of Iberia next to the mythical Tartessos, to the east of a river that could be the Tinto and they denominated Hebrus or Hiberus and, thus, generically Iberians to the peoples of its different tribes. As they recognized the eastern coast they applied the same name to the peoples they reached up to the mouths of the Rhone.

It’s known the confusion that reigned about the name of the river Hebrus attributed to the one located on the southwestern coast with the one now known as Ebro, a confusion that would probably began in times of the first Phoenician and Greek explorations of the peninsula when those first contacts would boost the development of Tartessos, precedent of the rest of Iberian cultures.

Oretani, Turduli, Bastuli and Bastetani were the most important Iberian groups exposed to Tartessos legacy and to the direct contact of the Phoenician colonies in Malaca, Sexi, Abdera and Basti (Malaga, Almuñécar, Adra and Villaricos). These peoples in the south of the peninsula formed such prominent towns as Urso, Kastilo, Ibolca, Basti and Iltiraka (Osuna, Cástulo, Porcuna and Baza) or notable necropolis and shrines: Tútugi, Toya, Cerrillo Blanco, El Pajarillo, Collado de los Jardines, Cueva de la Lobera...

One of the south and southeast Iberian people’s most important features was the development of sculpture, with pieces such as Baena Lioness, the Lion of Santaella, Cordoba, the emblematic ones found in Osuna, Seville, as the warrior and the bull and others that already show clearly the Roman influence. It’s outstanding Porcuna’s sculptural assemble at old Ibolca, Jaen, a town dedicated to olive crops. In 1975, in the place known as Cerrillo Blanco, were discovered about one thousand five hundred pieces distributed among twenty four individual graves and a monumental, megalithic one. Most of the figures represent warriors in various attitudes, a fight between a man and a griffin, the mythical beast, representations of other animals: a lion, a bull, an eagle, a bear. The sculptures show a certain Greek influence in both style and composition. They have been dated around the years 470 to 420 BC and are believed to have been destroyed about half a century later from its installation. Also remarkable is the sculptural ensemble that was found in 1933 in Cortijo del Pajarillo, Huelma, Jaen, which composed a heroic scene of an aristocrat. Today they are exhibited at the Museo Provincial de Jaen and at the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid.

Near Linares, next to the Guadalimar river, is the archaeological zone of the old city of Kastilo (Cástulo) that keeps fragments of its walls, although some of them already are Roman made. The materials that have been discovered are shown in the Archaeological Museum of Linares and the Monographic of Cástulo. Another stretch of cyclopean wall can be seen a few miles away from Linares, in the town of Ibros, it is a thirty feet long fourth century BC wall curtain.

Jaen has supplied several archaeological museums, from the Iberian Museum of Castellar to the archaeological one in Madrid and Paris’ Louvre with hundreds of small bronze figures that have been found mainly in a pair of Iberian sanctuaries located in the localities of Castellar and Santa Elena. A mile away from Castellar, in Altos del Sotillo, there is a set of natural caves that were used as sanctuary, the largest one, the Cavern of the Idol, contains another that should have shaped the main, most sacred, Cueva de la Lobera where appeared by hundreds bronze figures elaborated with the technique of the lost wax and some made in terracotta. The site was discovered in 1887 during the construction of the road from Navas de San Juan to Sorihuela. In 1913 the Royal Academy of History commissioned a report, and four years later a study of the ex-votos was published, while excavations began. These were resumed in two subsequent campaigns in 1967 and 1979.

Still in Jaen province, in Santa Elena, was located another Iberian sanctuary full of bronze ex-voto in the so-called Cueva de los Muñecos del Collado de los Jardines, where from the beginning of the 20th century more than 2.500 pieces have been recovered. Bronze ex-voto are often small figures representing men and women, sometimes naked, perhaps belonging to fertility rites, there are women covered with robes, offering or prayer, horse riders, warriors and burden animals.

In Villaricos, Almeria, was found a piece in bas-relief depicting a male god named Déspotes Hippon, Lord of the Horses, currently in the Museum of Archaeology of Catalonia, in Barcelona. 

Eastwards, in the territory occupied by Contestani, a variety of sculptural, funerary finds and new sanctuaries appeared. One of them, outstanding, was discovered in 1970 in Chinchilla de Montearagón, Albacete: it was Pozo Moro Sepulchre, a funerary monument in the form of a tower dating to the late sixth century BC. A three steps base holds the body of blocks of ashlar masonry ornamented at the base by four figures of lions with open jaws. In one of the ashlars there is a relief representing two heads and split tongues fable beings on a table, part of a metaphorical narrative related to the life of the hero buried. Around grew up a. Other pieces also exhibited in Madrid National Museum of Archaeology correspond to similar funerary monuments. The one that is known as Bicha de Balazote, a hybrid figure with a bull's body and a human head, the twin sphinxes of El Salobral, one of them in the Municipal Museum of Saint Germain en Laye, or the Sphinx of Haches, a winged feline with woman head discovered in 1947.

Near Montealegre del Castillo is Cerro de los Santos, where one of the largest Iberian sanctuaries should have been located in Basteti lands. Around 1830, while the area was cleared, numerous remains of bronze sculptures, ceramics and ex-voto, including the exceptional Offering Grand Lady framed in the context of Iberian female funerary sculptures from the Iberian peninsula. In the place there is only one obelisk erected in 1929 that remembers the place where the archaeological site was. On the outskirts of Bonete, on an isolated hill about one hundred fifty feet high overlooking the landscape was the village of El Amarejo, where houses, a silo, a well, two ovens and a rich and varied ceramic material have been excavated suggesting a production point. The Archaeological Museum of Albacete keeps, besides pieces of these deposits, almost nine feet high horse with rider from the necropolis of the Villares, in Hoya-Gonzalo and the torso of the Horse of the Slab.

© J.L.Nicolas


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