One of the richest places for metal ores – copper and silver – is southern Spain. Along the valley of the River Guadalquivir in the area known as the Rio Tinto (the red river) there are rich deposits of these valuable metals, and in the world of the first millennium BC these metals were in great demand. And in the efforts to exploit them one of the least known of the world’s great civilisations arose: Tartessos.
The metal wealth was first really exploited by the Phoenicians spurred on by the demand from their avaricious neighbours the Assyrians. And along the coast of southern Spain a number of Phoenician colonies arose to facilitate the trade. For long it was thought that these colonies were Tartessos and that the whole phenomenon could be ascribed to the Phoenicians, but archaeology is beginning to tell a different story: that Tartessos lay in the interior along the banks of the River Guadalquivir and its tributaries. And that as with the Etruscans they were not the result of immigration from the East, but were essentially an independent phenomenon influenced by the Phoenicians, but springing up from the native traditions.
Tartessos appears only sparsely in classical literature, and as usual the two best and earliest references are both anecdotes tossed aside by Herodotus. The first is the episode of King Arganthonios. Herodotus (1.147) tells how the Phocaeans, Greeks in Asia Minor, were being threatened by the Persians, so they set out exploring in the West where they eventually came to Tartessos, where they were befriended by the King, Arganthonios, who reigned for 80 years and lived to be 120. Arganthonios was sorry to hear that the Phocaeans were under attack from the Persians, so he gave them a large amount of money to build a wall to defend themselves. In the event, the wall did not protect them from the Persians, so they set out for Tartessos but only got as far as Corsica.
Then in Book 4 there is the story of a Samian merchant called Colaios who set out for Egypt but lost his way and was driven off course and ended up in Tartessos where there was an unexploited market from which he profited greatly and dedicated a huge bronze cauldron at the Argive Heraion. Then there is the Bible where there are several references to a place called Tarshish, and there has been an immense amount of learned — and indeed not-so-learned controversy as to whether the fabled Tarshish is in fact Tartessos.
As history, these references do not go very far, but at least they tell us that in the 6th and 7th centuries there was a place in the far West called Tartessos which was immensely rich, and was ruled by a king. But perhaps the most interesting evidence is the negative evidence, that there is no mention of the Phoenicians. As far as Herodotos was concerned, it was the Greek venturers who discovered Tartessos.
Archaeology has begun to provide a somewhat safer story. We begin with a problem: if Tartessos was essentially a home grown product, where did it come from? Here we begin with the problem of the Warrior Stelae. These are stone pillars with mysterious signs carved onto the surface which are found mostly in and around Extremadura, which is the unknown (to the tourist) province of Spain nestling up against Portugal. Over 120 of these pillars are known: the early ones are carved with weapons – shields, swords and spears, and these can be identified and dated.
The shields are of a distinctive type known as V-notched shields with a sort of v-notch in their side. These are known elsewhere in Western Europe, notably in Ireland where several examples have been discovered of leather shields preserved in the bogs and with a v-notch in one side. Hence it is always thought that this phenomenon has an ‘Atlantic’ inspiration rather than a Mediterranean inspiration. Some of the swords can also be identified as being Carp’s Tongue swords, a well-known Late Bronze Age type dated between the 11th and 7th centuries BC. The later pillars also have crude matchstick style warriors carved on them, but the carvings are always on the top two thirds of the pillars suggesting that they stood upright, with the bottom third buried in the ground. But though these stelae can be dated to a period just prior to Tartessos, the trouble is that none of them has ever been discovered in an archaeological context. Indeed few Late Bronze Age sites have yet been well explored to provide the context to the stelae: the origins for Tartessos remain a problem.
But who, then are the Tartessians? The new archaeological definition of Tartessos can best be told by two distribution maps. Along the coast there are the Phoenician trading settlements, many of them on islands or on promontories and mostly keeping themselves to themselves, trading with the natives but not seeking to rule over them, or dominate them. Then inland along the river valleys, notably the Guadalquivir, there were the Tartessians, their culture permeated by Phoenician influences, but nevertheless clearly an independent people.
Four sites typify the story: two of them on the coast and two of them inland. The earliest of the coastal sites is Huelva which is almost the furthest west of these sites, 200 miles west of the Straits of Gibraltar and sometimes identified as being the city of Tartessos. It had long been recognised as an important site, but its importance was confirmed when a hoard of Late Bronze weapons was discovered together with a dozen fibulae (safety pins) of distinctive Late Bronze Age type: these were recognised as belonging to an ‘Atlantic’ rather than a ‘Mediterranean’ group, and are therefore thought to belong to a period before the advent of the Phoenicians.
More recently a rescue excavation has produced a cache of imported materials dating to the 9th century and of the 8,000 ceramic fragments catalogued, over 3,000 are Phoenician, though 33 fragments are Greek. Huelva must have been the just about the earliest major point of contact between Tartessos and the East.
The other major coastal site was Cadiz, often known by its Roman name of Gades or Phoenician Gadir. But whereas Huelva was essentially Tartessian, Gades was essentially Phoenician. This was on a small island in the middle of the harbour, but the harbour has since silted up so the modern city is now on a peninsula, joined to the mainland. This offshore island was an ideal position, for it was both safe from attack and at the same time unthreatening to the natives; and it appears to have been the leading town from which the wealth of Tartessian metals was exported to the East in return for the goodies and the jewellery that the Phoenician merchants could provide.
The heartlands of Tartessos lay inland. The site that first put them on the map was in 1958 when a great treasure of 20 gold artefacts were unearthed during renovation work at a pigeon shooting club at El Carambolo near Seville. They had been buried in a ceramic pot dating to around the 6th century, though most of the objects are thought to be around the 8th century. This remains the most spectacular treasure of the Tartessians, and subsequent work has illuminated that it was part of a temple complex, the temple consisting of two oblong rooms with benches round the outside, set on two sides of a courtyard and surrounded by a number of smaller rooms.
But the best known type site is probably Cancho Roano, which lies on the northern fringes of the Tartessian area, 50 miles south-east of Merida. It was excavated from 1978 to 2001 and appears to have been some sort of temple or ritual site — the actual function is much debated. But it reached a spectacular end when it was destroyed in a grand ritual ‘closure’ ceremony in which over 60 animals were sacrificed including 17 horses of a local breed that had not been used for labour or riding: presumably they were the ritual herd attached to the temple. When the feasting was over, the whole site was burnt down and then covered with soil, making a low mound which was a treasure trove for the archaeologists who excavated it.
When they got through the rubbish of the grand finale, the archaeologists were able to determine three main phases, spread over the years from 600 to 350 BC. In the latest and best preserved phase it was a rectangular structure surrounded by a deep moat 5 m deep and filled with the residue of the feasting. Inside was a rectangular structure approached by a narrow single narrow entrance where the threshold was formed by a one of the Warrior Stelae, presumably centuries-old, that sanctified the site. This led into an entrance chamber which led through to a courtyard with a striking red pavement and whitewashed walls. At the far side was main room with an altar at its centre. The whole site has now been roofed over to form a Visitor centre.
In the sixth century, Tartessos suffered a crisis. The success of Tartessos had always been fuelled by the silver trade: the Assyrians wanted vast quantities of silver which they demanded as tribute from Tyre, and for Tyre the best source of silver was Tartessos. However in 612 BC the Assyrians were defeated by the rising power of the Medes, and the Medes did not have the same lust for silver as did the Assyrians. Then in 572, Tyre itself was captured after a long siege and the crucial link in the silver trade was broken. At the same time a major re-alignment of power was taking place in the Mediterranean between the rising powers of the Etruscans and the Carthaginians and the Greeks. With the fall of Tyre, Carthage began to take its place as the leader of the Phoenician world – and Carthage did not need to silver. The collapse was most pronounced along the coast, in Huelva and in the agricultural settlements along the Eastern seaboard. In the inland heartlands of Tartessos, life continued, indeed Cancho Roano is a monument belonging to this late phase. But by the Roman period, the area of Tartessos was known as the minor tribe of the Turditanae.
Tartessos forms an interesting epilogue to our survey of the societies which arose in the Mediterranean and were eventually swamped by Greece and Rome. They reveal something of the huge surge in new ideas that emerged all round the Mediterranean between the 9th and 6th centuries BC. They have much in common: the idea of city states ruled by kings, or councils of elders, and trade conducted by merchants, acting presumably on behalf of the rulers. Tartessos is the least known because it was the first to collapse. Why did they all collapse, or perhaps more relevantly why was it that Greece and Rome won through?
In the case of the Etruscans, and indeed the Carthaginians one can point a finger at the expansion and indeed the aggression of Rome. But more perhaps one can point to the sheer dynamism that came from Greece. In his book on The Phoenicians, Donald Harding, the wisest and most widely knowledgeable of all the students of this area, makes the interesting comment that with the capture of Tyre by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, the Phoenician cities became but units in the Greek kingdom of the Seleucids: there was no longer a Phoenician nation or art-style. Up to this point, despite being ruled or at least dominated by the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians, Tyre nevertheless remained part of the Phoenician world. After 332 Tyre did indeed rise again to become a great and powerful city, but it was a Hellenistic city where the art and culture was Greek. In the same way although Carthage was destroyed by the Romans in 152 BC it was nevertheless re-founded by the Romans in 29 BC and soon became one of the great cities of the Roman world. But it was now a Roman city not a Phoenician city.
I believe that the secret of the Greeks was indeed the great outburst of individualism, of choice and creativity that came from money/market revolution, where success came from selling new products, new ideas, new cultures in the market place and not from pampering the rule and the whims of rulers. These ideas eventually were taken over by Rome, and spread round the whole of the Mediterranean and much of Western Europe too. And it is this new spirit of individualism that formed the culture that became the all-enveloping culture of Greece and Rome.
(Header: The header shows a diadem from the Aliseda hoard. When the hoard was discovered in 1920, it was a bit of a mystery, as the Tartessians had not at the time really been recognised. It was only with the discovery of the Carambolo hoard that the Aliseda hoard was recognised as being probably the finest example of Tartessian jewellery).