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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Argaric Culture (Bronze Age) (Iberia)
c.2300 - 1500 BC

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. The task of cataloguing the vast range of human cultures which emerged from Africa and the Near East right up until human expansion reached the Americas is covered in the related feature (see link, right).

Early Iberia formed the south-western peninsula of Europe and comprises the modern countries of Portugal and Spain, plus the principality of Andorra and the British crown colony of Gibraltar. The peninsula's role in human development played a notable role in the first millennium BC, even before the coming of imperial ambitions which reached its southern and eastern shores.

The Argaric or El Argar culture emerged to encompass a large stretch of south-eastern Iberia during the early Bronze Age. It was born directly out of the vibrant Bell Beaker culture, quickly finding its feet to become one of a series of important contemporary societies in Europe. In doing so it generated the first urban and state society in the western Mediterranean while the others did the same elsewhere.

The culture is named for the type site of El Argar, which is located in today's municipality of Antas in Almería. That site was discovered and defined at the end of the nineteenth century by the Belgian-Spanish Siret brothers, Luis and Enrique, former mining engineers turned archaeologists.

The culture consists of a series of highly-defensive walled towns which are located in difficult-to-access or fortified areas. These towns were tightly packed behind their walls, with square-shaped, stone-and-adobe houses, with burials in cists, jars, or caves under the floors, an abundance of weapons, and a progressive social stratification.

Based on archaeological findings which involved funerary offerings, the Argaric included at least two phases. During these there existed a continuous internal social hierarchy, and external expansion over neighbouring regions until the final century or so of the culture's existence. Beyond a determination of the culture's specific origins there also exists a level of consensus when delimiting the overall range of Argaric influence in south-eastern Iberia.

Its original core would have been in the modern provinces of Almería and Murcia, from where it expanded into neighbouring regions. In time it included parts of the centre and east of Granada, as well as some areas of Jaén, Alicante, and Ciudad Real. Such expansion would be a direct consequence of Argaric militarism, its warriors heading towards strategic areas which would allow control over communications routes or agricultural or mining resources.

Those warriors formed an Indo-European ruling elite, most likely proto-Italics of the West Indo-European branch, but much of the general population was a native Iberian mix of Neolithic Farmer stock of the Cardial Ware and La Almagra cultures, and a smaller level of Mesolithic inheritance which had been absorbed by those Neolithic farmers.

The chronology for this culture is subject to a touch of disagreement, but the calibrated interval between 2300 or 2200-1500 BC is generally accepted. Its dates can be shown slightly more briefly at 2250-1600 BC. Other authors seem keen on reducing that start even more, and pushing for a later end date - 2000-1100 BC - which would remove its direct connection to the Bell Beaker culture.

Most known Argaric settlements are located on high ground and are well defended, although some smaller settlements are known to have existed on the plain. High-ground towns were made up of buildings which had a rectangular or trapezoidal plan, built in stone, rammed earth, or adobe on the artificially terraced slopes of the hills.

Archaeologists have uncovered constructions which are of a domestic nature: homes, tools, and storage containers. Other structures are larger: dedicated workshops, productive activities, and centralised warehouses. Certain towns have defensive structures such as walls and towers, but most did not need them due to their strategic location.

Their size was often quite modest, with estimates of between three to five hundred people living in the larger towns, such as Gatas IV and Fuente Álamo III-IV, while El Argar itself had a population of about five hundred, and La Bastida de Totana about six hundred.

The old Chalcolithic towns with their circular houses were entirely replaced by new architecture, with a more regular layout, well-defined streets, and rectangular homes. Generally speaking, these towns offered what could be called a series of community services which included drainage pipes, cisterns for a water supply, ramps and stairs between one level and another, storage barns, enclosures for livestock, and ceramic and metallurgical kilns.

The location of settlements was usually close to sources of drinking water and, sometimes, copper and silver deposits which were mined. The 'large towns' were located either at the exit of a valley, on a plateau, or on a well-protected slope, while the smaller ones were on small isolated peaks called cabezos.

Central towns usually corresponded to other, smaller ones as outposts with, as a general rule, a direct road and visibility which helped maintain direct contact with the main town.

The Argaric subsistence economy was based on agriculture and livestock, with traces of hunting, gathering, or shellfish harvesting. Barley clearly predominated over wheat, legumes, or flax, which would be grown in the most fertile soils. On the coast, cereals and legumes alternated in a dry land regime, while in the interior agriculture would follow fallow rotations and would be complemented by an important livestock herd.

The main domesticated animal species were sheep, goats, pigs, oxen, and horses. The storage and grinding of cereals was carried out centrally in large towns, where hand mills and storage containers have been found which would have covered the needs of a population which was much greater than actually existed here.

Pottery was made manually, being good quality and with standardised typologies Cups, glasses, bowls, and pots stand out as some of the best work. Tools were made of carved or polished stone, bone, or metal alloys such as arsenical copper or bronze. Metallurgical industries were of great importance, as attested by the abundant finds of artefacts and production waste, as well as metal items.

Almost the entire Argaric zone is rich in metalliferous sources, and these would be exploited by groups which specialised in such activities. Despite this, textile manufacturing was the main industry, exclusively using linen as far as is known, since no fabrics are known which derive from animal products.

Egtved girl of the Bronze Age

(Information by Trish Wilson, with additional information by Peter Kessler & Edward Dawson, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from The Archaeology of Bronze Age Iberia, Gonzalo Aranda Jiménez, Sandra Montón-Subías, & Margarita Sánchez Romero (Routledge, 2019), from Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Departamento de Prehistoria, Trabajos de Prehistoria, Vols 26-51), from Amigos del museo arqueológico de Lorca, Salvador Fontela, Juan Antonio Gómez, & Miguel Miras (2004), and from External Links: The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe (Nature), and Gran Enciclopedia Aragonesa (in Spanish), and Celtiberia.net (in Spanish), and Lista de pueblos prerromanos de Iberia (in Spanish, Hispanoteca.eu), and Euskomedia (in Spanish).)

c.2300 BC

The Argaric culture (or El Argar) emerges in south-eastern Iberia, bordered by the Levantine Bronze Age region to the north and the Los Millares civilisation to the south. It soon demonstrates the formation of an internal social hierarchy, and carries out external expansion over neighbouring regions, having been formed by West Indo-Europeans of the fading Bell Beaker culture.

Bell Beaker pots
Shown here is a selection of highly distinctive bell-shaped pots which were created by the Bell Beaker folk between around 2900-1800 BC in Europe and the British Isles

c.2300 - 2250 BC

Using the earlier start date of 2300 BC allows for a certain degree of coexistence with Chalcolithic groups until 2250 BC (notably the Los Millares civilisation which it later absorbs). At times this period is marked by instability, with an associated demographic and material decline, as well as levels of destruction in some settlements.

Although some Chalcolithic villages survive into the Bronze Age (such as Gatas or Fuente Álamo), such sites are rebuilt to a completely different pattern. Most Argaric settlements are newly-founded, presenting unique characteristics when compared to those of the previous era.

This full-scale change has been interpreted as a fundamental social transformation, one which is synchronous with others which are occurring in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean around the same time, notably the Únětice.

Map of middle Bronze Age Iberian cultures c.1500 BC
Bronze technology had been championed in early Bronze Age Iberia by the Los Millares civilisation of the Mediterranean south coast, but this was swallowed up by the Bell Beaker-inspired Argaric culture around 1800 BC (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.1800 BC

Down to this point Argaric society has been dominated by a male elite which, upon the deaths of individuals, uses caves or cists for burials. Bodies are accompanied by halberds and daggers, while women are accompanied by daggers and awls.

From this point onwards, with the culture now absorbing the Chalcolithic Los Millares civilisation on its southern flank, the tombs of the dominant elite contain long swords for males and diadems for females. Then another stratum is detected which is associated with the binomials axe or dagger for males and a dagger or punch for females.

Below this wealthy elite there are other social levels with inferior trousseau. A peculiarity of this time is that children's graves become widespread, with significant grave goods in them.

El Argar skull with headdress
The skull from the El Argar Tomb 62, with silver diadem, copper and silver earrings, and necklace made of bone and serpentine gemstones

c.1700 BC

The Cogotas culture of Iberia emerges on the central plain while the Argaric is still the peninsula's most advanced, most militarily-dominant culture. The Cogotas does not especially flourish outside of its initial core territory while the Argaric survives.

c.1650 BC

From around this point onwards the Argaric world begins to decline towards its eventual collapse. The prevailing view, based on available evidence, is that agricultural and manufacturing intensification has led to large-scale deforestation and environmental degradation in an already arid region.

When the surplus of crops and other supplies is no longer sufficient to maintain the expanding society, the balance of its socio-political system collapses. Cities have to be abandoned, and failed crops left where they are in dry fields. People walk away, taking their families and dispersing into Iberia.

Map of Iberian Tribes 300 BC
The Iberian peninsula prior to the Carthaginian invasion and partial conquest was a melange of different tribal influences (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.1500 BC

Weakening for the past century and-a-half, Iberia's Argaric culture abruptly terminates here, as does the Levantine Bronze Age. Its remaining people disperse across south-eastern Iberia, outside of the territory of the soon-to-emerge Atlantic Bronze Age.

Quite possibly they join or form part of the pre-Iron Age tribal structure which includes early Indo-European groups such as the Vettones, and Iberian tribes such as the Bastetani. By 900 BC part of former Argaric territory falls under Tartessian control.

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