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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Castro Culture (Iron Age) (Iberia)
c.900 - 1st Century 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 archaeological name of Castro which is used to classify this particular Iberian Iron Age culture comes from the Latin 'castro', meaning 'fort, castle'. This is the 'culture of the hill forts', covering the north-western regions of the Iberian peninsula, including northern Portugal and northern Spain. The contemporary Tartessian culture enjoyed similar coverage in the south, while the Balearics had the Talaiotic culture.

The Castro encompasses almost the entire first millennium BC, from the end of the Bronze Age (around 900 BC) until the peninsula's native cultures were superseded by imposed Roman culture during the first century BC, particularly in what would become Galicia and Asturia.

FeatureThe most notable characteristics of this Southern European culture are the walled oppida and hill forts which are known as 'castro' (see feature link for more on oppida). It first emerged during the first two centuries of the millennium, in a region which extends from the River Douro to the Minho. It soon expanded northwards from there, along the coast, and then eastwards following the river valleys and mountain ranges which separate the Iberian peninsula's Atlantic coast from the central plateau or meseta.

FeatureIts emergence was the result of the autonomous evolution of Atlantic Bronze Age communities, following the local collapse of the long range Atlantic trading network in luxury items. From the River Mondego to the Minho, along the coastal areas of northern Portugal, the last two centuries of the Atlantic Bronze Age had seen a series of settlements being established in high locations with good communications.

As with the earlier Bell Beaker-derived El Argar culture, they were commanded by a noble elite. This elite celebrated ritual banquets and participated in an extensive trading network which reached as far north as the British Isles (see feature link).

When the Bronze Age network collapsed in the face of the burgeoning Urnfield Iron Age culture of Central Europe, the previous pattern of open, undefended settlements was replaced by one of fortified settlements, indicating an increase in regional strife which went along with the loss of the former intricate trading networks of the previous millennium.

In time the situation settled down again and trade was resumed. Clearly this was to the benefit of this society as it was able to produce a mid-millennium expansion of settlement numbers. Only Roman conquest was able to end this last native culture in favour of an imposed Latin one.

The ruins of Numantia in Iberia

(Information by Trish Wilson, with additional information by Peter Kessler, from The Celtic Encyclopaedia, Harry Mountain, from Celts and the Classical World, David Rankin, from Europe Before History, Kristian Kristiansen, from War and Society in Celtiberia, Martin Amalgro Gorbea (E-Keltoi UWM), from Los Celtiberos, etnias y estados, Franciso Burillo Mozota, from Los Celtiberos, Alberto Lorrio Alvarado, from Historia de España 2 - colonizaciones y formación de los pueblos prerromanos (1200-218 a.C.), Ángel Montenegro et allii, and from External Links: 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.900 - 500 BC

The Atlantic Bronze Age collapses between Iberia and the British Isles of the Beaker folk. In the latter these people have already been superseded in the south and east by the proto-Celtic Urnfield people.

In Central Europe the widespread Urnfield culture has also already heralded an Iron Age which has rendered the Bronze Age out-of-date. In Iberia the new iron-using order establishes itself in the form of the Castro culture in the north-west and the Tartessian in the south-west.

Map of Late Bronze Age Cultures c.1200-750 BC
This map showing Late Bronze Age cultures in Europe displays the widespread expansion of the Urnfield culture and many of its splinter groups, although not the smaller groups who reached Britain, Iberia, and perhaps Scandinavia too (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Subsequently the old model of crafting open settlements is replaced by one in Iron Age Iberia which favours walled and fortified settlements. These early hill forts are small (covering a single hectare at most). They are located on hills, peninsulas, or another naturally-defended locations, and usually ensure long range visibility.

Artificial defences are initially composed of earthen walls, battlements, and ditches, which enclose an inner habitable space. This space is mainly open, with a few circular huts and a communal activity space.

Early-arriving tribes such as the Cempsii, Cynetes, Dragani, Oestrimni, and Saefes may be amongst the drivers of these changes. All of these early arrivals are later submerged within the Gallaeci mass of small tribes.

c.700 BC

The second 'wave' of Celtic migration into Iberia begins around this period (confusingly named, as it consists of first wave Celts). This is remarkably close in time to the Celtic migrations into Italy, around a century later. Overpopulation in what is now southern Germany must be pretty bad at this time.

The Pyrenees as seen from the national park on the French side of the border
The Pyrenees (as seen here from the national park on the French side of the border) has presented a considerable obstacle to many migrating groups and campaigning armies, but there are paths across it, as the proto-Celtic Urnfield people and their Hallstatt culture successors found

Not so much a sudden influx of Celts, the migration into Iberia is more a general progression of Hallstatt culture tribes arriving at the Pyrenees and forcing their way across. These Hallstatt Celts remain undisturbed by the later La Tène culture Celts until Iberia is conquered by Rome.

It is this wave of Celts which ventures west through the Pyrenees to occupy the northern coast of the peninsula, and south beyond the Ebro and Duero basins as far as the Tagus valley. It is probably the strong presence of native Iberians which prevents Celtic Iberia from expanding farther.

c.500 BC

The Castro culture experiences interior expansion, with hundreds of new hill forts being founded within established territory. Some older, smaller hill forts are abandoned in favour of new locations. The latter are usually located near valleys, in the vicinity of the richest farmland, and generally protected by several lines of defence.

Castro de Viladonga, Galicia, Spain
Castro de Viladonga is located about twenty kilometres to the north-east of Lugo on the main road to Viladonga, with the surviving earthworks representing a Romanised version of an Iberian castro settlement

Not only does the number of settlements grow during this period, so does their size and density. Old, familiar huts are frequently substituted by grouped family housing, along with elongated or square sheds and workshops.

While the Tartessian culture in the south does not recover a dip in Mediterranean trade, that trade does return to Castro territory thanks to the independent and prosperous city of Carthage and its recently-established control of trading centres such as Gadir.

Tradesmen bring in imports of wine, glass, pottery, and other goods through a series of emporia, commercial posts which sometimes include temples and other installations. Prestige items, personal adornment, and a privileged class all prosper.

221 - 27 BC

Hannibal assumes command in Carthage and spends two years consolidating its conquest of Iberia south of the Ebro. Rome perceives this as a threat, triggering the Second Punic War, and triggering a period of Roman Conquest in Iberia. The eventually-victorious Romans create two provinces in the Iberian territories they now dominate, in the form of Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior.

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)

1st century BC

The next conflict in the Roman 'Conquest of Iberia' period is the two Celtiberian Wars (181-179 BC and 154-151 BC). Further areas of Iberia are brought under Roman control, while the Sertorian War (80-72 BC) largely ends this long phase of conflict. It also effectively ends Castro culture in favour of a Latin-dominated Roman Iberia.

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