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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Tartessian Culture (Bronze Age) (Iberia)
c.900 - 400s 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 Tartessian which is used to classify this particular Iberian Late Bronze Age culture comes from the port city of Tartessos. The wealthy sea-going civilisation which created this port city largely encompassed a core territory which was located in the lower part of the River Baetis valley, today's estuaries and valleys of the Rio Guadalquivir and Rio Guadiana, and extending as far north as Extremadura.

The emergence of this Southern European culture was most likely the result of the autonomous evolution of Atlantic Bronze Age communities of which it may have been a part. The contemporary Castro culture enjoyed similar coverage in the north while the Talaiotic emerged across the Balearics. The Tartessian heartland was in the vicinity of Huelva, which is where Tartessos was located. Eastern parts of its territory had once formed part of the Argaric Bronze Age culture.

Their wealth came from rich resources of metal which they traded with the Phoenicians and from whom they gained the knowledge of cupellation and methods of extracting iron from iron ore. This trade largely financed the building of their thriving city state. They may also be the source of the Old Testament's 'Tarshish', although this connection is inconclusive and southern Anatolia has a candidate of its own in Tarsus.

They were well-known enough to be mentioned by the likes of Herodotus, Pytheas, Aristotle, and Ephorus (prosperous 'with much tin carried by river, as well as gold and copper'). To these and other contemporaries who wrote about it, Tartessos was a near-mythical culture which was rich in resources and relatively advanced forms of technology, including shipbuilding and metallurgy. And then it disappeared.

It was a 2014 excavation in Extremadura, a region of Spain which borders Portugal just to the north of Seville which provided a clearer understanding of how this Bronze Age civilisation may have ended. The site at Casas del Turuñuelo is also posing fresh questions, thanks to finds of monumental architecture and horse sacrifices.

Artefacts from the site include bronze cauldrons and braziers, highly decorated bone and ceramic plates, along with part of a marble sculpture which was imported from Greece and other items which came from Macedonia. Surviving structures include the remains of a drainage system and a stone stairway which was built using a lime mortar technique which previously had been thought to be of later Roman origin. Funerary rituals were largely Phoenician, with cremations and grave goods being stored in jars inside tombs.

Elsewhere, whilst the tribal situation in Iberia can be somewhat fluid and uncertain, especially prior to the arrival of the Carthaginians, in their later years the Tartessians were neighboured by various groups. Some of these were heavily influenced by Tartessian culture, just as Tartessian culture infused a good deal of Phoenician influence.

To the west were the Tarduli, and to the north-west were the Cynetes, while the early Turdetani were also nearby (potential direct descendants of the Tartessians themselves). The Phoenician colony of Gadir was on the coast, immediately to the south-east of Tartessos.

The ruins of Numantia in Iberia

(Information by Trish Wilson, with additional information from The Histories, Herodotus (Penguin, 1996), from Ora Maritima, Rufus Avienus (Topos Text), from Rufus Festus Avienus: Ora Maritima, Jose Javier Martinez, from A Ora Maritima de Avieno e a descrição da costa atlântica entre o Cabo da Roca e a Foz de Sado A propósito da localização de Poetanion, Jose Cardim (in Portuguese), from The Ancient People and Lost Tribes of Lusitania, ACEL Trebola, from Prehistoria de la Península Ibérica, Martin Almagro-Gorbea & M Fernández-Miranda (Fundación Juan March, 1978, in Spanish), from Los turdetanos en la historia, Francisco José García Fernández (2003, in Spanish), from Tartessos: un nuevo paradigma, Alberto Porlan Villaescusa (‎Libros de la Herida, 2015, in Spanish), and from External Links: Oestriminios (Wiki, in Galician), and Celtiberia.net (in Spanish), and O Caminho Celta (Blogspot, in Spanish), and A misty history of Roman Portugal (The Portugal News), and The Ancient People Who Burned Their Culture to the Ground, Blair Mastbaum (Atlas Obscura, 23 September 2021), and Tartessos, Norman Lindner (World History Encyclopaedia, 25 March 2015), and Lista de pueblos prerromanos de Iberia (in Spanish, Hispanoteca.eu), and Turdetanosorigen, territorio y delimitación del tiempo histórico, Diego Ruiz Mata (Revista de estudios ibéricos, No 3, 1998, with a précis available via Dialnet, in Spanish), and Tartessos, Mariano Torres Ortiz (Real Academia de la Historia, 2002, available via Google Books), and The Tartessos mystery slowly comes to light (El País), and Discovery of Tartessian sculptures turns study of pre-Roman Iberia on its head (El País).)

c.900 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.

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)

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 (perhaps just a little later in the latter case, during the 800s BC).

c.800 BC

Tartessian culture is of a higher level than that of their northern neighbours, the Cynetes, who themselves already show obvious signs of having absorbed Tartessian influence.

Tartessian culture sees the emergence of a ruling hierarchy (just like the preceding Argaric culture had possessed), especially towards the end of the century when several strands of nobility can be detected (most notably in elaborate grave mounds).

Archaeological activity in this region can provide evidence of this influence through the elaborated cremation burial-mounds which are employed by the Cynetes ruling elite, whose rich grave-goods and inscribed slabs in the 'Tartessian alphabet' also reveals close contact with North Africa (Carthage, Utica, and similar colonies) and the eastern Mediterranean (Phoenicia and Greece) from around this time onwards, all of whom are trading through Tartessos.

Villanovan ware
Horses are featured in art which has been unearthed at many palaces and halls in Tartessos, including this figurine from Cancho Roano, another inland site

According to a later account by Diodorus, the Phoenicians in southern Iberia have to cut down all the trees in the range which is known as the Mons Mariani (the Sierra Morena) in order to provide for the fires of the iron smelting ovens. There is some archaeological evidence to suggest that, between 900-600 BC, the population of Portuguese oaks drops from fifteen percent 1.2 percent such is the level of deforestation.

In this same period, and by 700 BC, the neighbouring South-Western Iberian Bronze is terminated, largely by the arrival of Celtici groups, although Tartessian dominance is also likely to have an impact.

600s BC

During this century the influence of Phoenician culture and advancement can certainly be seen in Tartessian culture. Two centuries of copying Phoenician pottery styles now results in the use of the pottery wheel becoming standardised in most Tartessian villages and cities, replacing the Tartessian tradition of creating ceramics by hand.

Trade is primarily through the nearby port city of Gadir, but Phoenician colonies at Malaka, Sexs, Abdera, and Carthago Nova (the latter especially) also form part of this highly profitable trading network.

Map of Tartessian Culture c.600-500 BC
South-western Iberia in the middle of the first millennium BC contained a rich, technologically-advanced civilisation in the form of the Tartessian culture (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.625 - 545 BC

Argantino / Arganthonius

The only known ruling Tartessian. Ruled 80+ years.

c.560s/550s? BC

The name 'Arganthonius' appears to be Indo-European, and probably Celtic in origin. A meaning of 'The Silver One' has been given for it, and the same core word provides the Celtic word for 'silver' which is later used in relation to silver coins. The reignal length is only just believable, but an alternative theory is that the name is a title which is used by successive rulers.

The name reveals either a Celtic infusion into the Tartessians or a degree of influence from surrounding tribes, quite likely the Late Neolithic Celto-Ligurian Cynetes with whom the Tartessians trade heavily (albeit these Celto-Ligurians are of a variety which appear much earlier than the Italian Iron Age Celto-Ligurians of the Alpine region).

Herodotus records the existence of Arganthonius in relation to the arrival in Iberia of the first Greeks. He warmly welcomes a shipload of Phocaeans, urging them to settle (this is probably around the same time as a ship-load of Boeotians find themselves stranded on the Balearic Islands).

The hecatomb, or Tartessian mass sacrifice
A monumental staircase at Casas del Turuñuelo leads down to the hecatomb, or mass sacrifice, which serves as an example of advanced Tartessian architecture, even if it does come with added sacrifices

When they decline and Arganthonius hears that the Medians are becoming menacingly powerful back at home, he pays for the erection of a mighty defensive wall around Phocaea.

539 BC

All of Phoenicia is submerged within the Persian empire. As a result, many Phoenicians emigrate to the colonies, especially Carthage, which quickly rises to become a major power in the Mediterranean.

Smaller colonies such as Gadir have already been trading heavily with the culturally advanced Tartessians who require distribution centres to export their metalwork. But the initial shutting-down of trade routes following the Persian occupation of the homeland disrupts trade through Gadir and sends the Tartessians into an unrecoverable decline.

Villages around the Tartessian gulf are given up, some of them only being in existence for perhaps half a century. The mines of the Rio Tinto region are closed down, and related industries stop flourishing and are fully abandoned. Tartessian burials are more basic, often martial in appearance, and Phoenician imports drop off sharply, sometimes in favour of imports of Greek ceramics.

Athenian black figure pottery
Athenian black figure pottery began to be created around 630 BC, although the earlier date of about 700 BC is claimed for Corinth - by the 630s it was certainly the dominant form of pottery in Greece, if not necessarily around the Greek-influenced areas of the Mediterranean

c.500 - 450 BC

Tartessian culture collapses, quickly fading into extinction and to be questioned in terms of its very existence by later scholars, until modern archaeology intervenes. Its abrupt disappearance in this period is probably the result of a cataclysmic tsunami which literally drowns its main city, perhaps triggered by a massive earthquake which would have destroyed buildings and weakened infrastructure.

Carthaginian destruction is another theory, although the absence of a record of such a campaign makes this less likely. Experts are generally agreed by 2023 that the tsunami theory is the most likely.

FeatureGiven the location of Tartessos, beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar), as recorded by Herodotus, the connection has been made with Aristotle's Atlantis (with the writer linking a river in southern Spain with both Atlantis and Tartessos, and see feature link for more). Various other theories are far less likely.

The Tartessian people of Casas del Turuñuelo subsequently hold one last, glorious feast before they destroy the site. They take up torches and set fire to the monumental, two-storey main hall, burning the bright red-painted plaster off its adobe pillars and charring the bodies of the sacrificed (people as well as animals).

The hecatomb, or Tartessian mass sacrifice
The site at Casas del Turuñuelo is more than a hundred and fifty kilometres inland from where the site of the lost port city of Tartessos

As the last embers die out, they use shovels to bury the courtyard and the hall. The work takes days, concealing everything. And then the people, the last known members of the Tartessos civilisation, vanish into the Iberian countryside. Perhaps they feel that the gods have punished them with the recent calamities, and great change is required.

The Celtici group of Iberian Iron Age Celts soon form a replacement dominant political structure for much of the region, but only at a tribal level, and only until the Carthaginians begin to move in soon afterwards.

c.400s BC

The riches and sophistication of the Tartessians survive only in the influences which are left behind by this culture, although the Turdetani tribe consider themselves to be descendants. The Turduli move in part to occupy other areas of Tartessian territory during the Iberian Iron Age.

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