Chronicle 6. IBERIAN “EL DORADO”
“ONE FREQUENTLY MEETS CLAIMS that there was contact between the far western coasts of present Spain and Portugal, and Crete of Minoan times”, Dan Stanislawski notes in his Study in Historical-Political Geography: The Individuality of Portugal, and particularly in the 7th Chapter about Contacts Βetween the Ancient Civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean and Iberia.
“It is not only a seductive idea but it makes a reasonable hypothesis, for the Minoans were good navigators, traders, and seekers of metals. Had they known anything of the Iberian Peninsula they might well have been attracted; however, while it is quite possible that the Mediterranean island route to the west was used by them (Rhys Carpenter, The Greeks in Spain), as yet there is no convincing evidence that it was. The excavations of Almerían culture at Los Millares, which may be dated as of 2000-1800 BC, presented certain items reminiscent of Aegean cultures, but there is no evidence that would clearly demonstrate connection. Such items may represent nothing more than casual parallelism. Other finds of a somewhat later period in Spain make better evidence of contact with the eastern Mediterranean lands, for they can be neatly equated with materials of Egyptian Tell-el-Amarna of 1400-1200 BC. The Egyptian trade items of this period of time are well known to Spanish archaeology and almost surely may be associated with Phoenician intermediaries. As of the present date, such items may be taken as the earliest evidence of direct contact between Iberia and the eastern Mediterranean navigators.”
This is a “neat” example of the established historians’ ‘classic’ mentality: Reserved when they write or talk about Minoans, even Hellenes, but garrulous when they lecture about Phoenicians. Indeed, why was it so difficult for the Aegean peoples to reach Iberia? They were surely not inferior to the Phoenicians in seamanship and, furthermore, Crete was far closer to Iberia compared to Phoenicia. In addition, who controlled Mediterranean trade at the time? The Phoenicians or the Mycenaeans? Why should the Egyptian trade items of this period found in Spain “almost surely be associated with Phoenician intermediaries”? The crucial question, however, this mentality does not answer is: Where did the Bronze Age Mediterranean find tin to produce bronze? Who were established as sea traders in those years to transport this precious metal to the Mediterranean? Alas, not the Phoenicians! It is the reason why the evidence of their presence in Iberia is anything but “convincing”… On the other hand, there are detailed descriptions of Minoans extracting metals from the area of Lake Superior and carrying them through the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico to be transported to the Mediterranean! One cannot exclude this, but we do not intend to take you that far. It is better to remain on Iberian soil.
Where did the Bronze Age Mediterranean find tin to produce bronze?
Who were established as sea traders in those years to transport this precious metal to the Mediterranean?
Some ‘non-established’ historians link the distinctive culture of Los Millares in Almería with “The Early Minoan Colonization of Spain” (W. Sheppard Baird). Far more interesting is the following El Argar culture, which also flourished in Almería, in modern eastern Andalusia, between 1800 and 1300 BCE. The Argaric culture was characterized by the early adoption of bronze, which allowed local dominance over ‘copper age’ (chalcolithic) neighbours. Their mining and metallurgy were quite advanced, with bronze, silver and gold being mined and worked for weapons and jewelry. They developed sophisticated ceramic techniques, as well, and traded with other tribes.
The collective burial tradition, typical of European Megalithic Culture, was abandoned in favour of individual burials (and the tholos or ‘beehive’ tombs in favour of small cists). This trend seems to have come from the eastern Mediterranean, most likely from Mycenaeans (skipping Sicily and Italy, where the collective burial tradition remained for some time yet). In the next phase of this culture, beginning ca 1500 BCE, burial in pithoi (large jars) became most frequent. Again this custom (that never reached beyond the Argarians’ circle) must have come from Hellas, where it was used after circa 2000 BCE. Cultural exchanges during the Mycenaean era are very clear in the Mediterranean, with the Argarians adopting Greek funerary customs, while the Hellenes also imported the Iberian tholos for the same purpose.
Note that whoever reached Iberia could easily find the way to the tin ores of Brittany and Cornwall through the Western Iberian Bronze cultures that had some degree of interaction, not just among them, but also with other Atlantic cultures in Britain, France, etc. It is the so-called Atlantic Bronze Age complex of ca 1300–700 BC that consisted of different civilizations in Portugal, Andalusia, Galicia, Armorica (the part of Gaul that included Brittany), and the British Isles. The Atlantic Bronze Age was marked by economic and cultural exchange, which led to a high degree of cultural affinity manifested in the coastal communities from Galicia to Scotland, while commercial contacts extended from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean.
Next important culture was that of Tartessos, a harbour city and the surrounding region in the southern Iberian coast (southern Andalusia). It was the first organized state of the peninsula, developed culturally and politically by the end of the 2nd millennium BCE. The area is referred to in the Greek mythology of the era as a reminder of the Mycenaean presence and campaigns in Iberia. Heracles went to perform two labours there: to kill Geryon and obtain his cattle; and to steal the golden apples of the Hesperides.(a) Geryon dwelt on Erytheia or Erytheis, an island of the Hesperides in the ‘far west’ of the ancient world: Hesperia was the West and more precisely Iberia; Erytheia was called one of the Hesperides, but also the fearsome giant’s daughter. “Geryon was killed by the great strength of Heracles at sea-circled Erytheis”, Hesiod says in his Theogony. Heracles set up two massive spires of stone to stabilize the area and ensure the safety of ships sailing through the Straits, called the Pillars of Heracles. He also founded Gadeira on Geryon’s island, where the Phoenicians would build later the colony of Gadir (modern Cádiz): a tumulus near Gadeira was associated with Geryon’s final resting-place. There are also legends about Heracles being buried in Spain. A later generation of Hellenes linked the area to Tartessos. The Fortunate Isles, also called the Isles of the Blessed, or Elysium, were thought to be somewhere outside the Pillars of Heracles, as well.(b) As regards Geryon, he is mentioned among the mythical kings of Tartessos. His grandson Norax (or Norace) conquered the south of Sardinia, founding the city of Nora, and becoming a hero of the Nuragic mythology.(c) He dictated the first laws, divided the society into seven classes, and forced the nobles to work. Later Gárgoris introduced commerce, beekeeping and new agricultural tools such as the plow. This last innovation is also credited to his (grand)son, Habis (Habido, Abidis, or Abidas), who succeeded him in the kingdom of Tartessos.
Gárgoris is mentioned as a mythological king of one of the peoples of Tartessos, who lived in today’s Algarve and Low Alentejo of southern Portugal. They were the Cynetes, Cynesioi or Conii, the westernmost dwellers of Europe, according to Herodotus, who distinguished them from the Celts. Gárgoris, as the legend goes, had incestuous relations with his daughter, whose name has not survived. After she had got pregnant, he ordered that she should be locked up and the child be killed. The baby was abandoned on a hill close to a lair of wild animals, which instead breast-fed and protected him. When Gárgoris learned that his (grand)son was still alive, he ordered that he should be taken away from the cave and put to death in another way: in a stampede of cows, or devoured by dogs or hungry pigs, or thrown to the sea. Protected by Fortune, Habis managed to survive against all adversities. Raised by a hind and grown up like a savage, he became a skilful bandit, but was captured by peasants who led him to the king. Seeing his birthmarks, Gárgoris recognized he was his (grand)son. Impressed by his miraculous survival of all his ordeals, the king named him heir to the throne. Recorded by the Roman historian Trogus Pompeius, the legend was narrated in verse by Jerónimo de Arbolanche in his poem Abidas (1566). There are other versions of the myth, as well. In one of them Gárgoris is identified with Cronus eating his children, while his (grand)son is presented as persecuted for he introduced agriculture in pastoral Tartessos. A third variation, which found quite unexpectedly its way into a book about fado, covers up the incest factor, but embellishes the story with our cherished Homeric heroes (see also Voyage 3: Iberia’s Odyssey):
Gárgoris is identified with the Iberian king Gregoris mentioned by Mascarenhas Barreto in his book Fado – Lyrical Origins and Poetic Motivation. In his numerous mythological and historical digressional footnotes, he connects this monarch to Odysseus and Calypso, referring to the founding of Lisbon and Santarém:
“Legend attributes the building of the ancient walls of the city [Lisbon] to the great Greek hero of antiquity, Ulysses, king of Ithaca and conqueror of Troy, who is supposed to have given the place the name of Ulissea – whence the word Ulissipo. Anyway, what is certain is that Lisbon was inhabited by the Phoenicians around 600 BC and they named it Alis Ubbo, meaning ‘Calm Bay’.”
The founding of Santarém is thought to be correlated to that of Ulissea > Ulissipo > Olissipo > Olissipona > Lissibona > Lisboa.
“It is believed to have been founded in the 10th century BC by Abidis, of Greek origin, who gave it the name of Esca-Abidis”, Mascarenhas Barreto writes. “According to legend, this prince, grandson of Gregoris, king of the Iberian Peninsula, was also the son of Ulysses who, betraying the trust of Gregoris after having been given Alis Ubbo (Lisbon), secretly espoused Calypso, daughter of the peninsular king, who rushed with his army on Lisbon. Ulysses fled by sea, abandoning his spouse. When Abidis was born, Gregoris ordered him to be thrown in a cave to be devoured by wild beasts. In answer, however, to the entreaties of his daughter, he consented that the child should be delivered to Fate, according to primitive custom, and Abidis was put in a basket and taken away by the current of the river [Tagus]. A hind adopted him and when the child was later found in a wild state by some huntsmen, his mother recognized him by a mark. Gregoris forgot his former anger and gave him schooling, so that he could succeed him in the government of the peninsula. The name Esca-Abidis (Escalabis) in Greek means ‘food of Abidis’ in memory of the place where he was reared by the hind.”
“Legend attributes the building of the ancient walls of Lisbon to Ulysses, who is supposed to have given the place the name of Ulissea – whence Olissipo, Lissibona and Lisboa… Santarém is believed to have been founded in the 10th century BC by Abidis, of Greek origin [son of Ulysses and Calypso], who gave it the name of Esca-Abidis (Escalabis)… (Mascarenhas Barreto)
Once more, the stories about Hellenes are ‘legends’, those on Phoenicians ‘history’. Possibly true, there were no Greek settlements west of the Pillars of Heracles, only voyages of discovery. The myth of an ancient Hellenic foundation of Olisipo by Odysseus is not true. On the other hand, there is no evidence either to support the myth of a Phoenician foundation of Lisbon “around 600” or as far back as 1200 BCE under the name of Alis Ubbo (“Safe Harbour”), even if there were some organized settlements in Olissipona with clear Mediterranean influences either at that distant time or later. Likewise, contrary to myth, except the voyages of discovery, there is no record of Phoenician colonies beyond the Algarve, namely Balsa and Tavira, close to the Portuguese-Spanish border, with substantial Phoenician settlement and influence since the 8th century BCE. Essentially, Phoenician influence in modern Portugal was through cultural and commercial exchange with Tartessos.
As regards Calypso, according to the Greek mythology, she was not a princess but a nymph on the island of Ogygia, daughter of Atlas, hence she was also called Atlantis (Homer); or an Oceanid, that is, a daughter of Oceanus (Hesiod).(d) However, both versions are linked with either the Pillars of Heracles area or the Atlantic Ocean. Atlas, the Titan who held up the celestial sphere, was identified with the Atlas Mountains in northwest Africa. Scholars who have examined Homer’s work and geography, among them Strabo and Plutarch, have suggested that Ogygia and/or Scheria, the Phaeacians’ island, were located in the Atlantic, and some have identified either or both with Atlantis. Plutarch again writes specifically that “an isle Ogygian lies far out at sea, distant five days’ sail from Britain, going westwards”, and also mentions “the great continent”, which was interpreted as a reference to either America or an allusion to Plato’s Atlantis. Many traits of the Phaeacians, including their seamanship, are suggestive of either Minoan Crete or Atlantis. The description of their palace is that of a very advanced civilization. Above all, their ships were superb, quite different from the galleys of the Trojan War, and… steered by thought!(e) Hence the view that it was Homer before Plato who first spoke of Atlantis.
Back to Tartessos. This legendary land appears in Greek and Near Eastern sources circa the middle of the 1st millennium BCE. Most probably Homer was again the first one to refer in the Iliad to a gold-bearing land in the western limits of the world before the great ocean (Iberia) where wealthy people lived happily for many years. The Tartessian fortunate city, according to Herodotus, was beyond the Pillars of Heracles and had a king named Arganthonios, because of his wealth most probably.(f)
Another historian, Ephorus, described in the 4th century BCE “a very prosperous market called Tartessos, with much tin carried by river, as well as gold and copper from Celtic lands.” Around the end of the millennium, however, there are indications that the name fell out of use creating the impression that the city might have been lost due to natural or other causes. Apart from Thera, Tartessos is a strong candidate for the site of Atlantis. The two of them had probably more in common, namely Minoan influences. The Andalusians, just like the Hellenes, may have benefited from the Cretans not only economically, but culturally, as well. Archaeological discoveries there have built up a picture of a widespread culture, with the core area extending from the Guadalquivir valley to Huelva, but also covering the entire southern Iberia, from the mouth of the Tagus to Valencia. Pausanias, writing in the 2nd century CE, identified the river and gave details of the location of the city:
“They say that Tartessos is a river in the land of the Iberians, running down into the sea by two mouths, and that between these two mouths lies a city of the same name. The river is the largest in Iberia, and tidal, that of a later day called Baetis”, named Guadalquivir (‘Great River’) even later by the Moors.
The eastern mouth of the river, the only one existing now, was much wider at that time. The western mouth does not exist anymore, but it is thought that it was located near Huelva. In this area we now find only a number of lakes. At that time, between these two river arms, there was a large lagoon with at least one island in it where the legendary city was probably located. The landscape is completely different now. Some findings lead to the conclusion that there must have been two natural disasters (tsunamis) that caused the islands and the dry areas to sink, one of which happened around 1500 BCE and the other in 200 CE. Therefore, none of them is linked with the demise of Tartessos. Most sites were inexplicably abandoned between the late 6th and early 5th centuries BCE.
Strabo described an urbanized society with many flourishing, wealthy cities along the banks of the Tartessos (Guadalquivir) River. The Tartessians were very good in engineering, with a sophisticated system to regulate the river flow.
“They are considered to be the most educated of the Iberians, they have a scripture, even historical chronicles, poems, and laws in verse”, he wrote.(g)
Their culture is divided into two periods: The first is called “geometric” and coincides with the late Bronze Age ranging from 1200 to 750 BCE – exactly corresponding to the Greek geometric art (Parallel Lives? Who knows…). The second is termed “oriental”, influenced by Phoenicians and Hellenes alike, ranging from 750 to 550 BCE, when it was superseded by the classic Iberian culture. A similar shift to the Lusitanian culture occurred in the southern Portuguese territory, mainly in the Algarve and Low Alentejo, with littoral extensions up to the Tagus mouth. Significant elements of the period were the introduction of the potter’s wheel, and other major advances in craftsmanship, e.g. architecture, and also in agriculture. Another noticeable element was the increase in specialization and stratification. A very important development was writing. With the arrival of the Hellenes, whose influence extended far beyond their colonies, this ‘orientalism’ began to transform itself into the Iberian culture, especially in the South East. The Greek influence is visible in the gradual change of the style of the monuments approaching more and more the architectural models of the Hellenic world. The Iberian script evolved from the Tartessian with noticeable Greek influences. A variant of the Hellenic alphabet (Ibero-Ionian script) was used in a few cases to write Iberian, as well.
Culture (from Cicero’s “cultura animi”) is also material, denoting the artifacts a society creates and their connection to social relations. Civilization is certainly inconceivable without division of labour and technology. Culture and civilization necessitate an economic base in order to thrive. In the case of Iberia, it was the metals that opened the way to the dawn of the Bronze Age, sped up later when some Easterners arrived there. Mining and smelting preceded the coming of Minoans, Greeks, or Phoenicians. Alluvial tin was panned in the Tartessian streams from an early date. The Río Tinto mines along the river, which flows into the Gulf of Cádiz at Huelva, are estimated at 8,000 to 10,000 years old. They have been mined for copper, silver, gold, and other minerals by Iberians, Tartessians, Phoenicians, Hellenes, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Spaniards, for such a long time that the place has turned into an environmental disaster zone.(h) The invention of coinage in the 7th century BCE intensified the search for bronze and silver. Hence trade links, formerly largely in elite goods, assumed a broader economic role. By that time, silver extraction in Huelva Province reached industrial proportions. Huelva city was certainly connected to Tartessos; it contains the largest accumulation of imported elite goods and must have been an important centre. Excavations in the heart of the city revealed a great industrial and commercial emporium lasting several centuries. Some 90,000 ceramic fragments, indigenous and imported (Phoenician and Greek), were exhumed. This pottery, dated from the 10th to the 8th centuries BCE, precedes finds from other Phoenician emporia. The existence of foreign produce and materials together with local ones permits us to imagine its old harbour as a major hub for the reception, manufacture and shipping of diverse products of various and distant origin. Finds in other parts of the city help us estimate its habitat in some 20 hectares, which constitutes a sizable extension for a site in Iberia during that period. The analysis of written sources and the products exhumed, including thousands of Hellenic ceramics, some of which are works of excellent quality by known potters and painters, tends to identify this habitat with the lost city of Tartessos.