Chronicle 21. 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”, comments Dan Stanislawski in his Study in Historical-Political Geography: The Individuality of Portugal, and specifically in Chapter 7 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 the 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.”
Voilà! Here is a “neat” example of the established historians’ “classic” mentality: reserved if they write or talk about Minoans, even Hellenes, but garrulous when they lecture about Phoenicians. Indeed, why was it so difficult for the peoples of the Aegean to reach Iberia? They were certainly not inferior to the Phoenicians in seamanship and, furthermore, the Aegean was far closer to Iberia compared to Phoenicia. Besides, who controlled then (“1400–1200 BC”) the Mediterranean trade? The Phoenicians, or the Mycenaeans – whom Stanislawski “fails to bring in mind”?(!) Why should the Egyptian trade items of this period found in Spain “almost surely may be associated with Phoenician intermediaries”? The crucial question, however, this mentality does not answer is: Where did the Bronze Age Mediterranean obtain tin to produce bronze? Who were established then as sea traders to transport this profitable metal to the Mediterranean? Most obviously, the Mycenaeans. That is why the evidence about the Aegean peoples’ presence in Iberia is anything but “convincing”… Regarding the “opposite point of view”, there are detailed descriptions of Minoans extracting metals from the area of the Lake Superior and carrying them through the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico destined for the Mediterranean! Although we cannot exclude this, 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 then as sea traders to transport this precious
(and rare) 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 flourished in Almería, as well, in today’s eastern Andalusia, between 1800 and 1300 BCE. This Argaric culture was characterized by the early adoption of bronze, which allowed local dominance over “copper age” (chalcolithic) neighbours. That people’s mining and metallurgy were quite advanced, with bronze, silver and gold being mined and worked for weapons or jewelry. They developed sophisticated techniques, and traded with other tribes.
The ancient collective burial tradition, typical of European Megalithic Culture, was abandoned in favour of individual burials; the tholos or “beehive” tombs in favour of small cists. This innovative trend seems to have come from the eastern Mediterranean, most likely the Mycenaeans – skipping Sicily and Italy, where the collective burial tradition remained for some time yet. In the next phase of this culture, beginning c. 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 c. 2000 BCE. During the Mycenaean era, cultural exchanges are very clear in the Mediterranean, with the Argarians adopting Grecian funerary customs, while the Hellenes also imported the Iberian tholos for the same purpose.
Note that whoever arrived at 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 c. 1300–700 BCE that consisted of different civilizations in Andalusia, Portugal, 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 notable culture was that of Tartessos, a harbour city and the surrounding region in southern Iberia (in Andalusia). It was the first organized polity of the peninsula, developed culturally and politically by the end of the 2nd millennium BCE. The area is mentioned in the Greek mythology of this era as a reminder of the Mycenaean campaigns and presence 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. Geryon dwelt in the “Far West” of antiquity, on an island of the Hesperides, Erytheia (Erytheis); that was the name of one of the Hesperides, and also the fearsome giant’s daughter. The Occident, and more precisely Iberia, was called Hesperia. “Geryon was killed by the great strength of Heracles at sea-circled Erytheis”, sang Hesiod in his Theogony. Heracles set up two massive stone spires to stabilize all this area and ensure the safety of ships sailing through the Gibraltar Strait, called the Pillars of Heracles. He also founded colonies; among others, Gádeira, on Geryon’s island, where the Phoenicians would later establish their headquarters: Gadir (now Cádiz). A tumulus nearby Gádeira was associated with Geryon’s final resting-place; and there are legends about Heracles as being buried in Spain, as well.
Geryon is also mentioned among the mythical kings of Tartessos. His grandson, Norax (Norace), conquered the south of Sardinia, founding the city of Nora, and becoming a hero of the Nuragic mythology. He dictated the first laws, divided the society into “seven classes” and forced the aristocrats to work. Later Gárgoris introduced commerce, beekeeping, and new agricultural tools such as the plow. The agricultural innovations are also credited to his (grand)son, Habis (Habido, Abido, Abidas, Abidis, Gabis, or Gabid, as he is mentioned in various variations of the legend), who succeeded him on the throne. Later generations of Hellenes linked the area to Tartessos. They also thought the Garden of the Hesperides and the Fortunate Isles, i.e. Isles of the Blessed or Elysium, could be found somewhere outside the Pillars of Heracles.
● Heracles was great-grandson of Perseus, the legendary founder of Mycenae, who killed the Gorgon Medusa. To achieve that, he had to find the Hesperides who would give him the necessary weapons. Finally, cutting off her head, from her neck sprang Pegasus and Chrysaor (gold + sword), the result of her meeting with Poseidon. Later Chrysaor became king of Iberia. Geryon, his son and heir, dwelt on the Hesperides island of Erytheia, the “red island” of the Vesper, so called because it lay under the sunrays in the sunset. It was identified with Gadir, but there were alternatives, as well, such as one of the Balearics. According to Herodotus, Heracles, on his way to this area, crossed the desert of “Libya” (Maghreb) and became so frustrated at the heat that he shot an arrow at Helios, or Sun. The god, “in admiration of his courage”, gave Heracles the golden cup (boat) he used to sail across the sea from West to East each night. Heracles used it to reach Erytheia – a favourite motif of the vase-painters. Diodorus, on the contrary, claimed that Heracles raised a large fleet in Crete to sail against Chrysaor, the wealthy king of Iberia, and his three sons. Stesichorus, in the 6th century BCE, composed a Song of Geryon (Γηρυονηΐς), where he made the first reference to Tartessos, with the Hesperides nearby. Later Strabo reported the same location in his Geographica.
Heracles’ way back home with the cattle was eventful. He crossed the Pyrenees that he himself had created when his beloved Pyrene bore a serpent and was so terrified that she fled to the woods where she died. Heracles created a tomb for her by piling up rocks, thus forming the mountain range. Arriving at Gaul, in the Monaco area, he turned away the previous gods. As a result, the temple of Heracles Mónoecos (single + house) was constructed on a promontory – called thus as it was the sole temple in what is now the Côte d’Azur. The Phocaeans built the colony Mónoecos there in the 6th century BCE. The only deep-water port in Monaco is dedicated to the great hero: Port Hercule. Heracles also founded the cities Alesia and Nemausus and became the father of the Celts. Reaching Liguria, two giants, Al(e)bion and Dercynus, Poseidon’s sons, attempted to carry off his oxen, but the hero killed them. In this fight, he was assisted by Zeus with a shower of stones. The Italian route was rather uneventful as far as the tip of the peninsula, near Rhegium, where an ox jumped into the sea and swam to Sicily. Eryx, another son of Poseidon, king of the homonymous city and also excellent boxer, appropriated it. Heracles fought with him and killed him in order to take the animal back. The only problem afterwards was when Hera made the cattle mad in Thrace. Heracles was obliged to go as far as the Hellespont to recover the oxen, and take them to king Eurystheus, who sacrificed them to Zeus’ sister-wife.
● The Hesperides (Ἑσπερίδες) in Hellenic mythology were nymphs, aficionadas of singing, who tended a blissful garden in a far western corner of the world, near the Atlas Mountains in northwestern Africa, at the edge of the Oceanus encircling the Oecumene. They were three daughters of Hesperus, the Evening Star of the planet Venus or Vesper (just like other Greek triads, such as the Graces and Moerae, Fates): Aegle (“dazzling light”), Arethusa (“waterer”), Erytheia (“red one”). The Garden of the Hesperides was Hera’s orchard in the Occident, where either a single tree or a grove of immortality-giving “golden apples” grew. In later years, it was thought that they might have actually been oranges, a fruit unknown to Europe and the Mediterranean before the Middle Ages. Under this assumption, the Hellenic botanical name for all citrus species is ἑσπεριδοειδῆ (“hesperidoids”) – implying that they have come from the Occident, while in reality their origin is in the Orient (Southeast Asia).(a)
● In the Fortunate Isles, or Isles of the Blessed, heroes and other favoured mortals in the Greek and Celtic mythologies were received into a winterless blissful paradise. These islands were thought to lie in the “Western Ocean”, near the “Oceanus River” encircling the earth. Strabo located them opposite “Maurusia” (Mauritania, Western Sahara and Morocco), beyond the end of the world, where neither snow nor heavy rains ever fell, with the beneficially invigorating cool breath of Zephyrus constantly blowing. Plutarch, referring to these isles several times in his writings, located them firmly in the Atlantic a few days’ sail from Iberia:
“The islands are said to be two in number separated by a very narrow strait and lie [2,000 kilometers] from Africa… A firm belief has made its way even to the barbarians that here are the Elysian Fields and the abode of the Blessed of which Homer sang.”
Geography now names these islands as Macaronesia (from the Greek name Makárōn nēsoe (Μακάρων νῆσοι, Isles of the Blessed): the Azores and Madeira (Portugal), the Canaries (Spain) and Cape Verde.
● Close relations between Iberia and Sardinia implied by mythology are confirmed by archaeological, architectural, linguistic, cultural and historical finds. The Sardinians had also contacts with the Mycenaeans, who traded in the western Mediterranean, and the Cretans, e.g. with Cydonia, modern Chaniá, as shown from pottery recovered in excavations in Sardinia. But influences may have been even wider. The stepped pyramid of Monte d’Accoddi, near Sassari, is somehow similar to the monumental complex of Los Millares in Andalusia and some later edifices in the Balearics. Certain scholars see similarities even with Mesopotamian structures and attribute them to migrations, particularly of Sumerians, to the Occident. Ancient Greek historians and geographers described the mysterious megalithic nuraghe as daedaleia, implying there was a connection with Daedalus who, after working in Crete, where he built the Labyrinth, settled in Sicily and then in Sardinia.
During the Chalcolithic period, in the dawn of the Nuragic civilization of the 18th century BCE, copper was used to make weapons and other items. Soon the island, rich in mines, notably copper and lead, saw the construction of numerous furnaces for the production of alloys traded across the Mediterranean, possibly by Minoans, later on by Mycenaeans, and perhaps even Sardinians. The Nuragic culture acquired skilled metal workers who were among the main metal producers in Europe. Passing to the Bronze Age, they used this new alloy to make a wide variety of products, such as weapons, tools, even votive offerings, e.g. bronze vessels that indicate their close relationship with the sea. Sardinia was not on the vital map of tin sources and trade in ancient times (Cornwall-Devon, Brittany, Iberia, Bohemia–Saxony). But because of its other mineral wealth, it served as a centre for metals trade at that time and likely actively imported tin from Iberia for export to the rest of the Mediterranean. Traders from the Aegean, therefore, and other areas where tin was scarce, went there very often. This fact explains cultural influences on the Nuragic civilization from Mycenae, Crete and Cyprus, as well as the presence of late Bronze Age Mycenaean, Cretan and Cypriot ceramics, and locally made replicas, in half a dozen findspots that seem to have functioned as “gateway” communities.
The late Bronze Age (15th–13th centuries BCE; see also previous Chronicles) saw vast population migrations, e.g. those of the Sea Peoples, who destroyed the Mycenaean and Hittite worlds and also attacked Egypt. Some scholars connect the Sherden, one of the Sea People tribes, with the Nuragic Sardinians, who might have settled on the island before or after the failed invasion of Egypt. These theories are controversial to most archaeologists and historians. But Simonides of Ceos, in a lost work reported by Zenobius, spoke of Sardinian attacks against Crete during the Sea Peoples’ raids in Egypt. This would at least confirm that Nuragic Sardinians frequented the eastern Mediterranean at the time. Further proof comes from 13th century Nuragic ceramics found at Tiryns and in the Sicilian Agrigento (Acragas) area, along the sea route that linked the Occidental to the Oriental part of mare nostrum.
The second largest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily was called Ichnussa by the Hellenes. It was most probably named Sardinia after a legendary hero of the Nuragic pantheon, Sardus, who colonized the island from Libya. His father was Makeris, who might be connected with the Phoenician Melqart, also identifiable with the Libyan Heracles. So, Sardus is also associated with the Heracleidae that settled there led by Iolaus, a nephew of Heracles, according to Diodorus Siculus. Iolaus may have given rise to the tribe of Iolei, Iolaensi, or Iliensi,(b) who were repeatedly checked by Punics and Romans, but they were never subdued. He also founded many cities from the Black Sea area to Sicily and Sardinia, requesting the assistance of Daedalus. Some of the latter’s edifices were still standing in Diodorus’ time (1st century BCE). Finally, the Phoenicians appeared in this area for the very first time around 1000 BCE, and began visiting Sardinia with increasing frequency. Later, from the 8th century onwards, they started founding (or appropriating) strongholds and cities primarily on the strategic southwestern coast of the island. Common ports of call, where they dropped anchor, were Caralis, Nora, Bithia, Sulcis, Tharros, and Olbia (mostly Hellenic toponyms).(c)
GÁRGORIS IS MENTIONED AS A LEGENDARY KING of one of the peoples of Tartessos, who lived in today’s Algarve and Low Alentejo of southern Portugal. They were called 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. The… “fateful act” happened one day when a bee strung her; Gárgoris, wishing to heal the wound, massaged her with his mouth, and thus they were overwhelmed by passion (it’s unclear exactly where the bite was)! After she had got pregnant, he ordered that she should be locked up and the child be killed. The boy was abandoned on a hill very close to a lair of wild beasts, 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, devoured by dogs or hungry pigs, or thrown to the sea. Protected by Fortune, Habis managed to survive against all adversities: the animals nursed him, or a sea wave carried him ashore. Raised by a hind (Habis in the Cynete language means fawn), and grown up like a savage, he became a skilful bandit, but was captured by peasants who led him to the king. The boy’s birthmarks made Gárgoris realize that he was his (grand)son. Impressed by his miraculous survival of all ordeals, he named him heir to the throne. Recorded by the Gallo-Roman historian Pompeius Trogus (1st century BCE), the legend was narrated in verse by Jerónimo de Arbolanche in his poem Abidas (1566).
According to Justin, a Latin historian who wrote the Epitome of Pompeius Trogus Philippic Histories, Habis, as a king, made revolutionary social reforms, “dividing the citizens among seven cities”, and forbidding slavery because of debt, which was a common phenomenon in ancient times. Justin also commented on some parallels of the legend with similar stories on other progenitors, such as Perseus, Moses, Romulus and Remus, expressing the view that Habis was superior to the founders of Rome, who were just obliged to milk a she-wolf, without passing all those adversities to demonstrate a similar or superior ability to survive.(d) With such a charismatic king, the area between the Guadalquivir and Sado estuary in Setúbal was spectacularly transformed, for Habis introduced agriculture, with cereals and cattle farming, thus improving the nutrition of his subjects. The land was ruled by his descendants for centuries. His legislative work was also great, with the laws in rhyme he introduced, which, in the years of Tartessian acme, numbered “six thousand verses”, according to Strabo. This tradition of laws in verse seems to have begun in archaic times, when writing was not widespread, so that people could memorize and observe the laws.(e) The laws were apparently written in the Southwest, or Tartessian script,(f) the oldest of the Paleohispanic scripts (7th – 5th century BCE). It extended between the Guadalquivir and Sado estuaries, or in the interior of Iberia, reaching Alicante and Murcia in the East, where a Graeco-Iberian alphabet was used. There is no agreement about how these scripts originated; some researchers claim their origin is linked only to the Phoenician abjad, while others believe that the Greek alphabet contributed, too. It seems that no one gives priority to the Hellenic script. Alas! All these “Philo-Phoenicians” were unable to find any “Phoenico-Iberian” script!
There are also other versions of this legend. Gárgoris is identified with Cronus eating his children, while Habis-Abidas is presented as persecuted because he introduced agriculture in pastoral Tartessos. Another version, which found quite unexpectedly its way into a book about fado, is a later adaptation to make the story morally acceptable by covering up the incest factor. Thus it combines the legend with the myth of Lisbon foundation, and the Odyssey, embellishing the story with our cherished Homeric heroes. In this version, as related by Augusto Mascarenhas Barreto in his numerous mythological and historical digressions in the book Fado – Lyrical Origins and Poetic Motivation, Gárgoris is renamed as Gregoris, the Iberian king, while his daughter is none other than Calypso; in this way, her son’s father is, of course, Odysseus, and Ogygia is no longer an island but a location at the estuary of Tagus, the future Lisbon. According to Barreto, the Ithacan king walled the settlement and named it Ulissea (Odyssey) – whence the word Olisipo(na) – while the son he had from Calypso, named Abidis, after passing the aforementioned ordeals, founded Scalabis (Santarém), and some other cities (e.g. Astorga, Astigi; see also Chronicle 5. Iberia’s Odyssey).
There are many versions of the Lisbon foundation myth, as well. In one of them a thunderbolt lit the skies and exploded into flame in an unknown land. Then Odysseus was instructed by Zeus (the great god of Thunder and Lightning) to build a city on the point of impact. This land, says another version, was ruled by charming Ophiussa, who had a huge snake tail instead of legs. The queen fell madly in love with Odysseus and, in order to keep him there, offered him the throne. Our cunning hero pretended to accept the proposal, fearing for his life; but all the while, he was secretly filling up his boat with supplies; and one night, while the queen was asleep, he and his crew fled into the darkness. Outraged the next morning, Ophiussa hit her tail so hard on the ground that she created the seven hills where Lisbon is built. This story introduces us to Ophiussa, the Land of Serpents,(g) a name given by the ancient Greeks to Atlantic Iberia, what is now Portugal and Galicia, and specifically the area around the Tagus estuary.
● The land the Hellenes called Ophiussa was the Oestriminis (Extreme or Far West) for the Romans, something like Finis terrae (“end of the earth”, from a Mediterranean perspective). Rufus Avienus Festus, a Roman poet of the 4th century CE, in his Ora Maritima (Sea Coast), inspired by the Massaliote Periplus (6th century BCE), a Greek mariner’s log, wrote that the Oestrimni, a people who had been living in this area for a long time, had to flee after an invasion of serpents. In fact, these serpents were not snakes but people linked to the Saephes, or Ophis (People of the Serpents), and the Dragani (People of the Dragons), who came to colonize this land. The Saephes were neighbours of the Cynetes, living in an upland region near the Tagus estuary, close to an island Avienus called Poetanion; along with another tribe, the Cempsi, they had taken that territory by force from the Oestrimni. The newcomers were most probably proto-Celts or Celtiberians, while the Oestrimni were the Paleolithic inhabitants of Atlantic Iberia.
The Ophis, who worshiped serpents, lived mainly on inland mountains of northern Portugal and Galicia, or by the mouths of the rivers Douro, Cávado, Tagus and Sado. The Saephes lived in Cynetic land (the Algarve and Low Alentejo), where Gárgoris reigned, together with the Cempsi. The latter, perhaps with strong Germanic and Ligurian influences, entered Iberia c. 650 BCE and finally settled in the Tagus valley and in the peninsula of Setúbal, where Avienus located the lugum cempsicum, the current Cabo Espichel. Finally, the Dragani, who settled in the north-western Iberia (Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia, Beira), must have come from Liguria, a region of north-western Italy, with strong Celtic influences, that is they were Celto-Ligurians. Their name shows that they may have introduced the dragons into Iberia, where the locals must have already had their own griffins in their cults.
Calypso, according to Greek mythology, 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). 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,(h) and some have identified either or both with Atlantis. Besides he makes clear that
“an Ogygian isle lies far out at sea, distant five days’ sail from Britain, going westwards”.(i)
Plutarch additionally 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!(j) Hence the view that it was Homer before Plato who first spoke of Atlantis.
● Homer described the ships as faster than falcons, while King Alcinous explained to Odysseus what sort of information the ships required in order to take him home:
“Tell me your country, nation, and city, so that our ships may shape their purpose accordingly and take you there. For the Phaeacians have no pilots; their vessels have no rudders as those of other nations have, but the ships themselves understand what it is that we are thinking about and want; they know all the cities and countries in the whole world, and can traverse the sea just as well even when it is covered with mist and cloud, so that there is no danger of being wrecked or coming to any harm.”
Fairy tales… As with the foundation of Lisbon, the refrain we can hear in chorus over and over again after all these stories is that they are myths. It’s not reality. Again and again, traditions about Hellenes are “legends”, those concerning the Phoenicians “history”… Possibly true, there were no Grecian settlements west of the Pillars of Heracles; only voyages of discovery. Olisipo’s foundation myth by Odysseus is nothing but a myth. On the other hand, there is not the slightest evidence to support the “history” of a Phoenician foundation of Lisbon “around 600 BC”, or as far back as 1200, under the name of Alis Ubbo (“Safe Harbour”), even if there were some organized settlements in Ulissea-Olissipona with clear Mediterranean influence, either at that distant time or later.(k) It’s nothing but a myth, as well. Likewise, except the voyages of discovery, there is no record of Phoenician or Punic colonies beyond the Algarve, namely Balsa–Tavira, close to the Portuguese-Spanish border,(l) with substantial Phoenician settlement and influence since the 8th century BCE. Essentially, Phoenician influence in modern Portugal was due to cultural and commercial exchange with Tartessos.
“The Tartessian fortunate (wealthy and happy) city.” (Herodotus)
RETURN TO TARTESSOS. The legendary polity appears, circa the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, in Greek and Near Eastern sources. Homer must have been again the first one to sing in the Iliad of a gold-bearing land in the western limits of the world (Iberia), before the Great (Atlantic) Ocean, where people lived happily for many years. The “Tartessian fortunate city”, according to Herodotus, was just outside the Pillars of Heracles, at the estuary, or precisely οn the Delta, of the homonymous river, and governed by a centenarian king named Arganthonios – a name that certainly referred to his great wealth.
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. They must have had more in common due to Minoan influence. The Andalusians, just like the Hellenes, may have benefited from the Cretans not only economically, but culturally, as well. Archaeological finds in Tartessos 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 Tagus estuary to the southern land of Valencia. Pausanias, writing in the 2nd century CE, identified the river and gave details on 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,(m) 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.(n)
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, between the late 6th and early 5th centuries BCE, when most sites were inexplicably abandoned…
The Tartessians were excellent in engineering and had created a sophisticated system to regulate the water flow of the river. Strabo described an advanced, urbanized society with many flourishing, wealthy cities along the banks of the Tartessos-Baetis-Guadalquivir River:
“They are considered to be the most educated of the Iberians, they have a scripture, even historical chronicles, poems, and laws in 6,000 verses”, he wrote.
Tartessian culture is divided mainly into two periods: The first is characterized as “geometric” and coincides with the late Bronze Age ranging from 1200 to 750 BCE – corresponding somehow to the Greek geometric art (Parallel Lives in art? Who knows)… The second is termed “oriental”, influenced by Phoenicians and Hellenes alike, ranging from 750 to 550 BCE, when it was gradually 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 several other major advances in craftsmanship, e.g. architecture, and also in agriculture. Another noticeable and notable element was the increase in specialization and stratification. Writing was a very important development. With the arrival of the Hellenes, whose influence extended far beyond their colonies,(o) this “orientalism” began to transform itself into the Iberian culture, especially in the South East. 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 influence. A variant of the Hellenic alphabet (Ibero-Ionian script) was also used to write Iberian texts.
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. But mining and smelting preceded the coming of Minoans, Greeks, or Phoenicians. Alluvial tin was panned in the Iberian streams from an early date. The Río Tinto mines, along the river that 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 many 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.(p)
The invention of coinage intensified the search for bronze and silver in the 7th century BCE. Consequently, trade links, formerly largely in elite goods, assumed a broader economic role. By that time, silver extraction in Huelva Province had reached industrial proportions. Huelva city was certainly connected to Tartessos; it contains the largest accumulation of imported elite goods and should have been an important centre. Excavations in the heart of the city revealed a great industrial and commercial emporium that lasted several centuries. Some 90,000 ostraca (ceramic fragments), indigenous and imported (Phoenician and Greek), were exhumed. All these vessels, dated from the 10th to the 8th centuries BCE, precede 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 origins and destinations. 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.
Next Chronicle 22. AN IBERIAN PERIPLUS REVIVAL
● Tartessos (B) ● Colonies in Provence, Iberia, Maurusia ● Tin and Silver Routes ●
Democritus and Plato ● Topography of
the Area Beyond the Pillars of Heracles