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Tartessos: The Iberian Lost Civilization

One of my passions regarding history are lost or little known ancient civilizations and when I come across or a friend shares with me something about a civilization I have not heard of before I tend to dive into it to learn as much as I can. Recently a friend of mine introduced me to the lost and little known ancient civilization known as Tartessos. Tartessos was a civilization that was located in Southern Spain along the Mediterranean and suddenly disappeared around 500 BCE. So after extensive research I found the best resources to share with you regarding this fascinating civilization.

Tartessos expansion through its existence.

“Tartessos” is the name given by the Greeks to the first Western civilization they knew, which was inhabiting the southwest of Spain. It was the first organized state of the Iberian Peninsula and was highly developed politically and culturally by the end of the second millennium before Christ.

The kingdom of Tartessos was the first one in Spain which had relations with the historical eastern Mediterranean civilizations, like Greeks and Phoenicians, and had with them important commercial relations. Therefore, and for their wealth in minerals, the Tartessos reached great importance. The country of the Tartessos is mentioned in many historical sources as a rich and splendorous kingdom.

The kingdom of Tartessos was located in a region crossed by the river “Tartessos”. This river was later called “Betis” by the Romans and “Guadalquivir” by the Moors.

Roman authors describe the region:

“Tartessos is a river in the land of the Iberians. It reaches the sea by two mouths and between these two mouths lays a city with the same name (Tartessos). The river is the longest in Iberia, has tides, and now is called Baetis”.

That means; with the name Tartessos the Greek and Roman authors identified a river, a kingdom and the capital of this kingdom, located at the mouth of that river. Further details about the location of this capital we find here:

Ephorus (Escimno, 162) writes that the capital Tartessos was two days of travel (1000 stadiums) from the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar). From Gibraltar to the present mouth of the Guadalquivir there are 900 stadiums.

Despite many detailed descriptions, the capital of Tartessos has not yet been found as the geography of the area has changed during those last 3000 years:

The eastern mouth of the river is the only one that now exists. It is located in the province of Cadiz, and was much wider historically.

The western mouth does not exist anymore, but it is considered that it was located between the current towns Matalascañas and Huelva. In this area today we only find a number of lakes.

Historically, between these two river arms there was a large lagoon, and in this lagoon there was at least one island where the legendary city probably was located.

Neither this lagoon nor any islands exist today, all this is an area of marshes which form a part of the Doñana National Park along the Costa de la Luz. Investigations in Doñana lead to the conclusion that there have been two natural disasters (tsunamis) that caused the islands and dry areas to sink, one of which happened around 1500 BC and the other 200 AC. Continue reading HERE.

With Tartessian tentatively identified as Celtic, and at the very least Indo-European, this might this change our view of the ancient Celts.

Tartessian language

The Tartessian Fonte Velha inscription (Bensafrim, (Lagos)) beginning with “lokooboo niiraboo too aŕaia i kaaltee…” meaning “Invoking the divine Lug of the (Gallaecian) Neri (tribe), this funerary monument for a noble Celt…”. Fonte Velha (Bensafrim, Lagos). Tartessian or Southwest script. Fonte Velha (Bensafrim, Lagos).

Tartessian is an extinct Paleo-Hispanic language found in the Southwestern inscriptions of the Iberian Peninsula, mainly located in the south of Portugal (Algarve and southern Alentejo), and the southwest of Spain (south of Extremadura and western Andalusia). There are 95 such inscriptions, the longest having 82 readable signs. Around one third of them were found in Early Iron Age necropolises or other Iron Age burial sites associated with rich complex burials. It is usual to date them to the 7th century BC and to consider the southwestern script to be the most ancient Paleo-Hispanic script, with characters most closely resembling specific Phoenician letter forms found in inscriptions dated to c. 825 BC. Five of the inscriptions occur on stelae with what has been interpreted as Late Bronze Age carved warrior gear from the Urnfield culture.

Beyond the Aegean, some of the earliest written records of Europe come from the south-west, what is now southern Portugal and south-west Spain. Herodotus, the ‘Father of History’, locates the Keltoi or ‘Celts’ in this region, as neighbours of the Kunetes of the Algarve. He calls the latter the ‘westernmost people of Europe’. However, modern scholars have been disinclined – until recently – to consider the possibility that the south-western inscriptions and other early linguistic evidence from the kingdom of Tartessos were Celtic. This book shows how much of this material closely resembles the attested Celtic languages: Celtiberian (spoken in east-central Spain) and Gaulish, as well as the longer surviving langiages of Ireland, Britain and Brittany. In many cases, the 85 Tartessian inscriptions of the period c. 750-c. 450 BC can now be read as complete statements written in an Ancient Celtic language.
Two of the carved figures likely depict goddesses wearing gold earrings. (Image credit: Samuel Sánchez )

Archaeologists in Spain have unearthed five life-size busts of human figures that could be the first-known human depictions of the Tartessos, a people who formed an ancient civilization that disappeared more than 2,500 years ago. 

The carved stone faces, which archaeologists date to the fifth century B.C., were found hidden inside a sealed pit in an adobe temple at Casas del Turuñuelo, an ancient Tartessian site in southern Spain. The pieces were scattered amongst animal bones, mostly from horses, that likely came from a mass sacrifice, according to a translated statement published April 18.

“The unusual thing about the new finding is that the representations correspond to human faces,” Erika López, a spokesperson for the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), said in the statement. 

Archaeologists from the CSIC called this discovery “a profound paradigm shift in the interpretation of [Tartessos],” since this ancient civilization, which existed from about the eighth to the fourth centuries B.C., was long considered an aniconic culture in which divinity was represented through animal or plant motifs, rather than idolized humans, according to the statement. Continue reading HERE.

Tartessos was an ancient harbor city on the southern Iberian (ancient Spain) coast. Greeks considered it an important and wealthy trading partner, rich with metals, silver and gold. In this video, we talk about the rise and fall of the forgotten Tartessian Civilization.
7th century BCE pectoral (brooch on the chest) from the Tartessian Culture. Archaeological Museum of Seville. (SOURCE)

Before the Tartessians

Southwest Andalucia had been an area of rapid development ever since the Neolithic people arrived about 5800 BC. The fertile valley of the Rio Guadalquivir and, to a lesser extent, the narrow coastal strip along the Mediterranean coast, together with the wetter climate in the west caused by the prevailing winds off the Atlantic Ocean meeting the west facing highlands of the Sierra Morena, Sierra Grazalema and the Alcornocales, reduced crop failures and encouraged an increase in population, compared to the more arid, eastern parts of Andalucia.

The increase in population had encouraged the formation of family clusters, that became settlements whenever population densities rose above a certain level. This appears to be a phenomenon or urge that is built into the human psyche since it has occurred all over the world at different times, despite there being no possibility of communication between those populations separated geographically and in time.

How the societies developed following the initial clustering depended on the environment, climate and outside influences. In some parts of the world societies have developed to a certain level and then failed, only to be reborn, sometimes on numerous occasions. So it was with the Tartessians.

Soon after the Neolithic period started, people started to claim the land in western Andalucia. From about 4700 BC, they built megalithic structures, symbols on the landscape populated by ancestors, thereby proclaiming their ages long ownership of the land. The megalithic phenomenon expanded from Huelva and Cadiz provinces, up the Guadalquivir valley into Granada and Almeria. The so-called ditched enclosures appeared. These are now thought to have been communal areas demarcated into spaces in which different activities occurred, ceremonial, metalworking, animal butchery as well as in some instances, dwelling spaces. Single burials became multiple burials and, towards the end of the period, regressed back to individual burials, often cremated. The huge site of Valencina de la Concepción at Seville is the most researched site that combines all these features. Continue reading HERE.

Endowed with extraordinary wealth in metals and strategically positioned between the Atlantic and Mediterranean trading routes at the time of Greek and Phoenician colonial expansion, Tartessos flourished in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. Tartessos became a literate, sophisticated, urban culture in southwestern Iberia (today’s Spain and Portugal), enriched by commercial contacts with the Aegean and the Levant since at least the ninth century. In its material culture (architecture, grave goods, sanctuaries, plastic arts), we see how native elements combined with imported “orientalizing” innovations introduced by the Phoenicians. Historians of the rank of Herodotos and Livy, geographers such as Strabo and Pliny, Greek and Punic periploi and perhaps even Phoenician and Hebrew texts, testify to the power, wealth, and prominence of this western-most Mediterranean civilization.

Archaeologists, in turn, have demonstrated the existence of a fascinating complex society with both strong local roots and international flare. Yet for still-mysterious reasons, Tartessos did not attain a “Classical” period like its peer emerging cultures did at the same time (Etruscans, Romans, Greeks).

This book combines the expertise of its two authors in archaeology, philology, and cultural history to present a comprehensive, coherent, theoretically up-to-date, and informative overview of the discovery, sources, and debates surrounding this puzzling culture of ancient Iberia and its complex hybrid identity vis-a-vis the western Phoenicians. This book will be of great interest to students of the classics, archaeology and ancient history, Phoenician-Punic studies, colonization and cultural contact.

Further Resources:

The inscription from Mesas do Castelinho, south Portugal, was discovered in September 2008. With 82 readable signs it is now the longest of the corpus of 95 Tartessian inscriptions. These texts survive from the Early Iron Age in the south-western Iberian Peninsula, the earliest writing from Atlantic Europe. By recombining word roots, prefixes and endings previously attested, the new inscription permits a major breakthrough with the language, confirming word divisions and contributing to the critical mass of evidence. It is now possible to take the case for Tartessian as an Indo-European and specifically Celtic language a step further, to ask what sort of Celtic language Tartessian was and how its syntax and sound system compares with those of Celtiberian, Gaulish, Old Irish and Welsh.

The Iberian civilisation that vanished

The Ancient People Who Burned Their Culture to the Ground

First ever human depiction of lost Tartessos civilization uncovered in Spain

Tartessian

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