Archaeology 101: Who Were the Tartessians?

The quick and dirty on one of Spain’s oldest and most obscure peoples.

First of all, let’s get a little prehistory down. While most people know that the archaeology of Spain includes Moors, Celts, Romans and Greeks, and know about Spain’s absolute wealth of early hominid fossils and stone age cave paintings, the pre-roman, Bronze and Copper age societies are not very well known or popularized. And there were a lot of them. Not all of their origins are clear, or how their societies first settled and grew, but here will take a quick look into a few of their legacies.

When we talk about the Tartessians, we mean the people living in southwest Spain, around what is modern day Seville and Cadiz, from the late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age (from around 1200bce – 550bce). The name Tartessos was the Greek name given to what is now the Guadalquivir River, and the name was also applied to a large city found on the river bank. What the Tartessians called themselves, we don’t know.

Tartessos was a place rich in natural resources. They lived well with plenty of fishing, livestock, mining and smithing to sustain their economy, and according to all sources, they were a highly urbanized society with great skill at engineering, particularly when it came to moderating the flow of rivers. This suggests they had some rudimentary water power at their disposal.

It is mentioned by many Greek and Roman authors alike as being a font of metals, predominently copper, tin, silver, and gold, as you can see from the metal work above. They had been mining at least since there year 1000bce, and in fact, over the middle to late period of their civilization, became the main supplier of bronze throughout the Mediterranean.

They were renown for fine metalwork and filagre among other things. During the latter part of their reign over the southwest of Spain, called the “oriental period”, they had quite a bit of contact with the Phoenicians, trading constantly with them, and allowing them to set up outposts within the Tartessian empire’s borders. This helped the Phoenicians greatly, as having such open access to Tartessian mines was crucial for them after they lost their own assets in the Siani in the 8th century.

Contact with the Phoenicians had a great impact on Tartessian culture, as reflected in their imagery. Later sculpture and iconography took on an almost Mesopotamian flare, as seen in the above bronze plaque of Astarte, or similar goddess, that dates to the 8th century, Spain.

But make no mistake, the Tartessians were not ‘given’ their culture by the Phoenicians or anyone else. They were a long standing people with a rich and complex history before the Greeks, Etruscans, Phoenicians, or Romans ever set foot in their land. As stated by Strabo, “They are considered the most educated of the Iberians, they have a scripture, even have historical chronicles, poems, and laws in verse of which they say are six thousand … ”

This was an advanced and enlightened Bronze Age society, and had their own writing system, that is considered the oldest of the Iberian scripts. Though the staele that have survived the time do show considerable influence from the Phoenician alphabet, Tartessian is a language unto itself and has not been fully deciphered. It is also likely that recently archaeological discoveries show that there was more than one written dialect of the language.

There were many famous figures in Tartessian society that were noted by outside contemporary writers, but none as much as King Argantonio, who was famed for his wisdom, wealth, and generosity. He was praised for his friendship, and in one story, invited a good many Greeks whose territory had been encroached upon by the Persians, to stay and settle in his lands. The Greeks did not take him up on the offer, but did accept his gift of over a ton of silver, so they could pay for the construction of a defensive wall.

Eventually, despite their wealth and strong trading ties with the other Bronze Age societies, with the coming of the Iron Age, the Tartessian Empire fell by the wayside, and the Cartheginians and Romans soon took their place. But their legacy remains, and if you want more of their beautiful art or just more information, check out the National Museum of Archaeology of Spain and their protohistory exhibit online, or, the Archaeological Museum of Seville for more specific finds from the excavations.

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