First of all, let’s ask, what is a dolmen, anyway?
Dolmens are single chamber, megalithic funerary structures that generally consist of two or more standing stones (called orthostats) with a capstone on top. They were often set into hills or covered in earth to form barrows.
Most of these structures, which are peppered all over Western Europe, are from the Early Neolithic, that is, 4,000-3,000 bce, or around 6,000-5,000 years ago, though some are from as late as the Early Chalcolithic.
Before talking about the dolmens themselves, let’s talk about the area of Antequera. It is in a lower lying depression, surrounded by El Torcal National Park to the South (a varied range of Karst mountains), La Peña to the East (which I will discuss later), and then several series of high hillocks to the North and West. The area would have been very different 5,500 years ago, around when the dolmens were built. Paleoenvironmental evidence from the area suggests there were many lakes and ponds, and dense pine and oak forests. Many types of herbs and flowers flourished in the damp climate, and pastures and dry copses of olive trees like the picture above were much rarer at the time.
Humans left their mark on the area, as several other sites have been found surrounding the two main dolmens, though whether or not all of these sites are contemporary to each other is still unknown. The point being, it was a rich area that saw quite a bit of human activity and modification during the mid Neolithic era.
The Dolmen de Viera is the older of the two dolmens we are going to talk about here. When it dates to is unclear, but experts say between 5,800 to 4,500 years ago. As with the majority of European megalithic tombs, this dolmen is oriented just south of the summer rising sun (azimuth of 96 degrees).
As with many neolithic, so termed ‘animist’ societies, this type of concordance with solar activity was common, and not only seen with megalithic structures. The question always asked is ‘why?’ when examining these orientations, but that is a very complicated answer, and we will leave it for another article. Suffice to say that the Dolmen de Viera follows the same kind of pattern that is expected from a society that viewed its world as cyclic and reccurrent as opposed to linear.
As you can see the interior of the structure is lintelled and high enough for an average height person to walk down. It is (conincidentally enough :p ) considered a corridor tomb which ends in a funerary chamber. In short, it is a giant, elongated container under a mound of earth.
The tomb was found empty and looted, however since megalithic funeral rite across the continent was ritualized and strictly repetitive down to details, we can make some assumptions about what Viera was used for; burials at this time were collective and often times dozens of skeletons are found inside these chambers. However, it is not necessarily that they were all interred simultaneously, but also possibly of varying generations. Bodies were laid out on the ground, other, older skeletons often shoved out of the way to make room for the newly dead. These corpses were always accompanied by grave goods, from tools to shoes to arrows and knives or bowls.
If the Dolmen de Viera is typical of the structures across the continent, then the Dolmen de Menga is the complete opposite. It is still a corridor tomb that is under a barrow mound with a chamber at the end, but that is where the similarities end.
First of all, it is huge. The slabs used to create this dolmen are positively enormous and the amount of labor that must have gone into its construction moreso, especially considering it was built in the 3rd milennium bce. It reaches a height of 3.5m in the atrium, truly impressive, and also boasts three large pillars, presumably to help bear the weight of the capstones. But they also give the space more the feel of a temple, and experts are currently postulating on Menga’s possible other uses aside from only the funerary.
Second of all, in the atrium we can find an almost 20m deep shaft dug into the sandstone that is in alignment with the three pillars.
It is unclear what the purpose of this shaft would have been. It is a rather unusual element in a megalithic structure such as this. But, also, as this dolmen was previously excavated to some degree in 1847, it is not clear if the shaft was explored by or caused by the previous excavation.
Lastly, this dolmen faces Northeast (azimuth of 45 degrees) unlike most of dolmens. This notable difference from other similar structures is due to the presence of La Peña, which dominates the skyline and is directly in front of the mouth of the Dolmen de Menga.
It is assumed that La Peña, due to its distinct appearance as a human face and also the positioning of the Dolmen de Menga, played a large role in the area’s prehistoric culture. In the ‘chin’ of the mountain archaeologists have also uncovered a post paleolithic cave which has a myriad of early human drawings.
It does seem that the opening to Menga faces directly to this cave, but whether or not the neolithic society who made the dolmen were aware of this cave is unknown.
There is a third structure, the Dolmen del Romeral, but that is a very different structure that is almost 1,500 years later than the two dolmens we have visited here, and so, we will visit it another time.
For now, stay megalithic my fellow archaeologists.
If you want more information about the Dolmenes de Antequera, you can visit the website of the Conjunto Arqueolóico right here.
Do you want to visit these incredible dolmens? Well now you can, with Colorfully Spain’s new Fall & Winter programming package to Andalucia. Click here for more details!
Every few months we feature one of the incredible archaeological or cultural sites from our trips, giving you a free mini tour and a little bit of info. Follow us for the next in our series of these Spanish wonders.
The Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba, (also called the Mezquita and the Great Mosque of Córdoba, or the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady,) is a medieval Islamic mosque that was converted into a Catholic Christian cathedral in the Spanish city of Córdoba, Andalucía. The mosque is regarded as the one of the most accomplished monuments of Moorish architecture.
The actual land had at one point been a Roman temple to the god Janus, and later used by various Visigothic sects for their purposes, and finally, taken over by the Moorish Prince Abd al-Rahman I. Around the end of the 8th century, he broke ground and started construction on the Mosque.
It took two centuries to build, but the end result was a sprawling, red-and-marble palace surrounded by orange groves and ornately carved fountains, which is still intact today. To give you an idea of the size of this marvelous behemoth, it is about 24,000 square meters big and it comprises 19 naves, over 1,200 pillars, almost 300 chandeliers, and it is lit by nearly 1,500 lamps, including some made from the bells of Santiago Compostela, brought to the Mosque in the mid-13th century.
But enough about specs; the Mosque is more than the sum of its parts. Walking under the high arches through the vast interior chambers is awesome, in the literal sense of the word. Whatever anyone’s faith, it’s easy to feel reverence inside a place like the Great Mosque, if only for they time and faith put into it by the people who built it.
And it is beautiful; it is easy to spend a half-day strolling the grounds, getting a glimpse of what life was like in ancient times. It is a true testament to the ability of Moorish architects and craftsman, and amazing in its detail and style, considering the age in which it was created.
–> Want to visit the Mezquita de Córdoba? Click here!
**Special thanks to our friends at ArtenCordoba for use of their fantastic photos!
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.