Author Topic: A Forgotten Realm: Tartessos  (Read 1252 times)


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A Forgotten Realm: Tartessos
« on: November 18, 2018, 10:56:16 PM »
A Forgotten Realm: Tartessos
By Jubal

Tartessian gold artefacts. © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC-By-SA license.
The Guadalquivir is the only great river in Spain that is navigable for a significant proportion of its length, cutting down from the mountains through Cordoba and Seville to the Gulf of Cadiz where it meets the Atlantic. Long before it was the Guadalquivir, though (a name stemming from the Arabic for Great Valley), hundreds of years before Muhammad, Jesus, or Caesar stepped foot into the world, it held another name. That name, seemingly shared with the region generally and perhaps also with a now lost city at the river’s mouth, was Tartessos.

Tartessos is a Greek word, and it is to the Greeks that we must mostly look for writing on the people who lived there. Herodotus, in the fifth century BC, paints a picture of a fully functional monarchy capable of negotiating with Greek merchants who arrived on Tartessian shores. He gives us just one name for a king, Arganthonios, though whether this is really a name, a title, or an epithet is impossible to tell. Either way, it is likely linked to modern words like argent, meaning silver – the metal that southern Iberia was known for and which could well have given the Tartessians great wealth. Herodotus shows them having friendly relations with Greek seafarers, with their trade making an accidental lifetime’s wealth for Kolaios of Samos, apparently the first Greek to sail so far west and only then due to being driven there by storms. These friendly relations may have had a darker overtone though, too, in mutual fear at the rise of what would ultimately become the dominant pre-Roman power of southern Iberia, Carthage. Scattered references exist elsewhere – Stesichorus gives Tartessos as the home of the giant Geryon whose cattled Heracles stole, and one later reference suggests that the Tartessians’ own sailors reached as far as Brittany – but for the most part the history of Tartessos as a country remains mysterious.

This vague picture of a rich and welcoming culture is only the starting point, however, for what we now know about the Tartessians – archaeology in recent decades has provided a considerable amount of additional interest. Huelva, a modern city that is another strong candidate for having once been the Tartessian capital, boasts huge pre-Roman deposits of silver-bearing slag material. With gold and tin also present in southwestern Iberia, the fabled wealth of Arganthonios seems thoroughly historically plausible, and mining (done without even the aid of iron tools) seems to have been a common activity even before Greek and Punic influence on the area began in around the eighth century BC.

An excavated Tartessian building, probably a temple. Image: Turismo Extramadura
The arrival of foreign trade is likely to have supercharged the mineral-rich economy of the region, with trade posts springing up on the coast and imported pottery starting to appear in Tartessian graves, flowing in as heaps of rough-chipped hacksilver flowed out to be traded by weight at markets across the Mediterranean. Along with their pottery, other new objects brought by traders started appearing in Tartessian life – incense burners, bronze jugs and braziers. Decoration styles, as in the Greek world, moved from geometric designs to more detailed imagery, with jug handles made as hands grabbing the bowl, and lotus flowers, gryphons, ram’s heads, and other such motifs found more and more on common items. Trade may have even touched the Tartessians’ gods, with statues of recognisably eastern and Punic-style deities providing some of the more spectacular archaeological finds in the region.

It this period that defined Herodotus’ Tartessos, where a creative, if perhaps difficult, fusion of native culture, a thriving raw materials trade, and increasing economic and political influence from outside shaped a culture and, perhaps, the state that Arganthonios ruled. Tartessos moved from being a land where villages were formed of scattered circular huts to one where settlements had planned, stone-built houses. This land was not simply being absorbed into a new culture, though – it was adapting to it. The introduction of writing allowed the Tartessians to express in a Punic-style alphabet their own, possibly Celtic-related, language in inscriptions on their tombs, calling on deities with names that seem to link to the Irish god Lugh or the Celtic horse-Goddess Epona rather than to Punic Baal or Astarte. Spears and carp-tongue swords, in which a broad blade narrows in its final third to a stabbing point, seem to have been the favoured weapons of the Tartessians.

We have no records of how Tartessos fell, though Carthaginian expansionism is perhaps one of the more likely culprits. If there was a city of Tartessos based in the Guadalqivir delta, the shifting waterways at the mouth of the river may have also contributed to the loss of the city’s power, as they have done with so many other port cities around the Mediterranean world. Either way, by not long after 500 BC Carthaginian dominance had been far more firmly established in the region, and Tartessian culture and literary references alike drop out of the historical record.

The rosy picture Herodotus handed down of Tartessos has proven captivating to some more modern imaginations. In these scattered references, some scholars saw in Tartessos a link to the fabled wealth of the biblical city of Tarshish, which spurred on archaeological searches for a central Tartessian city. Others aimed still higher, seeing in it, shining in silver beyond the Pillars of Hercules before ultimately being lost to floods, a possibility of discovering Atlantis itself. Even in recent weeks, a new film suggesting the ‘discovery of Atlantis’ involves aerial mapping teams claiming to have major new archaeological discoveries in the Guadalqivir delta. If they are to any degree correct – and given they have rushed to film-makers rather than academic journals, one should be cautious – it may well be Tartessians, not Atlanteans, who they have to thank.

Perhaps, though, Tartessos is as intriguing as Atlantis anyway. Being the only attested Iberian state to have been recognised across the Mediterranean before the Romans, they occupy a unique position in history. Caught between the Punic and the Atlantic, theirs was a land built on a metal-rush, full of new ideas and foreign images, all the while using them to express a culture they made their own. The silver wealth of Arganthonius may have long since been scattered, but the gods and people of his realm still have the power to intrigue.
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