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Tartessos cultural area.

Tartessos (Tartessus) was a harbor city and surrounding culture on the south coast of the Iberian peninsula (in modern Andalusia, Spain), at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. It was mentioned by Herodotus,[1] Strabo,[2] in Pliny's Natural History,[3] and in the fourth-century Avienus's literary travel itinerary Ora Maritima, long after Tartessos had disappeared. Velleius Paterculus' date for the founding of Tartessos, about eighty years after the Trojan War, 12th or 11th centuries BC, but before the Phoenicians made contact with an existing city, has not received archaeological confirmation: the bulk of finds date from Punic occupation, after about 500 BC.[4]

The Tartessians were traders, who may have discovered the route to the Tin Islands north of Iberia, mentioned in Greek sources[5] Trade in tin was very lucrative from the Bronze Age onwards, since it is a major component of the best type of bronze. Alternatively, the tin may have been found in alluvial ores carried down by their own river: the pseudonymous geographical versifier, Pseudo-Scymnus (ca 90 BC), was surely imitating an older source when he wrote, "the renowned Tartessos, famous town, receives tin carried by the river from Celtica, as well as gold and bronze in great quantity".[6]

The people from Tartessos became important trading partners of the Phoenicians, whose presence in Iberia dates from the eighth century BC, and who nearby built a harbor of their own, Gades (current-day Cádiz). Ancient Greek texts refer to a legendary king of Tartessos, Arganthonios, known (and presumably named) for his wealth in silver and minerals. According to Greek texts, Arganthonios lived many years beyond the normal human lifespan, but Arganthonios may have been the Greek version of a name of several Tartessian kings or their title, giving rise to legends of a single man's longevity.

"Tartessic occupation sites of the Late Bronze Age that were not particularly complex, in which a domestic mode of production seems to have predominated" is one mainstream assessment.[7] An earlier generation of archaeologists and historians took a normative approach to the primitive Tartessians' adoption of Punic styles and techniques, as of a less-developed culture adopting better, more highly evolved cultural traits, and finding Eastern parallels for Early Iron Age material culture in the Tartessian sites. A younger generation have been more concerned with the process through which local institutions evolved.[8]


Locating Tartessos

In the 6th century BC, Tartessos disappeared rather suddenly from history. The Romans called the wide bay the Tartessius Sinus though the city as such no longer existed. One theory is that the city was destroyed by the Carthaginians who wanted the Tartessans' trading routes. Another is that it had been refounded, under obscure conditions, as Carpia. When the traveller Pausanias visited Greece in the 2nd century AD (Pausanias Description of Greece 6.XIX.3) he saw two bronze chambers in an Olympian sanctuary, which the people of Elis claimed was Tartessian bronze:

They say that Tartessus is a river in the land of the Iberians, running down into the sea by two mouths, and that between these two mouths lies a city of the same name. The river, which is the largest in Iberia, and tidal, those of a later day called Baetis, and there are some who think that Tartessus was the ancient name of Carpia, a city of the Iberians.

Flavius Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana (book v.1) observes of this southernmost part of Hispania: "the promontory of Europe, known as Calpis, stretches along the inlet of the Ocean and right hand side a distance of six hundred stadia, and terminates in the ancient city of Gadeira."

The name "Carpia" possibly survives as El Carpio, a site in a bend of the Guadalquivir, but the origin of its name has been associated with its imposing oldest feature, a Moorish tower erected in 1325 by the engineer responsible for the alcázar of Seville.

The site of Tartessos has been considered irretrievably lost—buried, Schulten thought, under the shifting wetlands replacing former estuaries behind dunes at the modern single mouth of the Guadalquivir, where the river delta has gradually been blocked by a sandbar stretching from the mouth of the Rio Tinto, near Palos de la Frontera, to the riverbank opposite Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The area is now protected as the Parque Nacional de Doñana.[9]

Archaeological discoveries

The discoveries published by Schulten in 1922[10] first drew attention to Tartessos and shifted its study from classical philologists and antiquarians, to investigations based on archaeology,[11] though attempts at localizing a capital for what was conceived as a complicated culture in the nature of a centrally-controlled kingdom ancestral to Spain were inconclusively debated. Subsequent discoveries were widely reported: in September 1923 archaeologists discovered a Phoenician necropolis in which human remains were unearthed and stones found with illegible characters. It may have been colonized by the Phoenicians for trade because of its richness in metals.[12]

A later generation turned instead to identifying and localizing "orientalizing" features of the Tartessian material culture within the broader Mediterranean horizon of an "Orientalizing period" recognizable in the Aegean and Etruria.

J.M. Luzón was the first to identify Tartessos securely with modern Huelva,[13] based on discoveries made in the preceding decades. Since the discovery in September 1958 of a rich gold treasure at El Carambolo, three km west of Seville[14] and at La Joya, Huelva,[15] archaeological surveys have been integrated with philological and literary surveys and the broader picture of the Iron Age in the Mediterranean basin to provide a more informed view of Tartessic culture on the ground, concentrated in western Andalusia, Extremadura and in southern Portugal from the Algarve to the Vinalopó River in Alicante.[16]

Alluvial tin was panned in Tartessian streams from an early date. The spread of a silver standard in Assyria increased its attractiveness (the tribute from Phoenician cities was assessed in silver). The invention of coinage in the seventh century BC spurred the search for bronze and silver as well. Henceforth trade connections, formerly largely in elite goods, assumed an increasingly broad economic role. By the Late Bronze Age, silver extraction in Huelva Province reached industrial proportions. Pre-Roman silver slag is found in the Tartessian cities of Huelva Province. Cypriot and Phoenician metalworkers produced 15 million tons of pyrometallurgical residues at the vast dumps of Riotinto. Mining and smelting preceded the arrival, from the eighth century onwards, of Phoenicians[17] and then Greeks, who provided a stimulating wider market and whose influence sparked an Orientalizing phase in Tartessian material culture (ca.750-550 BC) before Tartessian culture was superseded by the Classic Iberian culture.

"Tartessic" artifacts linked with the Tartessos culture have been found, and many archaeologists now associate the "lost" city with Huelva. In excavations on spatially restricted sites in the center of modern Huelva, sherds of elite painted Greek ceramics of the first half of the sixth century have been recovered. Huelva contains the largest accumulation of imported elite goods and must have been an important Tartessian center. Medellín, on the Guadiana River, revealed an important necropolis.

Elements specific to Tartessian culture are the Late Bronze Age fully-evolved pattern-burnished wares and geometrically banded and patterns "Carambolo" wares, from the ninth to the sixth centuries; an "Early Orientalizing" phase with the first Eastern imports, beginning about 750 BC; a "Late Orientalizing" phase with the finest bronze casting and goldsmiths' work; gray ware turned on the fast potter's wheel, local imitations of imported Phoenician red-slip wares.

Characteristic Tartessian bronzes include pear-shaped jugs, often associated in burials with shallow dish-shaped braziers with loop handles, incense-burners with floral motifs, fibulas, both elbowed and double-spring types, and belt buckles.

No precolonial necropolis sites are identified. The change from a late Bronze Age pattern of circular or oval huts scattered on a village site to rectangular houses with dry stone foundations and plastered wattle walls took place during the seventh and sixth centuries BC, in settlements with planned layouts that succeeded one another on the same site. At Cástulo (Jaén), a mosaic of river pebbles from the end of the sixth century is the earliest mosaic in Western Europe. Most sites were inexplicably abandoned in the fifth century.

Tartessian language

The Tartessian language is an extinct pre-Roman language once spoken in southern Iberia. It is seemingly unrelated to any other languages. The oldest known indigenous texts of Iberia, dated from the 7th to 6th centuries BC, are written in Tartessian. The inscriptions are written in a semi-syllabic writing system and were found in the general area in which Tartessos was located and in surrounding areas of influence. Tartessian language texts were found in Southwestern Spain and Southern Portugal (namely in the Conii areas of the Algarve and southern Alentejo. This variety is often referred as Southwest script).

Legends and suppositions

Schulten gave currency to a view of Tartessos that made it the Western, and wholly European source of the legend of Atlantis.[18] A more serious review, by W.A. Oldfather, appeared in The American Journal of Philology.[19] Both Atlantis and Tartessos were believed to be advanced societies which collapsed when their cities were lost beneath the waves; supposed further similarities with the legendary society make a connection seem feasible, though virtually nothing is known of Tartessos, not even its precise site. Other Tartessian enthusiasts imagine it as a contemporary of Atlantis, with which it might have traded.

The enigmatic Lady of Elx, an ancient bust, of a high artistic quality, of a woman found in southeastern Spain, has been tied with Atlantis and Tartessos, though the statue displays clear signs of being manufactured by later Iberian cultures.


The place-name Tarshish in the Old Testament was connected to Tartessos by some early twentieth-century Classicists, though others connect it to Tarsus in Anatolia. (See entry for Jonah in the Jewish Encyclopedia.) Tarshish, like Tartessos, is associated with extensive mineral wealth.

See also


  1. ^ Herodotus, i. 163 ; iv.152.
  2. ^ Strabo, iii.2.13
  3. ^ Pliny, iv.120.
  4. ^ Javier G. Chamorro, "Survey of Archaeological Research on Tartessos" American Journal of Archaeology 91.2 (April 1987, pp. 197-232) p 226.
  5. ^ Cornwall is often credited as the source of the tin; for the trading station, see Cassiterides.
  6. ^ Pseudo-Scymnus, Periegesis, 164, noted by T.J. Gamito, The Celts in Portugal (2005), The Celts in the Iberian Peninsula, e-Keltoi 6: 571–605.
  7. ^ Wagner, in Alvar and Blásquez 1991:104)
  8. ^ Essays from both points of view are found in Alvar and Blázquez, according to the review by Antonio Gilman in American Journal of Archaeology 98.2 (April 1994), pp. 369-370.
  9. ^ Thirty kilometers inland there still is a mining town by the name of Tarsis.
  10. ^ Schulten, Tartessos (Hamburg, 1922; Spanish tr. Madrid, 1924, 2nd ed. 1945).
  11. ^ The historiography of Tartessos is surveyed by Carlos G. Wagner, "Tartessos en la historiografía: un revisión crítica".
  12. ^ "Dig Up Phoenician City", New York Times, September 26, 1923, pg. 3.
  13. ^ Luzón, "Tartessos y la ría de Huelva", Zephyrus 13, 1962:97-104.
  14. ^ J.M. Carriazo, El tesoro y las primeras excavaciones en 'El Carambolo' (Camas, Sevilla) (Excavaciones Arqueológicas en España), 1970.
  15. ^ J.P. Garrido, Excavaciones en la necrópolis de La Joya, (E.A.E.), 1970.
  16. ^ The results of Tartessian archaeology as of 1987 were summarized by Javier G. Chamorro, "Survey of Archaeological Research on Tartessos" American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 91, no.2 (April 1987), pp. 197-232.
  17. ^ Phoenician coastal settlements and necropoli are typically located at the mouth of rivers, on the first hill behind the delta, at Cadiz, Malaga, Granada and Almeria.
  18. ^ A. Schulten, Ein Beitrage zur ältestens Geschichte des Westens (Hamburg 1922). Its amused reviewer for The Journal of Hellenic Studies (43.2 [1923], p. 206) agreed that "we are quite willing to add it to the long list of possible origins for the Atlantis legend" and that "our hearts burn within us to think of the Tartessian literature six thousand years old".
  19. ^ The American Journal of Philology 44.4 (1923), pp. 368-371.

Further reading

  • J. M. A. Blazquez, Tartessos y Los Origines de la Colonizacion Fenicia en Occidente (University of Salamanca) 1968. Assembles Punic materials found in Spain.
  • Jaime Alvar and José María Blázquez, Los enigmas de Tartessos (Madrid:Catedra) 1993. Papers following a 1991 conference.

External links



Atlantis connection


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