Ancient Iberians in the Iberian Peninsula: a short introduction and website links




Today I will start with a series of short stories that will appear gradually, in which I will talk about the Pre-Roman people that once lived in the Iberian Peninsula. My intention is to identify their main features, those I know (and remember that I am neither an historian nor an archaeologist) without getting further. Whoever wants to go in depth, can take a look at the various websites I will list. These websites belong to the archaeological sites (or a group of sites), institutions and the major museums related to each culture. There you will also find abundant literature.

Let’s start with the Iberians.

Who were the Iberians? Strictly speaking, they should be the former inhabitants of all Iberia, which is the name given by the ancient Greeks, B.C., to the territory of the Iberian Peninsula, the country of the river Iber or Hiber, the present Ebro. The topographic term was also given to another region in the Black Sea, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, where the country of Georgia is currently located, at the Caucasus [look up Caucasian Iberians]. However, I will just refer to those of the Iberian Peninsula.

When talking of the Iberians today we designate only part of the inhabitants of Iberia, specifically people who lived between the 6th and the 1st century B.C. in the Mediterranean coastal strip and adjacent inland areas, from the Roussillon (France) to the present province of Huelva (maybe entering the current Portuguese territory) where they get mixed with the reminiscences of the Tartessian Orientalizing culture through their heirs, the Turdetani. Some people argue Iberians would come from North Africa, others that they would be an evolution of the indigenous population, strongly influenced by the Phoenicians who came from the East, from which, among other things, Iberians inherited the writing or learned how to use the potter’s wheel.

If we watch the many Iberian artifacts or masterpieces that have reached our times, especially sculptures, reliefs with human figures, votive offerings, drawings on pottery or bronze objects, etc. we can deduce that Iberians were warlike people. Surely they had a strong hierarchical social structure, with a powerful aristocracy, where the patronage (clientela) among some people and the princes or monarchs of the oppida (fortified settlements) would play an important role. On the other hand, to state that they were warlike people is a bit simple, because where did not exist warriors at that time? Quite interesting is a custom like the devotio, a type of military patronage, in which a person swears obedience to another, the first promising to defend the second in exchange for protection, offering his life to the second, and even, and that is the interesting point, to commit suicide if his patron died in combat, due to, let’s say, not having been able to defend him. In any case, even assuming this warring character, it is true that some reliefs such as these from Osuna, located in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, show that there were also musicians and jugglers, not to mention the beautiful scene of a kiss, also from Osuna. It was not all war! The Iberian votive offerings, mostly small bronze figurines, but there were also ones of clay or stone, which have been found in the Iberian sanctuaries, of which I will talk later, are another valuable source of information. I’d like to emphasize that Iberians were people just like us, with their beliefs, desires and concerns. A trained eye will detect many things when watching these tiny votive offerings.

Iberians were not united under a single command. There were many different tribes: Indigetes, IlergetesIlercavones, Edetani, Contestani, Oretani, Bastetani or Turdetani, among others, who shared a number of common features, as might be a kind of writing, but in any case we cannot speak of a nation.

Iberians were the first inhabitants of Hispania to become romanized, when troops sent by Rome’s Senate to fight the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War (218-206 B.C.), defeated Hannibal’s army, and occupied the territory of the first. In a few decades the whole territory of the Iberians was integrated into the Roman sphere. The lack of a real unity and the confirmed fact that there were struggles between the various Iberian people helped the Romans (and before the Carthaginians) in their aspiration to annex this country. For a time it is assumed that the Iberian culture coexisted with the Roman’s. This could be proven, for example, through numismatics. There were coins with Iberian letters minted after the initial Roman conquest. But a point was reached after which the Roman customs and the Latin language, either imposed or naturally sought, prevailed and the Iberian culture was relegated to oblivion.

Although researchers make progress in this area, we cannot assert so far that they were able to decipher the meaning of the Iberian writing, of no one of the three branches: Northeastern, Southeastern or Southwestern Iberian. It has been transcribed, but not translated. We are still waiting for our own Rosetta Stone that one that in the nineteenth century helped the French Champollion to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphic language through Greek and Demotic.

In Spain we can find many archaeological sites and vestiges of the Iberians.

SETTLEMENTS: Beside other marginal population areas there were oppida, fortified settlements located in high places, of a moderate size, which could be considered ancient towns, and then there were smaller settlements, sometimes identified with the Latin term of castella (plural), which could not be considered as proper towns, but small villages or military forts. Some of these settlements became romanized, so that in the end, we will find more Roman remains than Iberian’s. Among the oppida in the Peninsula I would mention Acinipo (Ronda, Málaga) (though what we can see today is Roman and, by the way, its Roman theater is magnificent), Ategua (Córdoba) or Torreparedones (Baena) and Cerro de la Cruz (Almedinilla) in Córdoba, Osuna (Urso) and Carmona (Carmo) in Seville (with a remarkable Tartessian past); Cástulo (Linares), Puente Tablas (Jaén) or Giribaile (Vilches) in the Province Jaén, Basti (Baza) in Granada, Ullastret in Gerona, Olérdola in Barcelona, the Castellet de Banyoles (Tivissa) in Tarragona , the Fortalesa (Arbeca) in Lérida (the latter in a lowland), the sites of Tossal de Sant Miquel (Edeta, Liria) Castellar de Meca (Ayora) (which is wonderful!) or the Bastida de les Alcusses (Mogente) in Valencia; the Serreta and the Puig (Alcoy, Alicante), the Iberian-Roman city of Lucentum near Alicante (which could have been of Carthaginian origin, thus subsequent to the Iberians before the Roman conquest, if we identify it with the city of Akra Leuke founded by Hamilcar Barca); the Cabezo de Alcalá (Azaila) or the site of San Antonio (Calaceite) in Teruel, Libisosa (Lezuza) in Albacete, the Cerro de las Cabezas in Ciudad Real (very interesting!) etc. Castella or smaller settlements could be found scattered anywhere. They follow a similar construction pattern: a fortified settlement, with an elongated floor plan, located on high small plateaus, from which they can be easily defended, with usually a walled enclosure that protects it, rectangular houses, attached to the inner wall, with access to a central street that crosses the settlement lengthwise. In these cases it is easy to identify an Iberian work free of Roman additions, as these villages were often abandoned after the arrival of the Romans. Within this category we can mention: the Puntal dels Llops (Olocau, Valencia) (excellent views!)), the Castellet de Bernabé (Liria, Valencia), the Tossal Redó (Calaceite, Teruel), the Tallada (Caspe, Zaragoza), the Turó de Montgrós (El Brull) or the Casol de Puigcastellet (Folgueroles), both in the province of Barcelona.

NECROPOLIS AND MAUSOLEUMS: A lot of information about the Iberian culture can be obtained from the contents of necropolis, which so often have been and continue to be pillaged and destroyed, making it difficult for archaeologists to investigate them and share their knowledge with all of us. Iberians cremated their dead (that is they did not bury their bodies). The ashes were deposited in urns which were then buried along with their corresponding grave goods. Sometimes a panoply of a warrior is found, which used to include a falcata, that famous Iberian curved two-edged sword. Necropolis were normally situated outside the settlement. Among these necropolis there is one that stands out in the Peninsula, for its size and interest, both tourist and archaeological. It is Tútugi in Galera, Granada. Several hundred burials (mounds) where found and excavated over here, from which a large number can be visited. In Aragon we will find two charming necropolis, among others, although much smaller than the before mentioned of Tútugi: the Loma de los Brunos (Caspe, Zaragoza) and the Cascarujo (Alcañiz, Teruel). In Porcuna, Jaén lies the necropolis of Cerrillo Blanco, in which, under a large mound, a mass grave was unearthed. Therein several broken but interesting sculptures where found which are exposed in the Museum of Jaén. In the same province of Jaén, near the Sierra de Cazorla, we will find the Iberian Burial Chamber of Toya, a construction of three chambers with walls and ceilings of perfectly squared stone slabs. It is probably the best example of this type of tomb that can be visited in the Peninsula. In the Contestania, an Iberian region between the provinces of Albacete, Alicante, Murcia and Valencia there were other typical monumental tombs, the so called stela pillars (a podium on which stands a central pillar, sometimes decorated with reliefs, crowned by a capital on which the sculpture of a powerful animal is put, that could be a lion or a bull). Samples of these pillars or recreations of them can be found in the Archaeological Museum of Lorca (Murcia) (temporarily closed), the Archaeological Museum of Jumilla (Murcia) or the Museum of Archaeology and History of Elche (Alicante). Now, if you really want to see an outstanding monumental tomb, you should go to the National Archaeological Museum of Madrid to admire the tomb of Pozo Moro (Albacete).

SANCTUARIES: Little is known of the religion of the Iberians. Archaeological records show some mythological scenes (e.g. the reliefs in the tomb of Pozo Moro) on which assumptions were made. On the other hand, if they were not worshiped, at least the value or strength of certain animals like lions, wolves or bulls was very much appreciated. We can confirm this by means of multiple sculptures, drawings on pottery, antique reliefs in paterae or bronze figures (vide toreutics). Up to the present time a series of sanctuaries have reached us (some have been rebuilt as in Torreparedones, Baena, Córdoba), the majority being deprived of its building structures. Nevertheless, I would stress that the landscape where they were inserted is still of great importance to understand their religious meaning. Caves and places where springs emerged were appreciated. In these places the devotees used to place votive offerings that showed different features. Many bronze figurines, usually ladies who are wearing some kind of cape that ends on a cap, extending their arms to the side showing the palms of the hands, are begging while showing submission. Then there are warriors, pregnant women, men showing an oversized phallus, there are feet, legs or arms. They all have a meaning: they claim for fertility, protection or healing. Among the most important sanctuaries I would highlight the Cerro de los Santos (Montealegre del Castillo, Albacete). Votive offerings found here were of considerable size, authentic sculptures, which can be admired today in the National Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Albacete in Spain, but also in the Musée du Louvre (Paris, France). If we go over there today, we will just see a modern obelisk which was stuck right in the place where the sanctuary was, in the twenties of the last century. There is nothing special on this site today, but it is a quiet place. It lies near the ancient Via Heraclea (later called Via Augusta). Other interesting sactuaries are the Collado de los Jardines (Santa Elena, Jaén) in Despeñaperros (Sierra Morena) or the Cueva de la Lobera, also called Altos del Sotillo (Castellar de Santisteban, Jaén). The Cueva de la Lobera was located next to the Via Heraclea, too. Finally, I will still mention the Santuario de la Luz (Verdolay, Murcia), located a few miles south of Murcia. It has an interesting ambulatory path leading to the worship building at the top of a hill.

So far for this little introduction to the Iberian world. Anyone who might still be interested in this exciting subject can take a look at the attached websites of museums, institutions and archaeological sites, which are the most representative ones of this culture in Spain. Some were translated into English, other will appear only in Spanish.

Iberians, at a glance (in alphabetical order):

Relevant Museums with Iberian artifacts / remains (in alphabetical order):

(C) Luis del Rey Schnitzler