Ancient Iberia

  By Luis Aldamiz (Maju), 2005; Revised
Contents »

1. Neolithic:

1.1. Andalusian Neolithic with La Almagra Pottery:
The Andalusian Neolithic is one of the most ancient periods of European Neolithic known. The Carbon 14 dates of the Andalusian sites, mostly caves, date back to the first half of the 6th millennium BCE, being therefore by far the oldest known Neolithic culture in Western Europe. Its origins are uncertain. Cereals and legumes found on the sites are of an evolved agricultural form, but there are no signs of domesticated animals other than pigs and rabbits, both impossible to differentiate from their wild relatives. There are also an abundance of olive seeds in their settlements, in what may be the earliest archaeological reference to its use and consumption, though it seems we are still talking about the wild variety of this tree.

The pottery of the Andalusian Neolithic is varied in its motifs and is known as La Almagra style pottery.

In the early 5th millennium, this Neolithic culture started to spread to nearby regions outside of southern Spain, most notably southern and central Portugal.

1.2. Mediterranean Neolithic with Cardium-Printed pottery
This culture, which originated on the eastern Adriatic coast and has its origin in the proto-Sesklo of Thessaly, reached Iberia only c. 4700 BCE. The areas of its influence are the eastern coastal regions (Catalonia, Valencia, Balearic Islands), with some penetration into the interior, mainly via the Ebro river.

The makers of the Cardium-Printed pottery were good sailors and fishermen.  They had sheep and goats as domestic animals and continued the cultivation of cereals and legumes. Often they used caves for their settlements. In some places direct colonization is quite clear, in others cultural diffusion seems to be the case. The fact that the Cardium-Printed pottery users used the same stone working techniques as in the Epi-Paleolithic stage, shows that mixture with natives was common and not exceptional.

Some Cardium pottery also reached the southern and western coasts of the peninsula, but finding other Neolithic cultures already established, its makers seem to have stopped their advance there.

1.3. First Megalithic Era
If the people of southwestern Iberia adopted Neolithic techniques c. 5000 BCE, a few generations later (c. 4800 BCE, according to Portugese archaeologists) they start producing funerary architecture: dolmens. The first dolmens already had corridors at the entrance, the simple dolmen (without corridor) being a later development. It is thought that the first of these tombs were from Alentejo (Portugal), and soon expanded to nearby areas. Yet its great expansion into other parts of Atlantic Europe would only happen one thousand years later.

1.4. The marginal areas: central and northern Iberia:
Neolithic technology diffused very slowly into these regions, where it was only very gradually adopted by the natives. In the extreme case of Galicia (NW), it seems to only have arrived along with Megalithic techniques c. 3500 BCE.
1.5. Mural art:
The long standing tradition of mural art does not disappear (another sign of the native substrate) but rather evolves during Neolithic and later ages. I won't make a long and perhaps too difficult analysis on the evolution of this art. It is enough to say that the most active region is the East, where the mural art stands among the finest of prehistory, including, for the first time, the presence of the human figure.

 An example of Eastern Iberian mural art (source)

As time passed, new forms of art evolved and spread to other regions. In the west, art is often linked to megaliths and is thought by many to have an astronomical meaning.

2. Chalcolithic (Copper Age):

The metallurgy of soft metals: copper, gold and silver, the Iberian Chalcolithic, is defined by the following traits:
  • An increase in trade or barter, reaching to distant lands such as North Africa and Scandinavia.
  • Increasing social complexity, best reflected in the early civilizations that evolved in this period.
  • The spread of the Megalithic culture, with new burial types (artificial caves and tholoi) appearing.
2.1. Megalith Building:    

The spread of megalith building in Iberia out of the SW region is synchronous with what happens in other parts of Atlantic Europe. From c. 3500 BCE dolmen tombs were built in all the Atlantic regions, as well as in the south. Even in the non-dolmenic areas of the interior and east, collective burials were carried out as well, but normally in natural caves.

Beginning c. 3000 BCE, new types of megaliths are found in the most developed regions of Iberia and southern France. These are mostly of two types: artificial caves and tholoi. This appearance of new megalithic types, also found (at least in the case of the tholos) in the Eastern Mediterranean, led to theories about an early Aegean colonization. Yet not a single Eastern artifact has been found on Iberian soil with Chalcolithic dates. Aegean tholoi are also more recent than Iberian ones. Older types of tholoi can be found in Cyprus and Syria, but were used as homes, not tombs. Current interpretations are that either a very diffuse and limited connection existed, or that tholoi evolved separately in the two regions.

The new types of megaliths, appear in Southwestern, Southern and Southeastern Iberia, in the richer and more developed regions. There are also some examples in southeastern France, a region that kept close contact with the Iberian cultures throughout the Chalcolithic period.

2.2. Trade:   
Foreign trade became noticeable. This is probably related to this spread of megalith building to other regions, especially up the Atlantic coast of Europe. Amber was imported from Northern Europe, while ivory and ostrich products (egg-shells in the fossil record) come from Africa. These can be dated to as early as 3000 BCE as well.

In later phases of this period, especially during the Bell-shaped Beaker Phenomenon (beginning circa 2200 BCE), trade and exchange were marked by the spread of products (pottery, characteristic buttons, weapons) that are more strongly associated with different regions.

2.3. Civilizations:
In the Chalcolitic period, villages and towns started appearing in many places. Beginning c. 2600 BCE, two parallel but distinct centers appeared in the West and Southeast. The latter, centered on the city of Los Millares, has been known since over a century ago, when Louis Siret began excavating the site. As mentioned before, some of the characteristics of the city with a large necropolis of tholoi, caused many to speculate about an eastern colonization. But this is still unproven.


Drawing of the walls of the city of Los Millares (source)

 Well preserved Millarense tholos (same source)

Another, perhaps less spectacular but surely no less important civilization was located in the area around modern Lisbon. It's known as culture of Vila Nova de Sao Pedro (VNSP), from a minor fortified site where thousands of arrowheads were found. Yet the the major city of that culture was Zambujal, near Torres Vedras, overshadowing the lesser sites of the Estremadura peninsula and nearby areas.

Other towns, many also fortified, were found in southern Portugal and Spain. Less important towns and villages were found elsewhere as well.

2.4. Presence of the Bell-Beaker:

The often used term Beaker People is quite confusing. To begin with, it is not clear that they were any one people or nation. It rather appears to have been a cultural, perhaps commercial, phenomenon that, outside of its original Central European area, had little or no influence on the local cultures it settled in. For this reason, it is more rigorously referred to as the Bell-Beaker phenomenon.

It seems that the Beaker phenomenon has its origins somewhere in Central Europe, most likely in what is now the Czech Republic, c. 2300 BCE. It soon expanded westward, not by conquest, but by settlement as a minority among other peoples whose cultures remained mostly unchanged. Based on an analysis of their funerary remains, almost invariably including arrow flints, a copper knife, golden ornaments, distinctive bone buttons and the unavoidable bell-shaped beaker, it is now believed that the Beaker People were wealthy, armed merchants.

Overall extent of the Bell-Beaker phenomenon (from Wikipedia)

Early corded beaker settlers, thought to have come from Central Europe, soon arrived in Iberia via the Rhone and the Atlantic Ocean. One of their main settlements was VNSP. One century after c. 2100 BCE, VNSP became the main European center of this phenomenon, with its characteristic maritime or international style expanding across the peninsula and southern France. This doesn't just include beaker pottery, but also other VNSP products such as Palmela flints and different types of buttons. From c. 1900 BCE, the center of activity returned to Bohemia, while in Iberia one can see a decentralization of styles. VNSP continued producing its own new style (Palmela), while Los Millares had its own (Almerian style) and another non-urban center appeared on the plateau (Ciempozuelos style).

3. Early and Middle Bronze Age:

3.1. El Argar
The most important phenomenon in the Iberian Bronze age was the culture of El Argar, that replaced Los Millares in the SW region. This succession occured in c. 1800 BCE. El Argar was also a fortified city, a little further north than its predecessor. The extent of its influence was nevertheless greater, including not just the area of Almeria, but also Murcia. It is thought that it could well have been a centralized state, given the comparative importance of its capital city. Only two other settlements have comparable dimensions, one in the north and another in the west of the Argaric region, These could also have been major provincial capitals.

Initially, in the phase known as El Argar A (up to c. 1500 BCE), the culture was very similar to that of Los Millares. Yet, there is one major feature that differentiates both cultures: Argarians had bronze working technology. Another major difference is to be found in burial customs. Collective burial in megaliths was abandoned and replaced by individual burial. Both traits probably have a Mediterranean origin, where the same funerary transition to individual burials is found.

Nevertheless, the Oriental influence is tenuous and unclear. In the Bronze Age, again, almost no Eastern artifacts are found in Iberia (see below).

The immediate area of influence of the Argarian culture was larger than that of Los Millares, stretching further north into the fringes of the Guadaquivir valley. But its political influence was surely much greater.

Beginning c. 1500, El Argar adopted Aegean burial style of pythoi (giant jars). At this point the culture is known as El Argar B.

3.2. Bronze of Levante:
In an area that approximates the modern-day region of Valencia, a less spectacular culture of smaller fortified villages now appeared, particularly in the southern half of the region. They also worked in bronze and seem rather close culturally to El Argar.

3.3. SW Iberia:
Southern Portugal, an area that showed flourishing urbanization and social organization in the Chalcolithic, now appears devoid of habitation sites. Three successive horizons occupy the entire Bronze Age, known through their individual burials, which were often accompanied by a bronze dagger. Some more spectacular burials are associated with this cultural area: these scarce monuments (probably the tombs of major leaders) were built of large stones, in open circles with two semi-circles attached at their sides, in a shape that to some suggests a crab.

Further north, the culture of Vila Nova de Sao Pedro continued its existence as in the previous phase, bell-beaker and megalith building included, and never developed bronze working technology.

3.4 The Plateau
For the first time the cattle-herding tribes of the central plateau got organized into a single culture, known as Cogotas I (Cogotas II belongs to the Iron Age and was Celtic). This culture surely practiced transhumance herding as it has done until very recent times.

3.5. The North West
North Western Iberia, the Gallaecia of the Romans, had been until this time a very undeveloped region. Yet, the presence of strategic tin resources (copper was abundant throughout the peninsula) is probably the cause of some development in the Mid Bronze Age (1500-1300 BCE). The Montelavar group is characterized especially by its bronze axes.

3.6. The Motillas
Beginning c. 1500, the uninhabited region of La Mancha was colonized by a Levante people with Bronze age culture. Very few towns were created, all in the southern mountainous areas, but dozens of artificial hills with fortifications on top, known as motillas, were built throughout the territory.

One can only speculate why this happened. La Mancha is probably the most ungrateful land of all Iberia and the colonization was clearly military. It could well have been a defensive effort by the Argarian state and their Levante allies against incursions from the semi-nomadic tribes of the plateau, but it could also have the intent of securing a land route to the Northwest, via Cogotas, in search of the valued tin.

Here, we must stop to contemplate the relation between El Argar, the hegemony of the Southeast, and VNSP, which probably still controlled the Atlantic routes from their strategic position. While we do find some cultural exchange between Los Millares and VNSP in the Chalcolitic era, we find nothing of the like when El Argar took control of the Southeast in the Bronze Age. It may well be that a continuous conflict between the two powerful states was present during all or most of this period, and that a phenomena such as the disapearence of Southwestern towns and the military colonization of La Mancha are related to this cultural and political division.

One thing is clear: when VNSP vanishes c. 1300, it was still the only culture of the peninsula not working with bronze.

3.7. General issues:
Agriculture boomed but perhaps most importantly trade relations also increased. The major partner was again Atlantic Europe (Britain and Western France), but trade with the Eastern Mediterranean seems to have also existed: in two Levante sites with different chronologies, glass beads that must have come from Egypt (XVIII Dynasty) or Greece (Mycenean I) have been found. The Oriental influx is clear in the cultural influences on burial and architecture, as well as on the very fact of the appearence of the bronze technology, independent of any continental input.

A mention must be made of Bronze Age weaponry, perhaps the most characteristic finding of this period. Daggers, axes and pikes are common but maybe the most spectacular finds are swords. Their greatest centers of distribution (production) were the El Argar cultural area and the Northwest.

4. Late Bronze Age:

4.1. Urnfields:
Quite suddenly, c. 1300 BCE, a new element entered Iberia and other areas of Europe: a clearly expansionist Central-European group known as Urnfield culture, of undoubtedly Indo-European culture and language. In light of their cultural descendants, it is commonly accepted that they were mostly Celtic people, though other nationalities might have well been present as well.

Unrfields Celts were characterized by their practice of cremation and burial of the ashes inside characteristic urns in necropoli, often of considerable extent.

Urnfield tribes (or hordes) descended by the western bank of the Rhone, settling in Languedoc and NE Iberia. This was not a gradual process, but rather happened in the space of a few decades. Apart from the Northeast, where they are most abundant, a handful of Urnfield necropoli are also found in former Argaric territory. We can well presume that the end of this important state was caused partly by the Celtic presence, but this conclusion is not definitive.

4.2. Iberian continuity:
Whatever occurred with the Argaric state, the culture did not vanish. The Southeastern fortified towns continued the cultural legacy of El Argar, but centralization no longer seemed to be working. In the Levante settled area the local culture continued its legacy, expanding now to the mountainous interior. The Motillas were also abandoned c. 1300 BCE, perhaps due to the disappearance of the Argarian state and its military needs.

4.3. The South West:
The formerly diffused cultures of this area give way to three cultural regions:
  • In Western Andalusia the cultural definer is internally burnished pottery.
  • In Southern Portugal another Alentejan pottery type appears as cultural marker.
  • In Extremadura (Spain, not to be confused with Portuguese Estremadura) and nearby areas the markers are decorated slabs, typically showing armed warriors. Other items, like distinctive shields, are also significant and are also found in Sicilian, proto-Etruscan and Scandinavian sites.
4.4. The Atlantic
The Bell-Beaker technique was finally abandoned everywhere, while megalith construction slowly started receding, but contacts with other Atlantic regions, most notably Britain, continued. Major exchanges of tools and weapons are detected between Atlantic Iberia and Britain, a region that now seems more important in the so-called Atlantic Circle. These exchanges also affected France and even reached Northern Europe. VNSP civilization vanished and the following cultural areas are now defined:

  • Central Portugal is defined by externally burnished pottery and also characteristic axes.
  • The Northwest is defined by their typical axes, divided into two types: Galician (including northern Portugal) and Astur-Cantabrian, (in the region of these two historically documented nations)
  • The Central Plateau continues with its rudimentary Cogotas I pottery, also found in some southern sites.
4.5. Balearic Late Megalithic Era:
In the Balearic Islands, an original late megalithic culture appeared. They were characterized by the erection of original T-shaped monuments (astronomical observatories) known as taulas (Catalan for table). They also build large stone lounges, known as navetas, and other towers, called talayots.

5. Iron Age and colonial period:

Iron technology arrived in Iberia via two routes: Indo-European (Celtic) Hallstatt culture (successor of Urnfields) and Phoenician colonization. While Phoenician traditions place the foundation of Gadir (Cádiz) c. 1100 BCE, archaeological findings in this location are not dated before the 8th century. In the 8th and 7th centuries Hallstatt influences reached local Celts (Urnfielders), which then expanded boldly westward. This trend was reversed in the 6th century BCE, when, after the Greek foundation of Massalia (Marseilles), Iberian native culture re-assimilated the Northeast, separating the Celts of Iberia from their continental relatives.

A major mystery in this period is the location of the city of Tartessos or Tarshish, which is historially well documented but which has not yet been found. A rich Tartessian-orientalizing culture is well defined by archaeology, but the famous capital city of this area has yet to be unearthed.

5.1. Iron Age Urnfields
In the last decades of the 8th century, Hallstatt influences reached the local Urnfields Celts of the Northeast. Perhaps the most important infleunce was ironworking technology, including long swords. Social differentiation increased and the importance of trade seems clear. Horsemanship seemed on the rise and this may imply the development of a cavalry elite.

In this late period, Urnfield folk reached other nearby areas, showing a clear expansive trend. The scope of this limited expansion are the northern region of the Levante and the upper Ebro valley.

5.2. Phoenician colonization
As mentioned above, Phoenician historiography dates the foundation of Gadir, their oldest colony, to 1110 BCE. Yet, archaeology has not yielded any remains for dates prior to the 9th century. This discrepancy is believed to be caused by the fact that Gadir was at first a rather modest settlement, only growing later.

Apart from Gadir, a handful of other colonies were created in the southern coast. Malaca (Málaga), Almuñecar and Abdera (Almería) being the most important ones. Yet Gadir, being near the mouth of the sometimes navigable Guadalquivir, in proximity to the rich Tartessian culture and open to the Atlantic tin routes, would be the major Phoenician city in Iberia until the foundation of New Carthage (Cartagena) in 230 BCE.

The influence of Phoenician colonial culture and trade is very strong, especially in the south, growing in intensity as centuries pass by. Iron working technology, the potter's wheel, religious elements, and the concept of writing are just some of the elements that Phoenician colonization (and, to a lesser degree, Greek colonization) brought to Iberia. In exchange the Phoenicians got what they wanted: lots of minerals and other natural riches to trade with and control of the passage to the Atlantic Ocean.

5.3. The Tartessian-orientalizing culture
By the Late Bronze Age, a large center was probably present in SW Spain and its influence grew in this period, virtually absorbing the Southeast and strongly influencing the Levante and other areas.

As I said above, the city of Tartessos still waits to be found.


Map showing a possible location for Tartessos and the Ligustine Lagoon (now the marshes of the Guadalquivir), approximating classical descriptions (source). Another hypothesis would place it further westward, in the double estuary of Huelva. In any case, the strategic location of Gadir (latinized as Gades in the map) appears clear.

According to some classical sources, Tartessos city was destroyed by Phoenicians at some point, but this is unclear.

What is clear is that an important native culture, influenced by the Phoenicians but with a strong identity, stretched throughout southern Iberia. Composed mainly of fortified towns, the culture was a continuation of that of the Late Bronze Age. Internally burnished pottery was partly replaced by the geometrically painted Carambolo style. The center of these two pottery styles was clearly located in Western Andalusia. Cattle seemed to have grow in importance, largely replacing the predominant sheep and goats of the earlier phases in the south.

Funerary customs adopted some innovations, most notably torriform mausoleums (profusely decorated monoliths or columns), that proliferated across southern Iberia. Statues of women, such as the Lady of Elx and the Lady of Baeza, which may represent the deceased or perhaps a divinity, illustrate the richness of dress of the Ibero-Tartessian elites. Other elements are also present though it would take too long to explain them in depth.
Restored Tartessian funerary chariots from Huelva (source)

With the Orientalizing period the strategic trade routes that would shape Roman Iberia, the Silver and Herakleian routes, appear very clearly. The first crossed the west of the Peninsula from the Tartessian centers to the Northwest, the second followed the Guadalquivir towards the Northeast close to the coast. Both routes expanded Tartessian and colonial influence into other regions of Iberia.

5.4. Celtic penetration
C. 700 BCE, the cattle herding culture of Cogotas I is transformed into Cogotas II. This implies some improvement in the quality of the pottery and the appearence of some Celtic elements such as torques. The culture can henceforth be considered a Celtic one, though hybridation with the native substrate is clear in that most elements show continuity.

This Celtic expansion did not stop on the plateau, but rather extended further eastward. Lusitanians established themselves in the Northeast of the territory that would later receive their name, rapidly replacing the western native culture of externally burnished pottery. Celtic penetration is also clear in the Northwest, though it has been debated whether all tribes of this area were actually Celtic, Celtizied or just native with Celtic influences. Penetration of Celtic culture into the northern mountainous strip was minimal and most likely the Astures, Cantabrii and other nations reported by Strabo and Pliny in the area remained fully pre-Indo European, though the lack of their own written legacy has led to much speculation.

5.5. Iberian contuinity:
The Eastern and Southeastern areas show a great deal of continuity, yet external influences, from the late Urnfielders, but especially from the Phoenician and Tartessian cultures, were great. Argaric culture finally disappeared, fused with its neighbours, and Tartessian influence takes its place.

After the Phoenician foundation of Massilia, in 600 BCE, and the creation of a local outpost, Emporion, soon afterwards the Northwest was rapidly re-Iberized from the south. The native substrate was probably never assimilated by the Celtic elites and it now found a richer and more familiar connection with their southern neighbors. This process cut the Celts of Iberia off from their continental counterparts, preventing the late Celtic culture of La Tène and the religious phenomenon of druidism from affecting the peninsular Celts.

5.6. Writing:
It was in the Iron/Colonial Age when writing appeared among Iberians. Despite its probable Phoenician origin, Iberian scripts were very original, being semi-syllabic and not pure alphabets.

Southern Iberian script (also called Tartessian)
Northern Iberian script (or simply Iberian)

Celtiberian script, a variation of the former (all scripts from Omniglot)

In a few cases, a variation of the Ionian alphabet was also used. Despite the abundance of Tartessian and Iberian writing and there being no major problem with their transcription, both languages or language families remain unrelated. While Iberian could have some very distant and unclear relation with Basco-Aquitanian, Tartessian is an absolute isolate that looks unlike any other language known.

This is the situation that Carthage and Rome would find when they came to fight each other in the successive Punic Wars. The rest is history.