New Light on the Warrior Stelae from Tartessos (Spain)

By Perez, Sebastian Celestino; Lopez-Ruiz, Carolina | Antiquity, March 2006 | Go to article overview

New Light on the Warrior Stelae from Tartessos (Spain)


Perez, Sebastian Celestino, Lopez-Ruiz, Carolina, Antiquity


Introduction

We owe the name Tartessos to Graeco-Roman tradition (cf. Herodotus 4.152 ff. and 1.163, 165, Ephoros GGM 1. P. 201, Avienus Ora Maritima, etc.), and much scholarship has been dedicated to sorting out myth from history and re-defining what was intended by the name through the critical reading of the ancient sources and the increasing archaeological evidence. Today we understand Tartessos as an indigenous culture that developed in the south-west of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal), expanding from an original nucleus in the lower Gaudalquivir (today's south-west Andalucia) (see Figure 1). The flourishing of this culture has long been associated with the impact of Phoenician colonisation during the eighth to sixth centuries BC, with clear signs of crisis and decline in the fifth century BC. The term 'orientalising', applied to this short period, refers to the cultural impact produced by the contact between the Levantine peoples and the European societies of the Mediterranean realm.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Some of the most tangible transformations in Tartessic culture due to this process were the beginning of proto-urbanism and the introduction of the wheel in pottery manufacture. In fact, the general strategy of investigation nowadays is to consider Tartessos as a trading community composed of a number of proto-urban settlements, with an economic focus on maritime trade built upon agricultural and mineral exploitation of the hinterland.

The phenomenon of the so-called warrior stelae of the south-west of the Iberian Peninsula, around the ninth to eighth centuries BC, has become a key element in understanding the social complexity of the indigenous populations associated with the site of Tartessos. New opportunities for studying the nature of the contact with the eastern Mediterranean have arisen from the discovery of a monumental stela in 1997 dating to the eighth century BC at the excavations of Beth-Saida, on the north-east coast of the Sea of Galilee (Israel) (Barnett & Keel 1998; Arav & Freund 1998; Ornan 2001) (cf. Figure 6). The purpose of this paper is to review the images, symbols and artefacts that belong, as we shall see, to both cultural spheres, and to study the cultural dialogue that they imply.

[FIGURE 6 OMITTED]

The slabs and stelae of Tartessos

The Tartessic stelae originated in the Tagus valley in the Late Bronze period and reached their maximum geographic expansion and complexity at the beginning of the orientalising period (Barcelo 1989; Galan 1993; Celestino 2001a). There are two main classes of monument: the so-called slabs (of basic stelae) and the stelae proper. The slabs are characterised by the invariable presence of a shield, a spear and a sword, and always present the same arrangement with the shield at the centre of the composition and the spear and the sword lying horizontally above and below the shield, respectively (Figure 2). The slabs reserve a blank space with no decoration on the upper and lower parts, and are usually 1.70m long, which has prompted the hypothesis that they would be used to cover inhumation cists. The distribution of the slabs is limited to the Tagus valley, but over time they apparently spread slowly towards the Guadiana valley. New objects of prestige and weapons of Atlantic origin were then added to the graphic repertoire, such as carp's tongue swords or conical helmets (cf. Figure 3). As the slabs started appearing also in the south, they incorporated new elements of clear Mediterranean origin, such as the first chariots, mirrors, ivory combs and pins, or fibulae, but they maintained the same form of monument and the basic arrangement of the images engraved on it. This development probably belonged to the stage previous to the Phoenician colonisation. During this stage, loosely called 'pre-colonisation', there were more or less regular contacts with the Levantine peoples, but the social system of the indigenous groups was not essentially altered (Almagro-Gorbea 1998; Celestino 1998, 2001a; Moreno 1999). …

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