The enigmatic "Tartessian" Monuments of South Portugal. G. J. Boekschoten

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The enigmatic “Tartessian” Monuments of South Portugal.

G.J.Boekschoten1 and J.H.Looijenga2

In South Portugal, between the plains of Lower Alentejo and the mountain ridge that separates this region from the Algarve, lies an area which has preserved about a hundred large stones with inscriptions, originally stelae with a monumental function. They are known as Tartessian Monuments, although the region called Tartessos in ancient times is in southern Spain. The inscriptions are in the so-called south-west script, one of the three known Iberian or paleo Hispanic proto historic scripts. Unfortunately the Tartessian Monuments have no date, since they have been found in secondary contexts. It is presumed that the inscriptions were made between the 8th and 5th centuries BC (datings vary greatly), although this is by no means certain. Several theories about the origin of the script and the language have been offered of late. One of the most intriguing theories is that the language may be some form of Celtic, and even that the Celtic culture originally spread from this southwestern part of Europe to elsewhere. In this lecture we will first and foremost concentrate on the context of the inscribed stelae.

One thing should be stressed, however. The names Tartessos and Tartessian monuments are actually misleading, because the region called Tartessos in the Antique was quite somewhere else, in South-West Spain, around Huelva at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river and its hinterland (fig. 1). That region was wealthy, had rich burials, could boast an enormous amount of precious ores, such as tin, gold and silver. The eponymous name of the mythical king was Argontonios – Gr. αργός, Lat. argentum, Celt. arganton ‘silver’- small wonder that the Phoenicians who came to Tartessos in the 9th century BC showed great interest in this country. Between this core region of Tartessos and the SW Portuguese region of the stelae is a large distance (see map 9.1. in Koch 2010:187). There may have been contacts between Tartessos and the Algarve/Alentejo region with the inscribed stelae – but the differences are significant. First of all the stelae with inscriptions are for the greatest part found in the Portuguese SW region – of a total of 95 inscribed stelae only 3 have been found in the core region of Tartessos – and 4 in Extremadura. The region of the stelae was by no means rich and had no rich burials to show for a wealthy elite. “Status markers are totally lacking from south-western Iberia which at this stage had ceased to be an integral part of the Atlantic Bronze Age world, probably due to the early introduction of iron technology into this area and its re-orientation toward Mediterranean trade networks, triggered by the strong Phoenician presence in the area.” (Dirk Brandherm 2013:153).

In the late Bronze Age there seem to have been in Western Andalusia, Extremadura and South Portugal “a highly similar material culture; about 90% of all Tartessian objects from the Iberian Peninsula have been found in these areas” (Chamorro 1987:203). But after 600 BC, in the Classical Iberian period, these similarities seem to stop. A significant problem is that many authors writing on Tartessian culture make no difference between the several regions mentioned above – the name “Tartessian” is used indiscriminately for all three regions. The SW area and Extremadura both have decorated stelae – the latter has so-called warrior stelae (Extremadura, Badajoz, Medellín). The difference between is that the warrior stelae are decorated with figures and objects like swords, shields and chariots, while the inscribed stelae have letters. Therefore, they may very well present different periods and different cultures (there are two stelae with both pictures and text – both far outside the core region and it might very well be that the text is added much later).

In the 13th Century B.C. the Phoenicians, then an enterprising and rapidly growing nation of traders and mariners, ventured into the Atlantic and established Cadiz (1240 B.C.). They soon spread a short distance inland to Huelva, where they discovered and began to work an enormous mass of cupriferous pyrite which is still the largest of its type in the world, although it is now regarded primarily as a source of sulfur. Subsequently the deposits at Rio Tinto and the neighboring Tharsis (Tartessos) became one of the most important sources of copper.

The abundance of precious metal was what interested the Phoenicians and others from the Mediterranean world so much that they ventured out to the West, beyond the Pillars of Hercules to face the dangerous Ocean. They came for exploring the metal bearing mountains of the Iberian Pyrite Belt. It is well-known that Phoenicians and later Carthagenians established several colonies in the Mediterranean basin and in many Atlantic areas acting as innovators and dispensers of technical skills and know-how during the contacts with local cultures. The Phoenicians started the trade from the 9th c BC onwards – and they introduced their script and the art of writing into the SW world. Therefore the SW inscriptions may be dated from about the 8th c onwards – but as is shown, this dating is purely hypothetical.

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