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Tartessos and the Phoenicians in Iberia

July 2019 (123.3)

Book Review

Tartessos and the Phoenicians in Iberia

By Sebastián Celestino and Carolina López-Ruiz. Pp. xx + 368, b&w figs. 41, maps 10. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2016. $135. ISBN 978-0-19-967274-5 (cloth).

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Of the three large peninsulas of the Mediterranean, Iberia has traditionally been the forgotten one. Its peripheral geographical position at the crossroads of Mediterranean, Atlantic, continental European, and African influences makes it an ideal case study for analyzing the processes of cultural interaction, but this has also caused it to play a rather marginal role in mainstream archaeological narratives. During the first millennium B.C.E., it does not really fit within the traditional focus of either classical or “Celtic” archaeology. However, in recent years the archaeology of Iberia has started to gain more international visibility, mainly due to an increasing number of overviews in English (e.g., M. Almagro-Gorbea, ed., Iberia: Protohistory of the Far West of Europe, from Neolithic to Roman conquest [Burgos 2014]).

The present volume is an example of this trend, as it provides the first synthesis in English on Tartessos and its interactions with the Phoenicians. Geographically, it covers large parts of southwest Iberia, and chronologically it is centered on the eighth to sixth centuries B.C.E., although earlier and later centuries are also considered. While there are several monographs on Tartessos written in Spanish, some of them excellent (e.g., M. Torres Ortiz, Tartessos [Madrid 2002]), their international impact has been rather limited, a shortcoming that the current book will certainly overcome. The authors are reputed scholars in their fields and have complementary areas of expertise, with Celestino being a specialist on the archaeology of the period and López-Ruiz specializing in ancient literary sources and linguistics.

But what is Tartessos? This is a complicated question that lies at the core of the debates encapsulated in the book, as our modern conceptions represent a sort of “collage” of different sources and understandings. Perhaps the easiest definition is the one provided on the back cover: “the earliest historical civilization in the western Mediterranean.” Leaving aside the merchandizing purpose of the phrasing, it has the advantage of placing Tartessos at the same level as other Mediterranean civilizations such as Etruria, a place it certainly deserves and that this book helps it to reclaim.

The book is structured in eight chapters, plus an initial preface and a final epilogue. Chapter 1 (“In Search of Tartessos”) outlines the history of research, starting with the seminal work by G.E. Bonsor in the area of Carmona. A major breakthrough came with the discovery in 1958 of the treasure of El Carambolo near Seville, followed by archaeological work at sites such as Setefilla and Cancho Roano. This research has been complemented by the discovery of Phoenician sites and materials along the southern Mediterranean coast of Iberia and, more recently, the Atlantic facade. As exemplified in the historiographical overview, one of the key debates that continues to divide scholars is the role of the Phoenicians. While some archaeologists consider many of the main sites, such as El Carambolo or Montemolín, to be Phoenician, others interpret them as representing the results of processes of hybridization or acculturation by the local populations, as part of the spread of the orientalizing phenomenon.

The following three chapters are devoted to the surprisingly abundant discussion in ancient written sources of Tartessos—a kind of El Dorado whose rich mineral resources attracted the attention of Greeks and Phoenicians. Chapter 2 examines the references to Tartessos in Greek geography and historiography. The main source here is Herodotus, who mentioned the famous king Arganthonios and his friendship with the Phokaians, but many other Greek writers also referred more or less directly to Tartessos. Chapter 3 then discusses the information about Tartessos in Carthaginian and Roman sources, from the references included in the literature about the Punic Wars to later sources such as Strabo and Avienus. An interesting point concerns the relationship between the names “Tartessians” (mostly referring to the Early Iron Age) and “Turdetanians” (Late Iron Age), which for the authors of the book represent the alternative Greek and Roman names for the same region and culture. Moreover, the authors discard the idea, sustained by part of Spanish scholarship, that the Tartessians would have been populations of Phoenician origin. Finally, chapter 4 discusses Tartessos in relation to references to the mythological far west, such as two of Herakles’ labors, and the Tartessic founding heroes, Gargoris and Habis. The last point is the identification of Tartessos with the Tarshish referred to in the Bible, which is considered very plausible, although unproven.

Chapter 5 begins with a much-needed theoretical discussion around concepts such as colonization, hybridity, and orientalizing. After that, the authors present a brief overview on Greek and Phoenician networks in the Mediterranean, setting the broader scene for their more regional focus on Tartessos. A very important topic, discussed in the second half of the chapter, is the question of what has been called “pre-colonization,” a term coined to indicate the presence of eastern Mediterranean influences in southern Iberia before the establishment of the first permanent Phoenician settlements. Although the scarcity of data about the Late Bronze Age local populations makes the period difficult to interpret, some recent finds from Huelva highlight the importance of oriental contacts as early as the late 10th and early ninth centuries B.C.E., with thousands of Phoenician ceramic fragments and smaller quantities of pottery originating from Greece, Cyprus, Sardinia, and Italy. However, this important and surprisingly early Mediterranean connection should not overshadow the importance of the Atlantic networks, including the famous hoard of the Ría de Huelva. It seems that Huelva was a multicultural emporion, a point where the Atlantic met the Mediterranean in a way that anticipated the centuries to come. Another important body of evidence for this period are the so-called warrior stelae of southwestern Iberia (11th to seventh centuries B.C.E.), which depict artifacts evidencing Atlantic and Mediterranean connections. The authors conclude the chapter stating that “the roots of Tartessos . . . are to be found in the prehistoric communities of the southwest, with a heavy Atlantic and inland component” (172).

Chapter 6 is devoted to human and economic landscapes, starting with an overview on geography and settlement patterns. The two most relevant points are, on the one hand, the discussions about the territory attributed to Tartessos and, on the other, how scarce the settlement evidence still is. Regarding the first aspect, the authors favored the extended territorial model, which distinguishes between a Tartessian “nucleus” in western Andalusia and an area of influence which also includes large parts of Extremadura and part of southwestern Portugal (175, map 7). The importance of mineral resources is analyzed in the next section of the chapter. The extraordinary metal richness of Tartessos—particularly in silver—was the main basis of its wealth and reputation in antiquity and the initial attraction for the Phoenician engagement in the region. In this sense, the mining district of Río Tinto played a key role. However, the emphasis on metallurgy should not let us forget the importance of agriculture and cattle raising. The authors’ claim of an early state at Tartessos in the seventh century B.C.E. seems justified in light of the evidence, although many specific mechanisms of social integration continue to be elusive. The chapter finishes with a brief discussion of the crisis that affected the Tartessic “core” after the mid sixth century B.C.E. This included the abandonment of many key sites and is attributed to a traumatic event. Around the same time, the so-called “periphery” in Extremadura was activated, as reflected in monumental palace-sanctuaries such as Cancho Roano and Turuñuelo. The latter discovery was announced only after the publication of the current book.

Chapter 7 deals with religion and ritual, one of the most important aspects for understanding Tartessos and, in particular, the process of hybridization that took place between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C.E. In fact, several of the most important Tartessic sites are sanctuaries, including El Carambolo, with its bronze figure of the Phoenician goddess Ashtart. The abundant presence of oriental elements has led some scholars to interpret these sites as Phoenician, however the authors of the volume consider them a reflection of a hybridized society, an interpretation that this reviewer shares. A similar problem is posed by many burials, particularly those in the lower Guadalquivir valley: are they graves of Phoenicians settling inland, or indigenous burials strongly influenced by oriental elements? And to what extent does the very distinction Phoenician versus local make sense in this context? Is this a new hybrid culture, and is that what we should call Tartessos?

The final chapter presents art and technology, from pottery to metalwork and from ivory plaques to writing. Once again, Phoenician influences are undeniable in all these realms, but at the same time, the linguistic evidence points toward the resilience of local traditions and traits. Surprisingly, J. Koch’s controversial, but influential, interpretation of Tartessic inscriptions as containing Celtic language elements and the derived hypothesis of “Celts from the West” (cf. B. Cunliffe and J.T. Koch, eds., Celtic from the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archaeology, Genetics, Language and Literature [Oxford 2012]) is dismissed in a short footnote without further discussion. The volume closes with an epilogue that summarizes some thoughts and poses open questions for future research.

In sum, this book is an excellent contribution to our knowledge of Tartessos, providing the first synthesis in English. It not only summarizes existing data but also includes theoretically informed reflections that open avenues for future research. While many of its interpretations remain subject to debate, the current volume represents a milestone in our knowledge about Tartessos. The missing piece of the orientalizing puzzle in the Mediterranean should, from now on, be fully integrated into international debates.

Manuel Fernández-Götz
University of Edinburgh

Book Review of Tartessos and the Phoenicians in Iberia, by Sebastián Celestino and Carolina López-Ruiz

Reviewed by Manuel Fernández-Götz

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 3 (July 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.fernandezgotz

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