Monday, 30 May 2011

...but not Basques

In the present Spanish provinces of Guipuzcoa, Vizcaya, and Navarra, there is no record whatsoever of Celtic dominance, or, for that matter, any dominance at all. For these are the Basque regions.

The Celts would have found themselves moving through this area, but it would appear that the local populations were sufficiently strong to resist them, or to finally absorb them and completely transform them.

As is well-known, Basque bears no resemblance to Spanish, or any other language.
Farther west, however, the Celts either displaced or dominated the older stocks of people, amongst them would have been the Iberians. Still farther west and northwest, they found people very much like themselves and they began to blend with them. The Celts wore trousers, whereas the Iberians still wore robes. It is likely that the Celts brought the domesticated horse with them and it is also just as likely that the Celtiberians adopted the Celtic mode of dress. Another point worth mentioning is that the Celts had no written language, yet the Iberians did, in some cases quite sophisticated. It is this language which has been used to identify the names of the gods inscribed throughout the northwest.

The Celts came into Iberia with their flocks, families, and wagons. Interestingly, one type of wagon is still in use in Galicia today. Like the Iberians, with whom it is more than likely they share a common racial bond originating in the Middle East, they were a pastoral people. It is difficult to determine which kind of economy was dominant - as in all countries, this is determined by the region itself, but in the northern forests there was an abundance of everything they needed for their animals -beech mast and acorns for pigs, and food for their horses, cattle, and goats. On the Meseta, the land proved perfect for the harvesting of crops, and there it was this type of farming which predominated.

The wild boar seems to have been an object of veneration, possibly of both groups, but certainly after the two began to meld their very similar cultures. In the northwest, several Verracos have been found: crude stone sculptures of life-sized pigs. These appear to date to the 6th century BCE, and are considered Celt-Iberian.

But the veneration of the animal did not preclude its uses as a food, often perhaps as sacrificial animals, whose flesh was later enjoyed. Other animals also seemed to have been held sacred and it is noteworthy that the Irish Celts also kept sacred cattle and swine.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Beakers and Battleaxes...

To go back somewhat: Two new groups of people emerged in Central Europe around about the late Neolithic period. Each group may be identified independently by their respective burial sites.

The first is the so-called Beaker folk, buried with their Bell Beaker-shaped drinking vessels; the second the "Battle-Axe" folk. It is thought that they may have originated in the Middle East, perhaps as far as present day Iran, and as separate peoples. In Central Europe, by about the beginning of the second millenium, they have fused to become one European people, though with varying cultures. Shortly afterwards, the Bronze age began.

Three successive cultures appear: the first, the Unêtice appear to be the original fusing of the Beaker and the Battle-Axe folk. The Tumulus culture followed the Unêtice, and they are distinguished, as the name implies, by their manner of burying their dead beneath burial mounds. These are to be found throughout Europe, and the British Isles, , and are found also, scattered through Northern and Northwest Spain, and Northern and Central Portugal.

The next group to follow we know as the Urnfeld culture. Some scholars have identified these people as "Proto-Celtic" in that they may have spoken an early form of that language. These people cremated their dead and placed the remains in urns which were buried in flat cemeteries without any covering mound. Like the Tumulus people before them, this period of prehistory shows a great deal of expansion with trade to the south east and later the south west.

It is during the period of the Urnfeld people that agriculture begins to thrive in south and central Europe. This was the time that the Bronze Age was at its peak. Archaeological evidence shows that they produced weapons, tools, eating and cooking vessels, etc.

By the time of the Hallstatt people (named after the town of Hallstatt in Austria where large archaeological finds have been made), and La Tene people, (named likewise after an area in western Switzerland), we find tribes who are considered fully Celtic. Their culture stretched from approximately 1200 BCE to 500 BCE, and it is the very central period which is of interest to us, for this is the period that they began to cross the western passes of the Pyrenees. Many historians argue that the Halstatt people, from whom we derive the idea of "Celtishness” may have penetrated as far as Britain, and possibly later into Ireland through Wales, but by the time they did so, those who had moved towards the Iberian peninsula had long gone.

These people that entered the Western passes through the Pyrenees appear to be an earlier group. It is thought that they did so as early as 1100 BCE. That they left a strong impression upon Iberia, especially in the north, there is no doubt.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Who were the Iberians?

In order to investigate this thorny question, we have to go further into the mists of legend, and these are contradictory indeed.

The Irish Book of Leinster makes the extraordinary claim that the ancient peoples of Britain and Ireland were the descendants of some of the lost tribes of Israel. They were, surprisingly described as fair-haired, with light eyes. These were the Hiberi, or Iberi, which at least one writer claims means Hebrew. This is the story of Fenius Farsaid, the leader of the Scythians - a region to the north east of the Black Sea bordering on the Russian steppes. Several comments on this story claim that Fenius was the descendant of Noah, via Japeth his son, and that he was active in helping to build the Tower of Babel. The story says that these people left their homeland and wandered to Egypt where they were welcomed by Pharaoh who wanted to learn their language. The son of their leader, whose name was Niul, fell in love with and married Pharaoh's daughter. Her name was Scota. They had a son named Gaedel Glas, sometimes spelled as Goedel. The generations pass, and a great grandson known as Eber Scot, was suspected of having plans to take over Egypt and his people are ejected from that land. They return to Scythia where, it is said, they dwelt in their boats in the marshes.

One day, a holy man, called in the story "a Druid", told them that he had had a vision of a land which he called Irland. He prophesised: "Your people will not rest until they reach this land." Upon reaching the Danube, some of the Scythians decided to follow it, spreading their peoples upon the European lands as they wandered ever westwards. Unfortunately, since neither GPS nor Rand McNally had been invented in those days, the rest went a little off course and ended back in North Africa, likely in the regions of Libya, Tunisia (present day Carthage), or Algeria, where they supposedly stayed for 7 generations, which begs the question as to whether the druid, whose name was Caicher, described the topography of Irland to them very well. But I suppose even Druids make mistakes.

After a while, someone must have mentioned this curious fact, and they set off again, first quite possibly to Sicily, which although an island, did not measure up either, and from there to what later became known as "Spain". They may have actually gone beyond the "Pillars of Hercules" and entered the area by the River Tagus in Portugal; or conversely via the already existing Mediterranean ports. From there they gradually worked their way across the Peninsula until they reached the areas of what is now Northern Portugal, Asturias, and Galicia, either way, this green land appeared as something which even the most dense amongst them must have recognised resembled the land they had been told to expect.

At this point, I must remind you that we are referring to Myth.

Generations pass. The inhabitants of the land are known as Iberians, and many place names begin to appear including the word "Iber" (which most likely means "River" as "aber" does in Welsh, but why ruin a good story at this point!) We shall refer to it again in due course.
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Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Tartessos: a myth? Perhaps not...

New influences seem to have reached the Peninsula by about 3000 BCE and began to spread slowly through the next couple of centuries. This culture seems to have come from the Eastern Mediterranean to present day Almeria where mineral deposits were found in plenty. Some of this new wave of people appear to have come directly by sea, possibly via Sicily; others from North Africa, possibly via the region which would later become Carthage. These people may have originated in the regions around Syria and preceded the Phoenicians in their voyages in search of metals. They were called the Hiberi, and again, we shall return to them later. Others likely came via the Danube Valley, but much later. The first split had begun.

Spreading eastward along what is now the Andalucian coastline, by the middle of the second millenium these people may well have founded the legendary civilization of Tartessos - known in the bible as Tarshish. It was likely in the south west of the peninsula in what stretches towards Cadíz from Huelva and into the area now occupied by Portugal. The area was, and still is, rich in mineral deposits, especially copper and silver, and some tin and some gold. True Bronze Age technology began to emerge about this time.

Tartessos was long believed to have been a myth, another of the Atlantean-type until a German archaeologist named Adolf Schulten published a book on the subject in the 1920's. A major find appeared during routine dredging at the mouth of the Rio Tinto, near Huelva. (Tinto means "red", and the river runs with a clear copper colour. Smelting still takes place there.) An ancient wreck was found revealing more than 400 bronze weapons, needles, buttons and other artifacts.

The map I have shown above suggests that Tartessos was very close to the city of Cádiz (Gádir), probably one of Spain's oldest cities known to the Phoenicians. The wide bay shows a basin where the Guadalquivir and Guadalete rivers would have met. This may have stretched towards modern day Sevilla and would have encompassed the Doñana, Europe's largest national park in area and today a mostly wetland sanctuary for many rare species of wildlfe.

This area has even been suggested recently as the site of "Atlantis"! See
for an interesting paper on this particular subject.

More soon