The southern coast of Spain and Portugal once comprised the homeland of a lost civilization known as Tartessos. It lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules and was widely renowned for its incredible wealth and the influence it brought. It also mysteriously vanished in the middle of the first millennium BC, leading some to believe it was the inspiration for Plato’s Atlantis or a descendent civilization of it. The origins of Tartessos, its people, and its fate remain a mystery. During its peak, it was like the ancient world’s version of El Dorado: a distant, exotic land of wonder full of riches unimaginable.
Traditionally, Tartessos is thought to have risen to prominence from 9th to the 6th Century BC, when the Phoenicians and the Greeks, with their vast trading networks, really put it on the map. The Phoenicians even established colonies there; Gadir (modern Cadiz) being the most notable. However, there is good reason to believe it was much older. Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 1st Century BC, confirms that the Phoenicians had arrived in Tartessos looking for silver well before they started establishing colonies there. Since Gadir (modern Cadiz) is said to have been established by the Phoenicians in roughly 1100 BC, Tartessos itself must have had an earlier beginning.
Archaeological and metallurgical evidence also tells us that the indigenous Tartessians had already developed the technology for mining that would produce the fabulous wealth that Tartessos became known for before the arrival of colonists from the Eastern Mediterranean. Located as it was in close proximity to the Iberian Pyrite Belt, it was loaded with silver, gold, copper, tin, and to a lesser extent, iron.
Tartessos is also the only civilization outside of the Middle East mentioned in the Old Testament. There it is referred to as “Tarshish”. In fact, it was there that Jonah tried to flee before the whale swallowed him. Other verses reference connections with King Solomon and Hiram, King of Tyre (c. 980-947) and speak to its great wealth in metals:
2 Chronicles 9:21: “For the king’s [Solomon] ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Hiram [King of Tyre c. 980-947]; once every three years the ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.”
Other ancient texts also speak to its age and great riches – especially silver. One collection of texts called “On Marvelous Things Heard” (and attributed to Artistotle), says: “It is said that the first Phoenicians who said to Tartessos took away so much silver as cargo, carrying there olive-oil and other petty wares, that no one could keep or receive the silver but that on sailing away from the district they had to make all their other vessels of silver, and even all the anchors.”
Likewise, Herodotus tell us that it was the Phocaeans who were “the first of the Hellenes who made long voyages, and these are they who discovered the Adriatic and Tyrsenia and Iberia and Tartessos…” and that “they became friends with the King of the Tartessians whose name was Arganthonios (meaning “The Silver King”): he was ruler of the Tartessians for eighty years and lived in all one hundred and twenty.”
Apart from its legendary wealth and general location, however, Tartessos remains a mystery. Its precise location (especially of its capital), its people, its culture, and what happened to it are all questions that have yet to be answered.
Today, Tartessos it is thought to have been located in Western Andalusia in the region of the modern Huelva, Seville, and into the Portuguese region known as the Algarve. Many think that its capital lay somewhere near the mouth of the Guadalquivir River.
One archaeologist, Adolf Schulten spent much of his career looking for Tartessos and until his death in 1960, insisted that its capital city lay beneath the modern Doñana National Park. Unfortunately, due to the high water table, excavations were foiled.
More recently, Peter Daughtrey, in his book Atlantis and the Silver City, makes a strong case for Arganthonios’s (Herodotus’ “Silver King”) capital being in the Portugese Algarve where the modern city of Silves is located. He also speculates, with some considerable justification, that the Tartessian culture was a descendant culture of the fabled Atlantis.
Two sites in particular offer some tantalizing clues to Tartessian culture.
The first is Cancho Roano, which functioned as a sanctuary from the 7th to the 5th century BC. It is located remarkably inland for a Tartessian site. It consists of 4 sanctuaries, each built on top of the one before. It appears to have been purposefully abandoned in the 5th Century BC, for no apparent reason. There is evidence of one final ceremony that saw bones, pots, plates, and vases thrown into the moat of the 4th stage of the sanctuary, after which the main entrance sealed and the building set on fire.
nother site nearby, Casas del Turuñuelo, was also abandoned around the same time and in a similar fashion: a final ceremony, with animal sacrifice, followed by burning and abandonment. In this case, horse remains were arranged purposefully, sometimes in pairs and with their heads entwined. Was the horse a sacred animal to them? Also found were artefacts from across the known world at the time; a testament to the far reaching trade connections exercised by the Tartessians and their Phoenician and Greek trading partners.
The Phoenicians always held the strongest influence in determining the evolution of later Tartessian culture. One ancient source mentions that the Tartessians worshiped the Phoenician Melqart (the equivalent of Heracles) and Astarte, the Phoenician goddess of war and love. What the indigenous beliefs of the Tartessians were originally is unknown.
The origin of their writing system has proven controversial. It is frequently argued that the Tartessian script, also known as the Southwestern script was derived from Phoenician and Greek influences. Some have suggested, however, that it was the other way around. The Roman historians, Tacitus and Diodorus Siculus, both attest that the Phoenicians did not invent their writing but received it from elsewhere. If the Tartessian script was the source, this would alter a lot of our understanding of the ancient world.
What makes it even more jaw-dropping is something that Strabo (64BC-AD34) tells us about the Turdetani: the Iberian tribe that some claim the Tartessians morphed into after their power and influence waned; even going so far as to call them “doppelgangers”. He says this about them:
“They are the most cultured of all Iberians; they employ the art of writing and have written books containing memorials of ancient times, and also poems and laws set in verse, for which they claim an antiquity of six thousand years.” This of course lends credence to those who would see Tartessos as Atlantis or at least a descendent of it.
After the Phoenicians started leaving in the 6th century BC, on account of their own homeland being invaded by Persia, Tartessos as it was known fades away as well. Its Greek contacts were also largely cut off due to conflicts between the Greeks and Carthaginians.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM?
What became of shining Tartessos and its people? No one knows. Perhaps they did become what Roman writers referred to as the Turdetani and quite possibly, also the Conii tribe, whose lands were in the Portugese Algarve and into parts of the Badajoz province in Spain – where we find Cancho Roano and Casas del Turuñuelo. Why they abandoned these sites we may never know.
One text, the Ora Maritima, written by Avienus in 300 AD, but whose source material is thought to have been a much older Carthaginian travel narrative from the 6th century says this about Tartessos:
… It was a great and wealthy city
In ancient times. Now it is poor, now it is small,
Now it is forsaken. Now it is a heap of ruins.
We saw nothing wonderful here,
Except the festival of Hercules.
But there was such power in those rites, or such glory,
In a former age…
Though Tartessian glory seems to have faded fast so great was its reputation, that it was still being referenced hundreds of years later. The Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias, in the second century AD tells us about a bronze treasury dedication at Olympia made by the Sicyonians in 648BC. He says: “In the treasury were two chambers, one Dorian, and one in the Ionic style. I saw that they were made of bronze; whether the bronze was Tartessian, as the Eleans declare, I do not know.” Even as late as the 2nd century AD, Tartessian wares were STILL known and considered to be objects of rare value.
Today, the mystery of Tartessos endures. A lost civilization full of riches spoken of in reverent tones by other ancient civilizations dazzles the mind with the prospect of uncovering hidden secrets and treasure. In light of this, perhaps the greatest mystery is why so few have heard of it. Until now.
Adams, Mark. Meet me in Atlantis. Dutton, 2015.
Ancient History Encyclopedia. “Tartessos.” www.ancient.eu/tartessos/.
Bartos, Nick. “Beyond the Pillars of Hercules – Excavating an Iron Age seat of power.” Current World Archaeology, www.world-archaeology.com/issues/beyond-the-pillars-of-hercules-excavating-an-iron-age-seat-of-power/.
Celestino, Sebastián and Carolina López-Ruiz. “Sacred Precincts: A Tartessian Sanctuary in Ancient Spain.” Archaeology Odyssey, web.archive.org/web/20031203010404/http://www.bib-arch.org/bswb_AO/bswbao0606f1.html.
Chamorro, Javier G. “Survey of Archaeological Research on Tartessos.” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 91, No. 2 (Apr., 1987), pp. 197-232.
Daughtrey, Peter. Atlantis and the Silver City. Pegasus Books, 2013.
Kühne, Rainer W. “Tartessos-Tarshish was the model for Plato’s Atlantis.” 2011, vixra.org/pdf/1103.0040v1.pdf.
López-Ruiz, Carolina. “Tarshish and Tartessos Revisited: Textual Problems and Historical Implications.” in M. Dietler and C. López-Ruiz (eds.) Colonial Encounters in Ancient Iberia: Phoenician, Greek, and Indigenous Relations, The University of Chicago Press, 2009, pp. 255-80.
Pithom. “Why Semitic Tarshish is Greek Tartessos.” 1 Jan 2011, againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/2011/01/01/tarsh-tart/.
Villarías-Robles, Juan J.R. and Antonio Rodríguez-Ramírez. “The Representation of the Kingdom of Tartessus by the Ancient Greeks Revisited: New Evidence for a Forgotten Cause.” International Conference: Ancient Greece and Contemporary World: The Influence of Greek Thought on Philosophy, Science and Technology (Ancient Olympia, Greece, 2831 Aug 2016).
Primary Sources can be found at:
“Tartessos (Spain) 65 Huelva? – Ταρτησός.” ToposText, Aikaterini Laskaridi Foundation, topostext.org/place/373000PTar.