When the Phoenicians arrived on the Iberian peninsula, probably at the end of the ninth century B.C., they came into contact with an indigenous people called the Tartessians. The two cultures soon fused. The hybrid culture produced by this fusion of peoples is evident in a mysterious structure at Cancho Roano, deep in the heart of south-central Spain. The structure at Cancho Roano is sometimes called a “palace-sanctuary” because of its monumentality. But it was not a 022palace at all; it was simply a Tartessian sanctuary, which over time became influenced by Phoenician culture.a
Scholars have only recently begun to separate Tartessian history from myth. When the Greeks reached the Iberian peninsula a few centuries after the Phoenicians, they called the land Tartessos. (The word “Tartessos” is a Greek version of the root trt/trd, which appears in a number of indigenous names—for example, Turduli, Turdetani—of the southwest Iberian peninsula.) For the Greeks, Tartessos was the mysterious land on the other side of Hercules’s columns (the Rock of Gibraltar); it was the gateway to the terra incognita.
According to the fifth-century B.C. historian Herodotus, Tartessian civilization was discovered accidentally by a Greek named Kolaios, who became extremely rich as a result of his trade with the Tartessians (History 4.152 ff.). From Herodotus, we also learn of a legendary Tartessian king named Arganthonius (meaning “man [or flower] of silver” in Greek), who welcomed the Greek merchants with rich gifts.
A number of other ancient works also make reference to Tartessos. One of them, Ora Maritima, a tantalizing Latin account 023of Phoenician travelers who explored the Atlantic coast up to Ireland and Britain, was written in the late fourth century A.D. by the Roman fabulist Avienus, who apparently based his text on a sixth-century B.C. Punic periplus (travel narrative).
Recent archaeological work suggests that Tartessos included a number of small proto-urban settlements largely dependent on agricultural and mineral (particularly silver) exploitation. This is probably what attracted the Phoenicians and formed the basis of Tartessian wealth.
Exactly when the Phoenicians arrived remains in question. According to ancient sources, such as Strabo (c. 60 B.C.–21 A.D.) and Pliny (23–79 A.D.), they arrived in the late 12th century B.C. and laid the foundations of sites such as Cadiz (Gadir) and Utica. But archaeological excavations at these sites have not uncovered remains earlier than the eighth century B.C.b The first-century B.C. historian Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus of Sicily) writes that the Phoenicians arrived on the peninsula while searching for silver but only settled there much later (Library of History 5.35.1–5, 5.20.1–2).
Some scholars identify biblical Tarshish with Iberian Tartessos. The prophet Isaiah, who lived in the latter part of the eighth century B.C., may refer to the Phoenicians’ sailing to the Iberian peninsula and reaching Tartessos/Tarshish:
The Lord poised his arm over the sea
And made kingdoms quake;
It was he decreed destruction for Phoenicia’s strongholds …
Howl, O ships of Tarshish,
For your stronghold is destroyed.
Although the location of biblical Tarshish is much debated, an inscription of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (680–669 B.C.) suggests that it was located on the Mediterranean coast: “All the kings from (the islands) amidst the sea—from the country Iadanana [Cyprus], as far as Tarsisi [Tarshish], bowed to my feet and I received heavy tribute (from them).”1 Many scholars have connected Tarshish to Iberian Tartessos;2 it is possible that both names, the Semitic “Tarshish/Tarsisi” and the Greek “Tartessos,” derive from the same Iberian root, trt/trd. Nonetheless, the connection between Iberian Tartessos and biblical Tarshish can only remain a matter of speculation until new evidence is found.
The core area of Tartessian civilization comprised the modern Spanish provinces of Cadiz, Seville, Huelva and the Algarve in modern Portugal. After the seventh century B.C., Tartessian influence expanded, reaching the Guadiana Valley (where Cancho Roano is located) and a considerable portion of the southeastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula. However, the Tartessians never formed a united country, nor did they create independent city-states. What bound the Tartessians together as a people over this large territory were their ethnic and cultural traits—and, especially, their religious beliefs. One of the key institutions for understanding the Tartessians is the sacred sanctuary, or shared religious precinct.
Most of these sanctuaries are in the core of the Tartessian world, but there are also many in the periphery (as distant as modern Portugal). One of these peripheral sanctuaries is the extraordinary site of Cancho Roano (“Reddish Rock” in Spanish), which functioned from the end of the seventh century B.C. to the end of the fifth century B.C.
For years local farmers in this rich agricultural area knew that there were archaeological remains at the site, because they had difficulty growing their crops on the mound. When they tried to dig it up for planting, they would come upon walls, building blocks and ash. Only some lovely oak trees thrived at the site. Eventually, the archaeologists who came to investigate found that the low mound concealed one of the most striking buildings of Spanish prehistory. Since 1978 the site has been excavated by the University of Barcelona, first under the direction of Juan Maluquer de Montes (1978–1988) 025and now under the direction of co-author Sebastián Celestino (1987 to the present).
The sanctuary was built in a depression next to a small creek, away from any large thoroughfare. To reach it, you had to know exactly where it was. The location probably had something to do with the availability of water from the springs that feed the creek throughout the year.
Although we have been speaking of Cancho Roano as a sanctuary, the site actually consists of four sanctuaries constructed at different times on the same site, one on top of another. We have designated these various strata, from top to bottom (that is, latest to earliest), as sanctuaries A, B, C and D.
Sanctuary D rests on bedrock. It is a round structure of which almost nothing remains, making it extremely difficult to interpret. Perhaps it was the tomb of a “hero” ancestor around which a cult formed. In any event, the structure can be dated by pottery finds to the end of the seventh century B.C.
Sanctuary C (see photo, below), which dates to the beginning of the sixth century, is built on a stone foundation with mudbrick walls covered with white plaster. Its main room—the only room that is preserved, since the rest of the structure was destroyed to make Sanctuary B—is a rectangular space of about 350 square feet, built just to the south of the round structure of Sanctuary D. Inside Sanctuary C, a 2-foot-wide raised mudbrick platform, approached by steps, took up the entire left (south) side, from the front of the building to the rear. Supplicants probably placed offerings on this platform. At the far end of the sanctuary, adjacent to the platform, was a shelf on which we found several bronze jars.
In the middle of this sanctuary was an altar, consisting of a circle 3.5 feet in diameter, seemingly supported by the point of a triangle. Within the triangle we found a ceramic bowl, which was probably used as a vessel for some ritual offering.
The building and its altar were clearly influenced by elements from the eastern Mediterranean. For example, the circle-and-triangle altar resembles the Phoenician-Punic symbol for the goddess Tanit; but it also resembles the Egyptian hieroglyph for “eternity,” as co-author Sebastián Celestino has recently suggested. Although the altar appears to fuse Tartessian, Phoenician and other elements, we do not yet know their meaning or exact origins.
For some unknown reason, Sanctuary C was deliberately demolished toward the end of the sixth century B.C. and its mudbricks were re-used to construct the platform of a new building, Sanctuary B, which remains beautifully preserved (because its foundations were not reused to build the later Sanctuary A). Sanctuary B was a sprawling, many-roomed 027structure whose impressive entranceway was flanked by two partially circular towers. The main room used for cultic purposes occupied exactly the same space used previously by Sanctuary C, and the later altar was built on exactly the same spot as the earlier altar. Like its predecessor, the Sanctuary B altar was made of mudbrick covered with white plaster. But it was constructed in the shape of a stretched-out oxhide—the same shape as the so-called oxhide ingots of copper and tin that were a major cargo on Phoenician vessels that plied the Mediterranean.
The excavators found charcoal and ash in the Sanctuary B altar, indicating that burning was involved in the rituals performed there.
Like Sanctuary C, Sanctuary B was intentionally destroyed (at the beginning of the fifth century), which explains why almost no small finds were discovered in either of these strata: Everything was cleared out before the sanctuaries were destroyed.
Not long after the destruction of Sanctuary B, the inhabitants of Cancho Roano built the impressive Sanctuary A, which turned out to be the last sanctuary built on the site.
First they constructed a large new mudbrick platform as a foundation for the sanctuary. Then they built the huge new complex, which was a square structure about 80 feet long on each side. This structure consisted of a main building of two stories enclosed on all four sides by a perimeter of outer rooms separated from the main building by a narrow corridor. The entire complex was surrounded by a defensive moat.
The moat, which is over 15 feet deep in places, was dug out of bedrock. We have found a great deal of local pottery in the moat. Surprisingly, we have also found skeletons of what at first appeared 028to be horses or donkeys. Later analysis showed that these were the bones of a now-extinct equid not known anywhere else in the world—one smaller than a horse but taller than a donkey or a pony. Study of the bones revealed that the animals had not been used for hard labor or transportation. Stranger still, they were all beheaded and buried in the western moat—the bones of their bodies at one end of the moat and their skulls at the other. We have found nearly 30 of these creatures. Were they sacred animals? Did worshipers mount them for ritual processions? Did they have some other cultic function? We are open to suggestions, and we hope that further excavations will help solve this mystery.
Visitors to Sanctuary A would have crossed the moat on a bridge, which allowed them access to a monumental gateway. They would then step from the bridge onto two steps, made of stone slabs. One of these stone slabs was a stela showing a warrior and his armor; this stela was reused from Sanctuary D, establishing a continuity between the oldest and newest structures on the site.
The entrance itself was flanked by two trapezoid-shaped towers, which covered the same spot as Sanctuary B’s towers. Visitors would pass between the large towers into a courtyard that was once paved with slate. In the center of the courtyard was a deep well (which still has water in it today) from a stream that runs under the site. The finds from this area are rich, including 22 amphoras (of the 80 or so found in the whole complex), no doubt connected with some water ritual. Excavators have also found nearly 50 millstones, loom weights and agricultural implements (including sickles, curved knives, an iron saw, a hoe and an iron plough—the oldest one attested in the Iberian peninsula).
Although Sanctuary A’s main cultic room was almost certainly on the second floor, one of the rooms on the lower floor had special sacred significance. In the room located directly over the oxhide-shaped altar of Sanctuary B (and thus over the earlier circle-and-triangle altar of Sanctuary C) is a pillar still preserved to a height of 8 feet. This pillar, made of mudbrick carefully covered with plaster, clearly marked the sanctity of the spot, perhaps establishing a continuity between this sanctuary and its predecessors. (Possibly, the pillar “pointed” to the new Sanctuary A altar above it on the second floor.)
The second floor of the sanctuary has not survived—though the outer wall still stands 13 feet high, with white plaster on the interior and red paint on the exterior. When the second-story floor collapsed, its material—including some of the most valuable objects found in the sanctuary—was 029dispersed throughout the rooms below (which is why we believe that the principal cultic space was on the second floor, even though the second floor has not survived). We have found beautifully crafted rings, pendants and gold beads with filigree decoration. We have also found bronze objects (including a beautiful infundibulum, or strainer, in the shape of a ram) and Greek ceramic vessels, which seem to have been related to the ritual consumption of wine. Other finds include perfume flasks, Egyptian scarabs and ivory furniture panels. A set of scales with metal pans indicates the economic importance of the sanctuary and the commercial control it must have exercised.
The finds from the 24 perimeter rooms (six on each side) that enclosed the main building also indicate how the sanctuary functioned. In the north rooms we found a group of offerings repeated several times, each group consisting of two amphoras (one for grain and one for wine), a large, locally manufactured vase leaning on a wall, and an array of smaller vases, plates and cooking pots. Some of the plates still contained lamb and goat bones from animals that had been cooked and eaten or used as offerings.
In the west perimeter rooms, excavators have found clay loom weights (their wooden looms disintegrated long ago), bronze needles and plates with the remains of ink of various colors. Clearly, textiles were made in these rooms, perhaps for priestly garments and other ritual uses.
One especially intriguing find from a perimeter room on the west side is an 8-inch-long bronze horse of Tartessian type, showing a mixture of indigenous and eastern Mediterranean elements (probably transported to the western Mediterranean by the Phoenicians). Although the horse was very likely manufactured locally, some of its features—such as the way in which its parts were assembled and the decoration of the harness—resemble Cypriot bronzes.
The sanctuary at Cancho Roano was abandoned at the end of the fifth century B.C. We don’t know why the people at Cancho Roano left their magnificent complex, but it does seem that they performed some elaborate final ceremony, probably in the patio, which was accompanied by rich offerings. The participants probably consumed the meat of the sacrificed animals, whose bones were then thrown into the moat, along with the cooking pots, plates and vases used in the ceremony. They sealed the main entrance and windows with mudbricks, and they set the building afire.
At some point the upper floor collapsed. And then, with the passing of century upon century, the whole sanctuary complex became buried under sand and debris—where it lay waiting for 20th-century archaeologists.
When the Phoenicians arrived on the Iberian peninsula, probably at the end of the ninth century B.C., they came into contact with an indigenous people called the Tartessians. The two cultures soon fused. The hybrid culture produced by this fusion of peoples is evident in a mysterious structure at Cancho Roano, deep in the heart of south-central Spain. The structure at Cancho Roano is sometimes called a “palace-sanctuary” because of its monumentality. But it was not a 022palace at all; it was simply a Tartessian sanctuary, which over time became influenced by Phoenician culture.a Scholars have only recently […]