In the summer of 1975 a Spanish gypsy named Virgilio Romero Moreno visited the museum in Jaén, 250 miles south of Madrid, and offered to sell several limestone sculptures. After some negotiation, the museum bought the pieces, which had recently been dug up near the village of Porcuna in the hilly countryside of Andalusia. That site, archaeologists would soon learn, was the repository of dozens of stone carvings and hundreds of sculptural fragments dating to the second half of the fifth century B.C.—the most impressive collection of ancient
Iberian statues ever found.
In one highly dramatic carving, a warrior struggles to fend off a ferocious griffin; even though the beast digs its claws into its adversary’s thighs, the warrior still manages to dislocate the griffin’s jaw, causing the beast’s tongue to dangle from its mouth. Other statues show men fighting against men. One of these depicts a fallen warrior grabbing his opponent by the leg and, presumably, pleading for his life. Another shows a triumphant soldier standing over his foe, while a bird ominously waits to devour the defeated man’s entrails. In yet another carving, a warrior has thrust a spear down his enemy’s mouth with such force that the spear point sticks out the enemy’s back.
These finely carved statues are also distinguished in another way: Almost all of them are headless.
Just two or three decades after the figures were carved, they were decapitated and tossed into a ditch. Only one head, showing a helmeted soldier with a strong square jaw, managed to survive—though it too had been separated from its body. This treatment of the Porcuna sculptures was probably an example of damnation memoriae, an attempt by one generation to destroy the memory of the preceding one. (Many ancient peoples 026believed that the animating spirit of the human body resided in the head.)
No one knows who destroyed these limestone statues—or, for that matter, what exactly they represent. They are nonetheless some of the finest sculptures produced by the ancient inhabitants of Spain and Portugal. They were carved during what scholars call the classical period of Iberian art, which lasted for about 400 years—from the end of the sixth century B.C. to the early first century B.C., when the Roman Empire colonized the Iberian peninsula and extinguished most traces of this culture.
The Iberians were descendants of an indigenous people who were extremely receptive to outside influences, particularly from the eastern Mediterranean. According to historical tradition, native Iberian princes controlled a rich trade in metals along the southern coast. Probably by the eighth century B.C., this land had become known as Tartessus, which some scholars identify as biblical Tarshish. It was to Tarshish that King Solomon sent fleets of ships, which returned to Israel with “gold and silver, ivory, apes and monkeys” (2 Chronicles 9:21). The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 485–425 B.C.) writes that the sailor Colaeus returned from Tartessus, a “virgin territory” of southern Spain, with “the biggest profit any Greek trader … has ever made” (Histories 4.152). Herodotus also writes that an ancient Tartessian monarch named Arganthonius—meaning “man (or flower) of silver” in Greek—welcomed the Phocaeans (a first-millennium B.C. Greek sea-trading people who lived in Ionia, on the Aegean coast of Anatolia) and bestowed great riches upon them (Histories 1.163).
According to ancient literary sources, around 1100 B.C. Phoenicians from Tyre, on the coast of modern Lebanon, sailed into the Atlantic and established a settlement at Gadir (modern Cádiz). The Phoenicians were almost certainly attracted by stories of abundant Iberian metals, not only precious silver but also useful tin and lead. As early as the seventh century B.C., Greek traders from Ionia (including the Phocaeans mentioned by Herodotus) began to compete with the Phoenicians for the riches of Iberia.
During this “orientalizing” period (c. 700–550 B.C.), Tartessian culture became 028influenced by Phoenician and, to a lesser extent, Greek religious beliefs and artistic styles—resulting in a kind of vigorous eclecticism. Large Tartessian amphoras, for example, are painted with eastern Mediterranean motifs, especially animals and monsters. A frieze of lotuses decorates a bichrome jug from the town of Carmona. On a similar red-and-brown vase, winged griffins protect sprouting lotus buds, perhaps recalling the sphinx-like cherubim that guard the eastern gate of Eden in the Bible (Genesis 3:24).
Phoenician influences are obvious in Tartessian metalworking and stone carving. And the many belts, diadems, necklaces and earrings produced in Tartessus depict a mythical and heroic universe rife with Near Eastern motifs. In 1920 a tomb full of metal objects was discovered in the town of Aliseda. Among them was a broad gold belt decorated with scenes of a man fighting a rampant lion; this brave Tartessian recalls Samson, who struggles with a lion cub in the biblical Book of Judges. The Aliseda tomb also yielded a large gold earring showing a series of lotus blossoms flanked by hawks—common symbols of power and royalty in Near Eastern artistic traditions.a
The Phoenicians also brought their own works of cultic art to the Iberian Peninsula. For example, a 700 B.C. bronze statuette found near Seville shows the naked goddess Astarte; on the base of the figure, a dedicatory inscription is chiseled, the oldest mention of Astarte in the West.
The splendid, decadent world of Tartessus was not to last beyond the sixth century B.C. From southern Andalusia to northern Catalonia arose a new order of small fiefdoms. This world consisted of towns dominated by aristocratic families who reigned from hilltop settlements called oppida (singular, oppidum). When scholars speak of “Iberian” civilization, they are referring to these relatively autonomous dynasties, each with its own social organization—though neighboring oppida may have been clustered into leagues for purposes of trade.
Relations between various oppida became stronger after the third century B.C., when sanctuaries were built for common use by 031several communities. At these religious centers, people from nearby oppida could meet to worship as well as to make dynastic alliances or political and commercial arrangements. Votive offerings of stone, terracotta and bronze have been found at these sites. The offerings are depictions of men and women of various ages and social positions. The most impressive show women in elegant gowns adorned in gold and silver, and armed men carrying small round shields and sacred swords with curved blades.
But who were these Iberians? What god or gods did they worship? What did they think about the world around them, or about the afterlife?
Unlike Greece and Rome, the world of Iberia is not illuminated by rich, complex texts. Although the Greek geographer Strabo (c. 64 B.C.–21 A.D.) described an indigenous people called the Turdetanians who possessed an old and rich poetic tradition, we do not have the work of any Iberian poets. We have no Iberian historians, no great imperial courts with scribal traditions. At least not yet. The Iberians developed a writing system, but we cannot read the few texts they left behind (see the second sidebar to this article). Perhaps one day a great Iberian epic will be found and the script deciphered. Until then, along with what archaeology and ancient literary sources tell us, what we know about the 400 years of Iberian culture must come from Iberian art.
One clue comes from the tomb of Pozo Moro in the province of Albacete, in central Spain. The tomb is a 16-foot-tall funerary tower made of limestone blocks. A bronze jar and two Attic vases found at the site date the burial to around 500 B.C., the period of transition between the orientalizing Tartessian period and the Iberian era. (Because of poor construction, the tomb fell apart not long after it was built, though a reconstruction is now in Madrid’s National Archaeological Museum.) Carved on the walls of the tomb are friezes depicting mythological scenes, which likely had their origins in the eastern Mediterranean. One relief shows a monstrous creature, clearly not human, cooking a small person in a bronze vessel while clutching a knife with a curved blade. Another, similar creature then offers up the bowl to a 033two-headed divinity. The person being cooked is still alive, and he gestures while peeping from the edge of the bowl. A dead boar rests on a small side table, and the two-headed god with the voracious appetite grabs the animal by one of its feet.
These depictions of an infernal banquet—with a magical concoction (here a human being) being prepared in a cauldron—are reminiscent of myths and perhaps ritual practices from farther east. In Greek myth, for example, Tantalus, out of hatred for the gods, kills his son Pelops and serves him to divine guests at a banquet—to bring upon them the deep horror and shame of being cannibals.
Another relief from Pozo Moro shows the journey of an Iberian hero to an infernal region protected by fire-breathing lions and inhabited by strange demon-like characters. On his shoulders, the hero carries an enormous tree branch with blossoming flowers and nesting birds—an Iberian version of the eastern motif of royalty associated with a tree of life.b This scene is followed by a kind of sacred matrimony, in which the hero makes love to a woman who is almost certainly a goddess, judging by her robust size. The princely offspring of this union will clearly be divine.
On yet another relief carving, a naked female deity sits on a chair and extends her arms and legs, from which large lotus flowers have sprouted. The presence of a fertility goddess at a burial strongly suggests the idea of an afterlife; presumably the deceased is reanimated through the power of the goddess and then reborn in the next world.c
Almost every burial tomb built for an Iberian aristocrat is decorated with monsters and heroes carved out of stone. At Agost, in the modern province of Alicante, sphinxes with feminine faces once crowned a tomb dating to the end of the sixth century B.C. The sphinxes, now in museums in Spain and France, bear the mark of local craftsmanship, though the sculptor was clearly influenced by Greek prototypes. Another sphinx (from 034Haches in Albacete), which once guarded a corner of a funerary monument, has a distinctive triangular face similar to the famous smiling sphinxes of Greek sculpture.
Lions, sphinxes, griffins—all were installed to protect the deceased in the realm of the dead. Winged sphinxes were of particular importance, since they were thought to cross the threshold of this world and guide the deceased to the beyond. Another hybrid creature, the Bicha de Balazote, a bull with the dimpled face of a human, probably also knew the path to the afterlife. The Bicha is a sage being, with a long beard suggesting permanence and wisdom, and with open and attentive eyes.
A number of Iberian funerary monuments were crowned by stone horses. On some of them, a man (the deceased?) rides the horse, galloping into the afterlife.
The presence of the natural world in Iberian tomb art suggests the continuity of life and death, of this world and the next. Animals are used specifically to bridge those worlds. The bull, which in everyday life toiled in the fields and brought wealth to the city, is often portrayed in tomb sculpture with exaggerated testicles—probably to suggest fertility and thus the possibility of rebirth. Most of all, one finds images of wolves, creatures the Iberians would have known and feared. The wolf is the ultimate unifier of realms: It menaces the human world and then escapes into the forest—or the unknown abyss. And its howl, present butunseen, may suggests both a physical and a spiritual world. What better animal to lead man from life to death to rebirth?
Perhaps the most intriguing images in Iberian art are its majestic ladies with elaborate adornments. Although we know little about the lives of actual women in first-millennium B.C. Iberia, depictions of them certainly seem to be invested with an element of the sacred. When Iberian artists depicted women in statues, on coins and on vases, they portrayed them as either priestesses or as goddesses of love, death or war.
The sanctuary at the Cerro de los Santos (Hill of the Saints) once housed several statues of women, all dressed in their best 062finery. Some are seated, resting in dignified poses on their thrones, while others are standing in order to make offerings to deities. Scholars have associated these splendid statues with initiation or matrimonial rituals.
In 1897 the most famous of the Iberian female representations was found near the town of Elche (see the first sidebar to this article). The expressive, iconic Dama de Elche (Lady of Elche) is a bust of a woman with two ornate, circular buns holding up her hair on both sides of her face. (Her visage once graced the Spanish one-peseta note; used as a symbol during the Franco regime of the 1940s, she thus became a symbol of Spain itself.) Necklaces strung with small amphoras and lockets suggest the Dama’s status and wealth. Like other Iberian statues, the bust has an opening in the back, into which the ashes of a deceased person 063could have been placed. The fine features of the Dama’s face suggest the influence of fifth-century B.C. Greek art. The artist has depicted her with a slightly downward gaze, endowing her with a touching sense of distance and bashful modesty. Perhaps the Dama is the portrait of an actual woman, or the idealized image of a princess. In any case, there is something divine about her that cannot be ignored.
From the third and second centuries B.C., the so-called Ibero-Hellenistic era, we have a number of painted ceramic vases. Some show wealthy Iberians residing in large and formidable oppida. Each town where these vases were produced developed its own distinctive style. In Elche, for example, artists conveyed a robust vision of the natural world, with large budding flowers and various animals—eagles and wolves—among the vegetation. There are also portrayals of human heroism: On one vase from Elche, a young man single-handedly confronts a giant wild animal.
Painted vases from the Cerro de San Miguel (Hill of St. Miguel), in Liria, depict human life as joyful and exuberant. Men and women dance together, holding hands. Soldiers are engaged in various competitions, while musical instruments are played.
We still have much to learn about this Iberian civilization that gradually melted into the Roman Empire. The dramatic sculptures from Porcuna may delight the eye, but we just don’t know much about what they represent or about the people who made them. The Pozo Moro monument offers a fascinating, epic-like narrative—but it’s one we can only read in sketches. The Dama de Elche imperiously (or shyly) removes her gaze from her viewer, though we can’t say exactly why. Iberian art is beautiful and intriguing; hopefully, we will learn more about it in the future, particularly through archaeological investigations and a decipherment of the Iberian language.
In the summer of 1975 a Spanish gypsy named Virgilio Romero Moreno visited the museum in Jaén, 250 miles south of Madrid, and offered to sell several limestone sculptures. After some negotiation, the museum bought the pieces, which had recently been dug up near the village of Porcuna in the hilly countryside of Andalusia. That site, archaeologists would soon learn, was the repository of dozens of stone carvings and hundreds of sculptural fragments dating to the second half of the fifth century B.C.—the most impressive collection of ancient 024 Iberian statues ever found. In one highly dramatic carving, a […]