Iberia in the Iron Age

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As in other areas of the Mediterranean, the classic European division of the Iron Age into the Hallstatt and La Tène phases is not applicable to the Iberian Peninsula. During the first millennium b.c. this area underwent intense change in which different cultures interacted. The local traditions of the Bronze Age came to an end, and new populations became established. Some of them were of Continental origin, for example, those of the Urnfield culture, the last traces of which are seen in the seventh century b.c. Of greater impact, however, were those of the Mediterranean, beginning with the Phoenicians, who founded their first colonies along the southern coast at the end of the ninth century b.c. The cultural characteristics of the Iberian Peninsula, with its Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Continental influences as well as its local traditions, made the Iron Age a time of complex change that showed little chronological homogeneity. The general features that developed over the long term included the definitive settlement of populations, the marking of political territories, the intensification of agriculture through the introduction of iron tools, the progressive development of social hierarchy, and accompanying ideological changes.


The arrival of the Phoenicians and the founding of several coastal colonies and trading ports were among the factors that marked the beginning of the Iron Age on the Iberian Peninsula. Important transformations occurred in the economics of the area, accompanied by changes in the political, religious, and social spheres. The Phoenician colonies, among which Gadir (now Cádiz) stands out, assured their subsistence by marking out large catchment areas as well as developing fishing and fish-salting industries. Specialized crafts were developed that introduced new techniques to goldsmithing, the forging of iron, and the making of wheel-turned pottery. In addition to introducing such exotic objects as ivory, alabaster jars, and ostrich eggs, these colonies are attributed with introducing new domestic fauna, such as asses and chickens; expanding wine consumption; and generally incorporating much of the peninsula into the political and commercial dynamics of the Mediterranean.

The economic factors of the Phoenician cities in the Near East were important in the election of the Iberian territories for colonization. The Ríotinto mines in the southwest (Huelva) were considered fundamental to the supply of silver to Tyrus (modern-day Tyre) and Sidon. They would allow commercial strength to be maintained while meeting the increasing tax demands of Assyria. The richness of these mining areas, which were developed in an open-cast fashion, must have been evident to Phoenician metallurgists, because the Huelva mines produced some 2,000 grams per ton of silver and 70 grams per ton of gold.

The mines of the southeast, located around what eventually would become the Carthaginian cities of Baria (present-day Viaricos) and Cartago Nova (present-day Cartagena), also were exploited. The lead ingots obtained in this way were transported by small boats that hugged the coast until they reached the main ports. The seventh-century wreck of one Phoenician vessel at Mazarrón, which has been preserved in excellent condition, was carrying 2,000 kilograms of lead oxide when it sank. The intense mining activity, which reached its peak in the seventh century b.c., caused notable deforestation and the release of important contaminants, as revealed by ice layers in Greenland that correspond to this time.

All this activity implied great change for the indigenous population, which not only saw how part of its territory was progressively occupied but also must have supplied the greater part of the workforce for the mines. The southwest of the peninsula, the hinterland of this colonial world, experienced the upsurge of the "Tartessian culture," which became a mythical reference among the legends of the extreme western Mediterranean. The people of the interior, even those far from the coast, became suppliers of the raw materials required by the Phoenicians as well as a market for the products that the colonists manufactured. Enclaves on the estuaries and along the courses of the main rivers show that Phoenician trade sought out these inland areas. Those on the Sado and Mondego Rivers in western Portugal and on the Aldovesta in the northeast of the peninsula reveal how Phoenician commerce tried to make use of the infrastructure and penetration routes controlled by native populations.

This entire process had a strong ideological impact, which is detectable through the religious changes that took place on the southern and eastern parts of the Iberian Peninsula. Phoenician sanctuaries, such as that of Melkart in Gadir, also were built at the former mouth of the Guadalquivir (Roman Baetis), near Seville. There a sanctuary dedicated to Astarte (Spanish Ashtarte), goddess of fertility and sexual love, was erected, from which a beautiful bronze statuette with a dedication has been recovered. Many other Phoenician divinities were adapted to the religious beliefs of the indigenous populations of the Tartessian area, as evidenced by the palace sanctuary of Cancho Roano in Extremadura. The iconography of the goddess Astarte was absorbed as a representation of the mother goddess venerated over a large part of Iberia. This is palpable proof of the profound political and economic transformations ushered in by the Phoenicians.

The first Greek explorations also made contact with the Tartessian world of the far west. Herodotus (book 1 of the Inquiries) indicates that the mythical Tartesian king Arganthonius established good relations with the Phocaeans, to the point that Tartessian silver was used to finance the building of a strong stone wall to protect Phocaea. These contacts have led some authors to establish Tartessus as the site of one of the twelve tasks of Hercules: his fight with the monster Geryon and his dog Orthros, both of whom were killed by the hero, who took from them the herd of red cows he later delivered to Greece.


When Phoenician commercial dominance went into crisis at the start of the sixth century b.c., Carthage gained control of the colonial southern peninsula, and some relevant places, such as Gadir, developed as totally independent centers. This same point in time also saw the appearance of certain culturally identifiable groups, such as the Iberians, whose territories extended from southeastern France down to the old Tartessian kingdom (which at this time was given the name Turdetania). The Iberian populations were divided into different political units (the Ilergetes, Lacetani, Edetani, Contestani, Bastetani, and Oretani, among others), in whose territories some very large settlements existed. Stone walls reinforced with towers fortified their towns, and houses of one or two floors lined their stone streets. In eastern Andalusia a system of concentrating the population seems to have existed in the catchment area dominated by the oppida. In other locations, such as Valencia, rural settlements abounded next to worked fields. Economic territories revolved around river valleys, religious centers playing an important role in their symbolic definition. This appears to be a case very similar to that described by François de Polignac, the Greek scholar, for the Greek world, as can be appreciated in the iconography of the Iberian sanctuary of El Pajarillo de Huelma and in the large group of sculptures at Porcuna, both in the province of Jaén.

The cultural substratum of the Iberians was influenced strongly by local and Phoenician traditions, but their commercial contacts were with the Greek colonies of the western Mediterranean. Emporion, a Phocaean foundation linked to Massalia as well as to other towns, such as Alonis or Akra Leuke (which have not been located but are cited in texts), was a point at which goods were loaded and Greek pottery, wine, and oil (products highly valued on the Iberian Peninsula) were unloaded. Some trading treaties, such as that of Ampurias, belonging to the second half of the sixth century b.c., were inscribed on lead. This particular treaty accords the shipment of goods from the port of Sagunto. The relationship between Greeks and Iberians was very close, as is seen in the southeast of the peninsula, where a Greco-Iberian language developed, which expressed the local tongue in Ionian characters.

An important economic as well as cultural transformation was the production and consumption of wine. Amphorae of varying Mediterranean provenances have been recovered at the Iberian settlements, but there are signs of developed local production at least from the sixth century b.c. onward. At the fortified settlement of Alt de Benimaquía (Valencia), several pools were dedicated to the treading of grapes, and the wine obtained was stored in amphorae of Phoenician typology. Much of the Greek pottery found on settlements and cemeteries from the fifth century on were linked precisely with the consumption of wine.

After the end of the fifth century b.c., iron tools began to be used in agriculture. This had the effect of intensifying production, which was linked to an increase in the population and in commerce. Calculations of the capacity of the numerous cereal storage pits documented for the area of Emporion in the northeast of Catalonia show it to have greatly exceeded the needs of the local people. Therefore a large part of the stored grain probably was destined for export. In addition the Castulo silver mines in Oretani territory assured the profit of commercial activities. Findings of Attic pottery along the old routes connecting the ports with this city are witness to the intensity of these economic relations.

The social organization of the Iberian peoples has been investigated through the study of their villages and corresponding necropolises. These sites reveal the existence of a warrior aristocracy that always cremated its dead before burying them in tombs. Some of these groups constructed towers or stelae with sculptural decoration playing an important role. Real animals (lions, bulls, and horses) and mythical creatures (sphinxes and griffins) were preferred by Iberian sculptors for the protection of the tombs of important people. Greek and oriental influences can be seen in these decorations.

Among the funerary equipment that accompanied the urns holding the cremated bones, Greek ceramics (kraterae [jars for mixing wine and water], kylix [wine cups], and skiphoi [cups]) stand out. These items were highly valued for their quality, their shiny varnish, and their iconography and sometimes were imitated by local craftspeople. Iberian ceramics, with their orange hues and redpainted geometric decorations, also were the products of specialized craftspeople. In some areas of the east and southeast figurative themes were developed, with scenes of human activity as well as animal and plant motifs. Iron weapons were important as well, especially the falcata, an original curved sword the shape of which has been likened to the Greek machaira and which demonstrated mastery of a refined technology.

Iberian religion was of the Mediterranean type. Among the major systems was the veneration of a certain goddess, protector of life and death. She was represented through outstanding sculptures, such as the well-known Dama de Elche or the Dama de Baza, a large stone statue representing a veiled woman sitting on a winged throne, within which were ashes and cremated bones. These pieces are testimony to the rich clothing worn by Iberian women and the numerous articles of jewelry used on special occasions. Nevertheless those objects typically were not deposited within the grave, suggesting the existence of hereditary transmission systems. The members of these societies are represented in the thousands of stone and bronze votive offerings that have been found in sanctuaries both in rural settings and at the entrance to settlements. Caves in mountainous areas of difficult access were special places of devotion, which suggests a relationship to initiation rites.


Other peoples with different roots, normally grouped together as Celts owing to their characteristics and languages of Indo-European origins, occupied the central and western parts of the peninsula. Outstanding among them are the Celtiberi, Vaccei, and Vettoni and farther west the Lusitani. The Iron Age brought about important changes in the economic models characteristic of the western peninsula. At the end of the Bronze Age economic power was based on the control of livestock and trading routes, but during the Iron Age there was a trend toward the intensification and dominance of agricultural production. The transition toward this model was linked to the adoption of definitive sedentary settlements. Warrior groups used their new iron weapons to gain better land.

The introduction of the plow usually is considered a step indicative of the passage from a model of community property to one of privately owned land. The existence of plots dividing up cultivatable land as well as separating such land from pasture has been proposed. Crude zoomorphic sculptures from the Vettonian area, representing pigs and bulls (known as verracos), are thought to have signaled the claims of particular groups to stock-raising resources, such as winter pastures. Control of the land for agriculture, as a complement to stock raising, led to changes in the relationship between society and its environment, to unequal access to resources, and to progressive social differentiation.

Vettonian settlements were of two basic types, larger ones acting as central hubs and smaller ones basically concerned with agricultural production. Among the former, Ulaca (60 hectares), Las Cogotas (14.5 hectares), and La Mesa de Miranda (30 hectares in maximum extent) stand out, all oppida. Vettonian settlements had strong fortifications and dispersed domestic units. The interior of these enormous settlements included not only houses but also centers of worship and sacrificial altars, livestock pens, marketplaces, neighborhoods of artisans with their kilns and metallurgical furnaces, and even quarries. They were so big and their activities so diverse that part of the population might never have needed to leave them in their daily lives. Population-density calculations, based on the number of tombs recovered from the necropolises associated with these settlements, show low values.

At Las Cogotas there are four differentiated areas of graves and nearly 1,500 cremation burials, but because the cemetery was used for a long period of time, not more than 250 people are thought to have lived in this large hillfort at any given time. The existence of separate funerary areas seems to reflect a system of lineal descent in kinship groups whose economy was based on control of different resources, without a remarkable potential of accumulation. Only 15 percent of the burials showed evidence of grave goods, among which 18 percent included such weapons as spears, shields, knives, and swords decorated with silver as well as horse trappings. Most of the dead are accompanied only by pottery vessels, while women might wear spindle whorls, finger rings, and brooches.

Smaller centers show clear differences with the oppida. They were open sites placed on the lower parts of the valleys and seem to be small villages or hamlets involved in agriculture, with limited craft production at a familiar level. These farming units complemented stock raising, which was concentrated on the highlands and mountains.

Farther west the Lusitani (to the north of the Tagus River), the Celtici (in the Alentejo), and the Conii (in the Algarve) occupied most of Portugal. A tribal organization dominated the interior areas, the Atlantic coast developing an urban organization more rapidly. Greek products arrived via this route, as witnessed by the necropolis at Alcacer do Sal, although this site also contains clearly western artifacts, such as antenna-hilt swords and printed pottery. Stone walls encircle the settlements, and domestic buildings have circular plans, built with a stone basement and a wooden roof, the floors being thinly paved. No evidence of ironworking is present here until the second half of the first millennium b.c.

The northeast of the Spanish meseta was occupied by Celtiberians, who were known, among other things, for their language, which was undoubtedly of Celtic origin. Both their settlements and necropolises suggest that they formed a variety of communities, from small hamlets of five or six houses to villages of twenty-five to thirty domestic units. More exceptional were large settlements with a necropolis like that of Aguilar de Anguita, which had a population of some 400 or perhaps even 600 people. Their characteristic settlement was the hillfort, a permanent village protected by a wall and sometimes by moats and chevaux-de-frise (irregular barriers about 50 to 80 centimeters high made up of stones that surround the easiest access to the villages), reflecting Celtic influence. In the interior lived a few families who survived on what the surroundings produced. These self-sufficient units occupied more and more land by a system of segmentation, the "overspill" of the population of one hillfort founding another of the same type in a neighboring area. By the end of the first millennium b.c. the growth of some centers outweighed others to become "capitals" occupying large extensions of terrain, such as Numantia, which was of extraordinary political importance during the clash with Roman forces.

Celtiberian houses used the defensive wall as their own back wall, and their homogeneity speaks of a society with few social differences. The social model in most of Celtic Hispania was that of warlike tribes, authority resting with the heads of lineages and families. This structure generally prevented any process leading to marked inequality, as witnessed by their housing and the egalitarian nature of most of their burial grounds. The presence of the Romans, however, changed both their political and economic points of reference, with the larger centers starting to become specialized in certain types of work. For the rural hillforts, which became the suppliers of these emerging urban nuclei, this generated a situation of inequality.

Economically the Celtiberians possessed only a limited agriculture, which took advantage of fertile valley bottoms. The main crops were cereals, although the remains found in their villages show that they consumed large quantities of forest products, especially acorns. Their main activity was stock raising, especially goats and sheep, and they must have practiced transhumance to take advantage of better pastures at different times of the year. It has been suggested that these groups performed the same tasks for neighboring populations, such as the Iberians of the east.

Compared with the Mediterranean area, the west of the peninsula appears to have maintained religious beliefs very similar to those of the Indo-European world, worshipping such divinities as Endovellicus, god of health and sometimes of the night, and Ataecina, goddess of agrarian fertility, death, and resurrection. The greater part of these religious forces resided in elements of nature, such as woods, rocks, springs, or rivers. Altars, where animal sacrifices, especially of bulls, pigs, and sheep, were made and where young warriors underwent complex initiation ceremonies, have been preserved both inside and outside settlements.


The northwest, which includes the north of Portugal and the present Spanish region of Galicia, is separated from the meseta and is of difficult and mountainous access. During the Iron Age its development enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. Walled settlements, known as "Galician castra," are its most characteristic element. Small in size (0.5–3 hectares), they were situated where they dominated valley areas, their interest being the control of agricultural regions. Unlike anything in the rest of the peninsula, the dwellings they contained were round. Hardly any signs of urban organization can be found beyond the siting of buildings to favor the movement of people and the evacuation of the abundant rain that falls in this area.

These castra of the pre-Roman era concentrated families with their own systems of subsistence. No superstructure broke this organization of associated units in which sex and age were the main factors ordering social behavior. The construction and contents of these domestic units show practically no specialization; all incorporate the same basic functional elements. The independence of each family group was limited by the castra boundary—the only thing that joined together these poorly united family-autonomous communities.

Roman interests accelerated a substantial change of this simple model. In contrast to the arrangement described earlier, at the end of the Iron Age there was a clear tendency toward intensification and product specialization, which terminated the autarchy of traditional systems. Agriculture and sheep raising, and in many areas the creation of new castra linked to mining activities aimed at the Roman market, were factors that provoked notable transformations. Very often the land was redistributed according to Roman interests. Some types of land exploitation, such as gold mines, attained industrial levels of activity. This change opened the way for hitherto unknown social differentiation.

Ideological and functional changes accompanied this new situation. Large nuclei of up to 20 hectares appeared, such as that of Santa Tecla (Pontevedra), leading to a considerable concentration of the population. Their dwellings were more complex, incorporating entrance halls and vestibules as well as sets of rooms arranged around a central patio. Decorative elements appeared in an architecture whose complexity grew—and not simply with respect to housing. The system of defensive walls became a symbol defining both the inside and outside of these castra. Finally, the first cemeteries appeared, with graves using stelae of Roman formula. This movement toward complexity and social inequality that had visited other areas of the peninsula in earlier times reached Galicia only now, bringing it into line, if still incipiently, with the general model followed throughout Iberia (although this model did show variations).

Along the rest of the Cantabrian strip the center and west had settlements similar to those of the meseta region and Galicia, respectively, with their castra and associated farming areas. Archaeological evidence from the Basque country is very limited. Some of the most characteristic structures are enclosures bound by stones, whose value began to be appreciated for the hierarchical control of geographical and productive areas linked to rivers or streams. The difficult mountainous terrain of these lands and their scant economic potential favored a certain isolation, appreciable even in the twenty-first century in the area's pre-Indo-European language.

Although this was still an eminently pastoral society, agriculture continued to gain importance in this period, helped by the manufacture and use of iron tools. It was less noticeable than in other areas, but again it illustrates the changes that led to a reorganization of productive forces, developments undoubtedly accompanied by social adjustment.


The Iberian Peninsula was the setting of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage (218–202 b.c.). Nearly all the peninsula had come under Punic control after the second treaty between the two powers in 348 b.c. The foundation of New Carthage by the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal was the start of a new policy of territorial domination that looked to local aristocracies for support. Both Hasdrubal and his brother Hannibal married Iberian princesses and were recognized as leaders by the local populations. The growing power of Carthage threatened Roman supremacy. Many of the confrontations between the two powers took place on the peninsula, complicated by fighting, which surely occurred with indigenous groups.

The activity of these two great armies led to the payment of soldiers with coinage, making the domination of mining areas vital. From the point of view of the Iberian peoples, this situation provoked a militarization of human resources and a return of warrior chiefdoms. Men of the Iberian and Celtic areas were used to form part of Mediterranean armies. By the end of the sixth century b.c. they already had served as mercenaries of Carthage, and on other occasions during the fifth and sixth centuries b.c. they served with both Carthaginian and Greek troops at Syracuse. At the end of the Iron Age many of these populations were active as troops in the Carthaginian or the Roman armies, and they also could fight as independent forces when their territory was threatened.

After defeating Carthage in the third century b.c., Rome installed itself first in the Iberian and Turdetanian areas before conquering the rest of the territory. Local resistance was fierce where the existing social structures were incompatible with the Roman state model. A little later, however, the entire peninsula entered a new phase as part of the Roman administration, drawing the Iron Age to a close.

See alsoThe Mesolithic of Iberia (vol. 1, part 2); Late Neolithic/Copper Age Iberia (vol. 1, part 4); El Argar and Related Bronze Age Cultures of the Iberian Peninsula (vol. 2, part 5); Early Medieval Iberia (vol. 2, part 7).


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Aubet, María Eugenia. The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies, and Trade. Translated by Mary Turton. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Belén Deamos, M., and T. Chapa Brunet. La Edad del Hierro. Madrid: Editorial Síntesis, 1997.

Cabrera Bonet, Paloma, and Carmen Sánchez, eds. Los Griegos en España: Tras las huellas de Heracles. Madrid: Ministerio de Educación y Cultura, 2000.

Cunliffe, Barry, and Simon Keay, eds. Social Complexity and the Development of Towns in Iberia: From the Copper Age to the Second Centuryad. Proceedings of the British Academy, no. 86. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Dominguez Monedero, Adolfo J. Los Griegos en la Península Ibérica. Madrid: Arco Libros, 1996.

Ruiz, Arturo, and Manuel Molinos. The Archaeology of theIberians. Translated by Mary Turton. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Teresa Chapa