The name Tartessus (sometimes Tartessos) has long been surrounded by myth. It is associated with the south west of Spain, and is likely to have been a kingdom. Nevertheless, different sources have referred to it as a city, a mountain, even a river –the Guadalquivir.
It is said to be buried under the Coto Doñana (the combined marshlands and dunes at the mouth of the Guadalquivir that are now protected as a National Park), others claim it is under Seville… or Huelva and so on.
There is consensus that it existed somewhere in the area between Huelva, Cádiz and Seville, but who the inhabitants were we do not know. They may have been descendants of the Neolithic and Bronze Age inhabitants, but it has also been argued that they were survivors of the mythical empire of Atlantis.
A recent thesis proposes a link with the Basques, an argument based on perceived similarities between the Basque language and early transcriptions found on stone, lead and bronze artefacts. This controversial thesis has provoked heated debate to say the least.
What does appear certain is that there existed a civilisation in the south west of the peninsula that enjoyed reasonably friendly trading relations with the Phoenicians, the earliest of the Mediterranean trading nations to appear on the shores of Iberia.
The origins of Tartessus are as elusive as its location. First, a Greek myth tells us that the founding ruler of Tartessus was the three-headed, three-bodied king, Geryon. Although Geryon was a peaceful king who tended his oxen on the banks of the Guadalquivir, he was killed by Hercules as part of the latter’s twelve labours.
A different myth informs us that Tartessus was established by King Gargoris whose incestuous relationship with a daughter produced a son, Habis. Habis was abandoned in the wild and raised by wild animals. He was later recognised by his father and went on to become an enlightened monarch. He “discovered” agriculture by tying oxen to a plough, introduced laws and divided society into seven social classes. He did not, however, permit the nobles to work!
The first historical reference to Tartessus comes from the Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BC) who describes the cordial trading relations between Greece and Tartessus, and in particular to the generosity of their king, Arganthonius who, apparently, lived for 120 years (and ruled for 80)!
The Greek tales of a kingdom blessed with fabulous wealth in the western Mediterranean appear to be corroborated too by biblical references. There are several mentions in the Old Testament of the city of Tarshish which, it has been argued, is the Aramaic form of Tartessus.
Although there is no unanimity in the identification, the reference for example in Ezekiel xxvii, 12, to the Phoenician city of Tyre receiving silver, iron, lead and tin from Tarshish suggests that Tartessus and Tarshish were one and the same.
The south western part of the Iberian Peninsula was enormously rich in minerals, and Ezekiel’s reference reflects a common association of the metal with the western Mediterranean. (Tin came primarily from Cornwall in the British Isles, and was brought back by the Phoenicians; it was combined with copper, abundant in south west Spain, to produce bronze. The Rio Tinto mine just north of Huelva was first worked by the Phoenicians and still produces copper. It is reputed to be the oldest mine in the world.)
Coincidentally, there is a town named Tharsis 50 kilometres north of Huelva; the “th” combination, however, is a linguistic curiosity and alien to the Spanish language. A possible explanation is the influence of British mining concerns which owned the giant Rio Tinto Company with mines between Huelva and Tharsis in the 19th century.
Ironically, where mining activities have been long established, we might expect some certainty about those who live in such areas. But in the case of Tartessus we have little more than a name, although continuing archaeological digs may yet unearth solid evidence that will allow us to identity this mysterious kingdom.
An article in the Spanish newspaper El País on May 6, 2007, offers the tantalising possibility that Tartessus may indeed lie beneath an area of the Coto Doñana known as the Marisma (Marsh) de Hinojo. Aerial and satellite photos taken some years ago revealed unusual circular and rectangular forms beneath the marsh. In 2003 and 2004 German scientists speculated that these forms might pinpoint the lost civilisation of Tartessus or even possibly Atlantis.
The problem was that it was assumed that the Coto Doñana had always been covered with water (although some areas do dry out during the summer). Now, however, scientists from the research institute CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas) in Madrid and from the University of Huelva have reported –based on large amounts of sand in the subsoil where there should only be clay— that the unusual forms visible from the air could indeed be the ruins of a buried city.
If it is a city, then it was likely buried by a devastating tidal wave (tsunami), not at all impossible since there is evidence of huge tidal activity in the area in 1500 BC and in the 2nd century AD. What is surprising, if such devastation did occur, is that no record has come down to us.
Tartessus and the 20th century.
Since the decentralisation of Spain following the death of Franco in 1975, there has been much interest amongst Andalusians in their roots, similar to what has happened in the other autonomous communities. Not surprisingly, Tartessus has attracted attention.
In 1983 the Andalusian dramatist Miguel Romero Esteo published a verse play, Tartessos, which he describes as an epic poem dealing with the “protohistory” of Andalusia. He even includes fragments of supposedly Tartessian language. The play received the Premio Europa in Strasbourg in 1985. In 2002 Romero returned to the theme with a book Tartessos y Europa (Tartessus and Europe).
Probably more appealing to readers is the recent and highly successful comic series Tartessos. The first album appeared in 2005 with the title La ruta del estaño (The Tin Route). It deals with the rivalry between the Tartessians and the evil Arkabala, the high priest of the Temple of Hercules in the Phoenician city of Gadir (Cádiz), for control of the tin route to las islas Casitérides (the British Isles.) Control of this precious metal which the Tartessians combined with copper to produces bronze, allows the Tartessians to live in great comfort.
The basis of the trade is a long standing agreement between the Tartessians and the Celts from the British Isles, but it was now due to be reconfirmed. Arkabala, however, has other ideas! A second album, La espada de Crisaor (The Sword of Crisaor) appeared in May, 2006. Not surprisingly, given the general tenor of the plot, Tartessos has been compared to the famous French series, Asterix of Gaul.
Anderson, James Spain: 1001 Sights Calgary 1991
El Mundo (Newspaper) Feb 28 1996
Jacobs, Michael A Guide to Andalusia London 1990