La Bastida; Argaric Bronze Age of S-E Spain – what we know so far

The Argaric Bronze Age of south-eastern Spain (c. 2200–1550 cal BC) represents a unique socio-economic and political development in the later prehistory of the western Mediterranean. In archaeological terms, itsmost salient features are 1–6ha hilltop settlements with stone buildings including specialised workshops, storage rooms, large water reservoirs and other monumental buildings, as well as a very particular intramural burial ritual, organised along relatively strict sex, age and social-class divides. During its c. 650 years of existence, Argaric society underwent a series of changes leading to larger and architecturally more complex urban or proto-urban centres which controlled a territory of approximately 33,000km² (Figure 1), extending over the whole of south-eastern Iberia.

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Figure 1

In its later phases, Argaric hilltop settlements appear to have won control over cereal and metal production, and possibly textile manufacture. A range of archaeological evidence testifies to the scale of the economic and political control over territories of 100–1000km² with several thousand inhabitants. At the same time, ritual practices and aesthetic norms, expressed in burial customs and pottery production from Granada in the west to Alicante in the east, and from Almeria on the coast to Ciudad Real in the Spanish Meseta, suggest a high degree of communication and unification, at least between the ruling classes of the different regions. Funerary contexts reveal five relatively standardised categories of value (Figure 2), which seem to correspond to at least three social classes. Social position was upheld ultimately through the exclusive access by males of the dominant class to specialised weapons (first halberds and, after c. 1800 cal BC, long swords), by women to metal diadems, and by others to metal weapons and tools (axes, daggers and awls). According to the funerary record, about 40 per cent of the population, the exploited lower class, had no access to metals and particularly not to weapons.

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Figure 2

In short, Argaric society achieved a far higher level of economic and political complexity than the rest of the Iberian Peninsula and western Europe. The economic and social relations recognised repeatedly within the archaeological record have led some to suggest that it was indeed a state-like polity. Around 1550 cal BC, this hegemonic power was eliminated, apparently by a social revolt in response to unsustainable agricultural practices and growing social differentiation.

La Bastida: main archaeological features

La Bastida (Totana municipality, Murcia, Spain) is a 4.5ha hilltop site, 450m above sea level (Figure 3). La Bastida was one of the first Bronze Age sites known in Spain. During the twentieth century, excavations by Juan Cuadrado in the late 1920s and, in particular, by the Seminar on the Primitive History of Man (Madrid University) between 1944 and 1950 showed that it was one of the main settlements of the so-called Early Bronze Age ‘El Argar culture’.

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Figure 3

Recent excavations have focused on the lower slopes of the hill, deepening and enlarging the sector explored in the 1940s. Smaller areas on the summit and middle slopes have also been investigated. As a result, data concerning 80 architectural units and more than 230 graves have been recovered.

Data from older excavations and preliminary analysis of new evidence offer a relatively complete picture of the chronology, occupation sequence, architecture, burial practices, economy and social relationships at La Bastida. The settlement was inhabited between c. 2200 and 1600 cal BC. During this period three major phases have been defined:

1) Occupation in phase I (c. 2200–2025 cal BC) was characterised by small, sunken-floored oval or circular huts. Walls were made of mud and supported by wooden posts. A few larger buildings in stone may have had communal functions. At the end of the period large parts of the settlement were destroyed by fire.

2) During phase II (c. 2025–1900 cal BC) the settlement was fully re-organised. New stone buildings began to occupy the slopes of La Bastida. Monumental structures were constructed on the summit, and a large water reservoir with a capacity of more than 300,000 litres came into use on the lower south-eastern slope. The first graves are documented.

3) Most of the archaeological remains recorded so far belong to phase III (c. 1900 to 1600/1550 cal BC). The settlement was characterised by a dense layout of stone trapezoidal or apsidal buildings on artificial terraces. There were marked differences in size, ranging from 10m² to more than 70m². The structures stand close to each other with only a few narrow alleys between them to allow movement. Differences in function have been observed between buildings (metallurgy, bone and textile production, grain management and storage). The large water reservoir was now contained by a rectilinear dam 21m long and up to 5m wide. Dozens of single or double inhumations in pithoi or cists have been uncovered beneath the floors of the buildings, showing a wide array of grave goods which confirm the socially and sexually patterned artefactual associations typical of Argaric burial practices. A population of around 1000 people has been suggested for La Bastida phase III, when the site probably controlled a vast territory of more than 3000km² and was paramount in the context of a four-level settlement pattern. During the first half of the second millennium BC, La Bastida was probably the capital of a state-level polity and one of the most influential Argaric centres, perhaps along with Lorca (Murcia) and the eponymous site of El Argar (Almería).

La Bastida was abandoned c. 1600–1550 cal BC and never again settled on a permanent
basis.

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Figure 4

Recent unexpected findings: the La Bastida fortification system

Excavations from April to July 2012 on the eastern lower slopes uncovered a monumental fortification system. Illicit twentieth-century excavations had revealed short alignments of large stones at certain spots, but the discoveries of the last campaign were surprising and unexpected. Archaeological deposits up to 5m deep covered the remains of a fortification line (Figure 4: Line 1), which has been explored over a length of 45m (Figures 3 & 5). A complex succession of building episodes was observed and a series of significant features can already be outlined.

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Figure 5

This fortification was formed of masonry walls originally plastered with yellow or violet-bluish clay, up to 3m wide and preserved in certain points to a height of 4m. Associated with this curtain wall are five square, solid, tronco-pyramidal towers (Figure 4: T1–5). On average, they measure 4m wide and protrude 3–3.5m from the outer face of the curtain wall. Towers 1 to 4 are sited very close to one another (between 2.8 and 4.7m apart), and their relationship to the curtain wall and the slope rules out the possibility that they served as buttresses. The fortification was constructed mainly of sandstone and clay mortar, although some stretches of its inner face also show wattle-and-daub. Taking into account the volume of stone blocks recovered from the destruction strata laying against the wall, the original height of the fortification would have reached 5–6m. Tower 1, with a rounded end, forms the easternmost and lowest point of this fortification line, close to a steep cliff which would have served as a natural defence to the settlement. Parallel to it, 2m to the south, a second wall was preserved to a maximum height of approximately 4m in places (Figures 4 & 6).

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Figure 6

Line 2 had an associated oval bastion 2.2m wide (Figure 4: TB). Together these roughly parallel walls flank an entrance passage, which was later narrowed even further to only 0.5m wide. Symmetrically placed postholes at either side of the entrance passage suggest additional architectural features and were probably the frame for large wooden doors. Excavations have so far extended along 10m of the 5m-wide passage between Lines 1 and 2, allowing us to explore a 4m-deep stratigraphic sequence. Throughout most of this sequence, plastered clay floors alternate with colluvial strata in which a relatively low number of disarticulated faunal, rare human and pottery remains were found.

Line 2 was partly leaning against a tronco-pyramidal stone building at least 4m wide and preserved to a height of 2.5m (Figure 4: TA). On clearing the eastern front of this building, a feature resembling a fully preserved corbelled arch appeared south of the entrance gate and slightly set back from it. This feature is only 1.5m high and 0.85m wide at its base (Figure 7). The archaeological deposit that fills what looks like a passageway has not yet been excavated, so its character and possible function will need to be clarified by future excavations. Excavation during summer 2013 has shown that at the foot of this building or tower, and below the possible passage, a water cistern was incorporated into the structure of the second fortification line.

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Figure 7

The 2013 excavations also showed that the base of the two fortification walls and the water cistern were supported by carefully prepared foundations, up to 3m high, which levelled the natural terrain. These massive works prevented the whole construction from slipping towards the steep cliff. Quarried sandstone blocks were used almost exclusively for the construction of the fortification, while lesser buildings were constructed with clast materials obtained from Quaternary deposits. This difference implies clear social control over the resources needed for the construction and maintenance of public infrastructure such as this defensive work.

Absolute chronology is one of the main concerns in trying to contextualise the fortification complex. Associated pottery sherds closely resemble those recovered from La Bastida phase I and from sites such as Lugarico Viejo and Gatas (Almería), for which radiocarbon dates point to the interval 2200–2000 cal BC.

The fortification protected the settlement almost throughout its entire prehistoric occupation. The only uncertainty, due to surface erosion, is whether the walls were still in use during the final years of the city. In any case, during 600 years of occupation, the settlement never expanded beyond its fortified limits.

La Bastida fortification: a window on prehistoric siege warfare

Preliminary analysis of the architectural remains uncovered in the recent excavations reveals a sound knowledge of, and expertise in, the building and layout of defensive structures.

The walled perimeter identified so far follows a south-east to north-west direction, obliging attackers to approach it uphill after crossing a narrow valley. This obstacle increased when nearing the fortification, where the close spacing of the towers allowed defenders easily to harass attackers by throwing objects at short range to the front and to both sides. Special measures were taken to protect the main entrance. First, it was not directly visible to people approaching from the north, since it was ‘hidden’ at the rear of Tower 1. Second, to approach it attackers had to expose the right side of their body, and the arm that usually holds an individual weapon and, for this reason, is less protected against projectiles. Third, the space immediately in front of the doorway is very narrow and close to the barranco Salado gully. This prevented the gathering of a large number of assailants and hindered any attempt to concentrate their forces against the door using  devices such as a ram. Finally, if attackers succeeded in breaking down the door, they were obliged to pass through the doorway in single file and to move upward through a relatively narrow corridor flanked by walls probably more than 5m high, from the top of which more projectiles could be thrown.

Taken together, the topographical location of the fortification, its layout, the construction and design of individual components and their inter-relationship make it clear that the complex was conceived according to shrewd military tactics and executed with great skill.

The implications of the La Bastida fortification

As a general rule, the longer the range and effectiveness of projectiles, the greater the distance between bastions. The closer spacing of towers at La Bastida suggests a change to close-quarters fighting involving thrown projectiles or wooden sticks or poles. A successful assault would have been the prelude to hand-to-hand combat. The complete disappearance of chipped stone arrowheads from 2200 BC onwards, coupled with the scarcity of copper projectile points and the appearance of copper halberds and short swords, strongly suggests the primacy of close combat over other kinds of fighting.

The concentric defensive walls of Copper Age sites were intended to protect increasing numbers of people by adding successive walled precincts. At La Bastida, the two parallel defensive lines uncovered so far frame a new kind of entrance designed to prevent easy access, and one that was located away from residential quarters. Moreover, the fortification at La Bastida was not the result of gradual architectural development over several centuries, as with the larger Copper Age settlements, but an intentional foundation. The walls were repaired on several occasions over the following 600 years, but the settled area seems never to have extended beyond the fortifications.

Chalcolithic defensive works were embedded in production and consumption activities; in other words, they were not purely defensive. The fortification at La Bastida, however, seems to have been specialised for protection, surveillance and warfare. There were few archaeological remains in the entrance and corridor areas, or in front of the wall. This specialised character is further underlined by the near-exclusive use of quarried sandstone for its walls, as opposed to the clast material used for common buildings.

Most Chalcolithic settlements share similar topographical locations on river terraces or plateaux next to fertile valleys, whereas La Bastida is in a mountain environment, hidden by surrounding ranges and lacking views over the nearby agricultural lands of the Guadalentín valley. The layout of the fortification walls, the massive and carefully prepared foundations and the integration of a water catchment structure and cistern within the complex required skilful planning and substantial previous experience in monumental building techniques.

In summary, the La Bastida fortification shows a clear break with the Chalcolithic in terms of topographical setting, layout, construction technique and military strategy and in the social context of violent conflict (i.e. who is engaged and which goals are followed). The new defensive circuit marked the establishment of a 4.5ha settlement, and a completely new social and political formation, which expanded and ruled over a large territory during the next six centuries.

How can the discontinuity between the Chalcolithic and the Argaric be understood? The innovative architectural elements—the solid square towers and water cistern—have no parallels in this period in Iberia, in the western and central Mediterranean or in western Europe. One must look to settlements in the eastern Mediterranean dating to the centuries before 2200 BC (middle and late Early Bronze Age in the Aegean, Anatolian and Levantine sequences) to find comparable, although never identical, examples.

The unprecedented character of the La Bastida fortifications coupled with overseas parallels for towers and posterns opens the possibility of a diffusionist interpretation.

(Source: “The La Bastida fortification: new light and new questions on Early Bronze Age societies in the western Mediterranean”, by Vicente Lull et al., 2014)

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NovoScriptorium: From the following article, written by the specialists who lead the ‘Bastida Project‘, we source some interesting information with regards to the Dating of Agrarian sites, including La Bastida.

Abstract: The aim of this article is to bring to light a serious problem affecting radiocarbon dates produced at least from 2009 onwards by the AMS Leibniz laboratory at the Christian-Albrechts-Universität (Kiel, Germany). Archaeological observations and cross-checkings between several laboratories confirm that in a significant number of dates, clear deviations of the results from chronological schemes based on stratigraphical sequences and hundreds of measurements have occurred, which usually implies an aging of the 14C values.

Conclusions: The cases presented here from La Bastida, Tira del Lienzo, Las Paleras, Ses Arenes de Baix, and Es Forat de ses Aritges show that 14C analysis performed by Kiel gave unexpected and non-reproducible results from 2009. The redating of several samples has confirmed that a number of those 14C results are several hundred years too old. There is no obvious pattern in the magnitude of the observed deviations, nor in which samples are affected. The deviations were not caused by a marine reservoir effect among the human samples, and the presence of an old carbon contaminant during sample preparation or an AMS dating problem seems likely.

The dating problems discussed herein were found due to the very detailed stratigraphic and typo-logical sequences available. In this study, unexpected results have been detected in samples from KIA-39260 (July 2009) to KIA-44844 (August 2011). Hence, it is our view that all organic samples prepared and measured in Kiel during this period may be affected, and some of the dates repeated in 2012 and 2013 may also be inconsistent.

Given the apparently random character of the anomalous 14C dates, other past and current research projects may have been affected as well (Peška 2013; Friedrich et al. 2014). We have been collaborating intensively with the Leibniz Labor at Kiel ever since the first anomalies were detected in 2009. In order to check the first results and to search for patterns that might lead to identify the dating problem or problems, repeat dates were run at different laboratories on our behalf. New samples were provided whenever possible and repeat measurements were also performed on pretreated material and on new extractions of leftover aliquots from the same bone fragment or seed. We do appreciate Leibniz Labor’s efforts to address all inconsistencies detected, particularly after a change in its direction, but an in-depth explanation of the possible causes has not yet been established. Nevertheless, the amount of information gathered over these years needs to be reported, especially since the problems detected might affect an unknown number of dates extending at least over 2009–2011. We do hope that a full diagnosis of the problems will be available soon.

(Source: When 14C Dates Fall Beyond the Limits of Uncertainty: An Assessment of Anomalies in Western Mediterranean Bronze Age 14C Series”, by Vicente Lull et al., 2015)

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NovoScriptorium: Information sourced from the following paper also comes from the specialists who lead the ‘Bastida Project’.

Conclusions: After the decline of the Chalcolithic societies, from 2200 cal BCE, a new order began to take shape that would end up shaping what we have proposed as one of the first state societies in western Europe (Lull and Risch 1995). The basic objective of the argumentative policy was the establishment and subsequent territorial expansion of relations of socio-economic exploitation that ensured the privileges of a dominant class. To achieve this, one of the instruments of argumentative politics was the exercise of institutionalized physical violence. The Bastida finds precisely its meaning in these structural lines. First, as a testament to a surprisingly strong power during an era in which, in the Euro-Mediterranean environment, societies seemed fluid and resistant to all political centralization. The defensive and hydraulic structures of La Bastida at the end of the III millennium cal BCE present a continuous challenge: at that time, at the political and economic level; today, for the advancement of knowledge and, of course, for the maintenance, dissemination and management of an archeological legacy that requires the firm involvement of public institutions.

With the passage of time and with the argumentative border away from its walls, La Bastida was the capital of a political unit whose power extended over wide areas of the southeast. The city became, between 1800 and 1600 cal BCE, one of the most relevant political and economic centers of the continental Europe. The current investigations of the “Bastida Project” in Tira del Lienzo and La Almoloya are complementing those already undertaken from La Bastida itself in order to understand how the argumentative society was organized economically and politically.

(Source: “Diez años de “Proyecto Bastida” (2008-2018): El retrato emergente de una ciudad prehistórica”, by Vicente Lull et al., 2018)

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NovoScriptorium: Another interesting paper is the following, of which we source only the absolutely necessary information for our presentation/discussion. It is also written by the specialists who lead the ‘Bastida Project

Abstract: We present the results of an extensive dating programme of Argaric burials containing halberds. In Southeast Iberia elite males were buried with this weapon during the first two centuries of the second millennium BCE. After discussing what does this chronology involve for the typological development of the Argaric halberds and their funerary contexts, a general overview is provided on the origin and expansion of western and central European halberds, taking into account all the absolute dates currently available. Finally, we return to the Iberian Peninsula, placing the appearance of the metal halberds within the general social and political changes that took place during the second half of the third millennium BCE and at the beginning of the Argaric state.

Introduction

Most researchers working on Later Prehistory share the suspicion that metal halberds remain one of the keys to understanding the development of the early Bronze Age societies of central-western Europe. However, access to that key requires answering a combined set of questions about these weapons. In the first place, a very wide but heterogeneous geographic distribution is observed, in which high concentrations of halberds in certain regions stand out next to extensive empty spaces or sporadic finds. Did societies as far apart as those of central and northern Italy, Germany, Ireland and Southeastern Iberia, where the highest densities of these artefacts are recorded, have something in common?

A second surprising issue is the type of contexts in which halberds usually appear: mainly metal hoards or outstanding male burials. Moreover, halberds are a class of objects often represented on rock engravings or stelae, although these rarely appear in regions with abundant findings of metallic items. What was common and what was unique among the contexts of use, representation and deposition of European halberds?

Lastly, the halberd is one of the first true or specialised weapons manufactured in Western Europe, a function which links it closely with the emergence of new forms of combat, physical violence and with the imposition and safeguarding of unprecedented social hierarchies. Can we then understand halberds as an indicator of the rupture or extinction of Neolithic forms of life and, in some cases, of the emergence of the first states in Western Europe?

Any satisfactory answer to these questions demands reliable chronological evidence. The fact that the original context of many halberds is unknown (casual finds, private collections and unsystematic excavations) has hampered this objective, forcing a reliance on typo-chronological inferences through the associated items found in hoards and, to a lesser extent, graves. The uncertainties of this method, coupled with the relative scarcity of closed contexts, have opened up so many possibilities that a range of proposals could seem reasonable. Not surprisingly, a review of the literature offers a wide variety of hypotheses that locate the origin of halberds in Italy, Iberia, Ireland or central Europe. Many alternative proposals have also been put forward concerning the succession and the soundness of the proposed types or subtypes of halberds at a regional level.

Radiocarbon dating has not contributed sufficiently to a resolution of the chronological debate due to the scarcity of organic samples associated with halberds. In regions where halberds come from hoards or lack a known context, only the occasional preservation of wood fibres from the shafts has allowed sampling for a limited number of 14C dates. In principle, expectations improve where halberds appear in graves associated with dateable human bones. However, the scarcity of tombs in many regions has limited this option. In this respect, southeast Iberia offers a privileged situation. This article presents the results of a dating programme on human bone samples from burials containing halberds. This absolute chronology offers the most reliable proposal in the European context. Once the lifetime period of these weapons has been established in the Argaric society, we will discuss how this may modify the general chronology of European halberds as well as the historical and social dynamics of the Iberian Peninsula at the transition from the Copper to the Bronze Age.

Conclusions

The analysis of a large radiocarbon series for the Argaric halberds has helped to date their use or, at least, their archaeological visibility, in the period between c. 2000-1800 BCE. The placement of these weapons in individual or double tombs, their high number and spatial concentration, and the implementation of an absolute dating programme have undoubtedly contributed to one of the most solid chronological references in Europe. It is precisely the shortage of absolute dates in other regions that limits the possibilities of comparing the temporality of metal halberds in different areas in order to obtain a reliable picture of the beginnings of the adoption of these weapons and also of the duration of their use.

The survey of the available radiometric data suggests that ever since its first examples in central and northern Italy halberds were linked to a specific form of combat mastered by distinguished males buried in individual tombs or represented on stelae. After ca. 2500 BCE these weapons are attested in central Iberia, in the British Isles and, occasionally, the Carpathians. In these regions, this was a time of social changes. As the Neolithic and Chalcolithic traditions vanished, new forms of power and violence seem to have been concealed behind a new or a different metal production, the shift towards individual funerary practices and a reorganisation of the settlement pattern. According to the available 14C dates associated with these archaeological traits in Iberia, this shift occurred gradually following a North-South direction, reaching the southeast around or slightly before 2200 BCE. At this moment, probably Eastern Europe and Mediterranean influences reached the area, as suggested by the poliorcetic notions ruling the construction of the monumental fortification of La Bastida and the introduction of casting technologies using stone moulds.

In any case, between 2200-2000 BCE a series of communities in coastal southeast Iberia combined all these influences and formed what has become known as the Argaric society. During the next 200 years, between 2000-1800 BCE, this organisation engaged in a rapid inland expansion, particularly in the direction of the eastern foothills of Sierra Morena, with its rich copper and silver ore deposits. Placing halberds in distinguished male burials would be the ritual correlate of this probably violent territorial deployment of a network of fortified or well-protected hill-top settlements and the enforcing actions of a dominant class of male warriors and powerful women related through kin.

The lack of comparable series of 14C dates in the rest of Europe hinders our ability to trace the temporality of the use of halberds in other regions in similar terms. At least in the case of the Argaric, the halberds were a relatively late weapon, placed as a grave good during a surprisingly short period of time. Between ca. 2000-1800 BCE in Europe, only in the “classic” Unetice and its margins did the halberds seem to have enjoyed a similar social and funerary importance as in Argaric society. Here too, this weapon seems to have played a key role in the emergence of new forms of State or Statelike organisations that were markedly different from the Near Eastern societies, but also from the local European Neolithic and Chalcolithic communities.

(Source: “The absolute chronology of Argaric halberds”, by Vicente Lull et al., 2016)

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NovoScriptorium: You might also be interested to read the following posts (1, 2)

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

 

 

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