WHAT IS IT?
A fortified Ilergetian village
Four kilometres from the town of Arbeca, in the Garrigues district,
near the Urgell Canal where the virgin roughness of the broken,
dry landscape is transformed into the smooth, worked horizontality
of the irrigated plains, we find the area known as Vilars and,
buried there, the most incredible and splendid present the past
could offer us: an Ilergetian fortress constructed in the 8th
century B.C., an exceptional historical and archaeological complex,
unique in this country.
The fortified village of Vilars was continuously inhabited from
750 to 325 B.C.. For more than fifteen generations, during the
early Iron Age and the beginning of the later one, its impressive
walls were silent witnesses to the developments and changes that
their inhabitants lived through.
The first occupants, builders of the oldest fortress, were people
belonging to the cultural group of the urnfields people, a name
given to them by archaeologists from their custom of cremating
their dead and burying the ashes.
Almost two hundred years later, their descendants were living through
times of profound historic changes, favoured by contact with other
Mediterranean cultures through commercial dealings with Phoenician
and Greek traders with their colonies and trading posts. These
new winds of change blowing strongly from the east helped to mould
the Tartessian and Iberian societies, and, with them, Andalucia,
the South-East and the whole Mediterranean fringe of the Iberian
Peninsula entered into the world of the early historical civilisations.
Thus, during the sixth and fifth centuries before Christ, the
inhabitants of Vilars lived through the process of Iberianisation
and the full development of the old Ilergetian epoch. That meant
changes for the community that deeply transformed their conditions
of life, pointing them towards more complex social and cultural
The study of the wide scale urban- and constructive remodelling
and the archaeological materials associated with these has allowed
us to identify five phases in the evolution of the settlement.
This sequence can be broken down as follows:
Vilars 0 750 - 650 B.C.
Vilars I 650 - 550 B.C.
Vilars II 550 - 425 B.C.
Vilars III 425 - 350 B.C.
Vilars IV 350 - 325 B.C.
The surprising antiquity of the proposed dating for the foundation
phase could be controversial, bearing in mind the complexity and
size of this impressive fortress, and the implications its existence
has for social, political and other orders. However, it is us,
the historians and archaeologists, who have to revise our knowledge
and find answers to the passionate enigmas that we are presented
with. There is no doubt as to the age; the most modern techniques
for obtaining absolute chronologies, radio-carbon dating (C14)
and particle accelerator spectrometry (AMS) methods, allow us
to confirm this remote origin, and even place it further in the
past given that this calibration situates the earliest dates toward
the end of the 9th century B.C..
If the origin of Vilars, full of unknown factors, is a challenge
for the researchers, its end appears just as, or even more, mysterious.
The village was abandoned in the middle of the 4th century B.C.,
according to what can be deduced from the black-varnished pottery
that characterised the later years of its life, of the scarce
but significant presence of pieces of imported luxury tableware,
of Attican origin and dated to Agora of Athens. No traumatic or
violent reason explains the abandonment; the site was not destroyed
but rather simply abandoned. Perhaps the exhaustion of the nearby
fields made a change of location advisable. One thing seems to
be sure: the wall, the ditch and the defences, that were the settlement's
reason for existing, became an insurmountable obstacle to the
normal urban development of an Ilergetian village, which needed
wider streets, more complex, more spacious houses and an increased
diversity in the use of space in function of new social and productive
needs. The new times sanctioned its uselessness and its enormous
size made it impossible to absorb them with growth outwith the
The fortified village was constructed on a plain scoured by the
river Corb and short gullies originating in the garrigue landscape
which disappear into the horizontal extensions of the landscape.
This drainage network, which originated wide, flat-bottomed valleys,
conditioned the settling of the zone. In our case, the inhabitants,
despite the extra effort that the defence of the site supposed,
decided to build in the Aixaragall gully in view of its splendid
agricultural potential, renouncing the natural defences that would
have been provided by the hills to be found a few kilometres from
the actual site.
Archaeobotanical analysis of charcoal recovered during the excavations
allows us to formulate some consistent hypotheses about the original
ecology and landscape. The initial surroundings of the settlement
were characterised by areas occupied by oak and Holme oak forests,
accompanied by mastic tree stone pines and strawberry trees and
with areas of bushy vegetation dominated by maquis, garrigues
and scrub. The agricultural and pastoral exploitation, the cutting
of wood for construction and firewood, provoked devastation among
the plant formations that could be considered natural, favouring
the extension of pines and bushy formations. Effectively, during
Vilars III (425/400 - 372 B.C.) the forests were in recession,
the stone pine dominating the Holme oak, this latter in turn dominating
Houses, squares and streets
Inside the fortress, space was at a premium and was exploited as
much as possible; houses were squeezed together and the narrow
alleys produced a sensation of overcrowding. The impressive five-metre
thick wall, with a dozen watch towers spread along its length,
defined the oval shape of the enclosure. A narrow gate flanked
by two of the towers faced north and another postern, protected
by another of the towers, opened to the west. With a maximum axis
of fifty metres, the enclosure had an area of just under 4,000
square metres. Some hundred and fifty people lived packed into
The street plan was organised radially around a central square,
presided by a large open tank-well lined with stone and with a
ramp that allowed people and animals to get down to fluctuating
water level. Two rows of houses were situated between the square
and the wall, separated by a paved street parallel to the wall.
The first row, was made up of drawn-out rectangular houses that
rested against the wall and the second, formed by buildings whose
use we still have to determine, between the street and the square.
The street plan included links between the main street, the square
and the gates into the village. The crossroads between the main
street and the street that led to the gate opening to the north,
combined with the some facades set back from the building line
made a small square where there was a furnace. The north gate
was opened up towards the end of the 6th century B.C. during Vilars
II, after the closure of the west gate. The small size of this
leads us to suppose that there was a main gate, facing the rising
sun in the area not yet excavated.
This general plan was kept to, with minor modifications, until
425/400 B.C.. Coinciding with the beginning of the full Iberian
period, drastic changes were produced in the urban layout and
also in the defensive system. There was a new street layout and,
consequently the homes changed there orientation, the tank-well
and the ramp were constructed, possibly at the expense of an earlier
one, and the defences were reinforced. The final phase is marked
by two or three decades of decadence which preceded the abandoning.
Among the scarce archaeological remains which can be attributed
to this period, the most notable is the intentional filling of
the tank-well with stones and earth.
Walls, ditch and standing stones
As we have mentioned, the enormous defences protecting the village
converted it into a unassailable bastion. To understand the magnitude
of these, it must be borne in mind that siege engines, like those
developed later by the Greeks, Romans and Carthagians, did not
exist. A five-metre thick wall, at least four or five metres high,
topped with watch towers, guaranteed a solid defence against any
hypothetical enemy capable of overcoming the slopes of a thirteen-metre
wide trench excavated to a depth of four metres and the "chevaux-de-frise".
These latter constructions consisted of a barrier of standing
stones, set in pairs at the foot of the wall, and on the upper
part of the rampart, aimed at making rapid movements impossible
when the attackers were under the fire of the defenders and at
a clear tactical disadvantage.
The dry ditch and the standing-stone barrier form part of the oldest
defensive system. With time, the walls and the towers were modified
and repaired and the infilling of the land progressively filled
the ditch with earth and covered the "cheveaux de frise". By the
end of the 5th century B.C., coinciding with the beginning of
Vilars III and when the standing stones were almost invisible,
the ditch was reconstructed, the side next to the wall being reinforced
with a regular, vertical retaining wall.
The exceptional and singular defensive system poses some questions
about the cultural origins and interpretation in the territorial
context. If the square towers or the use of adobe, both in the
wall and in domestic architecture, have to be related to local
traditions, it is more difficult to do so with the "cheveaux-de-frise".
Their origin is traditionally related to the Thracian-Cimerian
movements of central Europe in the Hallstatt C, and the importance
of cavalry among these societies. In fact, in that case, wooden
stakes protected the hill forts and which appeared around 700
B.C.. Their diffusion around western Europe (Ireland, Scotland,
Wales and the Iberian Peninsula), related to the expansion of
the urnfields people, was very fast, and stone replaced wood as
a construction material. Archeology seems to confirm the East-West
expansion and to demonstrate that, effectively, the western ones
are more modern. The problem is that we know almost nothing about
the intermediate steps of this theoretical chain of evolution
The state of preservation and the precise chronology convert the
Arbeca fortress and its "cheveaux-de-frise" into a unique and
fundamental contribution to the knowledge of early Iron Age fortifications
in the Peninsula and Europe.
Warriors, farmers and herders
Like almost all Iberian and ancient societies in general, the Ilergetian
people based their economy on activities of the so-called primary
sector, basically agriculture and herding and these activities
determined the day-to-day and annual rhythm of the lives of the
Ilergetian villages. Undoubtedly, the life of the great majority
of the male population was spent closer to their farming tools
than to their arms. It was a world of farmers, artisans, traders,
warriors, priests and aristocrats.
The Iberian stage saw an important change in the use of the land
and the addition of millet, alfalfa and oats to the traditional
cultivation of cereals and legumes, while vines gained in importance
and the beginnings of vegetable gardening and the growing of fruit
trees were seen. More resistant, efficient and highly specialised
agricultural implements made of iron responded to these new necessities.
The harvest was based on winter cereals: hulled barley and free-threshing
wheats were the most typical, but other cereals like compact bread
wheat and eincorn and emmer wheat were also cultivated. This was
short-cycle agriculture, with annual or biannual fallow periods.
The presence of a leguminous plant, the lentil, suggests crop
rotation as a system for recovering nutrients and avoiding the
exhaustion of the soil. The importance of cereal farming is also
confirmed by the presence of numerous milling pieces in the houses,
these being both saddle querns and two piece rotary querns, as
well as from the reconstruction of the village surroundings with
an abundance of those weeds associated parasitically with cereal
fields, such as rye grass and others.
The working of iron would contribute to a decisive transformation
of the agricultural implements from the Iberian epoch. the plough
was important in the intensification of agriculture and, without
doubt, was a factor in the development of social inequalities
through the generation of surpluses and exagerating the differences
in productivity of the small holdings. The diversity of agricultural
implements allows us to reconstruct the principal activities on
the land. Hoes, axes, adzes and billhooks made it possible to
cut back the forest, cut down trees and roots, clean and condition
the soil; ploughs, axes, narrow-bladed and weeding hoes opened,
aired and weeded the land, narrow bladed spades and forks and
sowing forks helped the plough to make sowing possible; wide-bladed
hoes were used to form the little furrows of the vegetable gardens;
billhooks pruned the vines; pitchforks stirred up the compost;
and, finally, sickles harvested the cereals. Fire and the hammer
worked the iron in the forges of the simple local smithies, keeping
the tools in working order. The wide spread of iron working techniques
from the first half of the 5th century B.C. onwards had made a
profound technological revolution possible.
In Vilars the process is illustrated by the hoe found in a home
from the old Iberian epoch where there was an oven intended for
use as a forge. In fact, metal working is known from all the phases,
thanks to the presence of iron tailings and combustion structures.
The oven tray containing pure hematites discovered in one of the
houses from the founding stage is especially interesting. It means
that, according to the radio carbon dating, the earliest inhabitants
were already working iron at the beginning of the 8th century
B.C.. Vilars provides us with privileged information about the
introduction and development of iron-working among the pre-Iberian
populations of the north-eastern Peninsula, on the edge of the
Phoenician colonial world which, for years, has been considered
responsible for this development. On the other hand, the control
of iron-working, instruments and armament at such an early date
provides one of the clues to the exceptional status of the fortress.
Livestock breeding would have been the other basic economic activity.
The flocks were mixed- equal proportions of sheep and goats; primarily
exploited for their meat (40% of the ruminants were slaughtered
before the age of two), but milk and wool production were also
present given that 25% of the flock reached the age of four. Pigs
heavily outnumbered cattle; except for those examples reserved
for breeding, the rest of the pigs were sacrificed when they reached
their ideal weight, which, being a slow-growing, primitive race
whose morphology was very different from that of modern pigs,
was usually shortly before the age of two. The cattle were slaughtered
at the age of about four and were used as working animals and
for milk and meat, although we can discount the idea of systematic
The horse and the donkey were used as mounts and as beasts of burden
and draught animals, as well as a source of hide. Their meat was
not used and their corpses ended up on the compost heap. This
means that their remains are not normally found inside dwellings.,
except in special circumstances as we will see. Until now, the
fact that makes the presence of horses special in Vilars is nothing
to do with these former uses, but rather with the appearance of
four horse fetuses, all less than ten months old, whose burial
appears to coincide with the reorganisation that preceded the
construction of the Vilars II houses. It is tempting to interpret
these remains as part of a founding ritual. However, as it has
been impossible to identify the graves or find any evidence of
rituals, we cannot discount the possibility that, owing to their
small size, they were included in the wall-filling along with
other rubbish that was not put on the compost heap.
The ownership of horses was emblematic for the Ilergetian aristocracy
and they were one of their most precious belongings. The Roman
general, Scipio, was well aware of this when he presented Indibil
with three hundred of his finest horses after the Battle of Baecula
in 209 B.C. (Polibi X, 10). At the beginning of the 7th century,
some thirty kilometres from Vilars, in one of the tombs of the
cementry of Pedrera (Vallfogona de Balaguer - Termens), on the
banks of the river Segre, a high ranking person, possibly a army
commander or prince like those who would surely inhabit our fortress,
had been buried together with his horse, its harnesses and other
prestigious personal possessions.
The range of domestic fauna in the fortified village near Arbeca
was completed by the dog. They were almost certainly used to work
with the livestock, for hunting and as guard dogs.
Hunting and gathering would probably have occupied a secondary
role. They would respond to a double need: to protect the crops
and provide a source of meat, principally from rabbits, deer and
wild boar. The hunting of these latter animals was an prestigious
activity among the aristocracy. Women and children participated
in the exploitation of other plant-based resources, gathering
wild fruit like blackberries, grapes or wild vines, firewood,
esparto grass, rushes, etc..
Agricultural surpluses possibly formed the exchange commodity necessary
for commercial relations with the coastal villages, but without
extensive excavations in the inside of the village it is not possible
to quantify or document other aspects of the production and storage
systems. The presence of expensive Greek vases among the crockery
constitutes the clearest evidence for these commercial relationships.
Local (district) markets would guarantee the regular exchange
of products and the supply of both local and exotic articles.
Life and Death
"You are neither stone nor wood, but men..." Mark Anthony shouted
at the crowd in the market (Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar"). Archaeologists
should bear this in mind when dealing with the remains which they
exhume, remembering that they are not excavating things, but rather
men and women, human beings who spent a good part of their existence
in productive tasks, and who were something more than stomachs
The social interpretation of archaeological remains allows us to
perceive people of different sex and class, in other words, reconstruct
a daily reality where the tasks and activities carried out were
done so in function of gender and social stature. in the Ilergetian
society the men's space was the exterior, under the open sky,
in agricultural, hunting, herding and military activities. Commercial
activities, and all those outside the home which needed a given
specialisation (for example metalworking or pottery) were also
male preserves, with the exception of textile production.
As was normal in all plough-based cultures, women played a minor
role in agriculture, but the basically peasant life attributed
wider responsibilities and work in the open air to the Ilergetian
women. Thus they occasionally collaborated in agricultural tasks,
such as in the case of vegetable gardens, and looking after domestic
animals, the gathering and supply of firewood and water. The home
was where the women were in charge. As well as motherhood, all
the housework fell on their shoulders, including milling, flour,
bread and biscuit making, sowing and weaving, looking after clothes,
the manual production of kitchenware and a long list of daily
The integral, meticulous and rigorous excavation of a settlement
like Vilars should allow us to collect information about all aspects
of the communal life of its inhabitants, without limiting ourselves
- as we are trying to show - to the productive and reproductive
aspects of the system. The non-material questions of their culture,
the symbolic world and their beliefs, equally ingrained in their
daily existence and reflected directly or indirectly in the material
remains, are also within the reach of the archaeologist dedicated
to their reconstruction. We will now see two brief examples.
The first is centred on the children, a social group which rarely
appear as an element in archaeological writings. Let us comment
on two aspects of very different significance; the behaviour of
the adults towards infant mortality, and play in infancy.
There was an ancestral tradition among the Iberians, shared with
many other peoples (including the Greeks and the Romans), and
maintained until the 20th century in certain areas, which consisted
of burying children who died before, during, or soon after birth,
under the ground of the same home. These creatures had not undergone
the initiations or rites of passage that recognised them as adults,
and for that reason were not cremated and were banned from the
cementery and the world of the dead. This way they were placed
under the tuition of the domestic divinities and once they transcended
the ranks of these, they exercised a protective effect over the
occupants and activities of the place where they were buried.
The inhabitants of Vilars were amongst those with this custom.
In the house where iron was worked from the initial period, three
new-born babies were buried in the same grave, resting curled
up and on their sides, one partially over another, and, years
earlier a baby of little more than ten months had been buried
in a separate grave. The study of their DNA (deoxyribonucleic
acid which carries the hereditary instructions to form a body
and make it grow) currently under way will tell us whether these
babies were born together and will allow us to know their sex
or whether they were related to each other. In another case, a
bobbin which was found beside a child suggests that we are dealing
with a girl, given that the wheel at the end of the spindle helped
to twist the thread and had a symbolic value as a representation
of a female task. We have made progress in our formal knowledge
of this custom, even down to its ideological implications, but
we still do not know up to what point it reflects infant mortality
or if it corresponds to a mechanism for demographic control, and,
in that case, whether it affected both sexes.
For these who overcame the risks involved in entering their world,
their short childhood took place between toys and learning. Their
toys were, obviously, much simpler and fewer in number than those
nowadays, but we have no doubts about their existence because
it is not in the least odd to find pottery figurines, decorated
balls of clay, a string of rings, circular counters cut out of
bits of pottery or a small group of ankle bones for playing the
astragalus or at jackstones. This latter game, played by the children
from Maragafef (Torregrossa) at the end of the 3rd century B.C.
has lasted in some of its many variations of skill or luck almost
up to our times.
The second example refers to the discovery of the remains of the
bones of some animal, probably goats or sheep, under the floors
of the dwellings and sometimes built into a wall during its construction.
This practice corresponds to the custom of making offerings and
sacrifices aimed at placing the dwelling or construction under
the protection of the gods. Of special significance is the offering
of a large jar, containing a smaller one, buried in the ground
before the construction of one of the houses in Vilars 0 right
in the place where the central fireplace would have been built.
Aristocracy, power and territory
The impressive defences which protected the village and made it
into an unassailable fortress, were such a colossal investment
in work and effort that they require special justification. Despite
appearing isolated in the zone and adopting a defensive system
that does not appear to be of local origin, nowadays the least
credible hypothesis is that of a group of in-comers protecting
themselves from a hostile environment, as the local culture, economic
strategies, construction methods and even the scarce data about
their daily customs, beliefs and the symbolic world in general,
are all decidedly based on ancient local traditions. To find out
the real reason for the fortified site, the resources they exploited,
land and water, their surpluses and the wealth which they accumulated
or the power that they achieved and exhibited symbolically and
ostentatiously, have to be considered.
This is why the functional reading from the self-same site is insufficient
and the interpretation in the context of a society and territory
arranged hierarchically is necessary. We believe that the walls,
the ditch and the "cheveaux-de-frise" played a double role of
protection for those inside and as coercion over the surrounding
territory and other communities. Vilars appears as an expression
of power and political preeminence, perhaps being the residence
of a general or prince. The excavation of the interior of the
site and a deeper knowledge of the population of the surroundings
will allow us to define and contrast these hypotheses.
A window on the past
An interdisciplinary scientific project
The exhaustive excavation of the interior of the village, knowledge
of the area and interdisciplinary research are the bases for making
Vilars into a window open on the past.
The archaeology of the past is constructed with the archaeology
of the future. The team brought together around the Vilars project
has been, and is, a leader in Catalonia and Spain in the application
of the most innovative disciplines and the most up-to-date research
techniques. The inclusion of different specialists in the research
team allows an orientation and opening to research into aspects
which were unthinkable only a few years ago. Studies of zoology
(macro- and micro fauna, ichthyofauna, birdlife, insects, molluscs,
shells), botany (palynology, seeds and fruit, phitolites, charcoal),
geology (geomorphology, edaphology, petrography), anthropology
(fixing of sex and age, paleopathologies, DNA), taphonomy, analysis
applied to elements of furnishing (ceramology, microwear analysis,
archaeo-metalurgy) and construction (applied analysis to identify
the components of the materials) and absolute dating systems (C14
and AMS) allow us to tackle the reconstruction of the lifestyles
of a 8th to 4th century B.C. community in conditions to answer
as many questions as any historian or anthropologist working on
much more recent epochs.
A key element for understanding the Iberian world
Vilars in Arbeca is a decisive piece for the understanding of the
continuity of the historical process that led to the Ilergetian
The progressive social complexity of the communities of the western
Catalan plain and the Segre valley was a consequence of the unequal
appropiation of the surpluses produced by the development of an
agrarian economy based on extensive cereal growing. This also
explains its originality compared with the coastal populations,
its particular profile of occupation and exploitation of the land,
the characteristics of its settlements and, in particular, the
appearance and development of stone architecture and the earliest
urban proposals during the second half of the second millennium.
The construction of the Arbeca stronghold, almost two hundred
years before the arrival of the Greeks on the coast of the Empordà
and the founding of Emporium, illustrate the degree of socioeconomic
and political development achieved by western pre-Iberian communities.
The decision to construct and fortify the settlement on the plain
highlights one aspect of this general process: the will to exploit
the land apt for agriculture systematically, These include the
Urgell district, the side valleys of the Segre or the Monegros,
a phenomena which appeared alongside the concentration of population
in the most favourable zones for the new economic strategies,
to the detriment of other areas of more abrupt landscape such
as the Garrigues district.
The continuous occupation of the fortified village for more than
four hundred years makes it a privileged site to observe and get
to know the transformations and changes lived by the population
in their living state, their technological innovations, their
customs and their beliefs. In particular, with reference to the
Iberianisation and the early years of the Iberian-Ilergetian epoch,
Vilars constitutes a key site, the only such one in Catalonia
currently being excavated, where this stage, the 6th century B.C.,
can be studied systematically.
Centuries later, in the second half of the 3rd century B.C., and
as a result of this process, the Ilergetianians appear as the
most singular and powerful tribe in the whole north east of the
Iberian Peninsula. At that time, Rome and Carthage were moving
towards a solution for the fortunes of the Mediterranean. However,
this is another story... . Ruins and oblivion have covered up
the old abandoned fortress and the Iberian population resided
in other places such as Tossal del Ceba, Castell d'Arbeca, La
Pleta or El Trull.