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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 forms.

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 wall.

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 the oak.


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 this.

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 and diffusion.

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 beef eating.

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 with legs.

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 tasks.

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 world.

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.