Prehistoric Town of La Bastida near Totana One thing that never ceases to amaze us is Spain’s capacity to surprise. One such surprise was, when we were reading a guide book of local walks a few years ago, we suddenly realised that there were the remains of a major settlement of a prehistoric civilisation; that of the Argaric Culture, around four miles from Totana and situated on a hill at the confluence of the Lebor Rambla and the Barranco Salado (Salado Gorge). Quite how important – and large – this settlement, La Bastida, had been, and the richness of the remains, we had still to appreciate.
But first, who were these strangely sounding Argars? In the Iberian Peninsula, the Bronze Age lasted most of the second millennium, from perhaps around 2200 BC to 1300 BC. As in the rest of Europe, it saw accelerating progress, both in society and technology. In the south east of Spain, there was what was known as the Argaric Culture at this time, which was unlike anything that had previously existed. It was characterised by large villages often on hills, numerous graves within houses, an extensive range of metal objects (the majority of copper, bronze and silver), tools of stone and bone, and many forms of ceramic containers.
The name “Argaric” comes from the Argaric Settlement of El Argar in Almeria, a site excavated toward the end of the 19th Century by the Belgian mining engineer brothers Henry and Louis Siret. Another site excavated by the brothers was La Bastida near Totana during the 1880s, although this had its repercussions when, subsequently, two “celebrated” archaeological forgers, known as El Corro and El Rosao, plundered and destroyed part of the site for their own personal profit. However, La Bastida had been “discovered” even earlier than this. A road engineer originally from Granada, in Totana in 1865, was visited by a local who told him of lances, daggers and skeletons which could be found on a nearby hillside. This was one of the first discoveries in Spain of a culture which spread across Murcia and Almeria, and parts of Jaen, Granada and Alicante, 4000 years ago. Since then, other remains have been found in Murcia in the Guadalentín Valley, and along tributaries of the Segura up to Cehegin, Calasparra and Moratalla, as well as further north near Jumilla and Yecla. Further excavations at La Bastida took place in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, but it is to much more modern times that we must look to appreciate just what a treasure there is at La Bastida and its true significance.
￼ At the end of 2008 began the Bastida Project under the direction of the University of Barcelona, with other European and American universities (including Reading University from Britain) also participating. The aim of the project is to undertake a systematic investigation of the site and to create a centre for research into prehistory in the Mediterranean area, as well as laboratory space and a museum. Today, this work is proceeding with a magnificent building built near the site of La Bastida by the Totana Town Hall to house the indoor work of the archaeologists. It was fascinating during a recent open day, to be able to look around the laboratory where massive pots were being pieced together from a multitude of fragments. These were being glued together, but in a way that could be reversed if better future techniques are found. The process is quite a complex one as the fragments have first to be cleaned and then salt crystals deposited in the fragments over the past 4000 years removed, to prevent temperature changes creating stresses in the restored vessels. Of course, in the very rare instance of a pot which had been placed within a tomb being found unbroken, the need for a painstaking reconstruction process is thankfully absent!
But what is there at La Bastida? Firstly, it can boast of numerous houses built on artificial terraces along the hillside in this strategic location, well hidden from the Guadalentín Valley and with excellent natural defences as can be well appreciated if you look at the site from below from the bed of the Lebor Rambla. As many as 28 terraces have been identified all around the hill with just two areas excavated so far. The whole area is well located in relation to natural resources available at the time – wood and hunting in the adjacent Sierra de la Tercia and, further away, in the Sierra Espuña; plenty of cultivable land and various springs.
The excavations at La Bastida have concentrated on the remains of a number of houses which were constructed with straight walls up to one metre thick and about 2 metres high. The original base of the stone walls of the houses is now visible where excavations have taken place. On to the top of the uncovered remains, a preservative layer has now been placed. The roofs, though obviously now long gone, were constructed of mud and plant materials placed onto a wooden superstructure. How is this known? Well, moulded mud shapes have been found in house remains. These clearly housed caña (reeds) on the roof, with esparto used for binding. Floors were compacted mud covering a typical area of 50 to 60 square metres (a considerable size) with few internal divisions. Stone benches on which pots would be placed sometimes are found next to house walls. The houses in the settlement were separated by “streets” of perhaps a metre’s width – cars were clearly not a consideration at that time! The streets were irregular and sometimes appear to have been stepped, probably to accommodate defensive requirements. There were some more open spaces where the streets met. It also seems that the houses were often grouped in areas according to the activity of their inhabitants. There were numerous farmers/shepherds and pottery and metal workers.
One house at La Bastida contained mineral slag, suggesting it was a metal workshop. Under the houses, limited remains of older settlement have been found – essentially huts with mud walls and perhaps relating to the first inhabitants of the site over 4000 years ago. In the north eastern part of the excavations, there appears to have been a water storage tank of significant dimensions which showed several modifications during its lifetime. In the middle of the excavated area, the archaeologists have found a large rectangular building with strong stone walls, a floor which was probably below ground level, and with benches and storage areas.
These findings as a whole have shown that, from the earliest times, the settlement of La Bastida had a complex social organisation which was capable of organising the building of structures until then unknown in the Iberian Peninsula. In a higher part of La Bastida, evidence has been found of an area probably inhabited by the leaders of the city. It appears to have been walled. The social hierarchy seems to have been of warrior chiefs at the top, followed by warriors in the service of those chiefs, a class of free men, and then, almost certainly, a servile stratum at the base. The nature of the burials would indicate that the hereditary principle was well established.
(to be continued)
Part taken from “Exploring Murcia – A Guide to Totana, Alhama de Murcia, Aledo, Pliego and the Sierra Espuña”, by Clive and Rosie Palmer which is available from www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clive and Rosie Palmer have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. Copies of some of the books may also be available from Cosas y Cosas, Cehegin and Best Wishes, Camposol Urbanización.