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Celtiberian Treasures at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

Silver pectoral from the 3rd or 2nd century BC.

Silver pectoral from the 3rd or 2nd century BC.

Madrid is famous for its vast collection of art and antiquities, and the biggest museum news from Spain’s capital this year is the reopening of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional. It was closed for refurbishment for several years and madrileños were beginning to wonder if they were ever going to get their archaeological museum back.

Earlier this year, it finally reopened and having just moved back to Madrid I made a beeline to go see it.

It was worth the wait. The old museum, with its poor lighting and antiquated displays, is no more, replaced by a more open, modern floor plan that reminds me of the 2009 redesign of the Ashmolean in Oxford. The signage has improved, with detailed texts in both Spanish and English, and the arrangement of the artifacts is easier on the eye.

Celtiberian swords and daggers from the 5th-3rd centuries BC. The curved weapon is a "falcata" common in southeastern Iberia.

Celtiberian swords and daggers from the 5th-3rd centuries BC. The curved weapon is a “falcata” common in southeastern Iberia.

What hasn’t changed is the excellent collection of ancient treasures, from Paleolithic carved ivory to Renaissance coins. The three strongest collections are for the Celtiberian, Roman, and Medieval periods. These will be the subject of my next three posts.

“Celtiberian” is one of those vague terms that all archaeologists feel uncomfortable with, yet none can discard. It dates to the Classical authors, who couldn’t agree on a definition either. In its most basic form, “Celtiberian” means those peoples on the Iberian peninsula who were a mix of Celtic and native Iberian cultures.

Helmet, 4th-2nd century BC. This style originated in northern Italy.

Helmet, 4th-2nd century BC. This style originated in northern Italy.

Just which tribes were Iberian, which were Celtic, or how much each was a proportion of both, has provided fuel for generations of archaeological debate. Strolling through the museum’s Celtiberian galleries, those arguments take a back seat to the pure wonder of what these ancient people achieved. There are masterworks of gold and silver, imposing monuments in stone, plus all the weapons and armor we’d expect from a warrior people.

A woman making an offering to the gods, 3rd century BC. Archaeologists suggest that this was a puberty ritual in which a young woman marked her passage to womanhood.

A woman making an offering to the gods, 3rd century BC. Archaeologists suggest that this was a puberty ritual in which a young woman marked her passage to womanhood.

The Pozo Moro Monument was a tall stone tower erected to mark the grave of an important person in the 6th century BC. Archaeologists interpret it as a "soul tower" for a deified king. It shows Phoenician influence and was the center of a large Celtiberian necropolis.

The Pozo Moro Monument was a tall stone tower erected to mark the grave of an important person in the 6th century BC. Archaeologists interpret it as a “soul tower” for a deified king. It shows Phoenician influence and was the center of a large Celtiberian necropolis.

The tower has felines at each corner and the sides are decorated with bas-reliefs showing cryptic scenes such as a horned figure with a knife raised over a man who sits in a cauldron. Another scene shows a two-headed boar rooting in the ground and uncovering a snake, which coils around the animal's legs while turning into a human.

The tower has felines at each corner and the sides are decorated with bas-reliefs showing cryptic scenes such as a horned figure with a knife raised over a man who sits in a cauldron. Another scene shows a two-headed boar rooting in the ground and uncovering a snake, which coils around the animal’s legs while turning into a human.

The Celtiberians didn’t live in isolation. The artifacts show Punic and Phoenician influence. Celtiberians marched with Hannibal to invade Rome during the Second Punic War from 218-201 BC. Carthage was a former Phoenician colony that rose to greatness before being destroyed at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC, but the Iberian Peninsula continued to trade with other Phoenician ports. This brought the Celtiberians into the Mediterranean culture sphere and introduced them to cultural influences from as far away as Egypt.

An odd find. This ring, which shows an Egyptian motif that some archaeologists have interpreted as showing the goddess Hathor, may have been imported into Iberia by Phoenician traders.

An odd find. This ring, which shows an Egyptian motif that some archaeologists have interpreted as showing the goddess Hathor, may have been imported into Iberia by Phoenician traders. Photo by Julián McLachlan-Alonso

Despite these links to the outside world, Celtiberian material culture has its own distinct style. Rich farmland led to large settlements and a surplus that could be used to create large temples, funerary monuments, and luxury items. Here’s just a small sample of what the Museo Arqueológico Nacional has to offer.

 

Sean McLachlan is a freelance travel and history writer. He is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and the post-apocalyptic thriller Radio Hope. His historical fantasy novella The Quintessence of Absence, was published by Black Gate. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page.

All photos copyright Sean mclachlan unless otherwise noted.

One of the museum's most famous pieces is the Lady of Elche, dating to the 4th century BC. It is believed to be a representation of Tanit, a goddess that was also worshiped by the Carthaginians and the Phoenicians. Both peoples greatly influenced Celtiberian culture through trade.

One of the museum’s most famous pieces is the Lady of Elche, dating to the 4th century BC. It is believed to be a representation of Tanit, a goddess that was also worshiped by the Carthaginians and the Phoenicians. Both peoples greatly influenced Celtiberian culture through trade.

No Princess Leia jokes, please.

No Princess Leia jokes, please.

1 Comment »

  1. Missed this when I was there in April. I hope to get a chance to visit on my next trip. Hasta Luego.

    Comment by Violette Malan - July 4, 2014 9:09 am


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