The Stele of Castrelo de Val, showing a shield and chariot. This Bronze Age stele is similar to those found in Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, and the Mediterranean.
When one thinks of Spain, one generally thinks of sun-soaked coastlines and arid stretches of plain, but Spain’s northern coast is a green, hilly region with a strong Celtic tradition. The westernmost region, just north of Portugal, is called Galicia. Here you’ll find cider instead of wine, bagpipes instead of castanets, and a rich archaeological heritage.
GALAICOS. Un pueblo entre dos mundos at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid explores the ancient history of this region from the Bronze Age to the arrival of Christianity. It reveals a well-populated archaeological region that was connected to the Phoenician and Greek trade routes along the Atlantic coast to the tin mines in Britain. The exhibition shows some interesting examples of artifacts making their way along the trade route to Galicia from Italy, Greece, and North Africa.
The Pointer at Mzoura. Photo courtesy Almudena Alonso-Herrero
Morocco is best known for its medieval medinas and Roman cities, but the region has some interesting prehistoric remains as well. Petroglyphs dating back tens of thousands of years can be found all over the country, and archaeologists are excavating early hunting sites and Neolithic villages to piece together Morocco’s prehistory.
One curious site stands out above all others — Mzoura, Morocco’s only stone circle. It looks strikingly like those of Western Europe, as if it had been transposed from Wiltshire or Brittany.
We visited on the same day we went to visit Asilah. The site makes a good side trip from that old pirate port. A private car is needed because the stone circle stands next to the little village of Sidi-el-Yamani, which is reached only infrequently by public transport over narrow and rough roads.
Earlier this summer I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks working on Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands. This island chain is owned by Spain and sits just off the coast of Western Sahara. Besides having my first flying lesson, I got to drink lots of wine explore the island’s culture and history. In prehistoric times, the Canary Islands were home to a native people called the Guanche. While they had no writing of their own, some of their language has survived in the local dialect and has similarities to Berber. For thousands of years they kept their culture intact, being visited by the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, and Arabs but remaining uncolonized until the Spanish landed in 1402.
The Guanches came to the islands by 1000 BC, although some archaeologists claim they arrived much earlier than that. They survived by a mixture of farming and fishing and were divided into several small kingdoms. Each island was fairly isolated from the others and in fact Guanche is only the term for the people of Tenerife. The other islands each had their own distinct term but Guanche has now become the general term.
Sadly, the Guanches suffered a common fate of colonized peoples. Many died off from war and disease, or merged into the Spanish community through marriage. A significant percentage of modern Canary Islanders boast Guanche blood and names. The coolest survival from those times is Silbo, a whistling language that you can see on this video. The sharp whistles used in Silbo carry far across the mountains and valleys of these rough islands and were a common means of communication until very recent times.
When we think of Somalia, we usually think of the endless civil war and the rise of the militant Islamist group Al-Shabab. That’s all that gets in the news, after all. But Somalia has a rich past that’s been all but forgotten thanks to its sad present. Back in 2012, I went in search of it.
I visited Somaliland, an independent state that makes up the northern third of the former Somalia. While it remains unrecognized by any other nation, it has established a viable government with free and fair elections, a growing economy, and the rule of law. Visiting Somaliland gives outsiders a chance to get to know Somali culture and see some of the best prehistoric painted caves in Africa.
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.
When the Romans marched into the Iberian Peninsula 218 BC, they found it to be a patchwork of small Celtic kingdoms and tribes, each with its distinct local traditions, but sharing the same overall culture.
Like with the other Celtic peoples they faced, the Romans met fierce resistance, and didn’t fully conquer the peninsula for 200 years. The last holdouts were the mountain tribes of northern Spain–the Cantabri, the Astures, and the Gallaeci. They have left their names as three of Spain’s northern provinces–Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia. In a bitter war from 29 to 19 BC, the Emperor Augustus brought these tribes to heel and took their land for the empire.
“Cantabri” means “mountain people.” They were an isolated and independent-minded culture living a mostly pastoral lifestyle. Several of their villages and cemeteries have been excavated and the regional government has also built a reconstructed Cantabrian village. The Poblado Cántabro at Cabezón de la Sal, an hour’s train ride from the regional capital Santander, gives the visitor an insight into the lives of these ancient people.