Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The disappearance of Tartessos

I'm not a historian, but I certainly have been fascinated with history for years.  I just finished re-reading Robert Graves's wonderful books I, Claudius and Claudius the God -- fictionalized, but largely historically accurate, accounts of the tumultuous life of Tiberius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known as the Roman emperor Claudius, fifth and penultimate emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.  Since then I've gone back into reading some of the mytho-historical works I first looked at while doing my master's degree, the Icelandic saga literature (I'm currently in the middle of the Laxdæla Saga, the tale of the people of the Lax River Valley.  The highly entertaining chapter I just finished is about a guy named Killer-Hrapp who was so awful he didn't want to stop doing awful things after he died, so he had his wife bury his body under the floor of their house, and he proceeded to haunt the place as a reanimated corpse.  Apparently zombies are not a recent invention.)  After that, I'm back to the southern Mediterranean (and pure non-fiction) for How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy.

So I'm what I'd consider a reasonably well-informed amateur.  Which is why a link I was sent by my friend and frequent contributor to Skeptophilia, Gil Miller, came as such a surprise.  Because the article describes a civilization on the Iberian Peninsula, contemporaneous to the ancient Greeks, that I'd never heard of before.

The civilization was called Tartessos.  They dominated the southern parts of what are now Spain and Portugal in the first part of the first millennium B.C.E., and inexplicably vanished sometime around the middle of it.  They spoke an unknown non-Indo-European language which has survived in written form in 95 different inscriptions; the alphabet has been deciphered -- "Southwestern Paleohispanic Script," a "semi-syllabic" script in which some characters represent single sounds and others represent syllables -- but the language itself is still largely a mystery, and doesn't appear to be closely related to any known language.

The Tartessian Fonte Velha inscription, found near Bensafrim, Portugal, which dates to the seventh century B.C.E.  [Image is in the Public Domain]

The Tartessians were known to the Greeks, who valued their trading partnerships with them because it gave them access to tin, necessary for the fabrication of bronze.  In the fourth century B.C.E. they were going strong -- the historian Ephorus describes "a very prosperous market called Tartessos, with much tin carried by river, as well as gold and copper from Celtic lands" -- but then, right around that time, they vanished completely, for reasons that are still uncertain.

They went out with a bang, too.  The link Gil sent, which was to an article at the wonderful site Atlas Obscura, describes an archaeological site called Casas del Turuñuelo, located in the Spanish province of Extremadura, near the border of Portugal.  What the researchers found seems to indicate that immediately before their mysterious disappearance, the Tartessians had a massive sacrifice of horses, donkeys, cattle, dogs, pigs... and possibly humans.  After arraying the sacrificed animals -- for example, deliberately arranging two horses facing each other symmetrically, with their forelegs crossed -- the Tartessians set fire to the entire place, burning to the ground what had been a thriving city.  They then apparently buried the ash, bones, and rubble...

... and took off for parts unknown.

Why a thriving and apparently wealthy civilization would do this is an open question.  There's been some speculation that they had been hit repeatedly by earthquakes, and thought that an enormous hecatomb would appease the gods.  But without any hard evidence, this is nothing more than a guess.  And the great likelihood, of course, is that they didn't vanish, nor even die out, but migrated elsewhere and merged with a pre-existing population.  But if that's true, then where did they go?  After about 400 B.C.E. there seems to be no sign of clearly Tartessian artifacts anywhere in western Europe.

They were still remembered long afterward, though.  In the second century C.E. the Greek historian Pausanias was in Olympia, Greece, and saw two bronze chambers in a sanctuary that the locals said were of Tartessian manufacture.  He elaborated thusly:

They say that Tartessos is a river in the land of the Iberians, running down into the sea by two mouths, and that between these two mouths lies a city of the same name.  The river, which is the largest in Iberia, and tidal, those of a later day called Baetis, and there are some who think that Tartessos was the ancient name of Carpia, a city of the Iberians.

Which squares with what we know about the Tartessians from archaeological sites, centering on the area near the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, which flows into a marshland that is now the Doñana National Park, a beautiful place I was lucky enough to visit a few years ago.

But of course, there's no historical mystery without some kind of wild speculation appended to it, and the Tartessians are no exception.  There are people who claim that Tartessos is actually the civilization of Atlantis, described by the ancient Greeks as being "beyond the Pillars of Hercules" (i.e. the Straits of Gibraltar).  Which Tartessos is.  But any other connection to Atlantis seems way beyond tentative to me, starting with the fact that supposedly Atlantis "sank beneath the sea," while all of the sites known to be inhabited by the Tartessians are on dry land.

Inconvenient, that.

Of course, I have to admit it's hard to do underwater archaeology, so if there are Tartessian sites sunk in the Atlantic, we might not know about them.  Still, it seems a little sketchy to decide that "rich civilization near Gibraltar that vanished suddenly" leads to "Tartessos = Atlantis."

So that leaves us with a conundrum -- an apparently wealthy and powerful civilization upping stakes and taking off.  Of course, the Tartessians aren't the only instance of this happening; pretty much the same disappearing act had occurred eight hundred years earlier to the Myceneans, who had dominated the eastern Mediterranean for a good half a millennium before suddenly abandoning their strongholds (many of them were burned to the ground) in around 1,200 B.C.E.  (Some historians have attributed the collapse of Mycenae to a prolonged drought, but that's also speculation.)

In any case, that's today's historical mystery that I'd never heard of.  Hope you enjoyed it.  For me, it brings to mind the words of Socrates, when someone told him he'd been judged the wisest man in the world, and what did he think of that?  Socrates responded: "If I am accounted wise, it is only because I realize how little I know."


Mathematics tends to sort people into two categories -- those who revel in it and those who detest it.  I lucked out in college to have a phenomenal calculus teacher who instilled in me a love for math that I still have today, and even though I'm far from an expert mathematician, I truly enjoy considering some of the abstruse corners of the theory of numbers.

One of the weirdest of all of the mathematical discoveries is Euler's Equation, which links five of the most important and well-known numbers -- π (the ratio between a circle's circumference and its diameter), e (the root of the natural logarithms), i (the square root of -1, and the foundation of the theory of imaginary and complex numbers), 1, and 0.  

They're related as follows:

Figuring this out took a genius like Leonhard Euler to figure out, and its implications are profound.  Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman called it "the most remarkable formula in mathematics;" nineteenth-century Harvard University professor of mathematics Benjamin Peirce said about Euler's Equation, "it is absolutely paradoxical; we cannot understand it, and we don't know what it means, but we have proved it, and therefore we know it must be the truth."

Since Peirce's time mathematicians have gone a long way into probing the depths of this bizarre equation, and that voyage is the subject of David Stipp's wonderful book A Most Elegant Equation: Euler's Formula and the Beauty of Mathematics.  It's fascinating reading for anyone who, like me, is intrigued by the odd properties of numbers, and Stipp has made the intricacies of Euler's Equation accessible to the layperson.  When I first learned about this strange relationship between five well-known numbers when I was in calculus class, my first reaction was, "How the hell can that be true?"  If you'd like the answer to that question -- and a lot of others along the way -- you'll love Stipp's book.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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