January 24, 2022 2:09 pm

The hidden shield that protected the Iberian aristocratic complex of Cabra

The first rays of dawn that filter through the Cordovan port of El Mojón illuminate the summit of the Cerro de la Merced before any other place in the vicinity. On that rounded hill, so symmetrical that some believed it artificial, once shone an Iberian sanctuary and, centuries later, an aristocratic complex that it was seen, like a lighthouse, from any point of its surroundings still in shadows. That imposing stone building with a square plan, twenty meters on a side and some five or six meters high, which dominated the space and shone at dawn in the light of the rising sun, «it was meant to be seen from the plain and from the roads that go up

towards Priego or from Carcabuey they lead to Lucena or towards Cabra “, he explains
Fernando Quesada placeholder image
, Professor of Archeology at the Autonomous University of Madrid, who adds: «It is a representative site, I would say that a little scenographic“.

The research project on ‘
Iberian aristocratic cities and complexes in the Roman conquest of Alta Andalucía
‘directed by Quesada has spent a decade unraveling the secrets of this unique Iberian enclave, which is unparalleled with what is known so far. Before their arrival it was thought that the remains corresponded to an old watchtower, but their excavations have brought to light a central complex of two floors, with 10 rooms on its ground floor, with walls up to 4.5 meters thick, with terraces around contained by walls also cyclopean and which was accessed by a staircase built with stone slabs 1.5 meters long. No, that complex was not one of many in the area, known as ‘tower enclosures’. Nor was it built just to monitor the environment since it does not have good visual control of the territory that surrounds it. Not even the nearby town of Cabra, located about five kilometers away, can be seen from there. That formidable geometric cube of two heights was conceived to be admired from the plain.

Place where the shield handle was found embedded in the wall – F. Quesada and Grupo Polemos

Archaeologists have discovered that it was built taking advantage of the original plan of an older Iberian construction, possibly from the 5th or early 4th century BC, which they believe may have been a sanctuary, with an associated monument or a large monumental door decorated with reliefs and polychrome. They have found at least three ashlars with ‘gola cornice’ of remote Egyptian origin, fragments of reliefs of others that were carved and a spectacular ashlar decorated with plant motifs that was reused on a wall that has been taken to the
Archaeological Museum of Cabra
and whose analyzes have determined that it had red and white polychromy. «That ashlar indicates that the old complex had to be very spectacular. We are still working to see if it was part of a door with a large lintel or of a square turriform monument with cornices and moldings on several faces, ”says Quesada.

In the 4th century BC, in a period of transformations in the Iberian world, the sanctuary underwent a total remodeling and became an aristocratic complex. The large paved patio was divided into smaller rooms, an upper floor was raised and a hall was arranged that served as a distributor. Archaeologists have found at least three mills that would be in use at the same time and that attest to food production, as well as loom weights and fusayolas that indicate textile activity, remains of weapons such as arrow and spear heads and ceramics luxury, including Greek imports. “It has all the elements that would characterize an aristocratic palace complex: evidence of production, weapons, luxury products, an evident monumentality, an isolated character with a certain defensive capacity and a massive construction technique unusual in domestic architecture”, summarizes the director of investigations. They have even discovered a secluded room at the back of the complex, paved, without windows, which could be a chapel. Some Neolithic axes, like ancient lightning stones, found in the area thus seem to indicate this.

The myth of the small Iberian shields

In one of the adobe walls of the lobby, eroded by the passage of centuries and landslides, a corner appeared that the expert eye of Fernando Quesada quickly identified with the iron handle of an Iberian shield. He was not wrong. Someone deliberately hid the hilt of the gun in that wall during the second phase of construction, right in front of whoever entered the aristocratic complex through its only eastern door. «A shield is a defensive weapon, which protects. Our interpretation is that it is an apotropaic element, a protective component that defends the building in a symbolic way», Explains the professor. In an article recently published in Abantos, a tribute that his colleagues pay to Paloma Cabrera Bonet, who was curator of the National Archaeological Museum, Quesada exposes the results of his research on this shield together with his colleague from the UAM Eduardo Kavanagh de Prado and Antonio Moreno Rosa, from the Archaeological Museum of goat.

Drawing of an Iberian shield
Drawing of an Iberian shield – Carlos Fernandez del Castillo and Fernando Quesada

“It is a triangular fin type handle, the most characteristic of the Iberian Plenum onwards, from the middle of the 5th century BC. C. and until the middle of the 1st century BC. C. or beyond ”, they describe in their study. Although it was fragmented into several pieces and bent by pressure, it retains the bent end on itself to hug the wood, so they have been able to determine both its measurements and those of the diameter of the shield (64.8 cm). “Compared to a Greek hoplite shield, up to 120cm in diameter, it is smaller, but a 65cm shield covers you from chin to groin and to spare from shoulder to shoulder. There is the idea that the Iberian shields were like soup plates, extremely small, but it is not correct, the average of the Iberian shields was 50-60 cm», Says Quesada,« and there were quite a lot bigger, 70 and 80 cm in diameter ».

Although it is not common to find a weapon intentionally embedded in a wall, it It is not a unique case. In the Vacaceous site of Pintia (Valladolid), Carlos Sanz Mínguez found the sheath of a dagger from the 4th century BC in a bank from the 1st century AD. The concealment of this relic during the expansion of the house is also believed to have had a «protective sense »Or link to an ancient lineage. There are more examples. In the Bastida de Moixent, in Valencia, a series of burnt and buried offerings, which include many weapons, appeared under the main access door to the town. And in Sardinia it seems that swords have been found embedded in stone walls of the Nuragic culture, much older than the Iberian, according to Giovanna Fundoni, from the University of Sassari. Quesada has no doubts that “this has a symbolic and ritual content.”

Victim of a systematic demolition

The shield did not succeed in preventing, however, that this Iberian aristocratic complex of Cerro de la Merced, the first of its kind to be excavated in Alta Andalucía, was painstakingly demolished around the time of Hannibal or in the early stages of the Roman conquest, at the beginning of the second century BC It was completely emptied of what was considered valuable and the corners of the building were torn down to ensure that it could not be rebuilt. It was not the subject of a violent military attack, by surprise. «In the Cerro de la Merced it was a more deliberate, more systematic destruction, more leisurely, which is accompanied by looting, “says the director of investigations.

Although it is not known with certainty what motivated this anger, its demolition could coincide in time with the last great uprising of the Iberians against Rome that takes place around 192 BC. Titus Livy tells of the Roman conquest of the Iberian oppidum (the fortified city ) of Licabrum (Goat) by Gaius Flaminio and speaks of a warlord, Corribilo, which was captured by the Romans. Although archaeologists cannot link Corribilo with Cerro de la Merced because they do not have any writing that demonstrates this relationship, that was a time “almost of apocalypse for the Iberians.” Quesada explains that after centuries of quiet existence, the Iberian Peninsula became the scene of the struggles between Romans and Carthaginians and the Iberians were involved in a kind of world war of the time. Both contenders tried to ally themselves with Iberian princes to supply their troops, recruit mercenaries or to stock up on silver to mint money and attacked the allies of the others.

Aerial view of the Cerro de la Merced site
Aerial view of the Cerro de la Merced site – J. Arroyo

«It could happen that the lord of Cerro de la Merced was an ally of the Carthaginians and the Romans punished him, or that years later he had tried to challenge the power of Rome and the Romans punished him… we cannot know. The world of the end of the third century BC and the beginning of the second, adds Quesada, is a troubled world of war, catastrophes, destruction … and also of opportunities for warlords, clever people who with their small armies ally themselves with one or the other and take advantage of the troubled river. It is in this context that the Cerro de la Merced complex disappears ». Between the ruined walls was the symbolic protective shield, incapable of anyone who wanted to erase all memory of that palace complex that shone in the sun.

Today the elegant roof that shelters the site stands out on the horizon, drawing attention to the place as the old building did before. At the initiative of the Cabra City Council, which finances the bulk of the expenses, work is being done to enhance its value, consolidating and restoring the walls to make it accessible to visitors. The study of Cerro de la Merced is part of a large research project of Iberian aristocratic cities and complexes in Alta Andalucía ‘, which ranges from Almedinilla to Montemayor, where in 2018 it was discovered
a chariot deposited as an offering at the grave of a high-ranking character
. “It has already been restored and we are now in the drawing and study phase. There will be news, but not immediately, “says Quesada. Investigations are progressing.


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