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Argarian Burial Customs

Burial customs and inhumations of the Argar Society in Andalucia from 2200 BC to 1500 BC

By Nick Nutter | Last Updated 5 Mar 2022 | Andalucia | History
Child burial Fuente Alamo

Child burial Fuente Alamo

How various groups treated their dead, how they were interred and with what grave goods they were accompanied at any period of time, is highly indicative of the influence of one group upon another. The Argarian society in Andalucia and Murcia introduced distinctive and hierarchical burial customs in line with their other domestic policies.

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How the Burial Customs Developed

Argarian Domestic Appliances

Argarian Domestic Appliances

Taking the overall tapestry of the southern Iberian Peninsula, from Huelva in the west to Murcia in the east, broadly speaking, the areas furthest away from the Argar society continued their existing practices which were varied and diverse. Burials took place in caves, tholoi, hypogea, pits and orthostatic megalithic structures. They were generally communal burials with successive burials that often involved the reorganisation of already skeletonised bodies that were sometimes burnt before manipulation. Funerary goods include a wide array of plain and decorated vessels, weapons, and tools made of chipped and polished stone, copper, and bone, and metal objects such as axes, arrowheads, and knives. Other characteristic artefacts are the well-known stone, bone, and occasionally wooden objects often labelled idols, as well as a large variety of ornaments made of gold, copper, stone, shell, bone, or teeth, and even of materials from outside the Iberian Peninsula, such as ivory and ostrich-egg shell. Single and double inhumations were rare.

Perhaps tellingly, examples of those rare, single inhumations, occur at Lorca, dated to about 2600 BC and at Campos in Almeria and La Vital in Valencia, areas that would soon fall under the mantle of the Argarian society. All three examples predate the arrival of the Argarian society and all three inhumations were accompanied by maritime Bell Beaker style pottery. So, whilst the Argarian society continued the practice of single and double inhumation, they stopped using Bell Beaker style pottery and associated paraphernalia.

Similar circumstances occur at Gatas, one of the founding Argar settlements. Burials, identified as pre-Argar, are suddenly replaced by cist burials. Cists were never used by any pre-Argar community.

Aragarian Tool Set

Aragarian Tool Set

During the period 2200 BC to 2000 BC, whilst the Argarian society was becoming established in Murcia and Almeria, the burial customs within the newly acquired Argaric territory immediately changed to those identified below as early Argaric. On the lands bordering the early Argaric territory, specifically, two pit burials of Caravaca – Molinos de Papel, in Murcia province, it appears as though the Argarian customs were adopted by a pre-existing community. The anthropological study of this site has determined the successive burial of a male and a female, which is a feature of Argaric tombs containing two adults. Both pit burials are contemporary with the early El Argar period but neither of them included characteristic early Argaric grave goods. Rather they contained typical items of the Bell Beaker tradition, copper Palmela point and bone or ivory V-perforated button. Moreover, the second burial pit at Molinos de Papel provides the first 14C date directly associated with an early silver find in the Iberian Peninsula. The male individual wore a silver ring of a very different kind from the Argarian silver ornaments.

Similar pre-Argar single inhumations are also found at Cerro de la Cabeza in Avila province, northwest of Madrid and a few other central Iberian sites far removed from any Argaric influence.

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Spreading the Argaric Customs

Double Inhumation Fuente Alamo

Double Inhumation Fuente Alamo

Between 2000 and 1750 BC, as the Argarians expanded their territory, any pre-existing burial customs in any long-occupied sites suddenly became the fully developed Argaric ritual as can be demonstrated at Cerro de la Virgen in Granada province. There early, pre-Argarian, burials follow the pre-Argarian customs. Although these early burials are in fact intramural (a developed Argarian custom) and occurring between 2300 BC and 2100 BC (before the Argarians arrived), they are clearly those of the community that originally occupied the site on the margins of the first Argar settlement area. They are followed by typical Argaric customs firmly dated to between 2050 and 2000 BC. The first burials at neighbouring Castellón Alto are also dated to this period, incidentally helping to place the first Argaric settlements in the north-eastern part of Granada between the same two dates.

In the early years there was less differentiation between burials and could be termed early Argaric. There appeared to be male elite burials identified by the presence of halberds, and high-born females being buried with a distinctive tool set consisting of a copper awl and a knife. As the society progressed it is noticeable that, whilst burials of both sexes took place in all settlements, the burials of elites tended to be confined to the larger, strategically placed, hilltop settlements. Prominent female burials after 1800 BC are generally associated with that of an elite male, distinguished by being accompanied by a sword. Early Argarian burials sometimes took place in cists made of stone slabs as mentioned above at Gatas and at Fuente Álamo. Both of them have similar funerary items and radiocarbon dates. Gatas kept the badly preserved remains of a 30–40 year-old woman lying in a flexed position on her right side. A carinated vessel was found on top of her feet and leaning against one of the corners of the tomb, while a 15 centimetre long, two-rivetted dagger lay on the bottom slab and close to her hands and face. A second cist was later placed next to her that contained a male inhumation buried with a copper halberd, a dagger, and the same type of carinated vessel. Fuente Álamo is a double burial of two young adults of different sexes whose sequence could not be fully determined during fieldwork. The funerary goods include a three-rivetted dagger, a carinated vessel, and a copper awl.

Female Burial Gatas

Female Burial Gatas

Towards 1950 BC the early Argaric customs changed with increased social distinction displayed in the burial rites towards the latter part of the Argaric period. Children started to appear in burial customs after about 1950 BC. At Gatas and La Bastida, where burials can be placed in stratigraphic order, it is apparent that children from new-borns onwards account for most of the burials, reaching 80% of the total, in the late Argaric phase. The numbers of adults buried decreases during the final 150 years of the occupation of the sites. However, the value of the grave goods indicates that most of the adults were from the upper echelons of the society.

Of the children, tests have shown that many suffered from malnutrition although this does not fully account for the disproportion of children to adults. Some who attempt to account for this, draw attention to the increased numbers of female adults and sub adults buried in the larger Argaric centres.

At Gatas, a grave was discovered containing a female wearing rich ornaments made of silver, copper, greenstone, bone and dentalium, the most notable being the silver diadem placed on her head. Next to the woman lay fragments of a bowl, a copper knife and a copper awl inserted in a wooden handle, which was wrapped by a silver ribbon. The 22 centimetre long and 1 centimetre wide silver sheet was carefully attached to the wooden handle with five tiny silver rivets. Anthropological examination of the skull, currently on display in the Brussels museum, has confirmed that this woman was at least 45 years old when she died.

A similar burial was found at Fuente Álamo; this is one of the richest funerary contexts of the final Argarian period. The tomb was constructed with large sandstone slabs quarried at a considerable distance from the site. The woman of this double burial was wearing the same type of silver diadem, silver bracelets, rings and spirals, as well as a necklace including imported ivory and segmented faience beads. She was also buried with a copper awl and a knife, representing the distinctive tool set of the richer female graves since the beginning of El Argar, as well as several chalices.

Other similar rich female burials of the final Argar period are tomb 111 of Fuente Álamo, containing a 16–18 year old girl, and tomb 21 of Cerro de la Encina (Monachil, Granada), also sheltering a girl of the same age who shared the grave with a 22–24 year old man. Apart from being exceptional funerary constructions, all these tombs stand out from the rest of the Argaric interments because of the presence of abundant copper and silver ornaments, carefully prepared necklaces and the presence of highly burnished ceramics, in particular the chalices. Those excavated in recent times, also include cattle bones representing special meat offerings.

The Pre-eminence of Females

The social recognition of certain women from a young age onwards is further underlined by the fact that the standardised metal tool sets with a clear gender reference – knife or dagger and awl in the case of women, and knife or dagger and axe in the case of men – can accompany certain girls from six years onwards, whereas boys need to reach at least juvenile age in order to deserve the male specific tools or weapons.

This sex association has also been found in the regions neighbouring the Argarian territory, dated to the same period, that of the greatest extent of Argarian influence, up to 1750 BC. In Castillejo del Bonete, in Ciudad Real province, some tombs were found in the tumular complex hiding a fortified cave. One, a shallow oval pit loosely delimited by stones, is an example of a double burial. Funerary goods associated with the female are an awl and a tanged dagger with a central rivet, both of them found inside a globular pot, and two ivory buttons located in the neck/chest area. The skeletal remains of the man, who seems to have been buried first, were associated with a carinated pot, a larger dagger with the same hafting device (located close to his hips), and a stone wristguard (next to the forearm). Finally, a Palmela-type point was also found among the remains of a bonfire that sealed the grave. In south western Iberia, Proyecto Minero Cobre Las Cruces, in Seville province, offers another example of this association. Although slightly later, the tomb contained a copper awl and a parabolic bowl next to the funerary remains of a female skeleton.

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Summary

To summarise a fairly complicated picture. In the core area of El Argar, that first settled between 2200 and 2000 BC, the rich tradition of communal burial was cancelled after 2200 BC. The practice of single and double inhumations may have been borrowed from the burial customs of pre-existing communities. Certain features of the pre-exisiting traditions continued to develop between 2200 and 2000 BC outside the Argarian territory. The cist and rock-cut tombs of Gatas and Fuente Álamo placed inside the settled area, rather than on its margins, and bearing a new type of grave offerings, such as halberds and riveted daggers, became the characteristic burial practice in all Argarian settlements after 2200 BC. It should also be noted that all the early Argaric burials are carefully built and include metal artefacts and well-manufactured pottery, whereas funerary contexts of the previous communities are generally poor, perhaps reflecting the decline of those communities.

After 1750 BC, with Argarian power and territory at its greatest, other communities, neighbours almost in Cuidad Real, and some further away in Seville province, imitated part of the Argaric burial ritual, whilst retaining their own local customs in other respects.

References and further reading
Caramé, Manuel & Díaz-Zorita Bonilla, Marta & Sanjuán, Leonardo & Wheatley, David. (2010). The Copper Age Settlement of Valencina de la Concepción (Seville, Spain): Demography, Metallurgy and Spatial Organization. Trabajos de Prehistoria. 67. 10.3989/tp.2010.10032.
Díaz, María & Ramos, Ruth. (2018). La cosecha de El Garcel (Antas, Almería): estructuras de almacenamiento en el sureste de la península ibérica. Trabajos de Prehistoria. 75. 67. 10.3989/tp.2018.12204.
Hinz, Martin & Schirrmacher, Julien & Kneisel, Jutta & Rinne, Christoph & Weinelt, Mara. (2019). The Chalcolithic–Bronze Age transition in southern Iberia under the influence of the 4.2 ka BP event? A correlation of climatological and demographic proxies. 10.12766/jna.2019.1.
Lull, Vicente & Rihuete, Cristina & Micó, Rafael & Risch, Roberto. (2013). Political collapse and social change at the end of El Argar.
Murillo-Barroso, Mercedes & Bartelheim, Martin & Cortés, Francisco & Onorato, Auxilio & Pernicka, Ernst. (2012). The silver of the South Iberian El Argar Culture: A first look at production and distribution. Trabajos de Prehistoria. 69. 293-309. 10.3989/tp.2012.12093.
Olalde, Iñigo & Brace, Selina & Allentoft, Morten & Armit, Ian & Kristiansen, Kristian & Rohland, Nadin & Mallick, Swapan & Booth, Thomas & Szécsényi-Nagy, Anna & Mittnik, Alissa & Altena, Eveline & Lipson, Mark & Lazaridis, Iosif & Patterson, Nick & Broomandkhoshbacht, Nasreen & Diekmann, Yoan & Faltyskova, Zuzana & Fernandes, Daniel & Ferry, Matthew & Reich, David. (2017). The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of Northwest Europe. bioRxiv.
Risch, Roberto. (2014). The La Bastida fortification: new light and new questions on Early Bronze Age societies in the western Mediterranean. Antiquity. 88. 395-410. 10.13140/2.1.2131.0082.
Risch, Roberto & Lull, Vicente & Micó, Rafael & Rihuete, Cristina. (2015). Transitions and conflict at the end of the 3rd millennium BC in south Iberia. 10.13140/RG.2.1.3881.1286.
MUSEO DE GALERA. Guía Oficial Septiembre de 2007

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