Oct 27, 2016

Prehistory: The Society of El Argar

Museo de Almería

If you do not have much time, we recommend this hour long walk through the permanent exhibition of the Museum of Almeria. But remember that we love having you here and we want to repeat another day more calmly.

Argaric Society (2250 – 1550 BCE)
In the late third millennium before the Common Era, vast areas of Europe suffered an abrupt change, which was most likely due to a large-scale environmental and social crisis. These changes also impacted the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula, and around 2250 BCE, the social and economic organisation of the society of Los Millares disappeared, being replaced by the Argaric society.

The society’s name comes from the archaelogical site of El Argar, located at the municipality of Antas and uncovered in the nineteenth century thanks to the excavations by the Siret brothers. The traces of El Argar society are disseminated over a wide area that covers a large part of eastern Andalusia, Murcia and the south of Alicante.

The climax of Argaric society coincided with the development of great states, such as the Middle Empire of Egypt, the Babylonia of Hammurabi demographical and economic development, and it created inequalities and a social exploitation unparalleled in Western Europe and the Magreb.

No other contemporary society in Western Europe reached comparable levels of social inequality.

According to Carbon-14 dating, El Argar society survived nearly 700 years, until around 1550 BCE. It seems that it disappeared as abruptly, and probably as violently, as it was born.

This period is part of the so-called Early Bronze Age in Western Europe.

En la segunda planta del museo podemos realizar un recorrido On the second floor of the museum we can take a complete symbolic tour of the Argaric Society (2nd Millennium BCE). In this way, referring to the strong social hierarchy of El Argar, we move literally upward as if we were climbing up the slopes of to one of the province's most emblematic locations, Fuente Álamo (Cuevas del Almanzora, Almería).

Thus a zig-zag room ramp rises, and we found a series of walls that block the line of sight completely and represent the artificial terraces on which the dwellings of Fuente Álamo were built (as in other nuclear settlements from El Argar society).

A model, relatively abstract, which is found at the beginning of this section, introduces us in the Argaric Society. Here we find a series of explanations about the political and economic territories, the people and their basic subsistence strategies.

However, rather than representing a specific settlement it shows a typical nuclear settlement. As such, it occupies an elevated position with a series of walls similar to those seen in the room and alluding to the social stratification that is visible in the Argaric archaeological sites.

The houses of the dominant minority tended to be in the higher part of the settlement, where storage and sumptuous materials were also accumulated, together with the wealthiest tombs.

The model’s walls are of made of metal to highlight the crucial role that bronze would play in the Argaric society.

Only a quarter of the population lived in the central settlements. Below the settlement is a plain, the land used for economic exploitation and dependent on the settlement. Most of the population live in small farmsteads or scattered hamlets, dedicated to agriculture, livestock breeding, and producing raw materials.

In terms of subsistence strategies, highlighted is the acquisition of stone, that besides serving as a construction material, was also used to make tombstones, as well as different types of tools, such as handmills, which we can see in the exhibition a display of mass-produced objects.

In the period of El Argar, a technological novelty was introduced, which consisted of using long and narrow mills above which they worked with wooden hands. Nevertheless, the milling continued being a hard work that needed several working hours per day.

The finding of series of mills reveals that the demand of flour changed depending on the available stock and the crops.

The dominant class imposed economic strategies in ways that seem dysfunctional; an example of this is what almost amounted to the monoculture of barley, given that it was easy to control.

The fruits of their labour, however, were centralised in larger settlements, as represented in the model. These were located on steep hills, at the foot of the mountain ranges.

Transportation of grain from the fields in the plain was hard work done by the peasants, because, as aforementioned, only part of the population, including the members of the dominant class, lived in the central settlements.

The dominant class controlled a significant proportion of the economic resources and provided the rest of the inhabitants with processed goods such as wheat, textiles, and certain metal tools needed for their work.

The dominant class would set the value of these products to their own advantage. They would also control the borders and trade between territories.

Many Argaric buildings were used as multi-use workshops to supply commodities to wide sectors of the society. They met two basic needs of any society: food and clothes.

The following is a list of the main activities carried out in these mass production sites:
- Storage of barley and, sometimes, of wheat, beans and peas.
- Storage of lithic resources (stones, flint flakes) and mills.
- Fabric manufacturing.
- Repairing of sickles.
- Manufacturing and repairing wooden, bone, and stone tools.
- Bread baking in clay ovens.

And the main work done in these buildings, the cereal milling.

The workshops were large structures (15 – 55 square meters), where they kept tools, grains, and other resources. The number and arrangement of the tools reveal that in some of these workshops around ten people could work at the same time.

The first of the cabinets features the large storage vessels; generous pots, urns and even larger containers referred to by their name in Greek: pithoi.

The hilltop settlements had warehouses where they had huge stockpiles of grains, such as barley.

The cereal was distributed regularly from the warehouses located on the hilltop settlements, using standard capacity vessels. This supports the inference that the storage and later distribution were made according to a measuring and accounting system controlled by the ruling class.

As barley monoculture predominated, the population largely depended on these warehouses of food, and therefore were subdued to the exploitation of their daily work.

Barley, however, is a low quality food, and a diet that is overdependent on it can produce a shortage of essential amino acids, calcium and iron. To avoid this, the diet should be supplemented with animal proteins. Nevertheless, it seems that a diet containing meat, milk and dairy products was only affordable to a minority.

Children are found buried inside the settlements on a regular basis, starting around 1950 BCE. There is no knowledge on how it was done before this date.

Between 1750 and 1550 BCE, in the peak of El Argar state, the number of graves of children dramatically increased.

Their bones show symptoms of existing pathologies at the time of death, mainly infectious and contagious, and others to be related to anaemia and other related conditions.

Due to the impact of chronic diarrhoea, several infections, and a poor diet based on barley, half of the population died before the age of six, and only around a quarter reach adult age.

The second cabinet focuses on typology of Argaric ceramics. It shows how over a hundreds years , and there are only eight basic, absolutely geometrical forms and a considerable lack of decoration, especially when compared with how frequently decoration was used prior to that time and in subsequent periods (the result of Louis Siret's research and whose classification is still valid today).

We can only find eight ceramic forms that are repeated to exhaustion, the so-called "Argaric norm.”

The objects include bowls, spherical, and tulip-shaped pots, the latter alternating between convex and concave sections, biconical pots and cups, among others seen in the exhibition.

The cups would have played an important role beyond daily use; they may have been used in ceremonies, indicated by their accumulation in certain areas, such as the towers at Fuente Álamo.

Clearly, this standardisation of pottery is connected with economic redistribution strategies and the practice of a taboo which prevented breaking by apparently overly strict rules.

The third large cabinet is dedicated to copper, mining and bronze metalwork.

At the metal workshops of the central settlements, people worked with copper, silver and gold.

The first artefacts in bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, date from 1800 – 1700 BCE.

One of the advantages of bronze is that it provides hardness to the smelted products, while allowing for lower smelting temperatures.

In metal production, there was a wide variety of specialised tools.

Anvils, stone moulds, and certain hammers and sharpeners are among the most widely used in the Iberian Peninsula during the period of El Argar.

Thanks to moulds, pieces were mass-produced. The other tools were used for forging, laminating, polishing, and sharpening. With them, El Argar people made tools, ornaments and a very few weapons, which only the ruling group could afford.

Metalwork in the Argaric society was focused on the production of tools and weapons. They used tools in many working processes, and for the first time manufactured weapons. Halberds and swords are among the weapons they made, specialising in exerting violence against human beings. The ornaments were an indication of social distinction.

Thus, a small part of the population owned these valuable goods and more importantly in order to keep the system of social exploitation, the same minority owned the weapons.

In the museography of the Museum of Almeria, we are suddenly taken aback by a series of words written on the wall: hunger, death, fear, metal, me, mine and power. This is a plea in strong, almost harsh, language about the origins of private property and the state.

The Argaric society maintains a rigid hierarchical structure, as shown in their grave goods. For the first time, the social status is established from childhood.

The exhibition showing reproductions of real tombs with genuine grave goods. The tombs are organised hierarchically; the first ones we see are the tombs of the poor and the last, at the top of the ramp, are those of the dominant class with richer grave goods, including numerous pots, adornments, tools and weapons in bronze, and even objects of gold and silver.

We know of about a thousands graves spread across the entire Argaric territory. These graves and their contents constitute first rate evidence for the study of this society.

The Argaric society buries its people mostly in individual graves dug in the subsoil of their villages, the most frequent types of burials being in small artificial caves, pottery urns, cists and pits.

Small artificial caves were dug out of the rocks, with stone slabs or timber blocking the entrance way. They date back to the period between 2250 and 1700 BCE.

Urns are ceramic vessels in different sizes which were placed into a pit, and closed with a stone or with other inverted ceramic glass. They started being used in 1950 BCE.

Cist graves are rectangular boxes often made of stone slabs or masonry, and they were used throughout the whole period of El Argar (2250 – 1550 BCE).

The same applies to pits, which are mere holes dug in the ground, sometimes filled with stones.

The demographic profile of El Argar was remarkably young. Although some people lived to be over 60 years, the upper limit of life expectation was nearly 40 for men, and a slightly shorter for women, perhaps as a consequence of the risks during pregnancy and labour.

The individuals who survived the childhood illnesses, suffered from diseases associated to age, work load and the diet, such as degenerative osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, traumatisms, enthesopathy, caries, periodontitis, abscesses, and dental calculi.

There were great differences between genders mainly regarding constitution, and especially height, muscle development, and injuries by anatomical region, and hence we infer the existence of differences in work organisation by sex.

The occurrence of more traumatisms than in earlier periods and their greater frequency in males seem to fit with the general increase of social violence.

This society had a clear division of classes.

The Argaric society maintains a rigid hierarchical structure, as shown in their grave goods. For the first time, the social status is established from childhood.

- Ruling Class.

- Commoners.

- Servants and Slaves.

Outstanding exhibits are the funerary objects from tombs 75 (gold bracelet) and 111 at Fuente Álamo from a girl with a high social position from the time of her birth, as testified to by the concept “inheritance."

Firstly, there was the dominant class, comprising men initially armed with halberds or short swords and from 1800 BCE onwards with long swords to deter the population from any attempt at rebellion against the established social order. Some women were members of these powerful groups and are buried with headbands and, usually, silver adornments. The women were also buried with a knife and awl, which seems to demonstrate their relation to specific tasks.

Women, men, and children of the ruling class, show off valuable bronze, silver and gold ornaments. The funeral offerings that they receive also include high quality pottery. The use of Argaric cups seems to have been restricted to the high classes.

Staring 1800 BCE, there is a social class formed by commoners-subjects with social rights-which are guaranteed much better life conditions than the class below them. Its members are in charge of certain productive tasks, as well as helping to subjugate the rest of the population.

Men belonging to this class were buried with daggers and axes and the women with a knife and awl. The funerary offerings for both sexes could include adornments, usually made out of bronze, but never made of gold. There is also an abundance of pottery containers from everyday use.

In the last place were the serfs and slaves whose remoteness from the high classes seems to have become increasingly marked with the passing of time. Members of this class were buried without offerings or, at most, with a pot, adornment or simple tool.

The gradual deterioration of their circumstances and, at the same time, the depletion of the land is clear: these factors may have led to revolts which spelled the collapse of the Argaric society and the appearance of new forms of production which are roughly outlined in the top end of the room dedicated to the demise of El Argar society.

Museo de Almería
Credits: Story

Prehistoy in the Museum of Almeria: The Society of El Argar

Museo de Almería.
Consejería de Cultura de la Junta de Andalucía.

Texts: Encarna Maldonado Maldonado, Beba Pérez Bernárdez, Manuel Ramos Lizana, Guía breve del Museo de Almería y Proyecto museográfico Museo de Almería.
 Miguel Ángel Marín Francisco y Fernando Alda.
Digital layout: Beba Pérez Bernárdez.

Museo de Almería.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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