Monday, April 27, 2015

Walls, Gates, Towers - Goncalves, Sousa, Costeira

The militarization of Southwest Portugal at the beginning of the 3rd millennium is a difficult subject because it's hard to develop a working narrative about how, why and who.  There's several scenarios so I'll lightly touch on those from what I've read.

Right now this paper describes remains of 30 or so forts which roughly corresponds to the region's current departments, however there may be as many as sixty when other candidates are investigated. They were built almost simultaneously using the same blueprint and on virgin sites where they are usually the first archaeological layer.

Zambujal.  A steep slope protects the rear.
Like other forts in the South and Southeast of the peninsula, there are hollow towers and solid towers along the walls. There are at least two concentric layers, with a smaller defensive layer similar to a medieval keep. Gates are subject to flanking fire and the entire plan makes use of terrain and natural obstacles.  The builders of these enclosures were the regions first metallurgists, however they probably were not Bell Beakers.

The evolution of wall towers probably follows a period when small unit tactics had advanced to a point where walls and palisades were being effectively compromised.  The advantage of a wall tower is that the assailants become in enfilade down the length of the wall and usually by archers in two separate towers.  It's much easier for the defenders to pick off invaders with short, straight shots than to hang over the edge of a palisade and try to aim an awkward oblique shot at a column of bad guys running up a ladder.

The tower also opens up the left and right lateral limits for each archer by getting him outside the wall while the tower also moves him closer to the slope than a structurally sound wall could provide.

There are two modern schools of thought on the significance and meaning of the Portuguese towers.  The Portuguese school views the towers within a purely defensive scheme in which territory and routes are tightly controlled.  In this way the forts are like garrisons that project power and control over a region that was vulnerable to raiding or unauthorized trading.

The German school appears to view the forts almost as the hallmark of a predatory feudal system, with the castles being the abodes of wealthy lords who need protection against their own people.  In this way, they are indeed defense systems, but defense against internal uprising.

This is where it gets strange though.  The forts were built suddenly, probably by foreigners from the Southern or Southeastern part of the Peninsula.  These original metallurgists do not appear to have been Beakers even though this is the timeframe in which the first Beakers begin appearing.  The forts are repaired and maintained for several hundred years then are mostly abandoned.  The time period in which they are abandoned corresponds with the absolute peak in Northwest African trade.

The forts are part of a complicated time in Iberian prehistory.  It may that multiple foreign interests were targeting this region simultaneously.  One thing to remember is that during this time of economic development, trade was probably managed by strongman cartels and the volume of exotic trade in this region was heavy.

If you imagine Chalcolithic Portugal as being ruled by Central American drug lords, you are probably pretty close to the actual situation.
In relation to the question of violence in the third millennium BCE, a synthesis is presented of fortified sites situated in the Centre and South of Portugal. The analysis is divided into three large territorial units: 1. Upper Eastern Algarve, with special emphasis on the Cerro do Castelo de Santa Justa; 2. Alentejo, in particular the middle Alentejo, where some recently excavated settlements and farms are to be found (São Pedro and Porto das Carretas); 3. Estremadura, the region where there is the largest concentration of fortified settlements (currently numbering 18), with over a century of archaeological research. Four main aspects were considered in testing for the possible existence of signs of violence:  1. Models of implantation; 2. chronologies and discontinuities in the occupation of the sites; 3. Defensive architectures, especially the general ground plans, towers and gates, and internal and external reinforcements. 4. Reconstructions and remodellings. By comparing these indicators with other archaeological data, the fortifications are considered as a reaction to the violence that existed between communities, testifying to effective territorial appropriation and denoting migratory movements of the first copper archaeometallurgists originating from Andalusia.

VICTOR S. GONÇALVES , ANA CATARINA SOUSA  and CATARINA COSTEIRA. CPAG 23, 2013, 35-97. ISSN: 2174-8063 (2013)  [Link]


  1. I don't understand why:

    1. You claim an immigrant origin for the builders of these fortified settlements, particularly from South or SE Spain, when in those putative original areas there is only one comparable site: Los Millares. Los Millares is relatively large (I would only compare it with Zambujal) but its material culture is different anyhow. Otherwise there are no known fortified sites not strong material cultural connections between SE Iberia and SW Iberia (mostly Southern Portugal).

    2. You claim a sudden synchronous abandonment of the sites, when the paper says nothing about that and for all I know the abandonment actually happened clinally, from South to North through the whole of the Bronze Age, as a new non-urban metallurgist culture replaced their hegemony in Algarve first and later further North up to the Tagus. This new culture (three "horizons" or chronological sequences, each one bigger than the former) does seem to be related to SE Iberia (El Argar) but exactly how is unclear.

    Also, the Estremaduran distinctive culture (VNSP, which lacked direct copper access but includes the vast majority of the fortifications, and was central in the Bell Beaker phenomenon later on, unlike its Alentejano counterparts) only seems to have collapsed c. 1100 BCE after the silting of the canal that connected Zambujal with the Ocean, maybe because of a tsunami.

    I think it is important to understand, as Gonçalves et al. say, that there were at least two ethno-cultural groups in the Southern Portuguese Chalcolithic: the Alentejo-Algarve one (which mostly favored tholoi burials, much like Los Millares) and the Estremadura one (much more impressively urbanized and which used artificial caves instead, much like the Treilles and other peoples of Languedoc). These are not the only differences: copos (proto-beakers?), lúnulas (crescent-shaped necklaces) and the characteristic slab "idols" are effectively exclusive of Estremadura, instead the Alentejano group favored, along its SE Spanish neighbors, human shaped idols. A third iconographic reference is the one of Los Millares, whose idols were "violin-shaped" femenine forms, often with small breasts. Some of this iconography may have Aegean relatives but unclear if they are older or more recent in fact.

    IMO, if the builders of these fortifications were immigrant, they must have arrived from the Eastern Mediterranean but I don't see any particular reason to justify this notion: it seems growingly obvious that there were some scattered interactions and cultural influences but nothing that resembles a large migration.

    (continues in another comment)

    1. (continued from above)

      What clearly implies the construction of fortifications, which can well be compared to the Celtic oppida of the La Tène period, is the rise of social complexity, stratification and civilization. Much like we can consider the Celtic oppida and the tribal territories they were central to with Greek polis, city-states, the same we can do with the South Iberian fortified towns. And just like in the Celtic oppida or the Greek polis, there were surely a varied range of political structures, always within certain inequality. We know that many Celtic tribes, like at least several Greek polis, elected their magistrates, while others were ruled by monarchs or tyrants (a development of elected magistracy, if you follow Lewis Morgan, popularized by Engels).

      A possible system of government, if you dare to follow my hypothesis of Zambujal/VNSP being the Atlantis of Plato, would be a federative monarchy in the case of Estremadura, with 10 kings, each ruling his own district, gathering regularly to take part in bullfighting rituals of religious nature and deliberate on common affairs. I reckon that Plato's narration is not much nor good enough but it is as much as proto-historical legendary accounts provide us with. If we follow this line of thought, then we should not consider each fortified settlement independent (something absurd in the context of Estremadura, with as many fortifications as modern municipalities) but rather like castles in Medieval Europe, all normally obeying to a more centralized authority. Only the larger ones would be true polities, and even these would have their own hierarchy.

      In fact, if you look at the map in page 78, we can easily spot a geographical organization of the fortified towns, often forming clusters that would surely obey a single authority.

      Another interesting detail of the paper is that it underlines that all or most of the sites had a central tower, i.e. a keep.

      (and continues again...)

    2. (last part)

      However there was not yet a military specialization from which the warrior-aristocrats could come from, unless they were all specialist longbowmen, what I doubt. So it could not at all be like the Middle Ages with their knights able to face single-handedly a large number of lowly armed peasants. Instead I would imagine a large segment of free warrior "citizens", who would also work as free farmers often, a middle class of sorts that would articulate the overall society. This could perfectly overlap with slavery and aristocracy but it would not be at all like the Middle Ages, but rather like more primitive stages in the evolution of hierarchical society, rather like the Celtic societies for example.

      You cannot really compare with "Latin American drug lords", not just because it's not actually the case even in real life Latin America, but because those corrupt violent elites are "comprador" colonial elites which depend for their power on the reliance on foreign colonial powers, namely the USA. Without such external support they would collapse quickly. And in this case there's not a single evidence of any colonial power, at least not till much later, already deep in the Bronze Age, when it's plausible that Mycenaean Greece played that role for some time. However it did lead to the collapse of El Argar and even the very collapse of Mycenaean Greece itself. So that extremist development of hierarchy is not stable... unless the aristocrats control key weaponry such as heavy cavalry or earlier chariots. Each time the weaponry balance leans in favor of infantry, more egalitarian societies arise, even if they are not wholly egalitarian.

      In this case we are before the dominance of a peasant weapon: the long bow, which may require training but is clearly available for all. We do see the advance of these longbowmen in Western France later on with the Artenacian culture causing a cultural-social leveling, abandoning the megalomaniac constructions of early Armorican Megalithism in favor of humble small dolmens without gallery.

      So I cannot favor the simple elite control hypothesis but something much more complex, balanced and nuanced.

    3. Erratum (first comment): ... "instead the Alentejano group favored, along its SE Spanish neighbors"... should read "... along its SW Spanish neighbors". SE Iberians, as noted soon after had different femenine-shaped but abstract idols.

    4. To the first point, I am unsure of who the builders were, immigrant or local. I actually don't have an opinion since it is a very confusing situation. It appears that there could have been several groups, but even defining them is difficult. Some scholarly opinions have traditionally viewed the builders as a foreign elite, other opinions view it as rising social inequality or early state formation, as you mention.

      The second is that the forts were not suddenly abandoned, to clarify. They peter out over time.

      Maybe comparing drug lords is a little over the top. The point I'm trying to make here is the functional nature of an early international economic zone. Admittedly this view is entirely hypothetical, but essentially I see early long distance trade networks as operating as "cartels", whether this was state sponsored (like OPEC) or something more like British guilds.

      Cartels are concerned with price controls and preserving oligopolies. Since Portugal is essentially in the early state development, it may be a cooperative of various poleis working together to control inter-regional trade. The commodities being traded were certainly too lucrative to be left to good and decent souls.

    5. "The commodities being traded were certainly too lucrative to be left to good and decent souls".

      How do you define "lucrative" in the absence of money? There is no known coinage in Iberia till the end of the Iron Age. Beaker peoples used probably those golden spirals often found in burials as currency of sorts (you could easily detach small pieces from them) but otherwise we must remember we are not yet in a modern capitalist society but rather something more comparable to the Celtic or maybe Viking world, in which aristocrats were not substantially different from common freemen, and they didn't even have the near-monopoly of violence, as every other guy could use a bow efficiently.

      Power is not so much about wealth but about the ability to organize and rally people around you. Wealth is in this sense a tool to manipulate others' greed in your favor. Of course you need some greed to accumulate wealth anyhow but that's the difference between a "prince" and a mere "merchant": that the first acknowledges wealth as tool and not as primary goal. And in order to rally a lot of people, you need to allow all them to have some decently earned wealth, according to socio-cultural parameters. In other words: you need to work for overall social prosperity and not just that of a few oligarchs, unless those oligarchs form an invulnerable military elite as well. This is probably a theme of social conflict that has been coming and going once and again in history and late prehistory but that precisely begins in the Chalcolithic period. So I would not expect a too consolidated aristocracy yet but rather a balanced layering of social hierarchy, with an important role for a "middle class" of free farmer-warriors surely.

      Anyhow a semi-decent comparison could be pre-Columbian America, the Incas probably better than the Mexicas. What do we see there? Military tribal elites organized around a religious propaganda apparatus that essentially exploited the communal (and still largely communist) practices of the peasants by means of taxation. Many of those communal economies were inherited by the Spanish colonial system and have here and there survived till present day. However, other than burials and scattered idols, we don't see that emphasis on religion in Chalcolithic Portugal (that seems something rather Breton and British).

      I mean: where are the palaces and the temples? There's nothing like that: only "castles" or "towns". So the hierarchy must have been relatively limited. I reckon that in the Bronze Age in El Argar and related sites, specifically in the motilla of El Azuer, we do see a clear hierarchy: well-fed aristocrats, guards and poorly-fed peasants, but in the Chalcolithic we still do not see anything clearly like that, only the "keeps" ("watchtowers" in Gonçalves). The homes in general seem very similar to each other (all rather humble) and at most there are a few "princely" tombs that surely hosted the corpses of the local rulers. So I'd rather think of the few extras that differentiated a Gaulish "prince" from a common warrior-freeman of the same village, not much more yet.

      I may be wrong but I do have the feeling that, while international trade was slowly expanding in those centuries, society was still largely semi-egalitarian: there was no money, no obvious source of wealth other than agriculture and some trade, and crucially no obvious formation of a military elite yet, armed with bows and flint-pointed arrows as they were. In the Bronze Age however we already see signs of military specialization: pikes and swords and (in burial slabs) also shields. But in the Chalcolithic, unless longbowmen were that military elite... I see nothing yet.

    6. "How do you define "lucrative" in the absence of money?"

      Wealth is relative depending on how a society defines what wealth is and what scarce or important things define a wealthy person. Exotica from distant lands seems to have been highly valued at this time.

      "Power is not so much about wealth but about the ability to organize and rally people around you."


      "And in order to rally a lot of people, you need to allow all them to have some decently earned wealth, according to socio-cultural parameters."

      But you could argue that also works for feudalism or Saudi Arabia. Aside from the nobility and a military, what's the largest population that could be subdued without having any stake or reward? Basically, I don't see the formation of the state or economic systems as necessarily being dependant on the sophistication or morality of its people. Could be, but not dependant.

      "...with an important role for a "middle class" of free farmer-warriors surely."

      I largely agree with that. I think the burials from this time show some social differentiation, but still a largely rugged tribesmen and warriors.

      "However, other than burials and scattered idols, we don't see that emphasis on religion in Chalcolithic Portugal (that seems something rather Breton and British)."

      I disagree with that. If nothing else, if there was no underlying ancestral component to Beakers, I think it would be fair to say that Beaker religion was enormously powerful in projecting itself on Europe that continued in later ages. (at least in my reading) It may have been other things as well. At least, if you believe that the majority component of the phenomenon originated in Iberia then that could have been a component to the emerging state as well. (although the origin still isn't clear)

    7. Saudi Arabia and the other emirates actually live on quasi-slave labor from abroad: they have huge native middle classes (and anyhow their oligarchies are "comprador" type: essentially held on their positions by foreign colonial support). It's not about "morality" nor "sophistication" but about not having to face uprisings every other day, uprisings that without a serious military force strongly committed to the regime could well succeed.

      It's also about the very formation of the class system at its very beginning: transformer leaders never build on a blank sheet but on pre-existent traditions, which they slightly change to fit their designs. For example by taxing communal groups, or later maybe slightly rising the tax but not enough to have to face uprisings or mass cheating, not enough to cause widespread hatred that would destabilize everything. Gradually those communal peoples become serfs without almost noticing. But it takes many generations, many centuries to perform this transition, it can't just be done overnight at the very dawn of the Chalcolithic era: these forts are precursors of the ones of El Argar and Las Motillas but they can't be yet as "sophisticated" as to be able to work without middle classes. Even in El Azuer we see a small "middle class" between the lords and the serfs.

      Re. religion. Regardless of the impact of "the BB religion", my emphasis was that if you are ruling the masses via religion, you build massive temples and monuments, as in Brittany, as in SW Britain, as in Sumer and in ancient Egypt, or as in the ancient Mexican civilizations. The lack of such ritual structures suggests that religion was not that important, except related to death surely: Megalithic burials are the only monuments, suggesting a religion of "the ancestors", be them real or semi-mythical, but even those are only somewhat prominent, nothing comparable to Stonehenge or Carnac, nothing even like the complex megalithic tombs of Brittany, which clearly suggest the existence of a religious elite of some sort, possibly proto-druids. In Southern Iberia there are some "princely" tombs, I guess, but otherwise there is nothing indicating a strong prominence of a priestly class or similar: religious manifestations, while abundant, are modest (small idols and such). Otherwise megalithic burials are rather modest and widespread, suggesting a common practice and relative social equality.

      There was an elite development no doubt but this development was modest in its outward forms, except in one thing: the military aspect of fortification, a very practical aspect. You can think in the Middle Ages, but there were no knights (no stirrup, no heavy cavalry), so nope. It's more like the emergence of city states that we know from Antiquity: the Celtic, the Greek or the Roman evolution. What was Rome at the beginning? A coalition of three small hilltop forts around a swamp, which later became the forum. Were these forts hierarchical? Yes but up to a point, we know little from this very primitive stage but soon afterwards we know that the Romans had a vast commoner free class called plebeians, and that these had right to vote (albeit rigged by clientelistic schemes) and that these often were at odds with the aristocratic patricians. We know that all them formed in the army without extreme distinctions, and that Rome needed them all when fighting its wars.

      It's not just Rome, this social order was common across the board: among the Greeks, among the Celts and among the later Vikings. They had slaves but slaves were usually few and almost invariably foreign. So IMO it should be similar in early Chalcolithic Iberia.