Exploration Mysteries: Tartessos

In the 5th or 6th century BC, a powerful civilization thrived in southwestern Spain. It rivaled surrounding Mediterranean powers but also had strong trading relations with more distant regions. Called Tartessos, it was particularly famous for its shipbuilding and metalwork.

However, this great civilization, which some have linked to the legend of Atlantis, suddenly disappeared from the historical record. The few solid clues only further the mystery…

What is Tartessos?

No one truly knows what the word Tartessos even means. Some believe that it refers to an entire civilization. Others say it is simply a vital river flowing through Spain. Tartessos can be a people, a whole kingdom, a city, or a Phoenician colony. The list goes on.

Theologians see it as Tarshish, a maritime location often referred to in the biblical books of Ezekiel and Kings. Tarshish was a leading producer of gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, and bronze. Supposedly, its wares found their way to Mesopotamia, as well as to the court of King Solomon.

Other ancient sources refer specifically to Tartessos. The Greek geographer Strabo mentioned it in his Geography. He described it as a prosperous city. Its people were one of the most highly educated in Iberia, with talented engineers and a rich literary culture.

The historian Herodotus paints it as a wealthy kingdom ruled by a king named Arganthonios. According to him, Tartessos lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules, also known as the Strait of Gibraltar.

Arganthonios was one of several rulers mentioned in ancient texts. Supposedly, Tartessos also had kings named Geryon, Nora, and Gargoris, who oversaw developments in agriculture and trade, particularly with the Greeks.

Soon after Herodotus, accounts from the scholar Ephorus further elaborated on Tartessos’s fame for its abundance of copper, tin, and gold. He claimed that Tartessos was a two-day journey from the Pillars of Hercules. A 2nd-century AD Greek scholar named Pausanias claimed that it was a river that flowed through Iberia. This suggests the Guadalquivir River, which passes through Andalusia.


Map of Tartessos. Photo: Lanoyta/Wikipedia Commons


Despite its elusive identity, Tartessos was clearly important, politically and economically. Many agree that it had something to do with trade in metals and that it thrived about 2,500 years ago. Historian Javier G. Chamorro states that “the Tartessian epoch marks the rise of maritime commerce throughout the Mediterranean.”

Archaeological evidence

Based on the evidence so far, historians categorize Tartessian culture in either the “geometric” period (1200 to 750 BC) or “oriental” (750 BC to 550 BC). Remains unearthed in the southern Iberian Peninsula provide some clues about this civilization’s history and ultimate demise.

First, excavations show that the Phoenicians heavily influenced Tartessos and the Tartessian culture. The Tartessians used the Phoenician alphabet on steles and took on certain Phoenician religious beliefs. Was Tartessos a possible Phoenician colony or outpost? You can find strong examples of this Phoenician influence in Tartessian ruins in Cadiz, Adra, and Huelva. 

archaeological site

Cancho Roano Tartessian archaeological site. Photo: Angel M. Felicísimo/Wikipedia Commons


In 1922, a German archaeologist named Adolf Schulten searched extensively for Tartessos and its capital, without success. Future excavations in Guareña, Extremadura, Riotinto, and parts of West Andalusia and southern Portugal had better luck, turning up over 20 sites associated with Tartessos. These included metal works, cauldrons, pottery, fire pits, and especially, remnants of animal sacrifice.

Animal sacrifices and burning seemed to play an important role in their religious practices. The artifacts fused neighboring cultures — Iberian, Phoenician, and Greek. This is probably due to trade and other forms of contact. 

Recent excavations in Guareña found several human busts of goddesses with earrings. This not only seems to confirm Tartessos as a metallurgic powerhouse but also challenges traditional notions of the culture’s religious practices.

What happened to it?

The probable answer to many such demises is warfare. Tartessos was not known for its military might, which could have made its wealth tempting to neighboring powers. Around the 5th century BC, Carthaginians were rather active in the region. Records show they fought the Greeks and Iberians. It is possible that Tartessos fell to the Carthaginians’ conquest.

Excavations also showed signs of decline. After a certain point, the heavy Phoenician influence started to lose its potency in favor of Greek culture. Powerful as they were, the Phoenicians themselves fell to the Persians and had heavy trading competition from Greece. This could have disadvantaged Tartessos economically and culturally. Some historians suggest that mining could have died down, resulting in economic collapse.

Tartessos artefact

Tartessian brooch found in Seville. Photo: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro/Wikipedia Commons


Perhaps the city’s destruction came from a natural catastrophe such as an earthquake or subsequent tsunami. This may have given rise to the idea that Tartessos was the model for Atlantis. If a major flood took place, the citizens of Tartessos might have retreated inland and assimilated into other cultures.

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer at ExplorersWeb.

Kristine has been writing about Science, Mysteries and History for 4+ years. Prior to that, Kristine studied at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Based in Port-of-Spain, Kristine is also a literature teacher, avid reader, hiker, occasional photographer, an animal lover and shameless ramen addict.