We’re going to take a stroll through a typical Spanish Archaeological Museum. First though some figures to show just how much of our history is really prehistory. Take my figures with a pinch of salt. The information is generally European and, because there was some variation in the detail, I rounded and massaged the figures. They are fine for a conversation down the pub but not detailed enough to form the basis of your specialist subject on Mastermind.
About 4,500,000,000 years ago the Earth was formed
About 3,700,000,000 years ago microbes pop up
About 500,000,000 years ago jellyfish are doing just fine
About 2,500,000 years ago and there are eight (and probably more to be unearthed) human species like the Neanderthals and Denisovans kicking about
About 300,000 years ago we appear – Homo Sapiens. Time will prove that sapiens was a bad choice of name. Total human population about 30,000
About 73,000 years ago the Toba catastrophe (a volcanic eruption in Indonesia) reduces the human population to below 10,000. We hang on by the skin of our teeth
About 11,000 years ago, maybe a bit before, we moved out of caves and started to do a bit of farming
About 5,000 years ago we began to tool up with bronze, we invented ploughs and social organisation. The Egyptians were way out in front. They could organise legions of workers and knew how to build pyramids. They had a system for writing too so that we have names and dates for them
About 3,300 years ago there are villages and people are forging iron. Maybe 3 million people in the world
About 250 years ago the Industrial Revolution began. Populations began to increase and we started to impact our environment. 770 million people in the World. About 8 million on the Spanish Peninsula and 9 million in the British Isles.
So, back to that archaeological museum. Almost every one I’ve been to in Spain is organised so that the rooms represent time periods. The first section will be prehistory. There’ll be axe heads and flint arrows and maybe small skeletons, some pots and pictures of people in skins carrying spears and pictures of men with beards and women cooking. Prehistory; the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age with no personalities and no specific history but already with stereotypes.
The next room will be about the Iberos. It’s possible that this is a bit of a Valencia/Murcia thing because this bunch turned up and settled this area about 2,600 years ago. They also have a name that sounds Spanish – like the ham and the airline. They left behind plenty of pottery and jewellery and, of course, the famous Dama de Elche bust (like the one in the photo). In this same room the Phoenicians, who were from Lebanon way and had a few trading settlements here and there in Spain, will get a mention. The Celts, who had settled in the North of the peninsula will also get a nod. In fact, at the time, there were lots of groups on the peninsula (Iberians, Celtiberians, Tartessians, Lusitanians, and Vascones) but their populations were so tiny that they are largely forgotten. Like the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians and Greeks had small trading settlements on the Mediterranean coast. Only a couple of hundred years before the start of the modern era (the old BC/AD divide) the Carthaginians came in force from North Africa, and settled in Cartagena. By now the rich and powerful have names and dates for their births and deaths. Battles have dates too.
Passing to the following room we’re with the Romans. The Romans were all over large parts of what is now Spain. They took their time about conquering it all, a couple of hundred years in fact, but by twenty years before the modern era they controlled all the peninsula, Portugal included. And they stayed for a long time leaving lots of bridges and mosaics, theatres, statues without heads and forums (fora?). There were also three Roman Emperors who were Spanish (well they were Roman but they were born in Spain, well, what would, one day, be Spain) – Trajan, Hadrian (he of the wall) and Theodosius I. As the Germanic tribes sacked Rome the Roman settlements in Spain were overrun by tribes like Visigoths, Suevi and Vandals.
The Visigoths were the big winners in the new order in Spain after decline of the Roman Empire but they usually get hardly a mention in the archaeological museums – sometimes they are popped in with the Romans and sometimes they’re in the next room. We’re now at about year 400. The Visigoths were in charge for a few hundred years. When there was a bit of a problem about the succession to the crown within the ruling Visigothic elite one of the pretenders invited some North African troops over to Spain, to give him a hand. It was a bad move. The Berbers came, liked what they saw and decided to stay. As they were warriors and Muslims they saw it as their duty to conquer the lands for Islam. These are the Moors, los Moros, the ones who have the better costumes in the Moors and Christians celebrations.
It’s the Moors and the Christians who get the next room. From the Moorish Invasion in 711 to the time that they lost their last foothold in Granada in 1492 they were a big part of Spanish history. The years from the invasion to the “reconquest” is the stuff of Spanish legend. The idea is that a few brave (white, Christian) souls, Asturians, led by Pelayo stopped the Moorish armies at Covadonga. The Moors had had very little trouble conquering Spain to that point so the Asturians claim to have stopped the Muslim hordes and so saved Europe. This is the stuff of Spanish myth, the bedraggled Christians fighting back and eventually turfing out those nasty (black, Islamic) invaders. It’s not really true of course. Christian propaganda. The Moors were actually stopped, militarily, by Charles Martel (at least that’s his British name) at the battle of Tours. But let’s not be disloyal, we’ll stick with Pelayo at Covadonga. From there there is a gentle but persistent pushing back of the Moors. There is also a lot of living side by side and interbreeding and farming and learning maths and everything else. Mind you, where you get a line of castles, like we have around here in Petrer, Sax, Villena, Castilla etc., it’s usually the sign of a long lasting frontier between one side and the other. Again it’s a huge oversimplification but it will do for now.
So, it’s 1492 and the Catholic Monarchs, an alliance through marriage of the powerful “kingdoms” of Spain, have accepted the surrender the last of the Moorish rulers based in Granada and they’re getting on with turfing all the Jewish people out. That’s when they turn their eyes to broader horizons and pay Columbus or Colón, or whatever he was called, to go and bring back some spices from the Indies. Along the way, completely lost, he bumped into some Caribbean islands and so began the European invasion of the New World.
And from then on the individual museum curators seem to do as they wish.
This post was originally published to Life in Culebrón. If you’d like to read more in the same style click on the link