The great unknowns persist in the Tartessian site of Casas del Turuñuelo. The latest excavation campaign has failed to reveal how a unique space (for its time) was organized 2,600 years ago and why an access facing east, at sunrise, has not just appeared (as in others of its culture). And above all, it remains unknown why they razed everything before disappearing to no one knows where.
Because we are in the municipality of Guareña, in Badajoz, in a rich plain bathed by the Búrdalo river, which feeds the Guadiana, where today agriculture flourishes, as it possibly was at that time. We are in a building of the mysterious Tartessian culture, parallel to the Phoenician that, from the eastern Mediterranean, has touched the coast. But the Tartessians (some hypotheses assimilate them to the Phoenicians) suddenly disappear: sometime at the end of the 6th century B.C. the community that occupied this spectacular two-story building of Casas del Turuñuelo decided that it was time to wall it up, fill it in and abandon it.
Earlier, he held an orgy of animal blood, sacrificing 52 horses, four cows, four pigs and a dog, whose bones were found in a previous campaign. Now, the investigation has not brought such surprises. Not even treasures like the Carambolo, which appeared years ago in another Tartessian site. But 80% of the deposit remains to be excavated.
Why did they abandon it? Where did they go? How many were there? All of this remains unknown in Casas del Turuñuelo. "The place is in an exceptional state of conservation, it is one of the best-preserved buildings from the protohistory of the western Mediterranean, above all because, contrary to what is usual, it conserves the two built floors", explains Esther Rodríguez, one of the co-directors of the excavations, shaking off the swarms of mosquitoes that have tortured archaeologists.
“The objective this year –he adds– was to analyze the accesses from the east and north and try to find out how the rooms are distributed around the patio, and if there was a direct or monumental access from the north. But in this campaign we have not solved that mystery, ”he laments. Work will resume in September.
The site had been known since the mid-1980s, but the excavations at Casas del Turuñuelo did not begin until 2014. Since then, the work has been carried out by a team from the Autonomous University of Madrid, directed by the Institute of Archeology of the Superior Council of Scientific Research. They chose this burial mound because it was the one in the best condition. In the four previous excavation campaigns, the Diputación de Badajoz, the Junta de Extremadura, the EU and the Ministry of Economy have also contributed funds. In 2018, the site was recognized with the National Prize for Archeology and Paleontology, granted by the Palarq Foundation and which represented an injection of 80,000 euros.
In 2019 the excavations had to stop due to a conflict between the Junta de Extremadura and the owners of the land, but in 2021 the Junta expropriated the land and the conflict ceased.
In the excavations carried out so far, it has been possible to verify that the two floors of the temple are preserved. There is no other two-storey building of this age in the western Mediterranean. It is also unprecedented that the first six steps of the imposing staircase leading to the upper floor (there are eleven in total) are made of lime mortar, which imitates stone rectangles. “The staircase – details Sebastián Celestino, the other co-director of the excavations – is very significant because it was built with a revolutionary technique for the time, which we know the Romans used, but much later. And also because of the slate carpet that leads to it, which is an exotic material in that context”.
The second floor was built with brick and adobe with four types of clay. The walls of the immense room on the second floor rest on the three-meter adobe walls on the lower floor.
This stay yielded one surprise after another. A U-shaped pedestal appeared attached to the south wall, as well as a large container made from a hollowed-out block of lime, as evidenced by the signs of the work. It measures 153 centimeters long and 46 wide. Was it a sarcophagus? A bathtub? But… it doesn't have a drain: what was it used for? The team of archaeologists colloquially calls it “the sarcobañera”. To add questions, only the face of the piece that was attached to the wall is decorated. One of the hypotheses is that whoever created it wanted to hide their 'signature'.
Next to the north wall there is a bench almost six meters and 66 centimeters wide: did they meet there to debate? Was that the center of Tartessian political power? Of the settlements in the area? But the ground appeared covered with esparto mats. Was it a resting place?
The ceiling is another sensational find. Apparently it had a semicircular vault, built with bricks – which were fired up to 900°C – that mixed clay and straw to make them lighter. There was an architect there.
“There are two architects working on this issue, as well as a technician who is doing a very detailed photogrammetric survey. It seems that there is no doubt about the existence of a vault”, details Celestino. An older vault of this type is not known in the Iberian Peninsula. They ended up as filler of the room, by leaving to another place.
It is also intuited, due to the amount of ceramics and elements for the consumption of wine and meat, that life there ended with a great banquet, just before the total destruction. More than 200 dishes have appeared. With which it is deduced that the building was not only a sanctuary or place of worship, but that there was a powerful ceramics industry there. And agricultural: it was full of seeds, mostly barley.
One of the hypotheses today is that the place ceased to be a habitable place due to "some type of climate change," explains Celestino. Also the killing of animals is exceptional. "We refer to it as a 'hecatomb' because it is how this type of ritual sacrifice is explained in the Bible, but one of this caliber had never been witnessed in an archaeological excavation."
There are also objects that traveled many kilometers, such as ceramics of Greek origin and ivory objects: there are four plates from a small rectangular box and the nails that fixed them to its structure, which was surely made of wood; On the longest sides of the box you can see a procession of boats and another of fish, an iconography unknown to date and certainly surprising in a site that is 250 kilometers from the sea; In the short ones you can see two lions, one eating a paw and the other a boat, which is another proof of the orientalizing influence of the Tartessian culture. Glass from Macedonia, thousands of kilometers away, and also from the Carthaginian area, a system of bronze weights and also a sculpture whose marble is from Mount Pentelicus, near Athens, also emerge. The piece preserves traces of blue paint, of Egyptian origin. All this distance is money, power.
There are also remains of copper objects, although they were disintegrated by the final fire. A fibula of this material is one of the oldest chronology objects from Turuñuelo, which leads us to suspect that the place was occupied long before. Something similar occurs at the nearby site of Cancho Roano, in Zalamea de la Serena.
Another piece of ivory located exhibits a delicious gold thread, a unique example for these chronologies in the Iberian Peninsula, and which allows us to suspect that other elements of the deposit had the same component. And that are reminiscent of the lavish treasure of Carambolo, a wonderful set of jewelry of almost three kilos of gold.
And a corpse appears, which is being studied. Did he die in the bricking works? The archaeologists are analyzing it to try to find out its age, diet, way of life... “The first DNA tests did not give a positive result, so we are going to try it with other teeth to repeat the analysis. We hope to have the results next month”, says Celestino.
One of the hypotheses of the archaeologists is that in the moments before the destruction of the building, sacrifices were made on the upper floor. There, on an adobe altar in the shape of a bull's skin (it is common in Tartessian culture), a burnt skin was found. It was too charred and therefore it is unknown whether it was from a fetus of a kid or a lamb. The area was cleared prior to its abandonment. The last broom, before leaving the place? But if they were going to destroy it…