Tartessian, Europe’s newest and oldest Celtic language

Published in Celts, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Pre-history / Archaeology, Volume 17

The south-western Iberian Peninsula at the horizon of history. There are at least 90 known Tartessian inscriptions on stone concentrated in southern Portugal, with a wider scatter of fifteen over south-west Spain. (J. Koch, An atlas for Celtic studies (Oxford, 2008))

The south-western Iberian Peninsula at the horizon of history. There are at least 90 known Tartessian inscriptions on stone concentrated in southern Portugal, with a wider scatter of fifteen over south-west Spain. (J. Koch, An atlas for Celtic studies (Oxford, 2008))

John Koch suggests that Tartessian is ‘more than a little bit Celtic’ and adds a new twist to the assertion, long since dismissed as invention, that the Gaels (Milesians) originated in the Iberian Peninsula.

The myth and mystery of Tartessos
For Greek and Roman writers, Tartessos was a place of fabulous natural wealth in silver and gold, situated somewhat vaguely in Europe’s extreme south-west, beyond the Pillars of Hercules. When Herodotus, ‘the father of history’, wrote around 430 BC, the kingdom of Tartessos had already ceased to exist and belonged to the pre-classical past before the rise of Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire. The power exerted by the idea of Tartessos on the classical imagination was such that many of the exploits of Hercules—originally set in the eastern Mediterranean—were relocated to the fabled country beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, hence called the Pillars of Hercules. Though there is more than one school of thought on the subject, a long-standing and prevalent view is that the ocean-going, luxury-laden ‘ships of Tarshish’ mentioned repeatedly in the Old Testament—going back to the joint venture of Solomon and Hiram I of Tyre around 950 BC—also refer to Tartessos.
Archaeologically, Tartessos is synonymous with the brief and spectacular ‘orientalising phase’ of the south-western Iberian Peninsula’s First Iron Age, around 750 to 550 BC. At this time the Phoenician colony of Gadir, now Cádiz on Spain’s south Atlantic coast, catalysed a brief incandescent hybrid civilisation in what had been the southern region of the Atlantic Late Bronze Age (around 1250–750 BC). That earlier cultural commonality, defined by bronze swords, spearheads, cauldrons, flesh-forks and spits, stretched from Tartessos to Galicia, Brittany, Britain and Ireland. In the eighth century BC a new élite arose rapidly amongst the native trading partners of the Phoenicians. These Tartessian potentates are known primarily from necropolises of tumulus burials, awash with luxury grave-goods from the eastern Mediterranean, including jewellery, cosmetics, portable images of deities, ornamented chariots, wine and oil.
Soon after Gadir’s mother city, Tyre in present-day Lebanon, fell to Babylon in 573 BC, the Tartessian élite’s economic lifeline to the east became rapidly constricted, and the wealthy burials came to an end. Herodotus wrote that a party of Greeks from Phocaea in western Asia Minor visited Tartessos around 550 BC, where they received enthusiastic hospitality and vast riches from the Tartessian ruler Arganthonios, in whose name we may recognise the Celtic word for ‘silver’, Irish airgead, Welsh arian, ancient Celtic arganto-. Arganthonios was understandably eager for the Phocaeans to found a colony ‘anywhere they liked on his land’. But the Greeks were not to save Tartessos. Around 540 Phocaea fell to Cyrus. Soon after, when Arganthonios was dead, the remaining Phocaean fleet in the west was destroyed by a combined Etruscan–Carthaginian force off Alalia in Corsica. The Straits of Gibraltar were henceforth closed to Greek shipping. During the fifth century BC, the Iberian culture of Spain’s Mediterranean coast—which had ongoing access to Greek and Carthaginian trade—was to supplant Tartessos as the wealthiest and most dynamic zone of the peninsula.

Tartessian inscriptions
One of the enduring consequences of the era of Phoenician influence—which had by around 800 BC progressed from trading outposts to full-blown colonies in southern Spain—was the adoption of alphabetic writing by the native population, first in the south-west. The number of known Tartessian inscriptions on stone is now about 90 and steadily rising with new discoveries. Concentrated densely in southern Portugal (the Algarve and Lower Alentejo), there is a wider scatter of fifteen over south-west Spain. The best exhibition of the inscriptions is on view in the new and innovative Museu da Escrita do Sudoeste, in the charming provincial town of Almodôvar. In the significant minority of cases in which the stones have been discovered in their original context and this has been published, the find-spots are necropolises of the Iberian First Iron Age (800–500 BC), showing that the inscriptions belong to a funerary tradition. In this respect they continue the 100 pre-literate ‘warrior stelae’ of the Iberian Final Bronze Age (1250–750 BC). In four apparently transitional monuments incised heroic images are combined with Tartessian texts.

The oldest Celtic language?
Thus far, the theory that Tartessian is partly or wholly Celtic has been advanced only with an understatement and tentativeness that has failed to break through the habitual inattention of Celtic scholars in Ireland, Britain and North America towards evidence emerging in the Iberian Peninsula. Most Celticists know that the Celtiberian language of the eastern Meseta during the last centuries BC was Celtic and that there were also numerous ancient Celtic place- and group names in the western peninsula (e.g. names ending in –briga ‘hillfort’ = Old Irish brí ‘hill’, for example). But that’s about as far as it usually goes.
When we approach Tartessian from the study of the better-attested Celtic languages—of Ireland and Britain and ancient Celtic Europe on the other side of the Pyrenees—it looks more rather than less Celtic. We have already noted Arganthonios, silver magnate in name and deed. Herodotus also mentions the Kune-tes, inhabitants of the Algarve, ‘the westernmost people of Europe’ and neighbours of the Keltoi (Celts). Their name appears to contain the Celtic word ‘hound’, hence ‘warrior’, ‘hero’ (for example, Cú Chulainn), and precisely the suffixed form in the Old Welsh Cinuit of the Kynwydyon (Brittonic Cune-tio, Cune-tiones), founder of the main dynasty of Strathclyde.
Turning to the inscriptions, some obstacles and uncertainties in the transcriptions remain. The list of recognisable Celtic-looking forms can be greatly extended, however. Particularly in the longer, unbroken and most legible inscriptions, something of a critical mass develops, in which the Celtic-looking words are so frequent that the theory of ‘a few Celtic names in a matrix of an unknown language’ must be rejected in favour of the new working hypothesis: ‘Tartessian is Celtic’. The Celtic look-alikes are eminently appropriate. For example, five of the letter sequences in the inscriptions resemble words in other Celtic languages meaning ‘grave’, ‘funerary monument’ or ‘build a funerary monument’. In the examples below, the compared words are Modern Irish if not otherwise labelled. The translations are mine and tentative.

Three examples
Tartessian inscription and warrior stela from Abóbada, Portugal. (Jane Aaron)

Tartessian inscription and warrior stela from Abóbada, Portugal. (Jane Aaron)

Tartessian inscription and warrior stela from Abóbada, Portugal. (Jane Aaron)

One of the longest and most legible Tartessian inscriptions is ‘Fonte Velha 5’: lokooboo niiraboo too araiui kaaltee lokoon ane nar´kee kaakiis´iinkooloboo ii te’-e.ro-baare (be)e teasiioonii ‘invoking the Lugh-deities of the Neri people, for the nobleman the tomb is made; he remains unmoving within; invoking all the heroes, the grave of Tasiioonos has received him’. The god corresponding to the Irish Lugh, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, was sometimes invoked as a group, written Lucubo in Galicia and Lugouibus in Celtiberia, Tartessian lokooboo. In Roman times the Neri were a group in Galicia. Welsh ner ‘lord, hero’ shows that the name is Celtic; too is do ‘to’. For araiui compare aire ‘lord, nobleman’. Kalite occurs in the ancient Celtic inscriptions of northern Italy, meaning apparently ‘built a funerary monument’. Likewise, Cisalpine Gaulish lokan means ‘grave’; its root is the same as luigh ‘lie down’, Old Irish laigid, with several further examples in the Tartessian inscriptions: lakaatii ‘lies down’, lakeentii and lakiintii ‘they lie down’, and ro.laHaa ‘I have lain down’. For kaaki compare gach ‘every’, cách ‘everyone’; for is´iinkooloboo see Gaulish Exkingolatos ‘Heroic man’. The compound verb te’-e.ro-baare ‘[this grave] has received him/it’ is a recurrent formula; it corresponds to beir ‘carry’ and the compound tabhair ‘give’, Old Irish d-a.beir, earlier t-e.beir ‘gives it’. The preverb ro is one of the most strikingly Celtic features of Tartessian, functioning just like Old Irish ro as part of past perfect verbs, hence ‘has received’. With teasiioonii compare the pre-Roman British king’s name Tasciovanos, the first element of which corresponds to the common man’s name Tadhg.
The Tartessian manifestation of one of the most famous Celtic goddesses appears on two broken stones of the same fabric and thickness found at San Bartolomeu de Messines. On the first, a few Tartessian letters are legible above the image of a female rider seated side-saddle on a large horse and brandishing a long object in her left hand. The second stone reads: iboo-iion asune uarbaan ekuur´ine obaar baara . . . oretoo ‘for those I have received, for Asuna, the supreme one, for the Horse-Queen . . . deliverance (running under)’. Assuna is an attested woman’s name in Gaul. For ekuur´ine compare each ‘horse’ and ríon ‘queen’; oretoo is the infinitive of uaratee ‘has delivered/run under’, which occurs in another Tartessian inscription. Scores of dedications to the horse-goddess Epona have been recovered from Gaul. She is often invoked in full as Eponae Reginae ‘to the Horse-Goddess Queen’, corresponding to both elements of Tartessian ekuu-r´ine. Several representations show Epona riding a horse or pony. In the Welsh Mabinogi Rhiannon, whose name means ‘Divine Queen’, containing the second element of ekuu-r´ine, appears as a mysterious horsewoman at a mystic tumulus (gorsedd).
The most photogenic of the stones is the warrior of Abóbada, who forms a clear link between the inscriptions and the Late Bronze Age warrior stelae. The texts reads: iru alkuu sies´ nar´keentii mubaa te’-e.ro-baare Haataaneatee ‘for the man Alkos: these lie unmoving… The grave has received him, for the winged one.’ The epithet ‘winged’ is possibly a reference to the warrior’s formidable attitude: armoured and harnessed, he brandishes short spears in both outstretched hands. One of the heroes of the Dark Age Welsh elegies of Y Gododdin, warriors who also fought with short throwing spears, is similarly called ‘winged (edenawc) in battle’.

The collection could be extended and many more related words and names brought in from Brittonic and Continental Celtic. If this much can suffice to show that Tartessian is ‘more than a little bit Celtic’, there is a basis for reinterpreting much standard doctrine about the Celts and even the Celticity of Celtic Ireland. The ancient Celtic languages are still most often envisioned as having expanded from a homeland in central Europe in close association with the La Tène and Hallstatt cultures of the European Iron Age (about 750–50 BC). For Ireland this is problematical, as the Hallstatt element in the Irish archaeological record is limited. Though there are a few spectacular masterpieces in an Irish version of the later La Tène style, these are thin on the ground, with a conspicuous gap in Munster, precisely where the Primitive Irish ogham inscriptions are thickest. Tartessos, likewise, shows little in common with Hallstatt and La Tène. In fact, Tartessos was finished—and most or all of the inscriptions likewise—before the earliest La Tène material commenced in the fifth century BC.
On the other hand, both Ireland and south-west Iberia had been ‘fully paid-up members’ of the Atlantic Late Bronze Age. It has long been recognised that the V-notched shields, leaf-shaped swords and ogival-headed spears of the Iberian warrior stelae have close counterparts among actual artefacts of the Irish late Bronze Age. Therefore, if we can reorientate our thinking away from Hallstatt and La Tène to look instead at Ireland’s overseas affinities during its spectacularly wealthy late Bronze Age, the fact that Tartessos should now be giving up some of its mysteries in a language comparable to Irish may not be so surprising. It will not be the first or the last ironic twist of intellectual history for a Celtic Tartessos to appear on the horizon after the Spanish provenance of the Gaels (as per the Book of Invasions) has lost its last shred of credibility. HI

John T. Koch is research professor at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies.

Further reading:
B. Cunliffe, Facing the ocean: the Atlantic and its peoples (Oxford, 2001).
J. T. Koch, An atlas for Celtic studies: archaeology and names in ancient Europea and early medieval Ireland, Britain, and Brittany (Oxford and Aberystwyth, 2007).
J. T. Koch, Tartessian: Celtic in the southwest at the dawn of history (Aberystwyth, 2009).
J. Untermann, Monumenta Linguarum Hispanicarum 4: Die tartessischen, keltiberischen und lusitanischen Inschriften (Wiesbaden, 1997).


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