Archaeologists have unearthed what appears to have been the fashion capital of the prehistoric world.
The approximately 5,000-year-old site – a Copper Age settlement in what is now southern Spain – has yielded the largest collection of high-quality prehistoric millinery ever found.
To date, literally hundreds of spectacularly beautiful gold, ivory, rock crystal, amber, greenstone, shell, ostrich eggshell, flint and copper artifacts have been excavated – although only about 1 percent of the site has been excavated to date.
The detailed excavations carried out over the past two decades suggest that the site was a major international trade center, attracting goods from literally thousands of miles away. Scientific tests have shown that the most exotic raw materials for the highest quality fashion accessories even come from western Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Sicily and northern Spain.
So far, archaeologists – from Spain’s universities of Seville and Huelva, as well as Germany – have found dozens of deeply buried complete and fragmentary ivory figurines, drinking cups and ornamental combs, as well as jewelry and luxury furniture and clothing decorations, made mostly of ivory from African elephants – but some also from Asian elephants , who at that time still roamed the grasslands of western Asia. Archaeologists and other scientists from five UK universities and other research organizations have helped date and analyze many of the key finds.
Gold – probably from southwestern Spain – was used to make eye-shaped gold foil sun symbols. The site has so far yielded two of these prized artifacts, the only ones ever found in Western Europe.
Archaeologists have also unearthed dozens of beautiful amber beads that were probably imported from Sicily. It is believed that they were used for jewelry and as a decoration for high quality clothing.
Other beads were made from rare green variscite (aluminum phosphate) gemstones imported from northern Spain.
The excavations have also turned up other spectacular artifacts – ceremonial arrowheads, miniature blades and a dagger – made of pure rock crystal, which may have been imported from central Spain.
Large deep-sea scallops were also prized by the inhabitants of the prehistoric settlement – and almost certainly imported from the Atlantic coast of Spain or Portugal.
So far, archaeologists have unearthed well over a hundred very beautiful copper knives, axes, stamps and spearheads. Although primarily made from local south-west Spanish copper, some of the most spectacular copper objects (the spearheads) were made in the Eastern Mediterranean style. Most of the spearheads are unusually long (20-27 cm!!) – and in a style previously only known from present-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.
The scientific study of the area between the towns of Castilleja de Guzmán and Valencina de la Concepción near Seville also reveals the composition of the settlement population. The high-quality fashion raw materials not only came from many different areas – around 33 percent of the residents of the settlement did not come from the region either. This was revealed by an isotopic study of skeletons buried in the ancient settlement – but it is not yet known whether they came from other parts of Spain or from overseas.
The archaeologists even discovered that the inhabitants of the prehistoric settlement made exotic fashion statements in life as in death – by having their corpses painted with a valuable bright red pigment (cinnabar), specially imported from central Spain. The interiors of the settlement’s religious buildings were also decorated with the same high-ranking red color.
At its peak around 4500 years ago, the ancient settlement covered more than 400 hectares (1.5 sq mi) and may have had a permanent or fluctuating population of up to several thousand. It almost certainly had multiple functions – religious, ceremonial, commercial and political. In terms of physical size, it appears to have been the largest settlement of its time in Western Europe.
So far, however, only four hectares have been fully excavated – but this tiny area has yielded an extraordinary amount of information and artifacts (tens of thousands of fragments and complete objects). Thousands of storage and ritual pits, several kilometers of massive ditches, hundreds of tombs and other features have been discovered so far. The excavations were complex, in part because all of the archaeological material is buried very deep—more than two meters below the modern surface of the earth.
The settlement first arose in the late Neolithic (around 3200 BC). After rapid growth, it was used for much of the third millennium BC. culturally, economically and politically important – but took place around 2350 B.C. a relatively abrupt end.
It flourished at its peak around the same time Stonehenge was being built.
Its collapse is a mystery that only future archaeological investigations can solve.
However, climatic changes (and their economic, political, and other consequences) almost certainly played a role in the decline of settlement.
“Valencina is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe, helping us to understand the rise of socially complex societies on our continent. It provides crucial evidence of the relationship between monumental buildings, ritual practices and exotic wealth that will allow us to better understand some of Europe’s earliest political and religious systems,” said lead archaeologist currently studying the site, Professor Leonardo García Sanjuán from the University of Seville.
Ongoing scholarly research into finds from the site is now beginning to shed new light on prehistoric social systems – particularly whether they were patriarchal or matriarchal. Researchers are also studying whether the Valencina Copper Age craftsmen not only imported ivory from overseas, but also exploited fossil ivory from elephants that had inhabited Spain hundreds of thousands of years earlier.
In the UK, material from the site has been researched by archaeologists from the Universities of Cardiff, Southampton and Durham – and dating work on key finds has been carried out by the Scottish Universities’ Environmental Research Center near Glasgow and the University of Oxford’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology.
Research in Valencina is also helping scientists better understand a much broader prehistoric civilization that flourished in southern Spain some 4000 to 6000 years ago, the spectacular remains of which can still be seen today. As well as a remarkable underground ritual monument (the Dolmen de La Pastora) in Valencina itself, visitors can also see the great tomb Dolmen de Soto near Huelva, the Copper Age ruined city of Los Millares (near Almeria) and the prehistoric UNESCO World Heritage Site explore complex near Antequera, 30 miles north of Malaga.