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Gold earring found in burned ruins of an Iron Age village may reveal ‘moment in time,’ archaeologists say

Archaeologists found a gold earring hidden inside a jar that had been placed in a wall at the Iron Age settlement called Tossal de Baltarga. (Marco Ansaloni / CNN Newsource) Archaeologists found a gold earring hidden inside a jar that had been placed in a wall at the Iron Age settlement called Tossal de Baltarga. (Marco Ansaloni / CNN Newsource)
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A two-story building burned to the ground more than 2,000 years ago in the Pyrenees mountains of northeastern Iberia in Spain. The inferno consumed the wooden structure, situated in an Iron Age settlement, killing six animals penned in the stable.

The fates of the people who used the building are unknown, but details of their lives remain preserved in handfuls of scorched clues, including bits of pottery, tools for textile work and a metal pickax, archaeologists recently discovered.

They also found one precious object: a gold earring measuring two centimetres long and two centimetres wide. It had been hidden inside a small jar concealed in a wall, perhaps to keep it safe from the hypothesized marauders who set the fire, according to the study published Friday in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology.

The site of the settlement is called Tossal de Baltarga, and thousands of years ago, a community of Iberian people known as the Cerretani occupied the village. This group predated the Roman occupation of Iberia and left their mark on the region in carvings on mountain rock. However, researchers are still piecing together clues about Cerretani life, including the meanings of these carvings, said lead study author Dr. Oriol Olesti Vila, an associate professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain.

Scientists have uncovered several burned buildings at Tossal de Baltarga since 2011, all dating to the third century BC. Archaeologists recently excavated a nonresidential, multipurpose structure dubbed Building G, the best-preserved building at the site. It measured about eight metres long by about two metres wide, and its contents offer an unprecedented glimpse of Cerretani life in Iron Age Iberia.

But the blackened ruins also preserve a darker story. The destruction of the entire settlement by fire hints that the blaze was set deliberately. And the chronology of the fire suggests that the arsonists may have been an invading army under Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who led troops against the Roman Republic and crossed the Pyrenees around this time, during the Second Punic War (218 BC to 201 BC), the researchers wrote in the study.

Lifestyle clues

Though the upper floor of Building G collapsed when the supporting beams burned, it still retained traces of its former structure, with mud bricks in the eastern part of the floor and stones in the western section. One explanation is that the upper floor was divided into two distinct spaces used for different tasks, the scientists said.

More than 1,000 pottery fragments from the upper floor represented a variety of vessels, used for cooking, eating, drinking and storage. Eight cooking vessels were near-complete when found, and chemical analysis revealed that they contained organic residues: animal fats, dairy products and plants. Designs of some vessels indicated that they were acquired from another Iberian region through trade. More than a dozen weights for a loom and spindles told the researchers that the building’s occupants were spinning and weaving with wool.

In the stable, scientists found the remains of a horse, four sheep and a goat. The horse was kept in a separate stall, and charred particles represented a variety of local grasses and plants as well as cultivated grains, stored there as feed for the livestock.

The presence of a horse in the stable suggested that these people were wealthier than some of their neighbors, Olesti Vila said.

“In antiquity, horses were not the typical animal that a normal peasant family would have,” as they were expensive to feed and weren’t kept for their meat or milk, Olesti Vila said.

“In general, horses are connected with the elite.”

This finding provided archaeologists with another important clue about social structure in ancient Iberia, introducing the possibility of an “aristocrat” class, the study authors wrote.

An illustration shows how Building G, the best-preserved structure at Tossal de Baltarga, might have looked before a fire destroyed it. (Reconstruction by Francesc Riart, illustrator / CNN Newsource)

A ‘moment in time’

Their discoveries illuminate the lifestyles of the Cerretani, indicating textile work and the use of agriculture and of natural resources. Analysis of the hidden earring revealed traces of silver mixed with local gold, showing that the Cerretani were also familiar with metalworking.

Uncovering a “moment in time” such as this is exceptional in the archaeological record, said Dr. Bettina Arnold, a professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who was not involved in the research. The site provides important insights into the daily lives of Iberian Iron Age populations in the Pyrenees at this pivotal time in history, Arnold said in an email.

“The most impressive aspect of the excavation of Building G is the range of the scientific analyses carried out on the finds recovered there, which reveals a community that was self-sufficient with regard to some production activities, such as spinning and weaving wool,” Arnold said.

However, the analysis also showed that this community was part of a larger regional exchange network “through trade and presumably bonds of obligation,” linking them to Iberian tribal leadership, she added.

Deadly attack

The fact that the animals died inside the stable offered the researchers another clue about the terrible circumstances of the fire.

During the Iron Age, when people lived in wooden homes heated by fires, buildings often accidentally burned. But had this been such a fire, the animals’ owners would likely have opened the stable doors to save their livestock, Olesti Vila said.

They would probably also have returned after the fire died down to retrieve their hidden treasure — the gold earring that they concealed in a jar.

“This is also an indication of some kind of conflict or some kind of violent aggression,” Olesti Vila said. The scientists suspected that the community may have been caught up in the Second Punic War and the crossing of Hannibal, “because of the chronology and the context,” but because the precise date of the fire is unknown, this connection is just a hypothesis, he said.

Indeed, the existence of violent raids between Iron Age populations in Europe, with bands of invaders making off with valuables, livestock and even people, “is well attested archaeologically,” Arnold added, “and need not be associated with a specific historic event like Hannibal’s campaigns.”

Mindy Weisberger is a science writer and media producer whose work has appeared in Live Science, Scientific American and How It Works magazine.

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