Iron Age fire: potential forgotten event of Rome and Carthage war

Archaeologists excavating a building in the Iron Age site of Tossal de Baltarga in the Pyrenees have uncovered the records of a devastating event which burned the settlement to the ground.

The strategic position of the settlement and sudden nature of the destruction 2,200 years ago points towards a potentially forgotten event in the war between Carthage and Rome.

“The destruction was dated around the end of the third century BCE, the moment where the Pyrenees were involved in the Second Punic War and the passage of Hannibal’s troops,” says Dr Oriol Olesti Vila of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, lead author of the article in Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology.

Hannibal commanded the Carthaginian forces against the Roman Republic in the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE). This was the second of 3 wars fought between Rome and Carthage for control over the Western Mediterranean.

“It is likely that the violent destruction of the site was connected to this war,” says Olesti Vila.

“The general fire points to anthropic destruction, intentional and very effective – not only Building G, but all the buildings of the site, were destroyed. In Building D we found a complete dog, burned.”

Tossal de Baltarga is an archaeological site located in the eastern Pyrenees, a mountain range straddling the border of France and Spain. In the Iron Age it was a hillfort of the Cerretani community, who had a major settlement at nearby Castellot de Bolvir. 

While Tossal de Baltarga seems to have lacked defensive walls, the location had excellent views over the river and critical travel routes.

“These valleys were an important territory economically and strategically,” says Olesti Vila.

“We know that Hannibal passed the Pyrenees fighting against the local tribes, likely the Cerretani. Not many archaeological remains of this expedition are preserved. Tossal de Baltarga is likely one of the best examples.”

A black and white illustration of a rectangular 2 storey iron age building. Downstairs there are farm animals, upstairs a woman works with textile production
Building G as it might have looked before the fire. Credit Francesc Riart

The archaeologists’ excavation of Building G revealed it had 2 floors, which collapsed due to the intensity of the fire. Some valuables survived, such as an iron pickaxe and a gold earring concealed in a little pot. 

The upper floor seems to have been divided into spaces for cooking and textile production, while the lower floor housed animals. While no human remains were found, the remains of 4 sheep, a goat, and horse were uncovered penned up in their wooden enclosures.

“Our reconstruction implies a sudden destruction, with no time to open the door of the stall and save the animals,” says Olesti Vila.

“This could be just an unexpected local fire. But the presence of a hidden gold earring indicates the anticipation by the local people of some kind of threat, likely the arrival of an enemy. Also, the keeping of such a high number of animals in a little stall suggests the anticipation of a danger.”

It’s unknown what became of the people who were living there, but Tossal de Baltarga was eventually reoccupied and garrisoned by the Romans.

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