Search for Tartessos

in the 19th and the Beginning of the 20th Century

by Karl Juergen Hepke

Title of the Spanish Original

Jorge Bonsor y el descubrimiento de Tartessos
por Jorge Maier Allende

translated into English by Karl Juergen Hepke 18. 11.2012

By today there is no doubt that George Bonsor (Lille, 1855 - Mairena del Alcor, 1930) was the discoverer of the material culture of Tartessos, of a real and objective Tartessos, with a spatial and temporal delimitation very clear to us : For the first time the description of their cities, their main cultural components, their funeral customs. However, the results of the investigations of Bonsor were not resolved in a single book, but in a set of publications of heterogeneous character though consistent and, above all, objective, among which the most well known are" Tartessos" (1921) [ 1], "The Coto de Donana, a visit archaeological "(1922) and "Tartessos: excavations carried out in 1923 at the Cerro del Trigo term of Almonte (Huelva)" (1928). However, all of them relate to a very specific aspect of his research : The location of the city of Tartessos in the mouth of the Guadalquivir river.

But the work of Bonsor on Tartessoss has its origin many years before, in 1894, the year in which began the systematic exploration of the Sevillian Alcores. It is therefore a long and protracted research of more than thirty years dedicated to the research of the Protohistoric Period of Western Andalusia that culminated in 1925-1926 with the excavation of the necropolis of Setefilla (Lora del Rio, Seville)

As well, to the publications already mentioned we must add the" Pre-roman agricultural colonies of the Guadalquivir Valley "(1899; 1997), "The gods of the Alcores" (1924), "Le véritable origine of Carmona et les Découvertes Archeologiques des Alcores" (1927); "From Tarshish to the isles of Tin" (1928), "Necropole of Iberique Setefilla, Lora del Rio (Seville), fouilles of 1926 and 1927" (1928) and "Early engraved ivories in the collection of the Hispanic Society of America" (1928). "

"George Bonsor was the discoverer of the material culture of Tartessos, his research focused on its location in the mouth of the Guadalquivir River".

When George Bonsor began to develop his research on the protohistoric period of western Andalusia, the question of Tartessos as historical problem, focused on two aspects: The location of the city and the trade of metals, that is, the identification of their sources of supply, especially of the tin, whose monopoly exploited the city of Tartessos, which the classical authors placed in a group of islands in the Western Europe, the Cassiterides. This vision was very much in agreement with the philological archeology, from that derived the research until than. This was also the point of departure for George Bonsor, as is logical.

But Bonsor knew reconcile the philological argument - and realize that this alone is not enough - with a methodology of archaeological research, which is the one that gives you full modernity to advance the knowledge of the tartessian civilization , by what we consider today as the starting point for contemporary research in this question.

One of the peculiarities of George Bonsor was to be characterized as being an archaeologist of the territory. And this is one of the fundamental aspects of his conception of the archaeological research: the systematic exploration of the territory previously considered to combine units of space and time. But, on the other hand, his blind faith in the positivism archaeological, that is to say, the archaeological excavation, the systematic and orderly recovery of material culture as a source of historical data to overcome the exhausted philological model . His strictness was admirable and to him we must put the exhumation of the first material vestiges that characterize this civilization and the first attempts on classification and interpretation based on the application of stratigraphic criteria and in the valuation of the ceramic element as sequential dating.

By him is said , that it is necessary to establish different stages in the investigation of the anglo-french archaeologist, some more known than others. The first of them and starting point for his investigations was the systematic exploration of the Alcores that happened between the years of 1894 and 1899 . Although Bonsor had already shown some interest in the protohistoric times and had proceeded to the excavation of some funerary structures existing in the roman necropolis neopunica of Carmona , his interest in researching this era was also due to the contact maintained with the French archaeologists Arthur Engel ( 1855 - 1920) and Pierre Paris ( 1859 - 1931 ), whose presence in Spain, in regard to the investigation of Iberian culture, was from 1886 and 1895 respectively. In any case, George Bonsor carried out the first exploration of the Alcores solo.


"The investigations into the Alcores" was published in" Les colonies agricoles prerromaines de la Vallee du Betis", first modern work on Tartessian civilization.In the course of this exploration Bonsor excavated several necropolis and identified their corresponding settlements , today only mythical in Tartessian historiography: The Mesa de Gandul and the necropolis of Bencarron (Alcala de Guadaira/Mairena del Alcor), La Tablada and the necropolis of Santa Lucia (El Viso del Alcor), the mound of Alcaudete, the necropolis of El Acebuchal and the so called "Casa del Colono" , the necropolis of Huerta Nueva, the necropolis of Alcantarilla, the necropolis of the Cruz del Negro, the necropolis of the Canada of Ruiz Sanchez (Carmona) and the sanctuary of Entremalo, all of them in the district of Carmona.

The results of these early works of exploration and excavations were published in his most famous publication that even today must be consulted:" Les colonies agricoles prerromaines de la Vallee du Betis" (1899) [ 2]. This is the first modern work that we have in Spain on the Tartessian civilization.

Bonsor in it not only gave to learn important aspects of the material culture and the funeral customs of Tartessos, but underlined the importance, from the archaeological positivism, that the Phoenician colonisation had in shaping of the peoples of the south peninsular and especially in the Tartessio-Turdetanos . And, furthermore, that the Phoenician colonisation is not restricted only to the founding of coastal cities such as up to then it was believed, but that it reached the interior of Andalusia and had here a mobile agriculture, as indicates the title of his work. This was the most revealing aspect of the work of Bonsor and it opened a fruitful line of research.

But as we have already indicated Bonsor still did not speak only of Tartessian culture itself, but he already raised the possible location of the city of Tartessos on the basis of the description of Strabo and the knowledge and geological survey of the field, for what he toured through the landscapes described by the Greek geographer. It is important to emphasize that Bonsor believed that Tartessos in addition to the name of a city, it was also the name of the Guadalquivir River and his entire region.

The second stage of the research is much less known and was developed in two parallel lines of investigation: the identification of Cassiterides and the continuation of the exploration of the Alcores.

Immediately after the first exploration of the Alcores, Bonsor undertook the localization of the Cassiterides, which he identified with the archipelago of the Scilly islands in front of the peninsula of Cornwall, in the southwest of England (Ashbee, 1980). The main objective of this exploration, which was carried out between 1899 and 1902, was to find evidence and archaeological proof to demonstrate the presence of the Phoenicians or the settlers phoenicians of the Iberian Peninsula in the Isles of Scilly, traditionally identified in British historiography with the Cassiterides.

In England was still very widespread in this time the belief, that the Phoenicians had come up to the region of Cornwall in search of tin from the oldest market place founded by this people in Europe: Tartessos, which they identified with the biblical Tarshish. However, Bonsor was unable to see completed his research hypotheses, since he was not able to find not a single element which could show the Phoenician presence.

"His work on Tartessos began in 1894 with the exploration of the Alcores sevillians and culminated in 1925-1926 with the necropolis of Setefilla (Lora del Rio, Seville) ".

Parallel to this important research Bonsor continued with exploration of the Alcores. These proceedings took place between 1900 and 1911 although in intermittent different phases. As the results of these explorations were never published they were largely unknown until recently they have been given to know systematically and reveal to us the great knowledge that he had already on the Tartessian archeology (Maier, 1999a).

In fact, Bonsor continued excavating the necropolis Tartessicas already localized in his first exploration. The work focused preferably between 1900 and 1909 in the necropolis of Cruz del Negro (Carmona) (Maier, 1992 and 1999b). Also discovered he a necropolis very similar to the Cruz del Negro in El Gandul (Mairena del Alcor/Alcala de Guadaira) today known as the necropolis of Camino del Gandul, and excavated several mounds in Bencarron Alto in 1902 (Maier, 1996; Sánchez Andreu and Ladrón de Guevara, 2000).

In 1908 working at the necropolis Santa Lucia del Raso del Chiroli at the settlement of La Tablada (El Viso del Alcor) (Sanchez Andreu, 1992; Maier, 2008). The last work was carried out in the necropolis of El Acebuchal (Carmona) in which he excavated new tombs with incineration in 1911 (Maier, 1999a: 210-211); Ladrón de Guevara et alii, 2000).

All these years of excavations allowed Bonsor appreciate even more the cultural sequence of the region and in particular, which is here what we are interested in, qualify his comments on the cultural sequence established in 1899.

The third stage of the research is determined by the identification of the city of Tartessos. The existence of a city called Tartessos was supported by a large part of the researchers and its discovery was the great challenge of the research of this era, in which there is no denying of the influence of the trust which was deposited on the Archeology, as had been demonstrated, at least in those times, since the work of Schliemann. The confidence that the historians deposited in the archeology was indisputable.

This research had its beginning in 1910, when Bonsor came into contact with the German historian Adolf Schulten because without doubt of the publication of Periplo on Himilco by Antonio Blázquez and Delgado Aguilera in 1909 and the revival of the text of the Ora Maritima by Rufo Festo Avieno. In the work of this poet late latino was detected that he had used much more ancient sources for the description of the peninsular coastline. Although this fact was discussed in Europe since at least the end of the eighteenth century, in Spain it was Antonio Blazquez and Delgado-Aguilera who first addressed this question..

Blazquez, which maintained contact with Bonsor since at least 1902 , year in which he sold the castle of Mairena del Alcor, had already proposed in a previous work, published in 1894, the likely situation in the city of Tartessos at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. Also Bonsor said , it was Blázquez who incited him, to prefer for that the archaeological exploration of the coast (Bonsor, 1921: 517).

For Bonsor, as for most of the criticism of his archaeological time, the existence of the city of Tartessos was no doubt. Its main historical reference was, as it had been from the beginning, the authority of sources greco-Latinas. (However, several German historians such as Karl Movers and Karl Mullenhof denied the existence of the city of Tartessos.) In this sense Bonsor continued and took the theory of George Rawlinson, who said :If you give credit to the sources: "Tartessus was a town in the opinions of Scymnus Chius, Strabo, Mela, Pliny, Festus Avienus, and Pausanias, who could not be, all of them, mistaken on such a point". Rawlinson thought in addition that Tartessos was probably also the name of the river Guadalquivir: "It was a town named from, or at any rate bearing the same name with, an important river of southern Spain, probably the Guadalquivir River" (Rawlinson, 1889), a point with which Bonsor also agreed.

"Bonsor believed that Tartessos in addition to the name of a city, it was also that from the Guadalquivir River and his entire region."

The project however was frozen for various reasons and especially by the First World War. Shortly before its end Bonsor began working on the excavations of the Casa de Velázquez in Bologna. Than he had opportunity to study the ancient geography of the Cadiz district and it was than when he returned to the subject of Tartessos.

Today we know from the unpublished correspondence that is conserved in the archives of the Hispanic Society of America that in 1918 Bonsor presented the president of the institution, Archer M. Huntington, the project of locating the ancient city. His plan was to draw the boundaries of the "Lake Ligustino" to make excavations in appropriate places. To do this, he not only requested funds from the Hispanic Society of America but also proposed the creation of a archaeological institution in Spain similar to the French School of Archeology at Athens , the Anglo-American School of Archeology in Spain with headquarters in Seville.

This initiative is important, since one of the first projects that was going to undertake the School, was the discovery of Tartessos. Faced with this situation Huntington decided to give him personally 1000$ for his exploration project of Tartessos.

At the beginning of the year 1920 Bonsor carried out a first visit to Arenas Gordas and met the Mayor of Sanlucar de Barrameda, who advised him some places where had been recognized ancient remains.

That same summer Bonsor, who had 68 years, began prospecting of the coast from the mouth of the Guadiana River to the Guadalquivir River, in order to verify the Tartessius sinus described by Avieno. Already in this first exploration he requested permission to dig of the Duchess of Tarifa, but was not granted and immediately began to compose the memory. At the end of August 1920 Huntington gave him 2000$ more for the establishment of the school.

In the autumn (September-October) of that year, he began the second exploration in Arenas Gordas , identified the western arm of the river and was able to identify the suspected island in which should be found the city, but continued without obtaining permission for digging from the property .

At the end of the year he concluded the memory with title" Tartessos", which was drawn up in two versions in French and in Spanish. The first of them was sent to some members of the Society of Antiquaries of London, future members of the projected Anglo-American School of Archeology.

The Spanish text was sent to the Royal Academy of History presented by Jose Ramon in the Academic Board in February 25 1921, for which he received an enthusiastic reception by Antonio Blazquez, the Marquis of Laurencin (then director), and by the Marquis of Cerralbo. The latter offered to intercede with the Duke of Tarifa, Carlos Fernandez de Córdoba and Pérez de Barradas (1864-1931), to obtain the desired permission of excavation in the Coto de Doñana.

The Royal Academy of History agreed that the text of the report could be published in the Newsletter of the corporation, in which it appeared at the end of that same year with a map of the Delta of the Tartessos. Since then George Bonsor was attended with the strong support of the Royal Academy of History. In the month of June he sent the French version of the text to the Hispanic Society.

"The identification of the city of Tartessos was the great aim of the research that started in 1910, when Bonsor came into contact with the German historian Adolf Schulten".

In mid-august of 1921 the efforts of Cerralbo had positive effect and Bonsor obtained the permission of the Duke of Tarifa to recognize and to excavate part of the land that had been indicated for the search of archaeological remains which pointed out to the existence of the city.

He moved to the Coto de Donana on 20 August and permanently exploring the land for a week he discovered the "Monton de Trigo", a Roman settlement, as well as other small settlements to 6 kilometers away from that in which he collected slag of iron. He also defined the course of the western arm of the river.

However, finding no other traces he formed the idea that in the "Monton de Trigo" it could have some older reused rests to prove the existence of the city in those places. At return of this first exploration of the Coto, he began to compose "El Coto de Donana , a visit archaeological," second part of the "Tartessos", which was presented to the Royal Academy of History and the corporation agreed to his publication, which appeared in the bulletin at the end of that year.

In November 1922 A. Schulten, after inspecting the Coto, came to the same conclusion as Bonsor, as this commented to Huntington: " … has just been over the island of Tartessos, where it appears that he re-discovered what I discovered more than a year ago, of course he has not yet read my "Archaeological visit to Doñana."

In June 1923 the Duke of Tarifa decided for only personally funding the excavations in the "Monton de Trigo" if Bonsor was the leader of it. But a few days after, Bonsor was informed that he should assist in this endeavor with a German team integrated by Adolf Schulten, General Lammerer and Peter Bosch, although the latter did not came to participate. The situation was very violent for the Duke of Tarifa, but due to the intercession of the Duke of Alba he had to grant permission to the excavation team led by Schulten. Bonsor arrived to think over to participate in the excavation but, advised by his friends and surely for the Royal Academy of History, decided to participate in this company for the discovery of the city of Tartessos that had lifted, on the other hand, a huge expectation.

The excavations were carried out in three separate campaigns finally a month-long in 1923, 1924 and 1925.The results of the excavations in the Coto were published by Bonsor alone in the memories of the "Junta Superior de Excavaciones" (Bonsor, 1928).

We must point out that Bonsor never felt great confidence in the ability to discover the ancient metropolis of the Tartessian kingdom . But the most important thing in our view is , that Bonsor in a forced situation and that he could not escape because of the significant implications that might have had his being beyond , he proposed to undertake the excavation of a contemporary city of Tartessos.

The occasion soon arrived and on 19 February 1925 he got permission to dig on a site well-known and explored for the same year: Setefilla. The project was funded by the Escuela Superior de Estudios Hispanicos (Casa de Velazquez) , was co-directed with Raymond Thouvenot and developed in two campaigns in 1926 and 1927 to be published in 1928 (Bonsor and Thouvenot, 1928).

"For the greater part of the archaeological criticism of his time the existence of the city of
Tartessos was unquestionable and its main historical reference sources were the greco-latin".

As we know ,the excavations resulted in the location of a series of funerary structure mounds that have many similarities with the Alcores; among them deserves to be saluted the camera of masonry that covered the so-called mound H, which is, without doubt, one of the monumental tombs tartessicas, most important discovery until now at the Guadalquivir River, as well as the only Tartessian stele found in a funerary context.

We cannot fail to mention that George Bonsor also had the opportunity to study and draw directly the consignment of weapons and objects made of bronze found at the dredge of the ria of Huelva, in 1923, although he never wrote nothing of this, but also note the existence of burial mounds on the hills of Huelva and study some of the salvaged materials in Niebla by the School Anglo-Hispano -American Archeology, led by the eccentric English scholar Ellen Whishaw.

In addition in these years appeared even some publications more to complete his investigations. Among them should be noted" From Tarshish to the isles of tin "(1928), in which he takes up again the question of trade in tin from new points of view, and "Early engraved ivories in the collection of the Hispanic Society of America," The magnificent catalog of the ivories phoenicians of the necropolis Tartessicas of the Alcores/ Seville.


[ 1] was also published an English version by the Hispanic Society of America, New York, 1921.

[ 2] Existe versión en castellano: /Las Colonias agricolas prerromanas del Valle del Guadalquivir/. Ecija: Graficas Sol, 1997.

source: Jorge Bonsor y el descubrimiento de Tartessos
Junta de Andalucia.
Consejeria de Cultura y Deporte.
Biblioteca Virtual de Andalucia


Read to this in English: The History of Atlantis, the forgotten Origin of our Culture         By Karl Juergen Hepke

Or as a book in German language:


DIE GESCHICHTE VON ATLANTIS, der vergessene Ursprung unserer Kultur
by Karl Juergen Hepke
TRIGA - DER VERLAG, D 63584 Gruendau-Rothenbergen, Germany, 2nd Edition, Hardcover, 268 Pages, EUR 22,00, ISBN 978-3-89774-539-1 ,