Archaeologists have unearthed what appears to have been the fashion capital of the prehistoric world.
Dating back around 5,000 years, the site – a Copper Age settlement in what is now southern Spain – produced the largest concentration of high-end prehistoric fashion items ever found .
So far hundreds of objects of spectacular beauty in gold, ivory, rock crystal, amber, greenstone, shell, ostrich eggshell, flint and copper have been discovered – despite the fact that only around 1% of the site has so far been excavated.
Detailed excavations, which have been ongoing for two decades, suggest the site was an important hub of international trade, drawing goods from thousands of miles away. Scientific tests have revealed that the most exotic raw materials for the most high-end fashion accessories come from as far away as Western Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Sicily and northern Spain.
So far, archaeologists – from the Spanish universities of Seville and Huelva and 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. Most of the ivory is from African elephants – but some is from Asian elephants, which at that time still roamed the grasslands of West Asia. Archaeologists and other scientists from five UK universities and other research institutes helped date and analyze many of the key finds.
Gold—probably from southwestern Spain—was used to produce gold leaf eye-shaped solar religious symbols. The site has so far yielded two of these highly prized artifacts, the only ones ever found in Western Europe.
Archaeologists have also unearthed dozens of beautiful amber beads, probably imported from Sicily. They are believed to have been used for jewelry and as decoration on high class clothing.
Other beads were made of rare green variscite (aluminum phosphate) gemstones, imported from northern Spain.
The excavations also yielded other spectacular artifacts – ceremonial arrowheads, miniature blades and a dagger – in pure rock crystal, potentially imported from central Spain.
Large deep-sea scallop shells were also highly prized by the inhabitants of the prehistoric settlement – and were almost certainly imported from what is now Spain or the Atlantic coast of Portugal.
So far, archaeologists have unearthed more than 100 very fine copper knives, axes, awls and spearheads. Although mostly made from local copper from southwestern Spain, some of the most spectacular copper objects (the spearheads) were made in the Eastern Mediterranean style. Most spearheads are exceptionally long (20-27cm) – and in a style previously known only to what is now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.
Scientific investigation of the site – located between the towns of Castilleja de Guzman and Valencina de la Concepción near Seville – also reveals the composition of the settlement’s population. Not only did the raw materials for high-end fashion come from many different regions, but about 33% of the colony’s inhabitants were also non-locals. This has been revealed by an isotopic study of skeletons, buried in the former settlement – but it is not yet clear whether they came from elsewhere in Spain or overseas.
Archaeologists have even discovered that, in death as in life, the inhabitants of the prehistoric settlement lent themselves to exotic fashion statements – by having their corpses painted with a precious bright red pigment (cinnabar), specially imported from the center from Spain. The interiors of religious buildings in the colony were also adorned with this same high-status red paint.
At its height, around 4,500 years ago, the ancient settlement covered over 400 hectares (1.5 square miles) and could have 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.
However, only four hectares have been fully excavated so far – but this tiny area has yielded extraordinarily large amounts of information and artifacts (tens of thousands of fragments and complete items). Thousands of storage and ritual pits, several kilometers of massive ditches, hundreds of tombs and other items have so far been discovered. The excavations were complex, in part because all of the archaeological material is buried very deeply – more than two meters below modern ground surface.
The settlement originated at the end of the Neolithic period (around 3200 BC). After rapid growth, it became culturally, economically and politically significant for much of the third millennium BC – but came to a relatively abrupt end around 2350 BC.
At its peak, it flourished around the same time that Stonehenge was being built.
Its collapse is a mystery that only future archaeological investigations can solve.
However, climate change (and its economic, political, and other consequences) almost certainly played a role in the colony’s demise.
“Valencina is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe to help us understand the rise of socially complex societies on our continent. It provides crucial evidence on 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 the principal archaeologist currently studying the site, the Professor Leonardo García Sanjuán of the University. of Seville.
Ongoing scientific research into the finds at the site is now beginning to shed new light on prehistoric social systems – particularly whether they were patriarchal or matriarchal. Researchers are also investigating whether, in addition to importing ivory from overseas, Copper Age craftsmen in Valencina also mined fossilized ivory from elephants that had lived in Spain for hundreds of thousands. years ago.
In the UK, research into materials from the site has been carried out by archaeologists from the universities of Cardiff, Southampton and Durham – and dating work on the main finds has been undertaken by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Center near Glasgow and by the Research Laboratory for Archeology at the University of Oxford. .
Research at Valencina is also helping scholars better understand a much larger prehistoric civilization that flourished in southern Spain around 4,000 to 6,000 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 explore the great burial Dolmen de Soto near Huelva, the ruined Copper Age town of Los Millares (near of Almeria) and the prehistoric UNESCO World Heritage Site. complex near Antequera, 30 miles north of Malaga.