The Fortress of Vilars d’Arbeca is a unique archaeological site in Iberian and European protohistory due to its impressive defensive features, which was discovered in 1975.

Located in an alluvial plain about 4 kilometers from the town of Arbeca in the Catalan province of Lleida (Spain), the fortress was founded around 775 B.C., during the Early Iron Age, and continuously occupied for 400 years until the late 4th century B.C.

It was built by the Ilergetes (or Iltirgeskios, the “inhabitants of Iltirta”), settled in an area stretching from Lower Urgel to the Ebro River in what is now Huesca and Lleida, a tribe that belonged to the Urnfield culture group whose capital, yet to be discovered, was called Atanagrum.

View of the Vilars d'Arbeca Fortress in 2020
View of the Vilars d’Arbeca Fortress in 2020. Credit: Jaumeboldu / Wikimedia Commons

The fortress has an oval shape and is composed of buildings and dwellings arranged around a central water cistern, surrounded by a 173-meter-long, 5-meter-high, and 5-meter-thick wall with 12 semicircular towers.

The wall was protected by a 13-meter-wide and 4-meter-deep floodable moat and a barrier of pointed stones embedded in the ground that prevented horseback riding, forcing riders to dismount and fight on foot—a triple defensive belt that made it nearly impregnable.

With an interior surface of about 2,200 square meters, it could house around one hundred people who lived off livestock and grain cultivation. The reason the fortress was built on the plain and not on easily defensible hills was to ensure control of water.

The central cistern of the fortress
The central cistern of the fortress. Credit: CRPU Mascançà / Wikimedia Commons

During the Early Iron Age, the region’s communities experienced gradual changes in their lifestyles, such as sedentarization, colonization of new territories, adoption of agricultural innovations, creation of metallurgical trade circuits, emergence of urbanism, and the generalization of cremation rituals.

One of the main challenges for these human groups was water management and control. The earliest identified systems for collecting and storing rainwater in the Iberian Peninsula date back to the Early Bronze Age Argaric culture in the Mediterranean coastal zone. In the Segre and Cinca Valleys, the construction of cisterns and reservoirs is associated with the earliest indications of urban planning in fortified settlements from around 1250 B.C.

Thus, a long structure located outside the fortress, traditionally identified as a defensive element, turned out to be a rainwater reservoir channeled from within the fortification, designed to store water for use during dry periods.

The fortress stone barrier
The fortress stone barrier. Credit: Angela Llop / Wikimedia Commons

At some point in the fortress’s history, this structure ceased to serve as a reservoir and was used to produce raw earth, an essential material for building and maintaining the walls, pavements, streets, and other domestic elements of the fortress.

For this, rainwater and construction debris were used. This is the first identified case of a protohistoric structure dedicated to raw-earth manufacturing in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula.

There is no evidence that the fortress was ever attacked; it was simply abandoned around 325 B.C. for unknown reasons. Researchers believe the most plausible explanation is that the population increase required a larger location. In any case, within just over a century, the Romans would arrive and use the fortress’s stones for their constructions.

Thick walls at the east gate of the fortress
Thick walls at the east gate of the fortress. Credit: CRPU Mascançà / Wikimedia Commons

Although the fortress was discovered in 1974, the first archaeological excavations didn’t begin until 1985, revealing the wall and conducting consolidation work in 1986. In 1988, the field of pointed stones, the internal structure, and the central cistern were discovered.

Inside the enclosure, archaeologists found various pieces of ceramics and bronze, including a pacifier-type pendant, a fibula, a bracelet, a ring, and a zoomorphic pendant shaped like a goat.

They also found two bull-skin-shaped hearths, one in a room around the central square and one in a building in the northern zone, along with three burials with different rituals, all of newborns.

Reconstruction of the original appearance of the Vilars d'Arbeca fortress
Reconstruction of the original appearance of the Vilars d’Arbeca fortress. Credit: J.R. Casals / Behance

Excavations continued in the following years, and in 2011, the site was turned into a museum that can be visited thanks to an access ramp, walkways, and a viewing platform. The fortress was declared a Cultural Property of National Interest in 1998 by the Government of Catalonia.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 30, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La inexpugnable Fortaleza de los Villares de Arbeca, construida en la Edad del Hierro en Lérida con murallas de 5 metros de grosor


La Fortaleza de los Villares de Arbeca (Museu d’Arqueologia de Catalunya) | Jaciment els Vilars (Grup Humà “Els Amics de Vilars”) | Joan Carbonell-Roca, M. Mercè Bergadà, et al., Water management and raw-earth construction in protohistory: Uses and transformations of reservoir BS-1625 at the site of Vilars d’Arbeca (Lleida, Spain). Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Volume 56, June 2024, 104532. | Wikipedia

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