Archaeologists have unearthed the charred remnants of an ancient settlement in the Pyrenees, providing a rare glimpse into a catastrophic event from over two millennia ago. This settlement, known as Tossal de Baltarga, was incinerated so swiftly and violently that the inhabitants had no chance to save their livestock or valuable belongings.

The ruins of a building, labeled as Building G, tell a harrowing tale of disaster. The destruction, dating back to the late 3rd century BCE, coincides with the period of the Second Punic War when Hannibal’s Carthaginian forces traversed the Pyrenees to engage the Romans.

Dr. Oriol Olesti Vila of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, who authored the primary study in Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology, posits that this violent event is likely linked to that historical conflict.

Location of the Tossal de Baltarga
Location of the Tossal de Baltarga. Credit: O. Olesti et al. / Frontiers

The widespread destruction across the site points to a deliberate and highly effective act of arson, Olesti Vila explains. The site’s comprehensive incineration hints at a significant episode of warfare, with evidence of a dog burned within Building D further underscoring the ferocity of the blaze.

Tossal de Baltarga, a settlement of the Cerretani community, lacked defensive walls but boasted a strategic vantage point over the river and major trade routes. The abrupt conflagration preserved a wealth of organic material, allowing archaeologists to reconstruct the lifestyle of its former inhabitants.

These valleys were of great economic and strategic importance, says Olesti Vila. He notes that Hannibal’s crossing through the Pyrenees involved skirmishes with local tribes, probably the Cerretani. Few archaeological remnants of this expedition remain, making Tossal de Baltarga a crucial site for understanding the period.

The gold earring found by scientists, photographed on a dark background, in front of the jar in which it was found
The gold earring found by scientists, photographed on a dark background, in front of the jar in which it was found. Credit: Marco Ansaloni

Building G, a two-story structure, suffered complete collapse as the fire consumed its wooden roof, support beams, and upper floor. Among the ruins, archaeologists discovered an iron pick and a gold earring hidden in a small pot.

The upper floor seemed to have been divided into spaces for cooking and textile production, evidenced by numerous spindles and loom weights, suggesting the spinning and weaving of wool from sheep and goats kept on the ground floor. Additionally, they found consumable grains like oats and barley, and cooking vessels bearing residues of milk and pork stew.

Although no human remains were found in Building G, six animals—four sheep, a goat, and a horse—did not escape. The horse, possibly ridden by the building’s owners, was quite old and had a metal bit in its mouth. The animals were likely trapped in their wooden enclosures by a closed door, as indicated by charred wood at the entrance.

The G building as it was before the fire, interpretation by Francesc Riart
The G building as it was before the fire, interpretation by Francesc Riart. Credit: Francesc Riart

This confinement, unusual for the community, suggests heightened fear of conflict. Isotope analysis revealed that some sheep had grazed in lowland pastures, possibly through arrangements with neighboring communities.

These mountain communities were not isolated but connected with surrounding areas, exchanging goods and cultural practices, Olesti Vila elaborates. The settlement’s complex economy reflects an Iron Age society well-adapted to its environment, exploiting highland resources while maintaining external connections.

The sudden nature of the destruction, with no time to release the animals, implies an unexpected attack. The hidden gold earring further suggests the inhabitants anticipated a threat, possibly Hannibal’s advancing forces. This, coupled with the unusual number of animals confined in a small stable, reinforces the notion of an imminent danger.

The fate of Tossal de Baltarga’s residents remains uncertain, but the site was later reoccupied and fortified by the Romans. This reoccupation included building substantial defenses, such as an impressive watchtower, possibly in response to the remembered devastation.


Sources

Frontiers | Oriol Olesti, Jordi Morera, et al., The exploitation of mountain natural resources during the Iron Age in the Eastern Pyrenees: the case study of production unit G at Tossal de Baltarga (Bellver de Cerdanya, Lleida, Spain). Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology (2024). DOI: 10.3389/fearc.2024.1347394


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