Daily life in Galician castro culture

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DAILY LIFE IN THE GALICIAN CASTRO CULTURE i

María X. Rodríguez Valcárcel

Getting to know how our ancestors lived is always interesting. In the Galician castro culture, as in every culture where either the sources of information are not written or they are written but have an alien origin, the problem is that the information is often scarce and must be contrasted because the results are now, for different reasons, not very reliable. To reconstruct the elements that characterize the lifestyle of this people that preceded and even coexisted with the Romans, we can use the information provided by the archaeology, the information (sometimes not very clear and reliable) supplied by the classical historians and we can even compare them with other cultures of the same period. The information is often scarce and we think we will get to know more as the archaeological works go on. Now we are going to offer a short description of some aspects of the way of living of the Gallaeci.

The “castros”

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The castro culture is one of the Indo-European cultures existing in Western Europe in the Iron Age and presents some elements from Celtic origin. It is not uniform either in space or in time, but it has some basic aspects that last persist throughout the centuries. Its typical villages, the “castros”, appear in the 8th to the 7th centuries b. C. and they last until the 1st or even the 5th century a.D.

They were small fortified villages inhabited by peasants that grew cereals, collected wild fruits (basically acorn from oak), raised cattle and practised the metallurgy of bronze and iron. In the coastal areas they also caught fish and seafood.

In Galicia most of the “castros” were medium or small size; the small ones appear in all the stages of this culture, whereas the big ones only belong to the final moment. In the first stage (until the 5th-4th centuries b.C.) they were located basically on high, easy-to-defend places. In the second stage (until the end of the 2nd century b. C.) they were situated in places where both strategic position and access to resources were important; at this time the “hillside hillfort “ appeared. The last stage (until the end of the 2nd century a.D.), after the Roman conquest, was that of big villagesii .

In Galicia in general and in the province of Lugo in particular we can distinguish three kinds of settlementiii :

  • “Seaside castros” like the one in Fazouro on the coast of Lugo and Baroña on the coast of A Coruña. They usually present a simple sketch, with varied plan, adapted to the land and the natural defences of the seaside were complemented with moats in the inside.

 

  •  “Plain and valley inland castros” (for instance Castromao in Ourense and Viladonga in Lugo) located on more or less high places but never on the top. They have a circular or oval plan and one or more walled circuits.
  • “Castros placed in the East mountain ranges”, situated in high mountainous areas (Castro de Vilar and de Torre at Courel, castro de Formigueiros in Samos, the three of them at Lugo's province) located generally on the slopes. They had oval or irregular plan , artificial moats in the upper part and walls and embankment to the valley. They developed especially in the Galician-Roman period linked to mining exploitations.
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The castro people used to place their villages in places that combined defensive position and proximity to arable lands, except some castros situated in inhospitable places like Baroña or Porto do Son. In approximately one kilometre around the hillfort there were the arable lands and all the resources like water, firewood, pastures and so on. Rodríguez Colmenero portrays in the following words the habitat of this peopleiv:

“When trying to describe their type of habitat, it could be said that typical castro is a settlement located on raised grounds, upon a hill, on the slope of a mountain or a sloping bank of a river. When selecting their location, the determining factors were both the availability of a drinking water supply for population and livestock, and the optimisation of their defensive attributes since they were a war-like societyv, always aware of possible invasions, foreign migrations or territorial disputes amongst tribes, and therefore they would look for the most appropriate locations which could be defended with walls, moats and stockades”.

Rodríguez Colmenerovi affirms that in the Prerroman stage of what would later become Gallaecia, no sign of political unity could be found. On the contrary, there was “a mosaic of tribal units of limited geographical scope” that Rome would adopt after the conquest to organise its own domains. Pliny wrote there were 40 units, called civitates, within the Conventus Bracarensis (24) and populi within the Conventus Lucensis (16). The settlements included in each of these units were different in size and category and they were subordinated to each other. Epigraphic sources and a document written on bronze that has recently been found in the Bierzo area let us know that “the civitas or populus were organised in inferior territorial units, all of them with the same category, called castella (castros), each of them covered a territory named after a main settlement to which the other smaller castros were subordinated”. The main castellum was the place of residence of the local authorities, who were sometimes presided by indigenous aristocrats called principes. Even amongst the main castros there was a dominant one where the executive power had its seat and the general assemblies took place, which was the territorial administrative centre and so on. It was also the place where the representatives of all castella in the civitas would meet periodically in order to discuss government matters, or where the citizens with the right to vote would go in order to participate in the general assemblies of the tribe.

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Regarding the number of inhabitants in the period in the area of what is Galicia today, we only have hypothetical data. Pliny comments that around the 1st century b.C. it could be more or less two hundred ten thousand people, which would give an average of seven inhabitants by square kilometre, but this population would be distributed irregularly along the territory. There was a remarkable increase of population throughout the long history of this culture, from the beginning with few small-size castros until the last stage with many medium-size or even big castros. The life expectancy would be thirty-two years. We can think that, like other ancient populations, these people would have a high infant mortality rate and an acceptable birth rate that made the demographic growth possible.

Regarding the system of inheritance of property, Strabo commented that it was women who received the dowry, who inherited, and afterwards they had the responsibility to fix their brothers’ matrimonial arrangements. We can assume from this that the real property (the property or usufruct of the family lands) was transfered by the mother’s lineage and it was women that were in charge of cultivating the land. Men would get the livestock, the booty conquered in the war expeditions and the gold or silver articles like “torques”. This system of inheritance and property implies that men would go to live to their wives’ homes.

Language and religion

With regards to the language they spoke, we have few data, because we can only count on the epigraphic sources and the toponymy. Armada Pitavii says that the analysis of some Gallaecian-Lusitan inscriptions written in indigenous language but using the Latin alphabet, together with the information given by the epigraphy, toponymy and classical sources, gave rise to two currents of opinion about the origin of the language. Some authors think the Lusitanian was a Indo-european language, but the archaic elements it presents make it different from the Celtic languages. So it should be considered Proto-Celt, and therefore previous to the division of the primitive Indo-european branch into the different linguistic groups. On the contrary, some authors think that the presence of archaic elements is not a solid and conclusive criterion to deny that the Lusitanian language belonged to the Celtic group of languages.

Armada Pita gives also information about the controversy on whether Gallaeci and Lusitanians spoke one or several languages. Although he recognizes there must have been variants inside the territory, he affirms that it existed a relative linguistic unit.

Concerning religion, we have the same or even more difficulties that in other fields to characterize this culture because all the data are the result of the contact with the Roman religion, in fact we don’t have any “castrexo” document about religion. We can say that they practised the polytheism, because we know many names of gods worshipped by this people, but the frequency with which they are mentioned lets us think that some of them would be more important than others, which also leads us to believe that there should exist a defined and perfectly structured pantheon. The most important god should have been Lug, identified with Mercury by the Romans and associated to the wild boar or the bear. Another one is Bandua, that would occupy the inferior place, and which the Romans associated with Mars. Penha Granhaviii affirms that “The Gallaecian god of war dies fighting defending the comrades, but later he rises from the dead to lead the fallen to paradise”.

We also have a great amount of inscriptions dedicated to Jupiter, which leads us to think that behind the Roman god hides an indigenous one. Another is Coso, identified with the Roman god Mars in some epigraphs. We also have many gods in relation with the waters and others like Durbedicus, Edovius, Veroca, some of whom surely protected the harvests and the livestock and helped fertility. There were also the gods of the ways, the Lares Viales, almost surely represented by some statues of heads with two or four faces. The importance of the rites with sacrifices makes us think that there probably were priests of druidical type.

 Economic activity

Classical authors, when talking about the culture of this people, play down their dedication to agriculture and emphasize their habit of picking acorns. Archaeological studies proved this idea wrong; it had obviously been upheld to portray them as barbarian. They actually had an agricultural activity we cannot call archaic, based on winter and spring cereals together with pulses and cabbages. They cultivated mostly wheat and barley, together with oats in scarce proportions and corn. In the group of pulses we can mention peas and beans. They would also cultivate linen and wool of sheep, which were the base of a domestic textile industry well documented in all the “castros” through spinning tools. Antonio Colmeneroix maintains that “the agricultural production was organised in the nearby plains, leaving the fertile marshland and the closer mountains for shepherding and large and small wild game hunting. Also from the most immediate surroundings of the castro would be obtained the basic materials for the handicrafts industry and the combustion; this being wood, iron, various minerals and coal for cooking and heating up the homes”.

Regarding the cattle farming, we can say that it was used mostly to produce milk, to pull the ploughs and, at the end of their life, as stock of meat and leather. They would not eat horse meat because this animal, used probably in the war and in sacrifices, was also a symbol of wealth and power.

The exploitation of the sea began in the initial phase of this culture. They used to gather seafood from the rocks and sandy bottoms near their villages. The list of seafood picked is long and it depends on the area where the castro was situated: mussels, limpets, snails, cockles, oysters, clams, razorshells and so on. Regarding the fishing, there were found in the castros remains of pounting, hake, scad, white seabream, red bream and so on. They used hooks and nets to fish.

This people had a variety of food resources. The most important ingredients in the cooking of this culture were:

  • Vegetables:
    acorns, wheat, barley, corn, oats, beans, peas, cabbage and wild fruit.
  • Animals:
    In the goup of fishes we can mention pountings, hakes, scads, white seabreams, red breams and sea bass; in the group of seafood they ate oysters, clams, cockles, mussels, limpets, goose barnacles, sea urchins and spider crabs; in the goup of meats they usually ate goat, sheep, bovine meat and pork; less frequently they took badger, wild boar and deer.
  • Drinks:
    water, zythos (a kind of beer) and wine (imported, scarce and appreciated).

All these elements let us affirm they had a complete and balanced diet. Archaeology did not detect changes in the feeding of this people from the most ancient phases till the beginning of the contact with Rome.

It seems that these communities were self-sufficient to cover most of their basic needs and they had even capacity to produce surpluses. On the other hand, they could not satisfy directly the supply of mineral or metallic objects to make weapons or jewels. They also needed some other goods like wine, balls of glass or different kinds of ceramics. To cover these needs they developed the exchange not only between the different communities in Galicia but also with foreign places to obtain products that were produced in other areas of the Peninsula or in the Western Mediterranean.

Warfare

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Regarding the war activity of these people we have some information, but also numerous gaps. The first thing that should be said is that we do not know whether all men were assigned to the military activity or not. It is almost sure there were structured associations of warriors similar to the ones that existed in other Indo-European societies. It is also supposed that to get the status of warrior there was an initiation ceremony but we do not know the content of the rite.

If we take into account that the men had to keep and increase the inherited cattle to preserve their prestige in society, one of the possible ways to do this should have been the military practice. Some historians state there should be a hierarchy in the group of warriors: there would be an elite, made up of those who had a heavier and more sophisticated weaponry and fought on horseback and in a lower position we would find people armed in a lighter manner who probably fought on foot. This practice fitted in with what was usual in other Indo-European societies.

As to the practice of war, ancient sources constantly mention ambushes, explorations, fast manoeuvres, that is, the opposite to what the “civilized” peoples of the Antiquity did. According to these sources, the warriors had long hair, which they tied up for the fight, they sang hymns while they waited for death and the prisoners committed suicide. They also mention the participation of women in the war. In this case it is difficult to know what reality was like, but it seems clear that they preferred death to defeat, that slavery and servitude were inconceivable to them and that, if they took prisoners, they would kill them or send them back to their communities in exchange for a ransom. The participation of women in the war would only happen in extreme situations.

Pena Granha mentions the existence of permanent armies of unmarried boys, aged from fourteen to twenty years, organized in groups under the control of noble young men. One part of the year, in the summer, they worked as a border police and in the winter they would act as outlaws “getting through the enemy line, taking revenge for their dead colleagues, committing burglaries, getting a dowry for their wedding”. This can be deduced from Diodoro’s works. These groups would also exist in other Indo-European societies.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHIC REFERENCES

  • ARIAS VILAS, FELIPE (2009). “A cultura castrexa na provincia de Lugo. Aspectos diferenciais” in Actas do curso A prehistoria en Lugo á luz das descubertas recentes. Lugo, 24th e 25th April 2009.
  • ARMADA PITA, X.L. El debate sobre los celtas y la etnicidad del noroeste peninsular. Una revisión crítica y algunas propuestas. http://www.ucm.es/info/arqueoweb/pdf/4-2/armada.pdf
  • Pena Granha, A. (2011) “O Ciclo de Inverno” en Teoria de Inverno. Os presentes do apalpador. Associaçom Cultural A Gentalha do Pichel.
  • RODRÍGUEZ COLMENERO, ANTONIO (2011). Lucus Augusti. The Roman-Germanic city of Iberian Finisterre. Origins and history (14 b.C.-711 A:D:), Concello de Lugo. Servizo Municipal de Arqueoloxía, Lugo.
  • VÁZQUEZ VARELA, J.M. , GARCÍA QUINTELA, M. V. (1998). A vida cotiá na Galicia castrexa.Servicio de Publicacións da Universidade de Santiago de Compostela.

 

FOOTNOTES

  • i We are using basically the book from Vázquez Varela e García Quintela (1998) mentioned in the bibliographic references.
  • ii Arias Vilas, Felipe (2009) page 105.
  • iii Arias Vilas, Felipe (2009) page 108.
  • iv Rodríguez Colmenero, Antonio (2011) page 26.
  • v Other historians say the castro culture was not a warlike one. Felipe Arias Vilas, in an interview included in this same project, declares that “We shouldn’t forget we are talking about “peasant cultures” with a non-violent daily life but with some conflicts related to problems of looting or aggressions between neighbours. Francisco Calo insists that for each weapon found in the castros, we can find ten tools, which implies war was not so important in this period”.
  • vi Rodríguez Colmenero, Antonio (2011) page 25.
  • vii Armada Pita, X. L. El debate sobre los celtas y la etnicidad del noroeste peninsular. Una revisión crítica y algunas propuestas.
  • viii Pena Granha (2011), page 187.
  • ix Rodríguez Colmenero, Antonio (2011) page 27.
  • x Pena Granha, A. (2011) , páxina 185.

 

 


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