Interview with Felipe Arias Vilas, archaeologist

Interview with Felipe Arias Vilas, archaeologist

Interview made on November, 24, 2011 by
Ana Anllo, José Antonio Armesto, Antonio Bernárdez, María X. Rodríguez.

Felipe Arias Vilas, archaeologist

Felipe Arias Vilas (Lugo, 1949) got a degree in Philosophy and Letters (section of Geography and History) by the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela and got the Extraordinary Prize of Bachelor's degree with a thesis about the Roman wall of Lugo in 1972. Civil servant of the "Corpo Facultativo de Conservadores de Museos" from 1974, he is the director of the Museum of the Castro of Viladonga from 1983. He coordinated the archaeologic works of excavation and consolidation of this monument from 1982. He was the General Director of Cultural Heritage in the Xunta de Galicia. He is the author (by himself or in collaboration) of more than a hundred and seventy publications about archaeology, Roman epigraphy and numismatics, museums, heritage, etc.




Is the “Castro culture“ an autochthonous culture or is it some kind of variation of a vaster indoeuropean or Celtic culture?

The Castro culture shows some peculiarities in itself and as though there are some castros in Castile we can´t include them into the castro culture. One of its peculiarities and richness of the Castro culture is that it´s something typical of Galicia.

First there was a very strong native basis with an indigenous substratum, which was previously called pre-Celtic, ”the aeternum neolitic Galician farmer" in Professor Alonso del Real´s words. Second there is an Athlantic component, which is held in common with the European Athlantic frontage (British Islands, West of France, Britany...). Besides there is a Mediterranean component that was not taken into account before but which nowadays is considered very important: Punics (not so much Carthaginians or Phoenicians), Tartesus..... from which we can find clear influences in the Castro jewellery. We also know that there was a Punic enclave in the estuary of Vigo.

This component is not as strong as the Athlantic or Indoeuropean but there exists. Finally there is a very important Centro European aproach, which was traditionally associated with the so called Celtics invasions in the Iron Age (which have never existed as real invasions). There is a Celtic influence all over Europe in such aspects as religion, language or material culture, even though it´s difficult to find all the aspects together in the same area and it´s what happens here, that there are Celtic elements mixed with other elements. Some elements like some divinities or some languages with a Celtic base are spread all over Europe.

The mixing of those four elements makes the Castro culture something peculiar, different from the Celtiberian world, which has also some Celtiberian features, so we can talk about the singularity of the Galician castros. There they are as geographical elements with their strong presence in the landscape and with their own configuration in the locations, their different types and models deppending on their orography, and their closeness (with some empty zones as in the eastern mountains where we can only find some mining castros from the Roman period). Paralelism with the Celtic or Celtiberic world have been searched, which is maybe a possibility, but there is also a tendecy to establish a parallelism with the Medieval Ireland (connecting aspects of the Arthuric cicle) but in that case we are playing with spatial-temporal factors which can be inadequate. We must take into account that there are many elements of the Celtic culture commons to half Europe, and in that way it raises the debates among archaeologists of the idea of a “koine” or a Celtic lingua franca with many variations.


Did it exist a political unity? Were they different nations or were the same? What kind of political structure did they have ?

It´s certain that there wasn´t a political unity as we understand it nowadays. Many aspects of the Castro world are known thanks to the Roman inscriptions which mention toponyms, anthroponyms and they did identify the North-West as a particular zone which they called “Gallaecia”. The Galician people were a mixture of several nations relativily homogeneous or with many similarities, which lived between the river Douro and the Asturian- Lucense part of Cantabria. Later the Romans subdivided this territory into “conventus” to show the diversity they found in that part. In Plinio´s texts there appeared many “populi” or “civitates” what means that there was not a political unity. But Rome made an administrative conglomeration which hid a cultural homogeneity with its borders in the river Navia and from the Ancares-Caurel on the west to the river Douro on the south. If we believe Plinio and the Roman sources (taken into account that they were journalists who wrote for the Romans and that some of them as Estrabon used to write about what others told him and not because they had ever been to Gallaecia), we understand there were different nations; Plinio said that some of them were Celtics what it means that some of them were not. The Roman informations are mediatized by their conquer process and for their interest in the appropiation of their resources, mainly the gold.

About their political structure not much is known and nowadays it´s a great subject of debate. We can talk about two streams of arguments. On one hand it´s is said that before the contact with Rome (Decimus Junius Brutus in the 2nd century B.C.) there were a egalitarian society which began to stratified from that very moment. And on the other hand it´s said that from the 6th century B.C. there were leaders or a warriors caste and priests as there were in other civilitations which were different from the rest of the society (craftsmen, jewellers,peasants). Maybe both are right in a way but the contact with Rome is going to bring some significants changes and a social stratification and even specilized castros deppending on the resources of the area. Nevertheless some gold jewells as the “torques”, tiaras or ear-rings appeared before the Romans, they were a symbol of power and that means that there were some kind of social stratification. As the already quoted Alonso del Real said “the invention of the mayors comes from the Neolitic Age”

The communal work was probably as important as there has always been in some rural areas which can perfectly match with the social stratifications. The archaeology shows social differences, with some rich houses and poor ones, pottery and jewells, these differences perhaps were emphasized by the romanization which increases the importance of a ”collaborationist aristrocacy”, as it can be seen in the discoveries of “sigillata” pottery (an imported excellent Roman pottery). Nowadays we know that not all the castros dissapeared after the conquer, some of the biggest ones remained as models of rural habitat. Before the conquest everybody lived in castros, later the habitats changed with the settlement of the cities, encampments, country houses and also castros. Briteiros, Sanfins in Portugal, San Cibrao de Las, Castromao in Ourense, Sta Tegra in Pontevedra, Elviña in Coruña or Viladonga in Lugo were quite important “oppida” or big settlements which were more and more Romanizated in material culture  (coins, pottery, copper) which was not incompatible with the pre-Roman material traditions. What we don´t know is how wide was this mental romanization. For example in areas where the contact was stronger and deeper (as in Rías Baixas) there should be a more natural romanization. But on one hand in some areas (as in the Terra Chá, or the Courel) the romanization could have been a slower process. Roman pottery could be used without changing their culture. The world of beliefs is difficult to measure because sometimes the objects found are identified according to religious or simbolic aspects (as amulets) without knowing exactly their function.


Were the castros fortified for defensive reasons or did they want to show their prestige or for both reasons?

There were several reasons. The defensive reason was one of course but Francisco Calo and others writers ´ studies say that they also had a simbolic function, to indicate and identified a territory and its inhabitants. There also was a sanitary reason against winds, plagues, animals.... Each castro had their own function deppending on its location and on its period. It´s not the same the 4th century B.C. as the 3rd century of our era. There are castros with a single wall and others had three walls with their correspondent moats, those latter can probably be related to periods of fear, or different factors in each particular moment, the population or even the collective intelligence. We mustn´t forget that were are talking about “peasant culture” in the good sense, with a non violent society except for some preciss conflicts related to pillage problems or aggressions among the neighbours. Francisco Calo insists that where we find one weapon, ten tools are found what shows us that the war was not very important in the Castro period.

The reactions against the conquest were different from the point of view of the violence, with some episodes as the Monte Medulio which was probably magnified by the Romans to emphasize the worth of their conquest and with some written or tacit agreements (Castromao, Bembibre). There were some Gallician warriors in the Roman Army but obviosly the ones who resisted were annihilated or enslaved.


Which was the economic-social model in the Castro society (coins, market,exchange) before the Romanization? And afterwards?

We talk about a agriculture and pastoral model, taking into account the metallurgy importance, which in spite of the damage caused from the acidity of the soil, was well known from the bell-beaker culture to the Bronze Age. Pastoral doesn´t exactly mean cattle raising, since even though the small livestock were raised inside or near the castros the big cattle (horses,bovine) grazed freely on the mountains as it´s done in some areas nowadays. There existed the trade in the Northwest from the era of the bell-beaker culture, in the Athlantic and Mediterranean areas, but it was a minority activity till the Romanization, when there is a bigger trading development mainly after the urban development (Lucus Augusti, Iria Flavia, Brigantium...)

We can´t talk about Prerroman coinage (like in the Galias) but we can talk about some kind of exchange (bronze talon axes, for example). The romanization implied a bigger social stratification and a diversification of the resources, with the introduction, for instance, of the fruit trees, a larger intensification and extension of the crops deppending on the areas and a rise of trading exchanges as it´s clear for the fiscal and trading control like in Lugo or Brigantium.

Is there an information about the number of castros which existed in Gallaecia or about the density of the population? How many people could live in a medium size castro?

Castro of Viladonga, Lugo

The last inventories show that there were about 4,500 or 4,600 castros alongside the centuries, probably not all of them were inhabitated at the same time, alternating quite crowded areas (nearly all the coast except for A Capelada) with some unoccupied areas (the eastern mountains). Their occupation varied along the time .

Plinio informed that in the Lugo´s conventus (North Galicia) there lived 155,000 free men (he didn´t include women or children), so we can think of a population of 500,000 more or less but this is mere especulation. There were not necropolis (it´s very probable that they used to cremate the corpses) which could give us any help to quantify the population. We can establish a progressive tendence to concentrate the population alongside a millenium, so only a few important castros remained because of the territorial desire of control of the Roman Empire.

The average size of a castro was about 200 or 300 inhabitants as it can be seen in Viladonga, a castro quite excavated. Some castros, which are only partially excavated, can deceive us about the resident population. We must also take into account the factors which can´t be quantified, like the infantile mortality and the short life expenctancy.


Which is the cronological ambit of the Castro culture? Can we distinguish stages or was a homogenean culture?

It was thought that it began in the 6th century B.C. and finished in the 1st A.D. with the Roman conquest.

Nowadays we think that the beginning could be between the centuries 9th-8th B.C. (the transition from Bronze to Iron Ages) with some small castros like Penarrubia in Orbazay (Lugo). In that way we can distinguish an initial castro culture (9th-8th centuries B.C), a medium size or complete castro culture (6th-2nd centuries B.C.) and a final castro culture. The debate is to know whether they finished with the romanization or they remained in a way.

It´s more accepted to talk about not of a Castro culture but about a rural Galician-Roman culture from the 1st century A.D. There is a decisive evolution and quite defined one between the first initials castros of a small size and the big final ones like Santa Tegra or Viladonga.

Do we know other castros in Lugo apart from the Castro of Piringalla? May the Romans used these places to set up their encampments?.

Traditionally the historiography associated Lugo´s foundation on a preexisting castro but this may not be true. In recent years there appeared remains of circular dwellings in the area of the Rosalia Park and in Recatelo, but we can´t be sure if they were Prerromans. What is clear is that in the surroundings there were many castros and that the foundation of Lucus Augusti could be related with this fact, but not exactly using a previous castro.

Lucus was probably a meeting place with a very strong symbolic or sacred identity devoted to the Celtic divinity Lugh or Lug, therefore a holly wood, which Rome changed into a place of worship to Augustus (Lucus Augusti) which shows a clear political- religious assimilation. There is also a military reason, with the establishing of a legionary corps to demand this worship and to control the territory. The soldiers probably were not Romans or Italians, except for the most important commands, those ones were probably from other zones of the Empire.

It appeared a castro in Piringalla from 1st century B.C. and we don´t really know why it dissappeared. About other castros in the surroundings it's known that they were inhabitated in the Galician-Roman era because of coins, pottery and Roman tiles found there, what is a definite proof.


Which is the cronological ambit of the castro de Viladonga? Can we differenciate periods or was it an homogeneous period?

There is a first level inhabitated in the 1st century B.C. dated with carbon-14 and with remains of pottery and walls placed in the northeast corner and really localized in time (hardly 100 years) and in space. At the ending of the 2nd A.D. and the beginning of 3rd century A.D. the current settlement took place in the same place we can see it today, with a period of building of about 40 years. There are zones with a level work at the entrance and in the rear antecastro with a transient occupational area meanwhile the castro was being built. So the main habitat started at the ending of 2nd century A.D. to the middle of the 5th century A.D. what implies that taking into account that the Swabians were in Galicia since 410 there may be a relationship between the late Castro defences and the arrival of the barbarians. According to Hidacius, the Roman-Galicians sheltered in the best defensible castros, but we must bear in mind that he was an ecclesiastic chronicler connected with the remains of the Roman Empire, and he was afraid of the political consequences of the invasion, and of the possible danger for the Catholic Church, wich was already the official religion since the endings of the 4th century, therefore his reports can´t be taken in its literal meaning.

During these 300 years of occupation in Viladonga there was a continuity of material culture with several reforms but with little evolution. The late cronology created some doubts about the reliability of the excavations but today it´s already checked that this Castro habitat was from the late Roman-Galician period. We can talk of an occupational level with several layers during a period of more than three centuries.

How can we consider the Viladonga castro according to its size, small, medium or big?


It´s a quite big castro. Sometimes there is a problem with the size of the castro because it deppends if we take into account only the central ring or the whole settlement. Viladonga as a whole measures 4 ha. but the central ring is only 1. It´s known that a castro was not only the central ring (coroa), but also terraces, antecastros, secondary zones and roads. For instance Elviña is wider than it seemed at the beginning of the excavations.


What kind of information do we have about the economical- political-social ambit in the Viladonga castro?

It was probably a kind of district head, but we should have to make trial excavations in the castros arround to fix if they dissapeared when Viladonga started. It´s true that there were strong relationship with Lucus as the ceramics, the glass or the bronze ornaments, which were found there, show Lugo could be a more romanized and richer urbanized place meanwhile Viladonga was a kind of a very large village, not so romanized .


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