Guardamar del Segura: The Mystery of the Phoenician Goddess in a Spanish Medieval Castle | Culture

View of the fortress of Guardamar del Segura showing where the Sanctuary of Astarte was located.

Experts have spent almost 40 years putting together the puzzle made up of different archaeological finds discovered under the hill which is now occupied by the late medieval castle of Guardamar, in the lower valley of the Segura river in Alicante. Among the finds are bronze arrowheads, cauldrons, loom weights, votive objects, terracotta goddess figures and even a small ceramic iron with two lions attacking a deer, all of which date back to the time of the Phoenicians (from the 8th to the 6th century BC) and the Iberians (from the 6th century BC to the 1st century AD). Experts had no doubt that the two peoples had settled on the most important mound on this coast in ancient times, but they did not understand the function of such varied artifacts. Now archaeologists Antonio García Menárguez and Fernando Prados Martínez have provided an answer in their study A Phoenician sanctuary at the castle of Guardamar, which they determined to be a temple dedicated to the goddess Astarté, the goddess of war, sexuality, of life and of the seas. .. “It was the raison d’être of the sanctuary, day and night a pyre burned to guide the sailors”, they assert.

In 1986, a team led by Lorenzo Abad, from the University of Alicante, found terracotta cauldrons of Iberian origin in the shape of a woman’s head at the site. They seemed to indicate a sanctuary. Between 1993 and 1995, other archaeological teams started collecting data on the medieval fortress walls of Guardamar because the local government wanted to restore them after they had been destroyed in the 1829 earthquake. that experts have once again discovered material evidence not only of the Iberian occupation but of the older occupation of the Old Iron Age (8th century BC), which corresponds to the landing of the first Phoenicians on the peninsula. Finally, in 2019, during new archaeological excavations, the Alebus company confirmed the occupation of the hillside in the ancient Iron Age and found more orientalized ceramic materials and fragments of amphorae.

Head with Egyptian headdress found in the excavations of the fortress of Guardamar del Segura
Head with Egyptian headdress found in the excavations of the fortress of Guardamar del Segura

The hill on which the castle sits has an elevation of 210 feet and good natural defenses on all sides except the north, where the slope slopes gently towards the Segura River. This topographic configuration guaranteed its defense and made it a place with 360 degree visibility of everything in front of it: the lower valley, the bay, the capes of Santa Pola and Cervera and the island of Tabarca . These conditions were not ignored by the Phoenicians, who chose the hill as a place to erect “a sanctuary which would protect sailors or pay homage to deities who would be useful to their colonial enterprise.” As such, the role it has historically played for navigation is evident as it is located at the mouth of the river like a promontory protruding from the coast. The safety of the ships was ensured, as was that of the aguada, thanks to its good harbor conditions”, recalls the report of the archaeologists.

But to which god or goddess should we dedicate the sacred construction? The answer has now arrived thanks to the analysis of the unearthed archaeological materials. Among them are a lot of artifacts related to textile craftsmanship, such as a spindle whorl, an embroidery hoop and various loom weights. Scholars believe that “textile production was a female industry linked to the worship of the goddess Astarte”. In addition, in 1999, two bronze Phoenician arrowheads were unearthed in the sides of the castle. The first, double-edged, was used as a hunting and combat tool. But the second arrow belonged to a spear-shaped bronze arrowhead. “Due to its typology, it appears to be a sample of the Syrian-Palestinian coast dating from a certain period between the 9th and 8th centuries BC. J.-C. », write García Menárguez and Prados Martínez. “In the East, these arrows and other weapons were part of the ex-voto made in the sanctuaries. It probably had to do with religious offerings given before the goddess [of Astarté] to seek his protection or, who knows, perhaps to thank for having arrived at a safe port after a long and dangerous journey.

The discovery of a terracotta fragment that belonged to a veiled female figure with a typical Hathoric hairstyle (corresponding to Egyptian goddesses) and a terracotta head with an Egyptian headdress confirms the suspicions. The first is a character with arms crossed on the chest, almond-shaped eyes, forehead wrinkles and ears that refer directly to images of the Phoenician goddess. It is dated between the 7th and 6th centuries BC. The head, on the other hand, has a long neck dressed in an Egyptian headdress and a hairstyle that also corresponds to the image of the goddess. “These pieces, interpreted as stoppers of sacred vessels in one case, were used in Eastern shrines as votive offerings between the 9th and 8th centuries BC made in them for this purpose.

Iberian censers found in the fortress of Guardamar del Segura.
Iberian censers found in the fortress of Guardamar del Segura.

The authors maintain that the Temple of Astarte in Alicante has not changed its affiliation over the centuries, “despite the fact that due to the heterogeneous origins of the sailors who would have passed through here one could suppose the existence of hybridizations or some other type of modification. The sacred value of the place must have remained unchanged for centuries”, even if the Phoenician goddess ended up becoming the “goddess of the Iberians, the Tanit of the Carthaginians and a winged goddess from the beginning of the Roman Empire”.

Astarte, the goddess of the sea, was “Venus, the guiding star in the night because it is the first to appear in the sky at sunset: goddess of the skies, of war, of navigation and fundamentally, of fertility and carnal love, but also of the magical and sacred use of water. And they conclude: “In the environment close to the site, we did not find large urban structures dating from before the third century BC, precisely because the center was the same sanctuary, which functioned as the main space of cohesion in the region”, and everything was presided over by the goddess who protected the sailors, whom all carried with them as long as the stake burned.

Edward K. Thompson