Hidden gold earring reveals forgotten episode of Carthage-Rome war

The gold earring found at Tossal de Baltarga. (Image by Marco Ansaloni, Frontiers | Autonomous University of Barcelona).

A gold earring found in a stash at the Iron Age site of Tossal de Baltarga in Spain has revealed what could potentially be a forgotten episode of the war between Carthage and Rome.

The jewelry piece was discovered inside a ruined building in the middle of the Pyrenees. The building is believed to have been part of a devastating fire that burned the settlement to the ground.

“The destruction was dated around the end of the third century BCE, the moment where the Pyrenees were involved in the Second Punic War and the passage of Hannibal’s troops,” said Oriol Olesti Vila, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and lead author of an article in Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology that presents the findings.

“It is likely that the violent destruction of the site was connected to this war. The general fire points to anthropic destruction, intentional and very effective—not only Building G (where the earring was found), but all the buildings at the site were destroyed. In Building D we found a complete dog, burned….”

No defences

Tossal de Baltarga was a hillfort of the Cerretani community, which had a major settlement at the nearby Castellot de Bolvir. It seems to have lacked defensive walls but commanded an excellent view over the river and critical travel routes. Its sudden destruction preserved organic remains that allowed archaeologists to paint a detailed picture of the life that its occupants lived until it was set alight.

“These valleys were an important territory economically and strategically,” Olesti Vila said. “We know that Hannibal passed the Pyrenees fighting against the local tribes, likely the Cerretani. Not many archaeological remains of this expedition are preserved. Tossal de Baltarga is likely one of the best examples.”

Building G had two floors. The fire burned so fiercely that the roof, support beams and wooden upper floor fell in, but some valuables survived the fall: The archaeologists found an iron pickaxe and the gold earring, concealed in a little pot.

This upper floor seems to have been divided into spaces for cooking and textile production. Numerous spindle whorls and loom weights were found, which could have been used to spin and weave wool from the sheep and goats that lived on the lower floor. Archaeologists also found edible grains like oats, barley, and some cooking vessels, with residues showing that the people who used Building G had been drinking milk and eating pork stews.

A memory of conflict

While no human remains were found in Building G, six animals did not escape. Four sheep, one goat and one horse were penned up in their wooden enclosures with their feed. They could even have been trapped by a closed door, which would explain the burned wood found at the entrance. This penning might have been a departure from usual practices, caused by the fear of conflict: Isotope analysis indicates some sheep had previously grazed in lowland pastures, possibly by arrangement with other communities.

“These mountain communities were not closed in the highlands, but connected with neighbouring areas, exchanging products, and likely, cultural backgrounds,” said Olesti Vila. “The complex economy indicates an Iron Age society adapted to their environment and taking advantage of their resources in the highlands. But it also shows their contact with other communities.”

The researcher noted that his team’s reconstruction points to a sudden destruction, with no time to open the door of the stall and save the animals.

“This could be just an unexpected local fire. But the presence of a hidden gold earring indicates the anticipation by the local people of some kind of threat, likely the arrival of an enemy,” Olesti Vila said. “Also, the keeping of such a high number of animals in a little stall suggests the anticipation of danger.”

Archaeologists don’t know what became of the people who were living at Tossal de Baltarga, but it was eventually reoccupied, and garrisoned by the Romans. Some part of the community likely survived the conflagration. Perhaps remembering the burning of Building G and its neighbours, these later occupants of Tossal de Baltarga constructed defences—including an impressive watchtower.