Dr. José Luis López Castro

By Maarten Schmaal

The Western Phoenicians: The colonization of Land’s End

On December 17th, 2021, José Luis López Castro presented his paper entitled “The Western Phoenicians: the colonization of Land’s End” at the Ancient Colonialism conference. In his paper, Castro made a compelling argument about the nature of Phoenician (sub-)colonization in western Iberia.

During the 12th to 7th centuries BCE, motivated by Iberia’s rich deposits of rare tin (essential in producing bronze), Phoenicians from modern-day Lebanon founded colonies all over the Iberian coast. The most important of these was Gadir, modern day Cadiz (see the map below). The city soon grew into a hub of trade, evidenced by Gadirian amphorae and other artefacts which have been found all over the Mediterranean. With trade came prosperity and wealth, which in turn sparked secondary colonial ventures. Aside from possible voyages of exploration along the Atlantic coast (although the sources for this are of questionable reliability), Gadir founded a swathe of smaller colonies to the north, in what is now Portugal and Galicia. These colonies intensified Phoenician control and influence in Iberia and strengthened the position of Gadir in the area, securing access to yet more natural resources, including more precious tin.

The Estrimnides project aimed to find, create an inventory of, and contextualize material culture from these colonies. Scholars involved in the project found a vast amount of material evidence decisively linking the area to a strong Gadirian influence. This evidence ranged from the aforementioned Gadirian amphorae, to religious evidence in the form of temples, to inscriptions. Remarkably, the patterns of colonization the Estrimnides project found in north-western Iberia, match the colonization patterns of primary Phoenician colonization in the western Mediterranean as a whole. In other words, when Gadir colonized north-western Iberia it employed the same methods and patterns that earlier Phoenicians from Lebanon had used to found earlier colonies like Gadir itself. While this obviously happened on a smaller scale (a region of Iberia with relatively minor colonies, versus the entire Mediterranean and huge cities), it is nonetheless striking that Gadir does not seem to have innovated its own colonization patterns to any large degree. Instead, the city used the patterns it was already familiar with from its own history. 

Castro’s argument is convincing and well-supported by archaeological evidence. While, like with all things Phoenician, there is a severe lack of written sources, such sources are not essential when performing an archaeological analysis. It would have been wonderful if we could have verified the findings of the Estrimnides project with literary sources, but the material evidence is already strong in its own right. It begs the question if this continuity in colonial patterns was a uniquely Gadirian phenomenon, or if other Phoenician colonies did the same when founding their own sub-colonies. The Estrimnides project has shown that this is a question that can be answered. What could we learn by establishing similar projects in other areas, like Morocco, Cyprus, or Libya? Could we even extend Castro’s thesis to non-Phoenician colonies and discover something new about Greek or Roman colonization? The possibilities are endless.

With thanks to dr. José Luis López Castro for delivering a wonderful paper.