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Roman seal ring with Achilles killing Penthesilea found in the Catalan Pyrenees

In the middle of the 1st century BC, the Roman military garrison stationed at Tossal de Baltarga, a site located in the municipality of Bellver de Cerdanya (Lleida), in the eastern part of the Pyrenees, left the site in haste. The soldiers, because of the rapid evacuation, related to some episode of the civil war between Julius Caesar and the sons of Pompey (49-45 BC) or the campaigns against the Iberian people of the Ceretans, whose last rebellion dates back to 39 BC, left behind many of their belongings, such as Graeco-Italic amphorae, an extensive collection of coins and, most significantly, three valuable rings. 

Roman seal ring with Achilles killing Penthesilea found in the Catalan Pyrenees
Side view of iron ring [Credit: Ramon Maroto]

These rich objects, found by researchers from the Autonomous University of Barcelona who have been studying the remarkable site for the past decade, were an administrative and logistical device and a form of identification for Roman officers and commanders in the Republican period. Of the three rings discovered at Baltarga, one forged in iron that preserves an intact semi-precious stone depicting a scene from the Trojan cycle stands out: Achilles fighting the Amazon queen Penthesilea whom, according to Greek mythology, the hero killed during the battle.

The jewel, a signaculum, probably belonged to a Roman general, perhaps a tribune who dropped it during some military event that led to the abandonment of the settlement. This is the main hypothesis put forward by researchers, according to an article recently published in the European Journal of Archaeology. The study, authored by Joan Oller Guzmán, Oriol Olesti Vila and Jordi Morera Camprubí, professors at the Department of Ancient and Middle Ages Sciences at the UAB, and Gertrud Platz-Horster, from the Archaeological Institute of Germany, analyses the findings of the three rings and their significance, which sheds light on the understanding of Rome's presence in the Pyrenees.

Although excavations at the site have so far yielded no evidence of violent destruction, archaeologists suggest that the loss of the rings - the other two, one bronze and the other iron, equally valuable, with gold leaf - may have occurred during a "dramatic event". And they support this theory with other examples, such as the battle of Baecula (Santo Tomé, Jaén) in AD 208.

"The known predilection for Trojan War themes on engraved gemstones around the middle of the 1st century BC and the possible identification of Roman generals, such as Pompey or Octavian [the future Augustus], is significant," the researchers write. "Even if we cannot be sure of the relationship between the Baltarga ring and a military officer linked to generals such as Pompey or Octavian, it is tempting to place the loss of the ring in the second half of the 1st century BC, when several war events related to armies led directly by Pompey and Octavian struck this Pyrenean region."

Roman seal ring with Achilles killing Penthesilea found in the Catalan Pyrenees
Intaglio gemstone of Achilles supporting Penthesilea
from iron seal ring [Credit: Ramon Maroto]

At Tossal de Baltarga, a small settlement located in a strategic area for the control of communications in the Cerdanya region, three phases of occupation have been documented. The earliest took place between the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age. The Iberian period (4th-3rd centuries BC), in which Baltarga depended on the oppidum of El Castellot de Bolvir, ended with the complete destruction and burning of the site around 200 BC, an event probably related to the Second Punic War and the hostilities between Rome and Carthage in the area. Hannibal may have even passed through here with his elephants in 218 BC on his way to the Alps.

Sometime in the second half of the 2nd century BC, during the Republican era, the settlement was fortified and largely rebuilt. The archaeologists have identified some seven structures, ranging from domestic and production buildings to a watchtower, a turris, which leads them to conclude that Baltarga maintained its primary function of controlling the territory and the important trans-Pyrenean road during this period.

"This garrison, or praesidium, would have been especially important during periods of conflict in the eastern Pyrenees, such as the conquest of southeastern Gaul, the Sertorius War or the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey. The garrison would have had commanders whose presence - and perhaps that of their relatives - may explain the materials found, such as the rings", the researchers point out, ruling out that there is no evidence to link these luxury pieces with imports by any member of the local elite. They have also found other elements that confirm the military presence, such as the nails from a caliga - a soldiers' sandals - and lead slingshot projectiles.

The Tossal de Baltarga is one of several sites in present-day Catalonia that confirm a Roman presence at an altitude of between 1,200 and 2,100 metres. Curiously, it is not the only one where rings of this kind have been found. In the castro of Serrat del Castellar, a small oppidum that was later converted into a fort, excavations have uncovered three more items, while another has been documented in El Castellot de Bolvir, although it is less well preserved. These forts would lose their importance during the Imperial period in favour of the municipium of Iulia Libica.

Roman seal ring with Achilles killing Penthesilea found in the Catalan Pyrenees
View of Building F from the east. The walls on the left and right of the image belong
to the Republican structure. The ring was found on the left wall
[Credit: Ramon Maroto]

The network of garrisons in the area of the eastern Pyrenees demonstrates their important role in controlling the conquered area and facilitating the exploitation of the human and natural resources of the area. "The army and its logistical infrastructure were the arteries through which provincial products circulated, guaranteeing both their own supply and the export of booty and wealth to Italy. The seal rings provide a good indication of the presence of the military and its activities of recording and control," the researchers conclude.

Author: David Barreira | Source: El Espanol [trsl. TANN; June 20, 2021]

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1 comment :

  1. \The battle of Baecula (Santo Tomé, Jaén was in 208 BCE.


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