The mystery of the Phoenician goddess in a medieval Spanish castle

The hill which now hosts the fortress of Guardamar del Segura was previously the site of a sanctuary consecrated to a divine power that protected sailors

Vicente G. Olaya
Madrid -
View of the fortress of Guardamar del Segura showing where the sanctuary of Astarte was located.
View of the fortress of Guardamar del Segura showing where the sanctuary of Astarte was located.

Experts have spent nearly 40 years putting together the puzzle made up of different archaeological finds discovered under the hill which in the present day is occupied by the late medieval castle of Guardamar, in the low valley of the Segura River in Alicante province, in Spain’s Mediterranean coast. 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 times of the Phoenicians (the eighth to the sixth century BC) and Iberians (the sixth century BC to the first century AD). The experts had no doubt that both peoples had settled on the most prominent mound of this coast in antiquity, but they didn’t understand the function of such varied artifacts. Now, the archaeologists Antonio García Menárguez and Fernando Prados Martínez have provided a response in their study A Phoenician Sanctuary in Guardamar Castle, which they have determined was a temple dedicated to the goddess Astarté, the goddess of war, sexuality, life and the seas... “This was the sanctuary’s raison d’etre, night and day a pyre burned to guide the sailors,” they maintain.

In 1986, a team led by Lorenzo Abad, from the University of Alicante, found Iberian-origin terracotta cauldrons in the shape of a female head on the site. They appeared to indicate a sanctuary. Between 1993 and 1995, other archaeological teams began to collect data on the ramparts of the medieval fortress of Guardamar because the local government wanted to restore them after their destruction in the earthquake of 1829. That’s how the experts once more came across material evidence not just of the Iberian occupation but of the older occupation during the ancient Iron Age (the eighth century BC), which was when the first Phoenicians disembarked on the Peninsula. Finally, in 2019, during some new archaeological excavations, the company Alebus confirmed the occupation of the hillside during the ancient Iron Age and found more orientalized ceramic materials and fragments of amphoras.

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 is located has an elevation of 210 feet and good natural defenses on all sides except the north, where the slope descends smoothly towards the Segura River. This topographical configuration guaranteed its defense and converted it into a place with 360 degree visibility of all that lay before it: the low 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 raise “a sanctuary that would give protection to sailors or give homage to deities that would be helpful to their colonial enterprise. As such, the role that it has historically played for navigation is evident because it is located at the river’s mouth as a promontory sticking out from the coast. The safety of the ships was secured, as was access to drinking water, due to its good conditions as a port,” the archaeologists’ report reminds us.

But to which god or goddess should they dedicate the sacred construction? The response has now arrived through analysis of the exhumed archaeological materials. Among them are a batch of artifacts related with textile crafts, such as a spindle whorl, an embroidery hoop and various loom weights. The researchers believe that “textile production was a female industry that was linked to the cult of the goddess Astarté.” What’s more, in 1999 two Phoenician bronze arrowheads were unearthed in the sides of the castle. The first, which is double-edged, was used as a tool for hunting and fighting. But the second arrow belonged to a bronze arrowhead in the shape of a lance. “Because of its typology it seems to be an sample from the Syrian-Palestinian coast from some time between the ninth and eighth centuries BC,” write García Menárguez and Prados Martínez. “In the east, these arrows and other arms were part of the votive offerings made in sanctuaries. It probably had to do with religious offerings given before the goddess [of Astarté] to get her protection or, who knows, perhaps to give thanks for having arrived to a good 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 confirmed the suspicions. The first is a figure with its arms crossed over its chest, with almond eyes, forehead wrinkles and ear shape that suggest images of the Phoenician goddess. It’s dated between the seventh and sixth centuries BC. The head, on the other hand, has a long neck topped by an Egyptian headdress and a hairstyle that also corresponds to the image of the goddess. “These pieces, interpreted as stoppers for sacred vessels in one case, were used in the eastern sanctuaries as votive offerings between the ninth and eight centuries BC. The long neck, which serves as a stem, was stuck in the altars or put above small holes made in them for that 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 Astarté temple in Alicante didn’t change its affiliation with the passage of the centuries, “despite the fact that because of the heterogenous origins of the sailors that would have passed through here one might suppose the existence of hybridizations or some other kind of modification. The sacred value of the place must have stayed unchangeable during centuries,” although 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.”

Astarté, the goddess of the sea, was “Venus, the star that guides in the night because it’s the first that appears in the sky at sunset: goddess of the skies, of war, of sailing and fundamentally, of fertility and carnal love, but also of the magical and sacred use of water.” And they conclude: “In the area near the deposit we haven’t found grand urban structures dating before the third century BC, precisely because the center was the selfsame sanctuary, which functioned as the main space for cohesion in the region,” and everything was presided over by the goddess who protected the sailors, who all those carried with them as long as the pyre burned.

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