Friday, February 25, 2011


Fernando Quesada Sanz, Armas de la antigua Iberia: de Tartesos a Numancia. Madrid: La Esfera de los Libros, 2010. Pp. 298. ISBN 9788497349505. €42.50.

Reviewed by Roger Wright, University of Liverpool (

Version at BMCR home site

There is an attractive tradition in Spain of producing coffee table books written by academic specialists, but the large book under review is exceptional even so. Non-specialists probably have little idea of the surprising amount which is now known about the weapons and armour used by the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula before the Romans arrived; Quesada Sanz's volume, with its abundance of excellent photographs and superb illustrations by Carlos Fernández del Castillo, is the one to turn to. It is hard to review it adequately without reproducing some of those illustrations, for as well as being attractive in themselves they complement and explain the text in an exemplary fashion. The illustrations include drawings and photographs of discovered weaponry, reproductions of what the items would have looked like new, many photographs of contemporary images (usually on pottery) of warriors using the armour, as well as imaginative drawings of human beings wielding the arms in original context, and indeed photographs of the many modern humans who enjoy themselves dressing up in prehistoric military dress and reenacting locally significant historic battles. Archaeologists in the Peninsula have discovered a great deal about the prehistoric groups of the Peninsula in the last thirty years, and the remarkably large bibliography (pages 272-98) includes site reports from many local journals (as well as 47 publications by Quesada himself, plus five in joint authorship).

The first section of the book (pages 21-60), "En el tiempo y en el espacio", sets the historical and geographical scene. The meat of the volume comes in the second part (pages 63-167), which contains thirteen chapters each dedicated to a particular weapon or defensive apparatus; these include swords and daggers of various shapes, spears and lances, slings, shields, helmets and body armour such as greaves. There were at least twenty different separately identifiable groups in the Peninsula before the second Punic War (which was when the Romans arrived in numbers), and the archaeologists have found an equivalent variety of weaponry. At the time of writing, Quesada knew of 6,376 separate discoveries made in the Peninsula (which includes the Balearics for these purposes, the only area where slings, arrows and other projectiles seem to have been widely used); these come from 505 separate sites, including various Celtiberian and Iberian centres but also Tartessian and "vacceo, vetón y lusitano" in particular (p.244; there is relatively little here from the Phoenicians, however). 77% of the items come from graves. The vibrant scholarly and investigative scene which surrounds such excavations shows how progress in study of the prehistoric past is now due, almost by definition, to discoveries and analyses made by archaeologists rather than historians, given that new Latin or other texts, or radical reinterpretations of texts, concerning the period before the Roman arrival are unlikely to appear with any frequency, but new physical material appears every week. Even so, Quesada is aware of any relevant historical references to the armour in, e.g., Livy, Strabo, Diodorus, etc., and also in Greek texts (Xenophon mentions the presence in Greece of mercenaries from the Peninsula in the fourth century B.C., for example). Historians and archaeologists have a habit of not collaborating amicably in the Peninsula, but increasingly it is in the historians' interest to do so.

The third and final section (pages 171-268) "Guerreros, batallas y sociedad" considers in detail, with several examples, the role of warfare in the societies of the Peninsula. This section includes, for example, a detailed account of the siege of Numancia in 130 B.C. (pages 227-38), with photographs of the site in its present state (which is an interesting place to visit, even though the Romans built on top of the ancient town). But the actual weapons steal the show, and make this book an important scholarly production as well as a great pleasure to look at.

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