Recording the equinox at Puente Tablas

Arturo Ruiz and Ana Martinez (CAAI) assist the camera crew for the equinox recording

On Sunday Sept 23, 2012, CAAI (University Institute for Iberian Archaeology, University of Jaén ) recorded the equinox event at an excavated temple in the oppidum of Puente Tablas near Jaén in Andalusia, Spain.

CAAI has excavated this site for many years and in 2011 discovered a temple and stele dedicated to the Iberian goddess of fertility.  To understand the ritual that was possibly taking place on the site, CAAI simulated one of the gates of the city using scaffoding and canvas, and then filmed the autumn equinox. 

Oppidum of Puente Tablas (the temple is situated at the left most side, photo CAAI)

 The Oppidum of Puente Tablas, which is shown photographed from the air (photo CAAI).

 The temple which was discovered in 2011 is situated on the left hand side of the site as viewed in the photo. The temple has been dated to around 4th century BC and is thought to have been dedicated to the Iberian goddess of fertility who was possibly called Betatun.

The stele, which is an antropomorphic stone, carries the engraved image of a woman, who is probably pregnant (photo: J.M. Pedrosa).

Antropomorphic stele depicting the goddess of fertility (photo: J.M. Pedrosa)

To understand the possible ritual that was taking place better, and to link it with the archaeological remains that have been found, CAAI simulated one of the gates of the city by scaffoding and canvas.  In front of the city gate, a square stone protrudes from the ground, containing sacrificed female pigs, providing a clear hint that the temple would have been dedicated to a mother goddess, strongly linked with procreation and fertility.

The simulated city gate (left) and the stele outside the temple (right), note the square stone in front of the gate containing sacrifices linked to fertility
 
The temple (left) and the stele at the simulated city gate (right)
The simulated city gate (left) and the stele outside the temple (right),
 note the square stone in front of the gate containing sacrifices linked to fertility
  The temple (left) and the stele at the simulated city gate (right)

The equinox sequence was filmed from the moment that the sunlight hit the simulated city gate until the moment that the stele was in the shadow of the gate, which took about half an hour.

Dedication sacrifices in front of the city gate, interpreted as fertility symbols (photo: CAAI)
 
The equinox sunlight hits the city gate and the stele
Dedication sacrifices in front of the city gate, interpreted as fertility symbols (photo: CAAI)   The equinox sunlight hits the city gate and the stele

Archaeologists believe that the rituals, performed on the equinox in spring, stressed the appearance of the goddess – as nature starts to flourish again - while the ritual on the equinox in autumn stressed the disappearance of the goddess – with flora and fauna receding.  They also believe that similar rituals were performed all over the Mediterranean area.  In the temple, there is a small chapel in which the archaeologists think that the statue of the goddess was kept in winter.  They suspect that, at the morning of the vernal equinox (March 20), the statue was placed outside in front of the temple and the city gate doors were opened, so that the rays of the rising sun where shining exactly on the statue.  At the morning of the autumnal equinox (September 23), a similar ritual was happening, and the statue was then placed back in the small chapel until the next equinox.

The stele in full sunlight at sunrise on the equinox
 
Stele (foreground left), temple (background left) and chapel (middle)
The stele in full sunlight at sunrise on the equinox   Stele (foreground left), temple (background left) and chapel (middle)

This ritual is probably linked to a very old Mediterranean story where the mother goddess (called Astarte in the Middle-East, Isis in Egypt, Demeter in Greece) mourns the killing of her brother and disappears, causing the autumn and winter to come, while she reappears and rejoices when her brother is reborn, make nature bloom and flourish in spring and summer.  The dark appearance of the stele, quickly getting in the shadow after sunrise, supports this proposed ritual and meaning, creating a strong visual and even magical image.

The mourning goddess at the end of the equinox ritual
 
The goddess at the end of the equinox ritual seen through the city gate
The mourning goddess at the end of the equinox ritual   The goddess at the end of the equinox ritual seen through the city gate

For the first time, these prehistoric rituals, present all over the Mediterranean, can be visualised and beter understood, and give us a glimpse at the religion of the Iberian culture, that had close links with the Phoenician culture.

Photos, video and 3D models of the temple site and the goddess will be available to the 3D-ICONS project.  It is also possible that a virtual reconstruction will be made, to better visualise this interpretation of the site.

(photos in the text by Daniel Pletinckx, Visual Dimension , except if indicated otherwise)