Did Hannibal’s Army Burn Down This Ancient Mountain Settlement?

In a scorched village in Spain, archaeologists discovered a hidden gold earring that suggests residents foresaw a coming attack around the time of the Second Punic War

A golden earring sits in front of the brown pot it was discovered within.
This gold earring found at an Iron Age archaeological site had been stashed inside a pottery jar, which sits behind it. Marco Ansaloni

A single gold earring—measuring less than an inch in both width and length—has provided historians with intriguing new insight into an ancient conflict.

Archaeologists excavated the remains of an Iron Age settlement called Tossal de Baltarga, located in the Pyrenees mountains in Spain, that was destroyed by fire around 2,200 years ago. Alongside discoveries of scorched artifacts and organic remains, the team found the earring—which was stealthily hidden inside a small protective jar and stashed within the wall of a wooden house.

Among other clues, the hidden valuable suggests the community’s fiery end was not accidental—and residents knew the destruction was coming, per the authors of a study of the artifacts published last week in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology.

And based on the timing of the blaze, researchers suggest the devastation could have occurred at the hands of Hannibal’s Carthaginian forces as they moved through the region during the Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome.

“The destruction was dated around the end of the third century B.C.E., the moment where the Pyrenees were involved in the Second Punic War and the passage of Hannibal’s troops,” Oriol Olesti Vila, an archaeologist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and lead author of the study, says in a statement. “It is likely that the violent destruction of the site was connected to this war.”

An artist's rendering of "Building G," one of the homes at the site the archaeologists excavated and where the golden earring was found.
An artist's reconstruction of "Building G." Francesc Riart

In a two-story building at the site—dubbed “Building G”—archaeologists uncovered seeds, fruits, charcoal, an iron pickaxe and more than 1,000 pottery fragments. On the first floor, they found evidence for a livestock stable, with remains of four sheep, a goat and a horse. The team identified spinning, weaving and cooking equipment on the second floor.

Each of these elements offers a glimpse into the lives of the Cerretani, the local tribe likely to have inhabited the community. For example, they might have pursued a variety of economic endeavors, including weaving wool, producing textiles, cultivating grain, rearing livestock and cooking. Eight culinary vessels were found in near-complete condition, and analysis suggests that some were acquired via trade from other parts of the Iberian Peninsula. The building’s inhabitants were probably wealthier than their neighbors and were possibly aristocrats, given that they had a horse, which was a sign of the elite.

Fragments of a pick-axe about 40 centimeters long, based on a 10 centimeter scale bar
Fragments of a pickaxe found in Building G. Oriol Olesti Vila et al.

But the carefully hidden earring suggests the community might have been living in fear. Being located in the mountains, the Cerretani likely had a clear view of the passageways Hannibal’s army may have taken through the Pyrenees on the way to Rome. The researchers hypothesize that the residents—upon seeing the incoming troops—evacuated in a hurry. They may have stashed their valuables away, in case they returned, but perhaps they ran out of time and were forced to leave their livestock behind, Olesti Vila tells Discover magazine’s Paul Smaglik. No human remains were found in the house.

A gold earring in the foreground, with a brown pot in the background.
Archaeologists found the gold earring inside a pot, hidden in a wall of a home that was burned down. Marco Ansaloni

“These valleys were an important territory economically and strategically. We know that Hannibal passed the Pyrenees fighting against the local tribes,” Olesti Vila says in the statement. “It is likely that the violent destruction of the site was connected to this war. The general fire points to [human-made] destruction, intentional and very effective—not only Building G, but all the buildings of the site, were destroyed.”

Still, Olesti Vila stresses to CNN’s Mindy Weisberger that the connection to Hannibal remains a hypothesis. Regardless, his team’s discovery points to some kind of ancient conflict.

“[The occurrence of raids and pillaging] is well attested archaeologically, and need not be associated with a specific historic event like Hannibal’s campaigns,” Bettina Arnold, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who was not involved in the research, tells CNN.

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