Real History, Iron In Iberia

IanHunter N. Thorpe

Iron in Iberia

            The Basque country in northern Spain has always served as historic crossroads for many great empires over the centuries. What the Basque county and the people in the region gained from this geographic location was access to knowledge. That knowledge was defused across Europe from the empires that came and went throughout the centuries. The Basques proved that over the centuries they as a people were connected to the trade and production of iron because of their geographic location. The Basques are truly a unique people because of their ability to learn and assimilate different technologies into their society. They encountered a large number of different groups who had different methods for iron production.  The Basques took the older ideas for iron and improved upon them to create an industrial production system on a scale that Europe had never seen before.

Whether the Basques gained the ability to process iron ore domestically or they gained that knowledge from another group is unknown. What is known however is that the Basques have a deep connection to iron. The cromlechs that are found in the Basque country are often near areas where iron ore was mined in ancient times before the migration of Celts to Iberia.[1] Knowledge about iron use in Iberia before the arrival of the Celts in 1649 B.C is limited. The Celts immigrated to Iberia and brought with them an understanding of the new alloy that the Basques and other tribes did not possess. The Celts had curing methods for iron that would allow for metal to be considerably stronger. Iron without curing often has too much carbon which makes it weak. The Celts would make large amounts of iron into large plates and bury them for long periods of time. The result from placing the iron in the earth was that all the weak iron would rusty away leaving much stronger iron. This method allowed for very strong iron which when applied into their weapons made them extremely powerful. The overall result of the process was tempered steel of high quality.[2]

The knowledge gained from the Celts stayed in Spain and even more so in the Basque country. Spain was vastly rich with mineral wealth. The minerals attracted trades from all over the ancient world. The first travelers to be attracted to trade with Iberia were the Phoenicians who established a considerable presence in southern Spain. The Phoenicians established the colonies of Gades which became a great trading hub for the mineral wealth of Spain to be sent all over Southern Europe, the Middles East, and North Africa. The Mineral wealth of Spain did not stay exclusively in the hands of those native to Iberia.[3]

The city state of Carthage began to take control of parts of southern Spain. The Carthaginians found that Spain not only had considerable wealth in iron but silver as well. Large scale mining operations were started all over southern Spain in an effort to get to the large veins of rich ore. The Carthaginians soon found that Spain was a considerably wealthy province. Carthage was a rising power on the Mediterranean Ocean, but another power was rising to challenge Carthage’s navel and economic supremacy.[4]

The Romans defeated the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars and started to dominate Europe politically and economy. The Romans later would take all of the Carthaginian holdings in Spain and start to spread their culture and knowledge to the region. The Romans did however take something from Spain. The Celtiberians, an Iberian tribe, used considerably advanced iron for their weapons. The Romans were inspired from the Celtriberian double edged sword. The design was stolen and changed into the Roman Gladius short sword. The Celtiberian tribes shared overlapping territory with the Aquitaini Tribe which had an influence on the weapon designs of both tribes.[5] The Romans noted that the Basques who lived the mountains dwelled among the richest iron ore deposits in the known world. The Roman historian Pliny was one of the first to state the Basque country is perfect for mining.[6]

The Romans had the single largest impact on the production of weapons and extraction of minerals than other force up until that point in time. The Romans brought with them extremely advanced mining methods that would drastically change the landscape of Spain. Roman mining operations took place all over Spain. The largest operations took place in southern Spain around the Rio Tinto region. The Rio Tinto region has a river that has so much iron ore in the surrounding hills that the river will turn red. The Basque country had been, for the most part, left alone because the rocky topography of the region which made large scale mining operations difficult to undertake. The Romans introduced advanced methods that made the difficult access veins of iron ore more approachable.[7]

The Romans introduced hydro mining to Spain which allowed them to redirect rivers into hillsides and wash away the rock and earth to gain access to the iron ore underneath. Roman hydro mining operations left a lasting impact on the landscape of the Basque country and southern Spain. The Romans found that hydro mining was not quite enough to gain access to the richest deposits in Spain so even more inventive ways were created to reach even greater depths of earth. Roman shaft mining had several problems which prevented long scale operations. The Romans had the problem when a mine would go too far below the water table it was impossible to keep the mine from flooding. The next large challenge to deep shaft mining was that when a shaft got to far below the earth, supplying air became a serious problem.

The Romans solved both problems in very inventive ways. The Romans deployed large water wheels that would pull water out of the shafts. The water wheels were powered by workers who would run inside the wheel which pulled large buckets up ropes to exact the water. The problem of supplying air to the depths of the Shafts was dealt with by creating large relief shafts. The relief shafts by themselves would not be enough to supply air to the depths of the shaft so the Romans would use large fires to pull air down into the deeper parts of the mine.[8]

The Romans turned Spain into the richest province in the whole of their empire. The time of the Romans was running out however. The Visigoths had started a large scale invasion of the Roman Empire and they settled in Spain taking large tracks of land for themselves. The Visigoths lacked any kind of mining skills so large scale operations stopped in the majority of Spain. The only places where mining and advanced iron creation methods remained was the Basque country. The Basques still had much of the knowledge they had gained from the Romans and the Celts. The Basques still had large scale forges which allowed for the creation of high quality iron. The Basque forges started to appear in mass around 870 A.D.[9] The forges were first seen up near the iron deposits but they started to be constructed in the many villages as well. The Basque county had other natural resources that made it ideal for iron production. The Basque forges had access to Basque hard woods that were ideal for the creation of charcoal that powered the forges. Their talent for keeping knowledge gained from outsiders became a key to their survival as a people.

The Visigoths were constantly attempting to destroy the Basques but were never successful because the Basques were capable of producing large numbers of weapons and the terrain of their home land was always in their favor. The Visigoths however eventually met their end to the Moorish[10] invasion from North Africa in 711 A.D. The Moors managed to take control of large portions of Spain but were stopped from moving into northern Europe when their advance was halted by Frankish Knights. Northern Spain became the center of resistance against the Moorish invaders. The Moors started to dominate all economic activities in Spain but the result was that the Basque country started to increase its domestic production of iron and weapons. The Moorish conquest of southern Spain caused a large migration of Christians north and that allowed more access to labor. The Basques wanted to match the Moors in their production levels. The practice of mining in southern Spain under the Goths had all but stopped but the Moors completely revitalized the south. The Basques as to not be out done started to match the Moors and started to push against them. The Moorish kingdoms never had a truly unified Kingdom so they were not united in the same goal where northern Spain had an established goal of reclaiming southern Spain[11]

The Basques used a great deal of throwing weapons in battle. All of the throwing weapons were constructed of iron which meant that the Basques had enough iron so that they could throw it and potentially never get it back and still not be in short supply of iron. The Basque used their plentiful supply of iron to their advantage because ranged throwing weapons favored the terrain considerably in the Basque country. The forges that produced a large number of their weapons were located in the mountains near the ore deposits but the Basque in the 1300’s moved their forges to river bottoms so that they could use hydro power for the forges. Their forges were organized on an almost industrial scale and their quality for production of iron made them known throughout Europe. Basque prowess for iron production inspired French kings to hire Basque technicians to operate forges in France.[12]

The Basque center of iron production had centered on Bilbao in the late 1300’s because of the dense forests that surrounded the city and its access to a river for use in hydro power for the forges. The reason for Bilbao’s rise was its access to the sea which made it a prime spot for the construction of large deep sea fairing ships. The Basques ships required iron nails and other such products for a finished vessel.[13] The result of Bilbao having easy access to iron and timber made it one of the largest ship builders in all of Europe. Bilbao was also becoming the largest iron producer in all of Europe. In 1560 Bilbao was production 25% of all the iron in Europe.[14]

The iron produced was put into a number of roles. A lot of the iron went into agricultural items like plows and the production of arms, but about one third of the overall iron produced went to the creation of ship building items.[15] Basque iron became so renound in Europe that the quality is even refereed by Shakespeare in his plays. The swords produced in the Basque country were called Vizcayan, famed in the Shakespeare play Hamlet as bilbos.[16]

The Basque iron trade made the construction of the Basque fleets possible. The iron production around Bilbao allowed for a surplus of iron that greatly increased the number of Basque ships produced so that they could start trading all over Europe. The Basque provinces started to trade over 100 tons of iron ore each year. The Basque ships were constructed to transports large amounts of cargo. The Basque traders were so successful in their trading endeavors that the British crown said that they could directly trade with the American colonies.

The Kingdom of Castilla became entirely dependent on Basque iron ore that its own production paled in comparison. The Basques were so powerful in the iron trade that iron became almost its own currency in the Basque country. Iron was valued very highly, and could be used to purchase land and homes. If a person had 550 quintals of iron they could afford to buy a farm, a mill, or a foundry. In 1488 the Basques were requested by the crown to only produce arms for a solid year because they were in great need of weapons to fight the Turks. Basque iron became a fundamental requirement for the kingdom of Spain. The Basque forges made up the backbone of the industrial production in all of Spain.

The production of iron in the Basque country produced tremendous wealth for the kingdom of Spain. The Basque themselves did benefit from the trade as well with Bilbao becoming one of the commercial centers in Europe of the iron trade. The importance of iron became so considerable that the import of it into Spain was almost unheard of. There were instances where iron was imported but the Basque community would simply hold onto the iron in a warehouse, and when they could they reworked the iron so they could in turn export the iron at a profit. There were some cases where foreign iron was labeled as contraband because it was below Basque standards of production.[17]

The Basques are a truly amazing people that demonstrate time and time again how industrious they are. The Basques demonstrate a powerful history as a people who could gain considerable knowledge from those around them, and they had the luxury of existing on the cross roads of great civilizations that allowed them to learn a great deal. The Basques demonstrate that they are tied to iron and its production. They may have in the modern day lowered their production of iron but their history is rich with it. The iron trade done as much for the Basque people as their ship building and navigation prowess. The Basques are truly industrious people who will always continue to amaze.

 

 

 

Work Cited

Douglas, Williams., and Bilbao, Jon. Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World. Reno: University of Nevada press, 2005.

Douglass, Williams., and Zulaika, Joseba. Basque Anthropological Culture Perspectives. Reno: Center of Basque studies, 2007.

Lillios, Katina T. The Origins of Complex societies in late Prehistoric Iberia. Ann Arbor International Monographs in Prehistory, 1995.

Lynch, John. Iberia in Prehistory. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1995.

Raymond, Robert. Out of the Fiery Furnace: The Impact of Metals on the History of Mankind. London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986.

Scrivenor, Henry. History of the Iron Trade. London: Frank Cass and Company Limited, 1968.

Walsh, Jill. Power, Authority and Sovereignty in 16th Century Bilbao. http://www.buber.net/Basque/History/jw_bilbao.html


[1] Williams Douglas., and Jon Bilbao. Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World. (Reno: University of Nevada press, 2005),  50.

[2] Henry Scrivenor,. History of the Iron Trade. (London: Frank Cass and Company Limited, 1968), 139.

[3] Ibid,. 138.

[4] Robert Raymond. Out of the Fiery Furnace: The Impact of Metals on the History of Mankind. (London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986.), 87.

[5] Henry Scrivenor,. History of the Iron Trade. (London: Frank Cass and Company Limited, 1968), 138.

[6] Williams Douglas., and Jon Bilbao. Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World. (Reno: University of Nevada press, 2005), 49.

[7] Robert Raymond. Out of the Fiery Furnace: The Impact of Metals on the History of Mankind. (London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986.), 87.

[8] Robert Raymond. Out of the Fiery Furnace: The Impact of Metals on the History of Mankind. (London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986.) 87.

[9] Williams Douglas., and Jon Bilbao. Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World. (Reno: University of Nevada press, 2005),  49.

[10] Moors: The moors were North Africans directed by the Umiyad Caliphate to Invade Spain.

[11] Henry Scrivenor,. History of the Iron Trade. (London: Frank Cass and Company Limited, 1968), 140.

[12] Williams Douglas., and Jon Bilbao. Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World. (Reno: University of Nevada press, 2005), 51.

[13] Jill Walsh. Power, Authority and Sovereignty in 16th Century Bilbao. http://www.buber.net/Basque/History/jw_bilbao.html

 

[14] Jill Walsh. Power, Authority and Sovereignty in 16th Century Bilbao. http://www.buber.net/Basque/History/jw_bilbao.html

[15] Williams Douglas., and Jon Bilbao. Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World. (Reno: University of Nevada press,  2005),  51

[16] Williams Douglas., and Jon Bilbao. Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World. (Reno: University of Nevada press, 2005),  51.

[17] Henry Scrivenor,. History of the Iron Trade. (London: Frank Cass and Company Limited, 1968),144.

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Categories: Real History