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Tiermes: Spain’s Ancient City Beset By Drama and Conflict

Tiermes: Spain’s Ancient City Beset By Drama and Conflict


The culture of the Iberian Peninsula has always been complex and multifaceted. Traces of many previous civilizations are ubiquitous in the archaeological record. One example of this is the archaeological site of Tiermes, a Celtiberian hillfort which later became a Roman city and then a Christian religious shrine.

Archaeological Remains of a Major Ancient Settlement

Tiermes is a site located at Montejo de Tiermes in Soria, Spain. The site was built into a sandstone hill into which rooms were dug and later modified with Roman architectural elements. The archaeological site shows evidence of having been a major population center in antiquity.

Also known as Termantia, the archaeological site includes several interesting structures. One of these structures is a large stone passageway. Another one is called the rock seating area which is a large open space which may have been for religious or commercial activities. There are also thermal baths and what could have been residential dwellings that were carved into the native rock.

Tiermes is an impressive site whose main attraction are the rock-cut buildings built into the red sandstone hill, whose facades were later modified by the Romans. Source: jalvarezg / Adobe Stock

Tiermes is an impressive site whose main attraction are the rock-cut buildings built into the red sandstone hill, whose facades were later modified by the Romans. Source: jalvarezg / Adobe Stock

An interesting pre-Roman feature that is not within the city, but that is probably related, is a necropolis which dates to the 6th century BC. It appears to have been still in use during the 1st century AD. Some of the tombs have evidence of orientations that may be aligned with the movement of astronomical bodies.

There is also possible evidence of steps which may have led to a temple at the top of the hill and another structure that could have been a small theatre. Steps at the potential theatre have been found which could have served as seats, though the evidence for this is inconclusive.

Another interesting feature of the Tiermes archaeological site is the Roman aqueduct which was probably built during the 1st century AD. The source of the aqueduct is in the nearby mountains to the north of the city. Near the west gate, the aqueduct splits into two urban branches. It is estimated that the aqueduct could have provided water for about 20,000 people. It is considered one of the more advanced works of engineering at Tiermes.

Aqueduct tunnel carved into the rock at Tiermes. (javiermato / Adobe Stock)

Aqueduct tunnel carved into the rock at Tiermes. (javiermato / Adobe Stock)

The aqueduct at Tiermes could have provided water for about 20,000 people (Discasto / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The aqueduct at Tiermes could have provided water for about 20,000 people (Discasto / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Who Has Lived at Tiermes Over the Ages?

The earliest people mentioned in historical records that are believed to have lived in the region surrounding Tiermes were the Iberians, the Bronze Age people that lived in the Iberian Peninsula before the arrival of the Celts.

The Iberians were likely related to the archaeological cultures of the Chalcolithic and the early Bronze Age known as los Millares and el Argar. Los Millares is named after an archaeological site in southern Spain which contains a heavily fortified city built on a hill that may have supported about a thousand people. The culture of los Millares began around 3000 BC and began to be replaced around 1800 BC by the Bronze Age Argar culture, though the Millares civilization lasted until the end of the 2nd millennium BC.

The first proto-Celtic culture to appear in the archaeological record of Spain is the Urnfield culture which first made an appearance in the peninsula by the early 1st millennium BC. It is unknown whether the Iberians were direct descendants of the Millares and Argar peoples, but they likely had more in common with those early civilizations than they did with later proto-Celtic and Celtic cultures who came to settle Iberia.

The Iberian language was non-Indo-European. They had their own script that was used until the Roman period when it was replaced by the Latin alphabet. While northern and central Spain were largely Celticized by the middle of the 1st millennium BC, southern Spain, especially south-eastern Spain, remained predominantly Iberian into Roman times.

An important non-Celtic and non-Iberian civilization to establish roots in ancient Iberia was that of the Phoenicians. In the 12th century BC, the Phoenicians established the colony of Gadir which is still inhabited as the modern city of Cadiz. It represents the oldest continuously inhabited city in western Europe.

View of los Millares archaeological site in Almeria, Spain. (Lux Blue / Adobe Stock)

View of los Millares archaeological site in Almeria, Spain. (Lux Blue / Adobe Stock)

Recreation of los Millares settlement. (Jose Mª Yuste / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Recreation of los Millares settlement. (Jose Mª Yuste / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Origins of the Celtiberians

By the 7th century BC, northern and central Spain were invaded by the carriers of the Celtic Hallstatt archaeological culture. The Hallstatt culture is defined by, among other things, complex elite burials involving wagons, hillforts, and iron weapons. The Hallstatt culture spread across Europe and set up numerous hillforts which functioned as centers of political power.

The area of central Spain where the Tiermes archaeological site can be found was partly occupied by the Celts, but it did not completely lose its Iberian character. The Celtic invaders ended up adopting some aspects of Iberian culture and eventually became more isolated from the Celtic centers farther north. Because of this, the people of central Spain appear to have become a mixed Celtic and Iberian culture known as the Celtiberians

The Celtiberians were divided into four tribes, the Arevaci, the Belli, the Lusones, and the Titii. The most powerful of the Celtiberian tribes was the Arevaci tribe. The Celtiberian warrior elites controlled much of central Spain from hillforts such as Numantia, Okilis, and probably Tiermes. The Celtiberians were known for being very warlike and good at making weapons. They developed a blade which is now emblematic of the Celtiberians, the Iberian falcata. The Romans also adopted the two-edged Spanish sword from the Celtiberians. In addition to warfare and metalworking, they were also known to be good with horses. The Celtiberians flourished from the 3rd century BC until their final defeat and subjugation by the Romans in the late 2nd century BC.

Archaeological remains of the Roman Forum at Tiermes in Soria. (Tolo / Adobe Stock)

Archaeological remains of the Roman Forum at Tiermes in Soria. (Tolo / Adobe Stock)

The End of Celtiberian Tiermes

Tiermes is referenced in classical sources as being one of the important cities or towns during the Celtiberian wars which raged through the 2nd century BC until 133 BC. Tiermes was described as an Arevaci stronghold. Tiermes was probably one of the main hillforts used by the Celtiberians to maintain political and military dominance in central Spain.

Spain has always been known for being rich in natural resources. For this reason, many cultures have attempted to gain a foothold in Spain. The Romans were no exception. During the 2nd Punic War, the Celtiberians tended to side with the Romans. After the war ended, however, a series of native insurrections were instigated against Rome. The Roman Senate did not take the Celtiberian threat seriously at first. They dismissed the Celtiberians as little more than raiders. This proved to be a mistake when the Romans suffered a major defeat in 197 BC. The Romans retaliated in 195 BC, killing 12,000 Celtiberians at Turda, but this only served to galvanize the Celtiberian resistance against Rome. It would be several decades before the Romans brought the Celtiberians back under control.

The climax of the Roman-Celtiberian conflict came in 133 BC, during the siege of Numantia. The Roman general Scipio Africanus the Younger blockaded the city until the inhabitants defending the city starved. The city was besieged for eight months. As the Numantians became desperate, they sent envoys to Scipio, asking for a treaty. Scipio Africanus was unyielding and would only accept total surrender. As a result, the Celtiberians kept on fighting as the siege became more severe. According to historical accounts, the inhabitants of the settlement resorted to cannibalism before they finally surrendered. After the siege, the town was burned, and the survivors were sold into slavery. Despite the fall of Numantia, Celtiberian resistance to Rome appears to have continued into the mid-1st century BC. The stronghold of Tiermes appears to have been part of this continued resistance since it does not appear to have come under Roman authority until 98 BC, when the inhabitants of Tiermes were required to move to the plains and forbidden to build defensive walls.

Tiermes Under the Romans

Roman dominance arrived in the Iberian Peninsula for good in the middle of the 1st century BC. Tiermes became a Roman town within the Clunia administrative district. As a Roman town, Tiermes, (or Termes) grew in prosperity. The Celtiberian stonework was modified with Roman architecture and urban elements, including an aqueduct and a forum.

Although life in Termes was comfortable during the golden age of the Roman Empire, the city seems to have declined in distinctiveness and importance. Most of the distinctly Celtiberian aspects of the city disappeared. Also, where it had once been a major political center, it was now just a provincial town.

Tiermes After the Romans

During the crisis of the 3rd century, walls were built around the city, indicating that times had become less certain. After the 5th century, Termes became a Visigothic settlement and lost its Roman character. During this time, the forum was being used as a burial ground! After the 7th century, the region around Tiermes became a frontier region between the Muslim lands in the south and the Christian lands in the north. During this time, it is likely that there was a noticeable population decline in the area because of unsafe conditions.

After Christians regained control of the area after the 12th century, the situation did not improve. Tiermes was reduced to a small village containing a church and a monastery. By the 16th century, the church in Tiermes had been reduced to a chapel. Tiermes ceased to be important as a settlement but remained a religious center since it was one of the few places of worship in the sparsely populated area. Tiermes continued to be important as a religious shrine and is still visited by pilgrims today.

Over the centuries the settlement continued to fall into ruin until it caught the interest of archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries, who began to excavate it to better understand ancient Spain. The archaeological excavations have also been encouraged at the site is to generate growth in an economically depressed area. The region surrounding Tiermes is fairly arid, compared to the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, and has very low population density. Recently, cultural heritage tourism has been seen as one way to stimulate the local economy.

Painting by Francisco de Zurbarán depicting Hercules as he separates the two mountains Calpe and Abyla, also known as the Pilllars of Hercules. (Public domain)

Painting by Francisco de Zurbarán depicting Hercules as he separates the two mountains Calpe and Abyla, also known as the Pilllars of Hercules. (Public domain)

Mystique of the Iberian Peninsula

The Iberian Peninsula has elicited fascination amongst classical writers. To the ancient Greeks and other cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, it represented the uttermost west, probably the last stop before going out into a world encircling ocean. Many ancient Greek myths that are said to take place in a faraway land were said to have taken place in Spain or elsewhere in Iberia.

For example, Heracles raised the pillars that are named after him at the straits of Gibraltar. In another story, the Greek hero Ulysses established a city in the Sierra Morena. It was also believed that survivors from the siege of Troy made it to Spain. The earliest Greek account of a voyage to Iberia is the story of Kolaios, a Greek sea captain whose ship got blown off course from Egypt and ended up landing in Spain where he was greeted by one of the local kings.

This image of Spain as a mysterious realm at the edge of the known world is also echoed in other eastern Mediterranean cultures. In Biblical literature, for example, the prophet Jonah sets sail for the city of Tarshish, a city believed to have been in Spain, because he wants to get as far away from Nineveh as possible, a goal which is divinely foiled.

Spain is not considered a rugged frontier on the edge of the known world by most people today, but Spain does still hold mysteries. One example would be the origin of the Basque people whose use of a non-Indo-European language has led to the widespread belief that the Basques represent a vestige of the first Europeans who came as hunter-gatherers during the Paleolithic. Although the Basque language is unusual in that it does not appear to be related to any known language families, most evidence currently suggests that the Basques are more closely related to prehistoric farmers than to the hunter-gatherers who came before them.

It is also notable that Spain was probably one of the first parts of Europe to be colonized by a human species. Some of the earliest archaeological sites and paleontological sites involving hominins in Europe are found in Spain. While the Iberian Peninsula doesn’t achieve the attention it deserves, it is home to many archaeological wonders of which Tiermes is just one example.

Top image: Over eight months, Roman general Scipio Africanus the Younger blockaded the Celtiberian city of Numantia until the inhabitants defending the city starved. (Public domain)

By Caleb Strom


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Caleb Strom's picture


Caleb Strom is currently a graduate student studying planetary science. He considers himself a writer, scientist, and all-around story teller. His interests include planetary geology, astrobiology, paleontology, archaeology, history, space archaeology, and SETI.

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