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History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

Funerary Rites at the Puig des Molins Necropolis


Historical Information

Welcome to the history page. Today we will continue the discussion we began last week on the Phoenician necropolis. Granted, commentaries of this type are rather morbid, but in the name of higher learning we shall forge ahead. Perhaps it will seem less gloomy if we bear in mind that this ancient burial ground is actually one of Ibiza's claims to fame, for it is the largest existing Punic necropolis outside of Carthage. Today we will take a closer look at the funerary rites and afterlife beliefs of the people who first used it.

The Early Years

The necropolis was founded by the Phoenicians toward the end of the 7th century BC when these sea-faring peoples established a permanent settlement in what is now the old town of Ibiza. As was habitual in Phoenician cities, the area for the living and the area for the dead lay in close proximity.

In the case of Ibiza, the town was situated on a headland at the edge of the bay, while the necropolis occupied a slightly lesser rise, more inland and to the west. These two elevations (calcareous massifs from the Tertiary Age) were separated by a streambed, the present day Calle Joan Xicó. This site served as the city's cemetery throughout the whole of antiquity, entombing a long succession of cadaverous inmates as the island changed hands both politically and theologically.

As we mentioned last week, the denomination 'Puig des Molins', derives from a much later date (approx.15th century) when the area was put to agricultural use and its surface was dotted with windmills. The name literally means "hill of mills".

Phoenician Practices (circa 625/600 - 475/450 BC)

The severe hardship of life for the first Phoenician traders made having a necropolis a flat-out necessity much more than a religious nicety. The mortality statistics obtained in modern excavations are horrifying, and paint a very different picture of the fabled Phoenicians than we are used to.

The average age of death in adults was 26, although children constituted 37.8% of all deaths with the average age of demise being two and a half. Sadly, however, only a third of the infants born in these rough settlements survived past their first year. Based on this data, it has been deduced that Ibiza's population during this early period fluctuated between 400 and 500 inhabitants. The surface area of the necropolis during this time has been estimated between 6,000m² and 10,000m² .

Another interesting fact is that approximately 10% of the burials in this period were double, which indicates that death claimed both persons at the same time. Different burial combinations were possible, either two adults (always one male and one female), or one adult and one child, of indiscriminate genders, presumably parents with their offspring.

The Afterlife

Phoenician beliefs about the afterlife derive from the Syrio-Palestinian tradition of the Bronze Age. Though only a fragmentary knowledge of this tradition has come down to the present day, it can be surmised from ancient texts that death was conceived of as a supernatural being called Môt or Muth. In Phoenician belief, when a person died he did not lose his existence, only his way of existing. The departed soul would leave the physical world to join the group of Divine Ancestors who exercised benign providence over the living. As celestial dwellers, the dead were considered agents of healing, givers of fertility and protectors of the family.

Certain texts also give credence to the idea that the Phoenicians believed in the existence of two souls, one corporeal and the other spiritual. The corporeal soul (nephesh) remained with the body after death - for which reason it required substance - and continued to form part of the deceased person's family group. The spiritual soul ('barlat' or 'rouah') took leave of the body at the moment of death.

Some texts point to the belief in an underground world where these spiritual souls resided, a kind of common resting round for the Divine Ancestors. This place has been depicted as a world of shadows where the deceased had their beds so that, together, they might enjoy eternal rest. Other sources, however, suggest that this eternal resting round was envisioned as a 'city' toward which departed souls made their pilgrimage.

Forms of Farewell

Again there are large gaps in the understanding of the funerary procedure. Certain writings tell us that the departure of the deceased was punctuated by lamentations, wailing and other forms of ritualized mourning. Also, it can be deducted that the bodies of the dead were prepared for passage into the other world by careful washing and anointing as well as by applying clothes and cosmetics.

The disposal of bodies during this period was exclusively by means of cremation. However, in contrast to other necropoleis in the Phoenician sphere of influence, in Ibiza no set place for the enactment of this ritual has been determined. On the contrary, it has been proven that the cremations took place on an individual basis, close to the tomb, or, in some cases, inside the tomb itself.

Following the cremation, in some cases, the bones were carefully gathered and washed prior to burial; while, in other cases, the bones were merely collected, without being separated from the carbon and ash, and deposited directly inside the tomb. It is reasonable to assume that these differences in mortuary protocol corresponded to differences in the social and economic standing of the deceased.

The Graves and Their Goods

Tombs of the Phoenician period fall into two groups. The first consists of small cavities in the terrain that could be either naturally occurring hollows, sometimes with slight alterations, or man-made niches dug into rock or earth. The remains of ash and bone were placed inside these recesses, either contained within ceramic urns or else deposited directly into the hollow, at times inside a small ring of stones, or else covered by a heap of them.

The second type of tombs were larger pit graves, generally hewn into rock. Apart from the common characteristic of being quite spacious, these tombs present many variations with regard to size, shape and construction.

Surprisingly, grave goods during this period are almost non-existent. When they are included in the burial they are limited to scant items of personal adornment and/or a piece of pottery. The social differences which began to stratify island society, especially in the 6th century BC, were signalled less by the funeral dowry than by the size of the tomb, the quality of the cremation, the degree of ceremony in collecting the remains from the pyre and the general complexity of the funerary rites, rather than by the grave goods.

Changing Times

The ritual of cremation persisted into the beginning of the Punic era, until at least the 5th century BC, but eventually gave way to the new Carthaginian rite of inhumation, i.e. burial. This change in practice, which may seem lacking in historical relevance, is actually one of the key pieces of data which have allowed archaeologists to confirm the existence of two strains of Iron Age settlers, the first Phoenician and the second, slightly later in its arrival, Punic. Experts have been able to detect, moreover, two distinct areas within the necropolis, one devoted to Punic inhumations and the other to Phoenician cremations. But that is a chapter for another day - perhaps Halloween!


Next week we'll take a break from the gloom of the underworld and turn our attention to happier subjects. According to my agenda, the village of Sant Ferran in Formentera is due for its patron saint fiesta this Wednesday (30th May). If you happen to be in the vicinity you might want to drop in a have a grand old time. If not, drop by the history page and find out all about it. See you next week!

Emily Kaufman