Menorca’s ‘houses of the dead’ reveal these ancient secrets

by Byeva Van Den Berg National Geographic, July 28, 2022

Talayotic people left their imprint on the Spanish island long before the Roman Empire in wonderful stone buildings. The earliest evidence of this unusual construction can be found in burial mounds dating back to 2000 B.C. Within these towers and other “cyclopean” buildings is a millennium of island history. Menorca boasts one of the largest concentrations of archaeological sites in the world, with everything from foundation stones to well-preserved village centers. With only 0.13 percent of its surface, the island is home to 9 percent of Spain’s Assets of Cultural Interest.

Inclusion on the World Heritage list would raise the island’s international prominence, strengthen conservation efforts, encourage new research, and increase tourism. The current island of Menorca’s original settlers arrived between 1600 and 1200 B.C., travelling across the Mediterranean Sea from their ancestral country to what is now Spain. During the Naviform (derived from “naveta”) period, people dwelt in tiny villages and specialized on agriculture and animals. They also discovered how to extract copper from their prehistoric mines and combine it with imported tin to create bronze, a highly versatile material for producing tools and utensils. Between 1200 and 500 B.C., an increase in population resulted in a landscape shift in the shape of the talayots, which needed a massive collective effort to construct.

The taula, a T-shaped slab building four or five meters (13 to 16 feet) high, was seen as a place of devotion. These naveta tombs were always constructed far away from the hamlet and out of sight. Later, the dead were buried in caverns carved into the island’s ravines, which gradually grew closer to the coast. From the fifth century B.C. onwards, the Punic army recruited many young men from Menorca and Mallorca as mercenaries.

The Mediterranean was being colonized at the time by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans. Talayotic descendants began building mortarless walls as farm boundaries in the 14th century, following in the footsteps of their forefathers. Today, 11,000 kilometers (almost 7,000 miles) of these magnificent walls crisscross the island, the same distance that divides the island’s municipality of Ciutadella from Santiago de Chile in South America.

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