Prehistory and history of the Balearic Islands: Menorca

Updated: Aug 27, 2019



Amidst the waters of the western Mediterranean Sea lies a small, remote island that is an entire world of its own – full of wildlife, history, legends, mysteries and conflicts: Menorca. It is one of the four Balearic Islands, the others being Majorca, Ibiza and Formentera, along with many minor islands and islets close to the biggest islands, such as Cabrera, Dragonera and S’Espalmador.


Prehistory reaches back more than 4 millennia into the past, from megalithic tombs to the Pretalaiotic and Talaiotic cultures – times of which barely no written sources exist, and ruins are virtually the only testimony. During the Archaic Period, the Phoenicians that sailed near Menorca to reach their colonies could see bonfires shining from the top of the defensive towers, called talaiots, that littered the Menorcan landscape. Menorca is unique in its primeval quality, due to the tremendous amount of magnificent megalithic and cyclopean ruins, like navetas, taulas and talaiots, which always seem to blend in so harmoniously with its surroundings.


Menorca’s prehistory and protohistory developed uniformly with Majorca’s during the Chalcolithic (Copper Age) and the Early Bronze Age. During the end of the Middle Bronze Age, the two islands entered the Talaiotic Culture and, despite the many similarities, started diverging. Menorca has many monuments exclusive to the island, like the navetas, elliptic talaiots, circles (houses) and, of course, the enigmatic taulas; whereas Majorca has square talaiots.


It is estimated that the natives arrived sometime in the 3rd millennium BC. These were people whose culture was developing during the transition from the Neolithic and the Copper Age and worked the ground. With their arrival, they introduced livestock like sheep, goats, cows and pigs. Initially they lived alongside of the endemic Balearic cave goat, Myotragus balearicus, which was driven to extinction soon after. In fact, it was more closely related to sheep than to goats, and one of its most remarkable traits is that the eyes were not directed towards the sides, as are those of nearly all herbivorous mammals, but towards the front like nearly all primates and carnivorans, granting them stereoscopic vision.


A Balearic cave goat, (Myotragus balearicus) skull from two angles. (Wikimedia Commons)

Up until the 20th century, it was thought that the Talaiotic Culture rised from the interaction with peoples from the Eastern Mediterranean such as the Sea Peoples or the Nuragic Civilization from Sardinia, who built defensive towers that are very similar in appearance to talaiots. It was believed this process either occurred in the form of an invasion or as a peaceful assimilation.


However, archaeological evidence indicates that the Sardinian nuraghes were built around 3900 years ago, much earlier than talaiots that first appeared 3400 years ago, and were instead contemporary with Menorcan navetas, that were already being used 4000 years ago. Likewise, the crisis of the 13th century BC caused in the western Mediterranean by the Sea Peoples also predates the constructions of talaiots. In fact, the evolution from the Pre-Talaiotic Culture to the Talaiotic Culture during the Bronze Age seems to have been a very gradual transition that lasted several centuries, caused by a local crisis on the archipelago.


The name for the Balearic Islands was originally meant to designate Majorca and Menorca, and was given by the Carthaginians and later used by the Romans. It derives from the Punic ba' lé yaroh. The noun ba' lé means "those who are of the profession of", whereas the verb yaroh means "to throw stones". Therefore, the translation for Balearics would be "the masters of throwing", refering to its celebrated slingers. The Balearic slingers were highly regarded by Carthaginians and Romans and were heavily recruited in both their armies. The Greeks on the other hand used the term Gymnesians for Majorca and Menorca. Lycophron claimed the islands were called Γυμνησίαι (Gymnesiai), from the Greek γυμνός (gymnos, “naked”) because of the lightly armoured soldiers of the islands in classical antiquity.


Ibiza and Formentera were called the Pityuses by Greeks and Phoenicians (and later Carthaginians), and derives from the Greek term πιτύα (pitya, “pine tree”), as the islands are indeed covered in pine trees. Lycophron explained Menorca and Majorca were called Γυμνησίαι (Gymnesiai), from the Greek γυμνός (gymnos, “naked”) because of the lightly armoured soldiers of the islands in classical antiquity. According to Lycophron's Alexandra verses and Silius Italicus, the natives of the islands are descendants of the slingers from Rhodes that fled after the Trojan war.


[633] "And others shall sail to the sea-washed Gymnesian rocks – crab-like, clad in skins – where cloakless and unshod they shall drag out their lives, armed with three two-membered slings. Their mothers shall teach the far-shooting art to their young offspring by supperless discipline. For none of them shall chew bread with his jaws, until with well-aimed stone he shall have won the cake set as a mark above the board."


Lycophron of Chalcis, 270 – 260 BC, Alexandra

Archaeological sites that are discussed below. Black: megalithic; pink: Talaiotic; red: Roman; blue: Byzantine; yellow: Muslim.

Dolmen Culture

(2500-2000 BC)

During the 3rd millennium BC, the first megalithic dolmens appeared. These funerary monuments were very similar to those of southern France and northeastern Spain. It is not known whether these structures were built by newly arrived peoples. Due to the scarcity of copper deposits on the islands for the metal’s extraction, contact with the exterior was necessary, so ties with the continent were apparently never severed.

Notable structures


The oldest structures of Menorca are dolmens. These are single-chamber tombs, consisting of two ore more orthostats supporting a horizontal capstone. They have corridors that lead to a perforated slab at the entrance. They were originally covered with earth or smaller stones to form a tumulus, but this covering is almost always weathered away, leaving only the stone skeleton of the burial mount. A great example is Ses Roques Llises.

Sites (click on the links for more information)

Ses Roques Llises

Pre-Talaiotic Culture

(2000—1400 BC)

Eventually, the Bronze Age arrived during the early 2nd millennium BC, and again this indicates contact with the continent, since tin needed to be added to copper in order to create bronze, and tin does not exist on the islands. Around this time, the building techniques had become more elaborate, and the first navetiform structures started to appear. Burials were made in reformed dolmens, in natural caves, or in newly excavated caves in the rock. Some of these caves were remarkably complex, not even the caves of the Talaiotic period would achieve this level of perfection.


Notable structures


Hypogaea (singular hypogaeum), from Greek ὑπό (hypó, "under") and γαῖα (gaîa, "earth"), are artificial caves which served as underground tombs during the early Bronze Age. Most of them have been plundered since antiquity, and reused during the Talaiotic period as a water reservoir. They can be rounded, elongated, or possess additional lateral cavities, antechambers, stairs, etc.


During the late Bronze Age, the natives of the Balearic Islands developed navetiforms, called like that due to the similarities they present to navetas. Navetiforms are apsidal in shape, roughly resembling an elongated horseshoe, and usually have a wooden ceiling reinforced with mortar, supported by several polylithic pillars. Although in two cases in Menorca, these structures are topped with stones instead, like the surprisingly complete Sa Cova des Moro. Excavations have revealed that they had fireplaces, and evidence has been found that some of these structures might have even had a second floor.


Navetas are exclusive to Menorca, and are the most famous ancient buildings of the island. They're cyclopean chamber tombs that appeared in the early and middle Bronze Age. Navetas evolved from elaborate dolmens, but lost many typical traits that characterize their ancestral design. The oval structure of dolmens was adopted in the design of early navetas, like those at Biniac-L'Argentina, and posteriorly it was transformed into a an elongated apsidal plan in late navetas, acquiring a shape that resembles the hull of a ship, like those at Rafal Rubí. No early navetas are well enough preserved to assess whether they had a second floor, but they probably didn't, as opposed to late navetas, that in turn did have an upper and a lower chamber. Pre-Talaiotic navetas still have a clear link to dolmens: a perforated slab at the entrance. This rectangular hole allowed to enter the structure. The borders of the hole have a distinguishable recess which was used to accomodate a closing stone. The perforated slab likely symbolized the entrance to the world of the dead, and only very few were allowed in.


Sites (click on the links for more information)


Biniac-L'Argentina

Rafal Rubí

Son Mercer de Baix

Talaiotic Culture

(1400—123 BC)


The Talaiotic Culture occupies the period that stretches from the building of the first talaiots up to the arrival of history, when the Roman Republic conquered the Balearic Islands. The Talaiotic Culture is considered to belong to protohistory, not prehistory, due to the fact that despite no writing had developed, written references about it have been found in classical cultures. If it weren't for the lack of writing, the Talaiotic Culture of Menorca could be considered a civilization, possessing numerous and large buildings with social, defensive and religious purposes, all of them built with a larger monumentality than those of Majorca.


The Talaiotic Period can be further subdivided into the following periods:

  • Proto-Talaiotic Period (1400—1000 BC): Many features of the subsequent Talaiotic Culture began to appear. The population clustered into towns. The navetiforms were dismantled to use the building materials in newer buildings, like dwellings.

  • Talaiotic Ia (1400—1150 BC): Navetas, first talaiots

  • Talaiotic Ib (1150—1000 BC): Walls

  • Talaiotic Period (1000—450 BC): The Talaiotic Culture reaches its zenith during the 1st half of the 1st millenium BC, but falls in a crisis during the middle 1st millennium BC.

  • Talaiotic II (1000—800 BC): Large talaiots and walls

  • Talaiotic III (800—450 BC): Hypostyles, circles and taulas

  • Post-Talaiotic Period (450—123 BC): The wars that erupted between Rome and Carthage forcibly dragged the Balearic Islands into the Post-Talaiotic Period.

  • Talaiotic IV: Carthaginian influence and Roman conquest

Proto-Talaiotic & Talaiotic Periods

(1400-450 BC)

In the end of the 2nd millennium, during the Proto-talaiotic period, a crisis hits the entire society, possibly due to the impoverishment of the soils, cultivated by burning the wooded areas without the necessary knowledge on how to regenerate them, such as plowing. This led to the expansion of farming. The society gradually evolved from independent families to one with hierarchies, where clan chiefs order the construction of monuments that required a great effort on behalf of the community, such as step towers. This would eventually give rise to the Talaiotic Culture, when the first differences appeared between Menorca and Majorca.


At the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, the Talaiotic Culture flourished and reached its zenith. The step towers that had appeared earlier gave way to a humongous amount of talaiots, more than 500 of them distributed on Menorca and Majorca. Over time, the newer settlements began to take advantage of strategic places to take dominion over a territory, and often, these talaiots were built on borders between villages. Evidently, some of these settlements ended up protected by walls that incorporated talaiots as defensive towers. The walls were built with very large and heavy rocks, without the use of any mortar (cyclopean masonry). The funerary traditions were very varied. In Menorca, extensive necropoleis were built in natural caves or excavated in the walls of ravines, like Cala Morell.


The Pityuses (Ibiza and Formentera) had remained uninhabited until this point. But at the beginning of the Iron Age, in the 8th century BC, these islands were settled by a thalassocratic nation: Phoenicia. These seafarers spread across the Mediterranean Sea between 1500 and 300 BC to colonize or trade with distant regions, like the mining city Tarsis, of the kingdom of Tartessos in southern Iberia. The Phoenicians called Menorca "Nura", that derives from nur, meaning "fire". Because when their ships sailed near the island, they could see bonfires shine from the top of the talaiots. The Greek term for Menorca would be Μηλουσσα (Meloussa), derived from μῆλον (mêlon, "livestock"), the island's first wealth. In 654 BC, the Phoenicians founded the city of Ibiza, becoming the center of the western Mediterranean trade due to its privileged strategic position.


The golden age of the Talaiotic Period came to an end with another crisis around the middle 1st millennium BC, during the transition from the Talaiotic Culture to the Post-talaiotic Culture. It is possible that during this obscure period, the enigmatic taulas appeared, built in the previously existing Talaiotic sanctuaries. Around 600-500 BC, most talaiots had fallen into disuse and vast areas of villages were burnt and abandoned.


Notable structures


Talaiots are undoubtedly one of the most emblematic monuments of the Balearic Islands, so much so that they gave name to the Talaiotic Culture. Additionally, more than 500 talaiots cover the landscape of Menorca and Majorca. Menorcan talaiots are usually more monumental than Majorcan ones, perhaps indicating a better organized society. Talaiots were circular on both islands, or elliptic on Menorca and square in Majorca. Moreover, Majorcan talaiots always have an internal chamber, as opposed to Menorcan talaiots, which can be both hollow, like Ses Bigues de Mata, or completely solid, such as Torelló 1.


The appearance of late navetas predates the Talaiotic Period, but were still used well into this period. The best example is the perfectly preserved Naveta des Tudons. This Talaiotic naveta is clearly distinguishable from Pre-Talaiotic navetas: it was built with dry ashlar masonry, using finely dressed rectangular stones, and the entrance, composed by two monolithic pillars supporting a lintel, has lost the perforated slab.


Menorca has yet another type of exclusive structures, called taulas. Their purpose and moment of appearence is unknown, however an Egyptian bronze figurine of Imhotep, frequently associated to curative practices, has been found near the taula of Torre d'en Galmés. Taulas are found inside a precinct that is horseshoe-shaped and is also found in Majorca, called sanctuary. The sanctuary has an enclosing wall, called apse, of cyclopean masonry, with one or two entrances in the concave façade. The entrance consists of a slab on the ground called threshold, monolithic lateral pillars, and a lintel. 11 columns are located at the perifery, radiating around the taula, one of which is wider, called taula-like column, and a 12th exempt column located at the left side of the taula (if one faces the entrance). The taula stands in the middle of the sanctuary, and is composed of the pillar and the capital, and can reach heights of 5 m. The base of the taula is aligned with much lower stones called flanks. Taula sanctuaries had 2 ritual fireplaces, one in front of the taula, and a second one at the left corner of the sanctuary, against the apse. Some are of the opinion that the precinct that encloses the taula was covered by a ceiling, and that the taula itself was a pillar to support it. However, most authors now believe that the sanctuary was not covered, and others claim it was only partially covered. The taula and its sanctuary has long been seen as an astronomical observatory, that was used to create a callendar and predict the arrival of seasons. However, the natives didn't practice agriculture, only farming, and calendaries aren't essential, and therefore the astronomical theory isn't fundamented. On the other side, taulas are mostly found pointing towards the sea. In any case, whatever the taula might symbolize, it has two companions: the exempt column to its left, and the taula-like column to its right. Taulas have been found in most Menorcan villages, but the taula and sanctuary of Torralba d'en Salord are exceptionally well preserved.


Sites (click on the links for more information)


Es Tudons

Torralba d'en Salord

Cornia Nou

Sant Agustí Vell

Torellonet Vell

Son Catlar

Talatí de Dalt

Trepucó

Post-Talaiotic Period & Carthaginian Influence

(450—123 BC)

"Μηλουσσα, νησος κατα Ἰβηρας."

"Meloussa (Menorca), the island in front of the Iberians."


Hecataeus of Miletus, 500 BC


With these words prehistory in the Balearic Islands came to an end, and history would properly begin. The houses, called “circles”, achieve great perfection. They are usually built around a central patio, with many large monoliths in its interior, and are often chained together with other houses.


Mercenary forces were enlisted in Carthage in order to replenish the armies, an extraordinary technique that Carthage had employed since the 6th century BC, and since the beginning of the reign of King Hanno the Navigator in 480 BC, Carthage regularly began employing Iberian infantry and Balearic slingers to support Carthaginian spearmen. During the Second Punic War, Ibiza supplied the Carthaginian general Magon, brother to Hannibal Barca, before he set course towards Menorca in 205 BC to take refuge, founding, according to tradition, the city of Mahón. Slingers were enlisted until the destruction of Carthage by Rome in 146 BC.


Notable structures


Circles are also exclusive to Menorca. They are in fact Talaiotic dwellings that have a circular plan. The outer walls are made by horizontal stones that form the foundation, and vertical, mostly rectangular stones on top. The first entrance leads to an interior patio that has a fireplace. Surrounding the patio, there are rooms, hypostyles (storage facilities), a water reservoir, and a dumpsite. Circles achieve great perfection during the Post-talaiotic Period, for example at the village of Torre d'en Galmés.


Sites (click on the links for more information)


Torre d'en Galmés


Roman Era

(123 BC—468 AD)

After the Punic Wars, Rome attempted to conquer Majorca in several occasions, but failed, until Quintus Caecilius Metellus was elected to the consulship in 123 BC, serving alongside Titus Quinctus Flaminius. During his consulship, he was awarded the command of the campaign against the pirates of the Balearic Islands. Majorca has two excellent harbors, which were used as a base by pirates from southern Gaul and Sardinia, who escaped the Roman campaigns in Transalpine Gaul in 126 BC and Sardinia in 125 and fled to the Balearics, the last place for them to hide in the western Mediterranean. By 121 BC he had defeated the pirates and conquered Majorca and Menorca, that were called the Balearics, for which he gained his cognomen Balearicus and the honours of a Triumph.


The territory was extremely valuable economically, so much so that in the aftermath of the victory, Balearicus established 3.000 ‘Romans’ on the islands in two settlements on Majorca, Palmaria (Palma), and Pollentia (Alcúdia). The two settlements attest to the importance of the islands being firmly under Roman control. There is some debate as to where these settlers came from, as it is unlikely there were this many Roman civilians available and willing to colonize Majorca from the mainland at this date. The most likely explanation is that they were veterans from the wars in Hispania and Roman-Spanish hybridae.Almost 12 years after the conquest, the Balearic slingers were already integrated int the African campaign of the Roman armies.


The Greek historian and geographer Strabo gave us an insight of what the Balearic Islands looked like several decades after the Roman conquest.


"Των δε προκειμενων νησων της Ἰβηριας τας μεν Πιτυουσσας δυο καιτας Γυμνησιας δυο (καλουσι και Βαλιαριδας) προκεισθαι συμβαινει της μεταξυ Ταρρακωνος και Σουκρωνος παραλιας, ἐφ΄ ης ἱδρυται το Σαγουντον."

"Of the islands that lie in front of Iberia, the two Pityuses and the two Gymnesians (also called Balearides) are located in front of the coast between Tarraco and Sucro, where Sagunto lies."


Strabo, 65 BC – 20 AD, Geographica


In the 4th century AD, the emperor Theodosius merged the Pityuses with the Balearics, creating the Roman province of Hispania Balearica.


Sites (click on the links for more information)


Sanisera

Byzantine Era

(533—707 AD)

The Vandals under Genseric conquered the Islands sometime between 461 and 468 during their war on the Roman Empire. However, in late 533 or early 534, following the Battle of Ad Decimum, Justinian I gave Belisarius the command of gaining control of the islands for the Byzantine Empire. One year later, Belisarius entrusted the conquest of the Balearic Islands to his lieutenant Apollinaris, where he became governor.


Sites (click on the links for more information)


Basílica de Son Bou

Basílica des Cap des Port

Basílica des Fornàs de Torelló

Basílica de la Isla del Rey

Muslim Era

(707—1232 AD)

Byzantine Imperial power receded precipitously in the western Mediterranean after the fall of Carthage and the Exarchate of Africa to the Umayyad Caliphate in 698, and in 707 the islands submitted to the terms of an Umayyad fleet, which allowed the residents to maintain their traditions and religion as well as a high degree of autonomy. Now nominally both Byzantine and Umayyad, the de facto independent islands occupied a strategic and profitable grey area between the competing religions and kingdoms of the western Mediterranean. The prosperous islands were thoroughly sacked by the Swedish Viking King Björn Ironside and his brother Hastein during their Mediterranean raid of 859–862.


In 902, the heavy use of the islands as a pirate base provoked the Emirate of Córdoba, nominally the island's overlords, to invade and incorporate the islands into their state. However, the Cordoban Caliphate that succeeded the Emirate disintegrated in civil war in the early 11th century, breaking into smaller states called taifa. Mujahid al-Siqlabi, the ruler of the Taifa of Dénia, sent a fleet and seized control of the islands in 1015, using it as the base for subsequent expeditions to Sardinia and Pisa. In 1050, the island's governor Abd Allah ibn Aglab rebelled and established the independent Taifa of Mallorca.


Sites (click on the links for more information)


Castle of Santa Àgueda

Aragonese Conquest &

Catalan Colonization (1232 AD)


On the last day of 1229, King James I of Aragon captured Palma after a three-month siege. The rest of Mallorca quickly followed. Menorca fell in 1232 and Ibiza in 1235. James died in 1276, having partitioned his domains between his sons James and Peter in his will. The will created a new Kingdom of Mallorca from the Balearic islands and the mainland counties of Roussillon and Montpellier, which was left to his son James II of Majorca. However, the terms of the will specified that the new kingdom be a vassal state to the Kingdom of Aragon, which was left to his older brother Peter III.


Because the recent conquest of Sicily by Peter III the Great, Pope Martin IV declared the Aragonese Crusade against Peter and officially deposed him as king. Martin bestowed Aragon on Charles, Count of Valois, son of the French king, Philip III, and nephew of Peter III. James II joined forces with the Pope Martin IV and Philip III of France against his brother Peter III in the Aragonese Crusade, leading to a 10-year Aragonese occupation. Majorca was devastated as an independent polity. However, the crusade resulted in an Aragonese victory, and Peter's successor Alfonso III annexed Majorca, Ibiza, and Menorca in the following years.


However, the Treaty of Tarascon of 1291, that intended to end the Aragonese Crusade, officially restored Aragon to Alfonso III and lifted the ban of the church. Alfonso was obligated to pay a tribute to the church, and carry out a crusade to the Holy Land. In 1295, the Treaty of Anagni confirmed the Treaty of Tarascon and returned the islands to James II.


The tension between the kingdoms continued through the generations until James' grandson James III was killed by the invading army of Peter's grandson Peter IV at the 1349 Battle of Llucmajor. The Balearic Islands were then incorporated directly into the kingdom of Aragon.

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Copyright © 2009-2020 Carlos Vermeersch Santana

San Cristóbal de La Laguna, S/C de Tenerife, Spain

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