777 Zenbakia 2023-02-15 / 2023-04-12


Miqueldi’s idol. An archaeological “black swan”


Translation by Elena Muñoz Aldecoa

During these weeks we have witnessed an explosion of media and social interest in the ancient pre-Roman History of Navarre and the Basque Country after the discovery of the “Mano de Irulegui”[1] ("Hand of Irulegui"), which contains at least one term in the lengua vascónica (ancient Basque languaje)  that is considered to be related to the current euskera (the modern-day Basque language). It is a very complex matter that must be entrusted to archaeologists and specialists, apart from also avoiding talk- panelists.

What is certain is that, in these lands, History has been a highly political issue since the Renaissance, given that our foral[2](kind of regional) institutions were initially built on the basis of stories and interpretations of the past that suited the prestige objectives they sought at the time, even against historical evidence, and sometimes even denying the reality of the physcal findings if they contradicted the "official" version.

In the work “Luminoso ídolo oscuro. Miqueldi, historia y significado” ("Luminous dark idol: Miqueldi, History and meaning"), the first archaeological study and interpretation of the zoomorphic sculpture of San Vicente de Mikeldi, we manifest our interest in its historiography, given that it is an Iron Age idol that was uncomfortable for the foral power of Biscay from the 17th to the 19th centuries that implied a story different from the official one during that period. In the following lines I am going to try to explain the reason why, in my opinión, this has happened.

The history of the Mikeldi for the purpose of public knowledge began in 1634 with the publication of the book "Micrología geográfica del asiento de la noble Merindad[3] de Durango por su ámbito y circunferencia" by Gonzalo de Otálora[4]. Curiously enough, it was published in Seville and not in Bilbao; a very short printing run is the reason why there are now hardly any copies of that edition left.

The book contains the first description of the sculpture of the animal, "with a globe its feet" and "noticeable carved and unintelligible characters"; it states that it is considered "an idol". The work contains four parts: the first is a “Duranguesa”[5] version of the History of the origin of the Señorío de Vizcaya[6] (Lordship of “Biscay”), which points to Sancho Esteguiz, Count of Durango, as the key character rather than the mythical Jaun Zuría, the first Lord. The second part is a description of the region and villages of the Duranguesado. The third one is the account of the existing historical and religious heritage. And the fourth part is a description of the environment of the region. As it is a book from 1634, it is really modern for its time.

After the publication of the book by Otálora 144 years of silence went by. This is quite surprising for a matter of the Historybof Biscay: not a single line, not a single comment, no even one, neither from inside nor outside, wanted to talk about the sculpture, as if it did not exist. This "deafening" silence for almost a century and a half ceased in 1778 when the Augustinian priest Father Flórez published in one of the volumes of his work "Hispania Sagrada" (Holy Spain) a commentary on the idol and the origin he attributed to it. Flórez considers it to be the work of the Carthaginians when they invaded the territory of Biscay.

His assertion is a real challenge for the interests of the foral Biscay: to claim that foreigners came to this land and dominated it meant that it was no longer in the possession of the people from Biscay. This had tremendous political consequences at the time. Ozaeta and Larramendi and other local writers went on a rampage against the Augustinian priest.

Given that Flórez was a religious man of the highest intellectual prestige at the time, as well as very well regarded at Court, it was really difficult to postulate against him. The blame was then placed on Otálora, the first lesrned person to mention the existence of the sculpture, something much easier because had died a century earlier. He was disqualified, his merits were denied, his knowledge was mocked and the man who had been many times mayor of Durango, a representative in the General Assemblies of Guernica and in the Regiment of Biscay and Captain of the Durango troops in the defence of the Biscayan coast against the enemies of the Crownwas forgotten.  

The sculpture itself was also attacked, claiming that it was a "mochigote" (botched sculpture) or a medieval decorative sketch of no interest whatsoever. In order to make it disappear, it was kept in total abandonment, demolished, used to pass a bank, and then half-buried; it was surrounded by vegetation and on the edge of a road where the wheels of the carts rubbed against it.

During the following century most local scholars continued to their rejection and disinterest in the idol as if its mere existence was an anecdote or a curiosity. Practically only the members of the Royal Academy of History understood its importance in those days, and they encouraged the re-publication of Otálora's work in order to make the sculpture renowned.

In 1864, the Bilbao publisher Juan Delmas, an unprejudiced educated man, made a visit to Durango to see the idol of which he had heard about; he was accompanied by the official chronicler of the Señorío, Antonio de Trueba. It was found, no without difficulty, lying on a heap of brambles and soil, so they ordered it to be uncovered. At first, doubting about its importance and calling it a crude "mamarracho" (a mess), Trueba ed his contempt for the quality of the sculpture. But Delmas appreciated its historical interest and cultural value. Finally, Trueba decided to rectify his rejection and both asked the mayor of Durango to protect it.

In a clear demonstration of the ideological phobia that existed against the sculpture, Saturnina de Isusi, the owner of the land, ordered it to be "reburied" because, she said, "its mere existence is a standard of ignominy for Durango". It seems that shectly aware of the implications of having a pre-Christian idol in Durango.

Why this rejection of the sculpture since 1634? Its mere presence called into question the whole web of the political-religious myths of that society, ideological heir of the Ancient Régime; it highlighted the falsity of the officially defended ancient history of Biscay (and, in turn, also that of the other two Basque provinces), as it was a story created to justify the foral regime at Court.

The problem was that the Carietes or Caristios, who created sculpture in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, like their neighbours the Várdulos and the Autrigones, were not Basque people, but people of Indo-European Celtic culture and language, something that changed a few centuries later with the population and linguistic vasconización of the territory in the late antiquity, due to the movements of the Basque inhabitantas when the effective Roman control of the Basque and Navarrese area on both sides of the Pyrenees disappeared.

These were unknown facts, ignored since the Renaissance and replaced by a historical falsification (a common practice in those times in many kingdoms). The reason was the political interests of the Lordship of Biscay after the approval in 1526 of the Fuero Nuevo (New Charter).

The invented past was fabricated to provide a historical basis to justify the Crown's recognition of the alleged immemorial nature of the fueros, the universal nobility of the territory's inhabitants, their cleanliness of blood and the antiquity of the Basque people inhabiting the same plot of land. They were all fictions.

They also used the myth of the Tubalism, which implied the worshiping by the Basque people of the one God before Christ; of their biblical antiquity, having always inhabited the same territory; of their immemorial presence ("we The Basques do not date") in a land never trodden by invading foreigners, unlike the rest of the peninsula; and of the Basque Cantabrian origen, a myth necessary to explain the surprising failure of the powerful Rome to dominate the lands of Biscay.

All of these fables were accepted as facts from the 16th century until almost the end of the 19th century, as they were very pleasing to the individual and group self-esteem. The presence of the idol called all the fables into question.

The myths were believed and defended by foral personalities and scholars of all kinds, as well as by Carlists, liberal foralists, dynastic conservatives and finally by various nationalist patriotic movements, heirs to the ideological environment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, diluted versions of these myths continue to appear in some debates, speeches and publications even today.

The existence of the Mikeldi idol, an autochthonous sculpture carved in local sandstone, not brought from elsewhere, and its relationship with the four hundred zoomorphic sculptures in the rest of Spain and Portugal, such as the bulls of Guisando or the boar of the bridge in Salamanca, is the archaeological proof that the pre-Roman history of Biscay and its surroundings was different from that which has been spread by myths for political interests since the Renaissance.

That is why many local scholars have for centuries preferred to tiptoe around the existence of the sculpture, that for them should never have existed.

This sculpture made many people very nervous because it made obvious their biased political discourse and it threatened it. For this reason, attempts were made to make it disappear through neglect and deterioration and, if this was not possible, at least to make it be forgotten and ignored.

"Luminoso ídolo oscuro. Miqueldi, historia y significado”.

The idol is an authentic historical "unicum": a boar with a disc its legs and signs engraved on its right side in an alphabet, unknown to Otálora in 1634. Possibly the first epigraphic text from Biscay.

Fortunately, despite so many threats, the sculpture has survived and has come down to us. In 1896, the mayor of Durango, José Larrañaga, a more determined man than the previous town councillors, ordered the sculpture to be put up. In 1919, Justo Larrañaga, son of the previous mayor, founded a fastener company with José Patricio Ortueta and they bought the land where the Mikeldi is located, becoming the owners of the sculpture.

Precisely at that time, the Provincial Council of Biscay was looking for relevant pieces for the future Provincial Archaeological Museum that it wanted to create in Bilbao and ordered the Basque writer Federico Belausteguigoitia, by chance José Patricio Ortueta's brother-in-law, to arrange the possible transfer of the sculpture from Durango to Bilbao to be exhibited in the Museum.

José Patricio Ortueta was a man raised in France. Well educated and very aware of the value of the cultural property and goods, he accepted his brother-in-law's without hesitation and convinced Justo Larrañaga that the sculpture should be transferred to the future museum in Bilbao as a temporary cutody of its owners.

The Bilbao Archaeological Museum was finally inaugurated in 1921 and the Mikeldi became its most important archaeological piece and almost its symbol. It was first exhibited in the cloister courtyard under a glass roof; afterwards in a room inside the building. At the end of the 1960s it was taken to the cloister courtyard again, this time in open-air, surrounded by grass and suffering  humidity, rain and the changes in temperature, as well as the then extremely polluted air of Bilbao. In 1983 the sculpture was submerged under water by the August floods and had to endure its effects.

In spite of all these centuries-old ed mistreatment, the ancient idol has survived. From this It follows, if you will pardon the joke, that the divinity represented by the sculpture must still be ´really powerful´. 

Nowadays the sculpture is packed away while the “Euskal Museoa - Museo Vasco” ("Euskal Museoa - Basque Museum") in Bilbao is being refurbished. We hope they manage to give our idol, a real archaeological “black swan”, the protected and relevant place it deserves.   

[1]La ´Mano de Irulegui´ (the hand of Irulegui), is an archaeological piece found in a site of the town from the Iron Age, 1st century BC. C., located at the foot of the ruins of the Irulegui castle in Laquidáin, Aranguren valley, near Pamplona, ​​in Navarra, Spain.
It is a bronze plaque in the shape of an outstretched hand, on the back of which is a four-line inscription written, according to experts, in ancient Aquitanian or —what amounts to the same— the Basque language.

[2] Foral: (Kind of Regional) Spanish RAE (Real Academia de la Lengua):
A Belonging or relative to jurisdiction.
B Said of a norm or an institution: that is governed by a historical right maintained by the Constitution and the laws.

[3] Merindad
-District with an important city or town that defended and directed the interests of the towns and villages located in its demarcation.

[4]Gonzalo de Otálora: edly mayor of Durango, a representative in the General Assemblies of Guernica and in the Regiment of Biscay and captain of the Durango troops in the defence of the Biscayan coast against the enemies of the Crown.

[5]“Duranguesa”: Durango (Tavira) is a municipality of Vizcaya, in the autonomous community of the Basque Country in Spain. Located in the “Duranguesado” region, it has an area of ​​10.79 km² and a population of 29,935 inhabitants (2021). It is considered, by economic activity and number of inhabitants, the most important population in the Biscayan historical territory after the several that make up Greater Bilbao. He holds the titles of "Very Noble and Very Loyal to the Royal Crown of Durango".

[6]Señorío (lordship): typical institution of the Middle Ages and the Modern Age in Spain, somewhat similar to the feud of the Carolingian Empire. It arose in the Christian kingdoms of the north of the peninsula and spread to the rest of the territory during the Reconquest. It was strengthened by the subsequent Hispanic Monarchy.

Translation by Elena Muñoz Aldecoa (Philologist, Graduate in English Language Studies).
Final revision: Arturo Aldecoa Ruiz

Eusko Jaurlaritza