Hidden treasures

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At first glance much of the merchandise at the Mercadillo del Jueves resembles trash rather than treasure. However, once the dust is brushed aside, hidden gems come to light.

The fierce rays of the mid-morning sun beat down on Feria Street, illuminating the dozens of tables and tarps that line its sides. Vendors eagerly scan the crowded, narrow street, motioning customers toward their booths. “Good products, cheap prices!” they shout. Spectators hunch over the displayed merchandise, leafing through piles of old postcards, inspecting tarnished jewelry, and perusing the yellowed pages of paperbacks. Andrés Tosao Villanueva calmly surveys his surroundings from a folding chair, as he has done for over 20 years. At Tosao’s feet lies a pair of African masks, whose ebony faces are carved with intricate designs. Encircling the masks is a wide array of decorative pieces from countries including Russia, Greece, and Morocco.

Farther down the block , across from Bar El Ambigú, Alberto Víctor stands behind his post, holding a cigarette in one hand. The other he uses to gesture to the bundles of postcards he has been collecting for decades from a myriad of countries. Behind him, a group of teenage girls stroll down the sidewalk, towing a suitcase of kittens, which are so small that two can be easily scooped up in one handful. Across from a vintage clothing store, a tarp spread out on the concrete displays various bronze figures. According to the vendor these pieces are between 200 and 300 years old, unearthed in the town of Morón de La Frontera, 66 kilometers southeast of Seville near the American- Spanish Air Force base. At a neighboring table, Ángel explains how he crafts all of his products from recycled metals. “The foundations are dead. I bring them back to life.”

A century-long tradition

El Mercadillo del Jueves has taken place each Thursday on Feria Street since the 13th century, making it the oldest outdoor market in Seville. Since its inception, many valuable objects have passed through the market and into the hands of customers. Often, the historical significance or financial value of the items go unnoticed, until the rare occasion when one buyer decides to dig a bit deeper into an object’s history. One vendor, Mercedes Riva, describes the nature of the market, “We can’t identify a lot of the things we sell. That’s what makes the market interesting.”

Diamonds in the rough

Such is the case with a painting that was sold to a gypsy dealer in 1972, which was later identified as the work of legendary painter Francisco de Goya. At first glance much of the merchandise at the Mercadillo del Jueves resembles trash rather than treasure. However, once the dust is brushed aside, hidden gems come to light. In 1958, directly outside of what was then Bar Luis Cruz on Feria Street, Juan de Mata Carriazo was browsing the goods at the booth of a man named Pedro (nobody can tell us his last name.) Being a professor and passionate researcher of archaeology, Carriazo’s interest was drawn to a small bronze piece, featuring the image of a woman at its center. Her outstretched arms grasped a pair of triangular rattles, and two birds are perched on each side. While there were many other metal objects at the market, Carriazo felt particularly inclined to purchase this one. What he bought for a few pesetas from Pedro was no ordinary wall decoration; in fact, it would lead Carriazo back 2,500 years into Spain’s history.

The ‘Bronce Carriazo

In honor of its finder , the piece is now referred to as the Bronce Carriazo, and is housed comfortably within a glass display case in the Archaeological Museum of Seville. While its backdrop was once comprised of ripped comic books and second-hand flamenco dresses, surrounding the Bronce Carriazo today are other precious artifacts from the Tartessian period. Occupying the display case to the right is a small bronze figure of the goddess Astarté, found at the archaeological site of El Carambolo, a few kilometers west of Seville, and on its base is the longest, and perhaps earliest, example of Phoenician writing in the Iberian Peninsula, in which Baaljaton and Abdibaal, sons of Dommelek, express their gratitude to the goddess for listening to their prayers. In the center of the room proudly stands the Tesoro del Carombolo, a sumptuous array of gold ornaments most likely worn by a high priest or king, which was found by a worker at a construction site in 1958 and has been very loosely dated sometime between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC.

With a bit more precision , the Bronce Carriazo has been dated back to the end of the 7th century, at the peak of the Tartessian rule on the southwestern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, along the banks of what’s known today as the Guadalquivir river, in the Andalusian provinces of Cádiz, Huelva, and Seville. The piece is considered by some historians to have been an embellished horse bit, although the focal point of the decoration is a representation of the goddess Astarté. This divinity is one of the principal Canaanite goddesses of the second millennium BC, serving as the symbol of fertility and the protector of navigation. The nameplate that identifies the piece at the museum also refers to her as a protector of animals—a quality stemming from her additional role as goddess of war and hunting. Also known as queen of the underworld, as well as the morning star of the planet Venus, Astarté is a predecessor of the Greek divinity Aphrodite.

In the Bronce Carriazo, Astarté holds a triangular rattle in each hand. The formation in which the birds merge above her mimics the shape of a boat she navigates. In ancient Egyptian beliefs, a “solar boat” was used to transport the soul to the afterlife. Egyptian gods also used solar boats to travel to the stars and back, quite fitting for Astarté—the morning star. The lotuses that adorn her figure represent the cycle of life and death, which Astarté controls as queen of the underworld. All of her divine duties make Astarté the protector of Tyre, a city in present-day Lebanon that was home to most of the Phoenician settlers who later colonized the Iberian Peninsula.

Through the eyes of a vendor

Today at the market , Luis Andújar mans his post behind his table, which boasts piles upon piles of ancient books for sale. He has grey hair streaked with white, a matching bushy beard, and large glasses that frame his focused gaze. He is also the proud owner of the bookstore El Desván in Seville. His collection includes works of Cervantes, like Don Quijote de la Mancha, and others from the Spanish literary generations of 1927 and 1898. In the words of Manuel Pastor, a nearby vendor, “Luis is an extraordinary book expert.” According to Andújar, aside from the painting by Goya and the Bronce Carriazo, books are the main treasure to be found in el Jueves. Having worked at the market for 42 years, Aranda has grown to accumulate a significant amount of literary knowledge. In his early years as a vendor, he crossed paths with Pedro, from whom he also bought books occasionally. “He was ignorant. Very ignorant,” Aranda says. “He didn’t know anything about the value of the little bronze he sold to Juan de Mata Carriazo.”

Pedro died in 2001, so he was not available to voice his opinion regarding his influential sale. Carriazo passed away two years prior to Pedro, so only his published texts and numerous awards can speak for his views on the subject. Aranda does not know much of the buyer, but a few memories still remain of his old friend Pedro. He calls him a “poor devil,” as he shakes his head and laughs. “He liked his wine, like many of the vendors here.”

Pedro primarily sold iron objects and other metal scraps found in the hills of the Aljarafe, west of Seville, which is home to remarkable archaeological sites from Roman and Pre-Roman times, including the town of Italica, founded in 206 BC by Scipio the African, and the birthplace of the Roman emperors Trajan and Adrian. Pedro most likely did not know much of the history of the town in which he found his merchandise. “He didn’t know how to read or write. He didn’t understand anything beyond selling,” Aranda says. Regardless, the treasure that was unearthed from Pedro’s booth turned out to be worth far more than the pocket change Carriazo paid him over half a century ago.

A lasting legacy

The Bronce Carriazo is only one of many treasures the Mercadillo del Jueves hides under its towering piles of disfigured dolls and faded love letters. Every object has a story, a life, whose words have been muffled with the passage of time. But, each Thursday, as it has been for hundreds of years, an opportunity resurfaces: to embrace a piece of history and welcome it into the present. The vendors who are the faces behind the el Jueves often dedicate much of their lives to the exchange of second-hand products. Every week, they set up their wooden tables and worn-down tarps, with the hope that their goods will find a new owner. The question is, who is willing to pause and take a second look to uncover the secrets buried within?