A portion of the cemetery of Valentia, from the Roman Republic
Last week, work took me to Valencia, a city on the east coast of Spain. Like many Spanish cities, it is built on layers of history, and luckily for the visitor, archaeologists digging under one of the city squares found a rich collection of remains from various periods. These have been preserved as El Centro Arqueológico de l’Almoina.
With some 2,500 square meters of remains uncovered between 1985 and 2005, it displays numerous buildings from the Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish periods. Some of them date back to the city’s founding in 138 BC during the Roman Republic as a home for retired soldiers. The city, called Valentia, expanded with typical Roman efficiency until it was obliterated, with equal Roman efficiency, by Pompey in 75 BC during the Roman civil war. It remained abandoned for more than 50 years.
Funerary stela, Roman, middle of the first century AD
In past weeks we’ve looked at the historic city of Córdoba, Spain–its famous mosque/cathedral, its castle, and other sites. To wrap up this miniseries, let’s look at the city’s excellent archaeological museum. Like many local museums in Spain, it covers a broad range of history from the Paleolithic to the Renaissance. It is especially strong in Roman artifacts, and is in fact built on some Roman ruins that can be seen in the basement.
I love these local museums because you get to see just how long people have been living at some of these places. The museum in Córdoba is especially well presented and has some interesting pieces from the city and the surrounding countryside. I’ll let the images speak for themselves.
The Stele of Castrelo de Val, showing a shield and chariot. This Bronze Age stele is similar to those found in Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, and the Mediterranean.
When one thinks of Spain, one generally thinks of sun-soaked coastlines and arid stretches of plain, but Spain’s northern coast is a green, hilly region with a strong Celtic tradition. The westernmost region, just north of Portugal, is called Galicia. Here you’ll find cider instead of wine, bagpipes instead of castanets, and a rich archaeological heritage.
GALAICOS. Un pueblo entre dos mundos at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid explores the ancient history of this region from the Bronze Age to the arrival of Christianity. It reveals a well-populated archaeological region that was connected to the Phoenician and Greek trade routes along the Atlantic coast to the tin mines in Britain. The exhibition shows some interesting examples of artifacts making their way along the trade route to Galicia from Italy, Greece, and North Africa.
Attic red figure cup of a female musician playing at an altar, c. 480 BC.
It’s the summer art season here in Madrid, and tourists, locals, and immigrants like me are fleeing to the air conditioned sanctuaries of major exhibitions to avoid heat stroke and see some culture.
One of the more interesting exhibitions is at the Caixa Forum, an exhibition space run by one of Spain’s major banks. Music in Antiquity traces the development of various musical instruments in Europe and the Middle East, and looks at how music was used in various ancient cultures.
About 400 artifacts from the Louvre, the National Museum in Athens, Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions trace some 3,000 years of history.
As a writer, sometimes I get my inspiration in strange ways.
Going to art galleries is one. For some reason, enjoying fine art that isn’t writing fires up my writing. I also like to collect odd and interesting objects, although they have to be cheap because, you know, I’m a writer.
One of my favorites is this Roman coin that I snagged for 10 euros ($11.50) at a local coin shop. It was so cheap because the coin is in pretty bad condition. I didn’t care, because it’s cool to keep a piece of the empire in my pocket.
For a year I wasn’t able to identify it, but then at a party in Oxford I lucked out. I was showing it off and one of the people there knew a former numismatist for the British Museum. We took a couple of shots of it and sent it to her. An hour later I learned it was a coin of Magnentius, a usurper who ruled in the Western Roman Empire from AD 350-353.
Mummy portrait from the 2nd century AD of two brothers who appear to have died together
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is an addictive place. On my two writing retreats in Egypt last year I found myself returning again and again. The collections are so vast, the displays so stunning, that no matter how many times you go you always find something that bowls you over.
Much of the museum is laid out chronologically, from the predynastic era all the way up to the Greco-Roman period (332 BC – 395 AD). This last period of ancient Egypt is often overlooked except for the famous mummy portraits like the one pictured above, lifelike paintings of the deceased. The rest of the art from this time is less compelling. Some of it is overdone, almost cartoonish, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Here’s a small sample of what the museum had to offer.
I apologize for the quality of some of these photos. The Egyptian Museum is poorly lit and many of the cases are dirty, making good photography difficult. Hope you enjoy them anyway!
The Roman theater at Cádiz sez: “Ugh, I’ve eaten too much dormouse. BLAARGH!”
I’ve often heard an odd rumor about the ancient Romans. Supposedly they had a special room in their villas and public houses called a vomitorium so that after binging on food and wine they could purge themselves and start stuffing their gullets again. You’ve probably heard that rumor too.
I’ve never believed that story, but while exploring the Roman remains at Cádiz, Spain, I discovered that the vomitorium actually did exist, it just wasn’t what we’ve been told.
Roman amphora with coral, from the Levanzo shipwreck AD 275‒300
Sicily has been the center of Mediterranean history for centuries. Positioned at the halfway point between the western and eastern halves of the sea, and between Europe and Africa, it has been a nexus of trade and warfare ever since humanity started sailing. Now a major exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum looks at the discoveries by underwater archaeologists around Sicily’s shores.
Statue of a Lusitani warrior, 1st century AD.
Note the torc and arm bands, indicating high rank
It’s the start of the summer exhibition season here in Madrid, and the National Archaeological Museum is offering a free exhibition called Lusitania Romana, about the Roman province that took up much of what is now western Spain and Portugal.
The province got its name from the native Lusitani, who were either a Celtiberian people or an older ethnic group culturally influenced by the Celts, depending on which historian you read. The Romans fought these people from from 155 to 139 BC, eventually defeating them. The Lusitani continued a guerrilla war for another century.
When the province was created in 27 BC, the capital was set as Emerita Augusta, now the modern city of Mérida in Spain, which still retains some fascinating Roman ruins including a well-preserved theater, plus an excellent museum. With pacification came acculturation, and soon the region had several sizeable cities with all the usual Roman public works, and the countryside had numerous villas with some fine mosaics that have survived to this day.
Spring has finally sprung here in Madrid. The sidewalk cafes are full, and those who can’t find a seat have set off to the countryside to go hiking. It’s a good time to leave the museums and galleries behind and take a look at what the surrounding area has to offer.
This past weekend my family and I visited Alcalá de Henares, a small city 40 minutes on the suburban train outside of Madrid. Its main claim to fame is being the birthplace of Cervantes, who has been in the news recently because Spanish archaeologists discovered his tomb.
Like many Spanish cities, it has its roots in prehistory and came to prominence in Roman times, when it was called Complutum. After the fall of the empire it was a Visigothic settlement and was later taken over by the Moors, who built a citadel (“al-qal’a” in Arabic, a common place name in Spain). During the Moorish period it was a thriving town with large Christian and Jewish quarters.