Archeologists Stumble Across a Strange Roman Artifact: “We Weren’t Expecting This Spectacular Discovery.”
Spain was experiencing an unusually long cold spell in early 2021 when a heavy snowstorm, the worst of the kind since 1971, wreaked further havoc. Yet, even in the terrible weather conditions in Asturias in the northern parts of the country, localite Roberto García stumbled upon something spectacular.
He found a few ancient coins scattered at the mouth of a cave that clearly did not belong there. This led to more amazing discoveries by archaeologists who thronged to the site.
The Mystery of the Scattered Coins
García was thrilled to find around 100 scattered coins but soon realized they weren’t modern currency; they were too old. He wondered if the heavy snowfall was responsible for his finding them strewn around on the ground near the entrance of the La Cuesta cave.
The accidental discovery piqued his curiosity about the origin of the coins. He hoped it was enough to get them down to the site. Knowing only experts could answer his questions, he tipped off the archaeologists about what he had found.
Archaeologists at the Site
La Cuesta cave, located around 230 miles north of the capital city, Madrid, along river Nalón suddenly became the hotspot for the archaeologists. Yet, it took them several months to finally arrive at the site. A small group of researchers led by Alfonso Fanjul made a field trip to the cave in April.
After a brief study, they quickly identified the origin of the coins; they belonged to the era of ancient Rome dating back to 200 to 400 AD. The lead archaeologist was thrilled to discover even more coins on the ground nearby.
Origin of the Coins
Every archaeologist dreams of discovering something unique like this at least once in a lifetime. The team was overjoyed to realize that dream through the coins. So, where did these coins originate from? They were only too happy to find out the details.
Most of the coins came from the eastern and northern coasts of the Mediterranean, such as Antioch, today’s Turkish city of Antakia, Constantinople – modern-day Turkey’s Istanbul and also from modern Greece, which was earlier known as Thessaloniki. Surprisingly, only one coin originated from London.
Buried in the Fifth Century
The treasure has been buried for over 1,500 years, and aside from understanding where they came from, the archaeologists were curious about who buried the coins in the first place. What prompted them to hide their wealth? Fanjul had a vague idea about what had happened, and it mostly had to do with the events of the fifth century.
It was the period in history when the Roman empire was subjected to various incursions by foreign tribes. Rebellious factions from the North were invading Spain; notorious among them were the Suebi tribes of Germanic origin
The Golden Age of Pax Romana
Before the warrior tribes made inroads into the Roman Empire and created chaos in the lives of the people, the Romans were experiencing peace and stability, basking in the golden age of Pax Romana. The period lasted four centuries, during which the empire prospered to great heights, with the population reaching 70 million.
It was a peaceful period never experienced before, and the people thrived with wealth, just like Northern Spain seemed to have, as the discovered coins indicated. Alas, the flourishing era ended abruptly in the 5th century.
Fall of the Roman Empire
The discovery of the hidden treasure led the archaeologists to conclude that it was directly related to the fall of the Roman Empire. It denoted that the Romans had experienced grave socio-political instability during that period.
Fearing the invading barbarians, the people sought various means to hide their valuable possessions. They did not want their riches to fall into the hands of the merciless looters who were already responsible for the loss of peace in their community. This was the most credible scenario that led to the coins being buried.
Who Dug up the Coins?
After painstakingly piecing together the most reasonable explanation for people to bury their treasure, one burning question remained. In the modern day, who dug up the coins that were once buried safely by the ancient Romans? Why did someone stumble upon them now after all those years of staying underground?
Once on site, Fanjul made a quick discovery that surprised and intrigued him enough to dig deeper for the truth. It was all the work of the badgers! Yes, those stocky, short-legged animals whose favorite pastime was digging the ground in search of food.
Not Without the Badgers
The team had found around 90 coins right next to the ground where the badgers had dug up a hole, and they could easily connect the rest to solve the mystery. They also realized that if it were not for the hungry badgers, the archaeologists wouldn’t have found the coins then, or maybe never.
Fanjul credited the badgers for the exceptional find, who were also subjected to horrible weather conditions. The snowstorms had driven them to forage for food deep inside the cave, which is how the hidden coins were accidentally exposed. Interestingly, more treasures were waiting to be discovered.
The Unearthing of an Artifact
Thanks to the extraordinary contribution of the badgers, the country found an ancient Roman treasure. The expedition did not end there. Just south of the place near Berceo, the team found more ancient Roman relics from the same period.
Spain’s southern region was much more challenging to navigate due to its climate, and it had been subjected to previous explorations by archaeologists. The earlier excavations had revealed nothing but the team pushed on with utmost dedication until they dug up an intricately designed coffin.
A Shocking Germanic Discovery
The ancient sarcophagus had intricate carvings all over them that intrigued the experts. After thorough research, the archaeologists concluded that the artifact belonged to the sixth century, when the Germanic tribes had already established dominance over several parts of the Roman Empire.
It was a common practice for the tribespeople to refashion the Roman pieces for their own purposes. What was more fascinating and shocking was that the site, once home to a Roman Villa, had also been taken over and used as something else by the invaders.
Historians' Fascination With Spain
Spain has long fascinated archaeologists and historians for its deep connection with the Roman Empire. The rise and fall of the historic empire can be mapped with the discovery of ancient artifacts from that era. In fact, the country’s southern regions hold the most cultural significance concerning ancient Rome.
Interestingly, the Romans first entered the Iberian Peninsula from the south in 206 BC. Their first victory was over the people living in modern-day Seville, and slowly the Romans established their reign for nearly seven centuries.
Under the Roman Control
The Northern regions of Spain managed to keep the Romans at bay for over 200 years until the Basques and Celts were defeated in 19 BC. Since then, the entire stretch of the country came entirely under Roman control. The Murcia region of present-day Spain was a crucial area of conquest for the Romans due to its infinite riches.
It was rich in minerals used to make silver coins and had abundant other valuable raw materials. The area was also famous for esparto grass, typically woven into a textile.
The Significance of Murcia
Murcia proved a great boon for the empire; it became a source of nourishment for the Romans due to its thriving agriculture. The grains cultivated in its wheat fields fed the entire Roman army. Even fish sauces and olive oils were produced in abundance in the region.
Aside from the ample agricultural produce, the rocks mined in Murcia, such as sandstone and marble, also gained popularity. For their part, the Romans introduced novel farming methods to the region and also established their villas there.
The Rise of the Roman Villas
The abundant agricultural lands in Murcia offered the perfect setting for the Romans to build their villas everywhere. In ancient Rome, villas were typically referred to as buildings raised on cultivable land to provide adequate housing for laborers.
During the Roman reign over the Iberian Peninsula, the workers resided in the villas and worked the land while the owners occasionally visited the place. The dynamics of the structures changed over time due to the fluctuation in Roman dominance over the Southern parts of Spain.
The Downfall of the Roman Empire
The Roman Empire’s ultimate disintegration greatly impacted Spain’s inhabitants. Even though the wealthy suffered massive losses, it changed how properties were used. While once the owners would only visit, they moved in permanently, making the villas more elaborate over time.
One classic instance of a typical Roman villa is at the archeological site of Los Villaricos, built during the first century AD. Over the next two centuries, the villas’ layout, design, and nature changed drastically, and interestingly, it was reflected in the discoveries made at the site centuries later.
The Roman Villas at Los Villaricos
With the structural evidence they had from ancient times, historians believed Los Villaricos to be a great example of a Roman villa. The site was divided into a residential area and a working area replete with buildings used for storing and manufacturing products such as wine and olive oil.
In a significant breakthrough, the experts identified four changing phases on the timeline, beginning with the first phase dating back to the middle of the first century. It lasted less than 100 years, corresponding well with the rise of the Roman structures in the Murcia region.
Next Developmental Phases
The next phase happened from the late second century to the third century. Several places underwent drastic transformation; old ones were torn down and replaced with new ones with the current shape and structure. Among all the discoveries in the region, Los Villaricos find far exceeds others in terms of the highly preserved state in which the artifact was found.
The third developmental phase throughout the fourth century saw less dramatic changes. New mosaic floors were introduced despite the declining nature of the business. Luxurious amenities such as thermal baths were installed during this period.
The Final Developmental Phase
The historians concluded that the final phase lined up with the total collapse of the Roman empire during the fifth century and the early sixth century. This was when the production in the great Los Villaricos site altogether ceased, even though people continued to reside in and around the place.
According to the experts, the coffin discovered at the location by archaeologists in 2021 originated from this period, specifically from the sixth century. It was when the Germanic tribes, including the Visigoths, invaded Spain, resulting in the downfall of the Roman Empire.
The Dominance of the Goths
The broader group of people known as the Goths had two factions – one known as the Visigoths from the Western regions of Europe and the other called Ostrogoths from the Eastern parts. These tribes were pivotal in heralding the medieval history of Europe and were primarily responsible for the disintegration of the Roman Empire.
Throughout that period, the Goths went on a rampage conquering lands under Roman control. Soon the Southern regions of Spain where the coffin was found came under the influence of the Germanic tribes.
Different Forms of Christianity
The Gothic tribes that once practiced paganism began converting to Christianity, which was unacceptable to the Romans. According to the natives, Gothic Christianity was essentially heretical, but by the seventh century, the Visigoths, in particular, adopted Catholicism and started building Catholic churches in the Iberian Peninsula.
The Visigoths were the ones to move into the Murcia region, and the tribe repurposed the Las Villaricos site for their own means. They turned the site into a necropolis – a designed burial place that explains the coffin’s discovery. Many of these structures are still found in modern-day Spain.
A Spectacular Discovery
Rafael González Fernández, one of the archaeologists working on the site, exclaimed that they weren’t expecting such a spectacular discovery. So, when they initially came across the coffin, they mistook it for a regular old column. The beautifully engraved carvings alerted them of its value, and they concluded it to be a sarcophagus.
The one that caught their attention was a Chi-Rho symbol carved on the coffin’s lid. Inscribed in the shape of “X” and “P,” the Greek term represented the resurrection of Christ. It was popularly adopted by Emperor Constantine for the Roman military.
The Mystery of the Sarcophagus
After establishing the origin of the ancient coffin, the archaeologists delved into the mystery that lay within. They were intrigued to find old bones belonging to more than one person inside the sarcophagus. Even though we’ll probably never know who the skeletal remains belonged to, the contents confirmed their theory that the Roman agricultural lands were transformed into Visigothic burial sites during that era.
The previous excavations at the Villaricos archaeological site revealed different exhibits that determined the changing phases of the region. Several graves of stone and bricks, some even made from pottery, were uncovered.
Diverse Burial Methods
Aside from the coffin, several other old bones have been uncovered by archaeologists at the Las Villaricos site since the 1990s. Unfortunately, the site has been tampered with and stolen from. Despite the missing pieces, one thing was evident to the experts.
The sheer diversity of the bones discovered at the site has prompted the excavators to confirm the drastic changes in the Roman empire spanning several centuries. It was a place where various methods of burial were practiced, reflecting the changing belief systems of that era.
A Preferential Place in Archaeological History
The interest in Roman history hasn’t abated a bit, and discoveries such as the remarkable coffin have only reinforced the archeological power of the Las Villaricos site. Several archaeologists from different universities have participated in the excavations in the region, with their dedicated efforts resulting in some fantastic finds over the years.
Notable among them is the University of Murcia, which has left an indelible mark in the archaeological history of the site. The coffin will hold pride of place in the City of Mula’s prestigious museum.