Travel: Barcino

7 mins read
Panorama of the modern city of Barcelona, with mountains in the background
The modern city of Barcelona, as seen from the forecourt of the National Art Museum of Catalonia. Barcelona occupies a fertile plain edged in by mountains on three sides and the sea on the fourth. It was a site that also found favour with the Romans.

It is one of the delights of visiting new places that you sometimes find an entirely unexpected archaeological site, which gives you an insight that is entirely new. And this is what happened when Andrew Selkirk visited Barcelona and discovered that there is, in fact, a Roman Barcelona.

Barcelona is not normally considered to be a major Roman town. Tarragona, which lies 50 miles to the south, was far more important. It was the capital of the province of Hispania Tarraconensis, the great rival to Narbonne, the capital of southern France. Today, Barcelona likes to think of itself as being the foremost town in Spain, though Madrid does not always agree. Its importance began in the Middle Ages, but increased in the Industrial Revolution when, in the 19th and 20th centuries, it reinvented itself as the capital of culture, and as the very vibrant capital of Catalonia: Catalan is still the major language. Barcelona lies in a superb position at the head of a wonderfully fertile plain, fringed by mountains in the background. There is a splendid view from the low hill of Montjuïc, on which the National Art Museum of Catalonia is magnificently situated.

The museum is based around a very fine collection of Romanesque wall paintings from the 9th to 12th century. There was a flourishing tradition of wall paintings in the little churches of the Pyrenees, triumphantly proclaiming Christianity against the Muslim regions to the south of Spain. By the late 19th century, many of these churches were becoming abandoned and the wall paintings were decaying. So began a major campaign to hack them all off and bring them into the safety of Barcelona, where in 1934 they found a home in the new National Art Museum, which is one of the finest collections of Romanesque art in Europe, and in Barcelona a great rival to the Picasso Museum, founded in 1963.

Model showing the octagonal plan of the colonia of Barcelona
Barcelona was founded as a colonia c.10 BC, providing it with a privileged urban status as a settlement for military veterans. As this model shows, the new city had an unusual octagonal shape. The area we are focusing on here lies in the top right-hand corner of the model.

But, in fact, the origins of Barcelona go back to Roman times. Pomponius Mela called it a parvum oppidum – essentially a modest town – but it was not all that small: it was founded c.10 BC by Augustus, in the flurry of new towns that he established, as a colonia to provide a settlement for the many troops for whom he had to find a home following the chaos of the civil wars. It was a town of some 10ha (25 acres), built somewhat strangely: not to a rectangular plan but to an octagonal layout. It was surrounded from the beginning by a wall, though this was rebuilt very strongly in the 3rd century with external towers, which ensured its survival down to the 19th century. An inscription of the Augustan period records that a local bigwig constructed ‘walls, towers, and gates’, while the city’s water supply came from one aqueduct of considerable length.

Near the centre was a grand Roman temple, four columns of which still stand hidden away in a minute courtyard. There is a bizarre picture showing how they survived when a house was built around them, and in the corner of the dining room are two vast Roman columns, the bases of which were down in the cellars.

Industrial quarter

However, the real triumph of Roman archaeology is to be found in the north-east corner of the town, where an extensive area has been uncovered under the courtyard of one of the episcopal palaces, and preserved for display. These are not the usual town houses, but something which to my mind is far more interesting: the industrial quarter, a very smelly area where one finds first a fullonica and then tinctoria – that is a laundry and dye-works. This is followed by something even smellier: a factory making the Roman equivalent of Marmite, a fish paste called garum, which all the Roman world thought was absolutely delicious and paid high prices for the best products; and finally, an extensive winery. Then in the 5th and 6th centuries most of this industrial area was swept away and replaced by Christian premises: a small church and an extensive part of the bishop’s palace.

Three Roman columns from a temple, now built into a house
The remains of an impressive Roman temple, now built into a house. A fourth column is still standing just to the left of these three.

This was all concealed under the medieval build-up, but preserved beneath the large courtyard of the royal palace and surrounding buildings. There, in the 1930s, the remains were first discovered and the decision was made to preserve them and display them; this was the base for a new Museum of the History of Barcelona. In the 1960s, there were further investigations, which continued until the late 1980s, concluding with a total renewal of the exhibition and the installation of a walkway. This was accompanied by a fine report masterminded by Julia Beltrán, also published in an English translation (see ‘Further information’ below), which was of great help when writing this account.

When you enter the Museum, you go down by lift, which, instead of marking floors, gives dates, so the ground floor is 2018, and you descend to the lower floor and arrive in 10 BC. Here you find yourself just inside the city walls, mostly the original Augustine walls at this point, though a fine 3rd-century tower can be explored from the inside. Behind the walls is the intervallum road, though it is not very visible because, in the later period, when law and order were breaking down, people began encroaching on the road. In any case, it is full of services – the Roman drainage system. But it was originally a wide road, such as one might expect to find in a military fort. Then at the far end, you find a fullonica. This was a collection of four rooms, each with a trough containing elaborate drains where the remains of the fulling process can be found — ash, lime, and urine – very good chemicals for cleaning cloths. One of the rooms even had an opus sectile floor, which we often think of as being a rather posh flooring, but here it was used in a very utilitarian way, in a room dedicated to attending the customers.

Next door was the tinctoria, or dye-works. Here they would dye clothes, and the remains of the dyes were recovered: a blue dye using indigotine and Egyptian blue; a reddish/brownish dye using haematite; and finally an orange-to-yellow dye using saffron.

The gothic courtyard of the Casa Padellas
The gothic courtyard in the Casa Padellàs, which is now home to the Museum of the History of Barcelona.

Next door was the garum factory. The basis of garum consisted of fish offal (eggs, blood, guts, gills, and so on), often mixed with whole small fish, macerated in salt. Its flavour could be varied by adding prawns, sea urchins, oysters, and cockles. Studies of the fish fauna and molluscs at the site found that sea urchins were used as part of the base to make this garum. The garum factory was laid out around an open-air courtyard, where two large tanks were used for salting the fish, and a series of smaller troughs contained the garum paste. The manufacture began with a fishsalting process where alternate layers of cleaned and chopped fish were arranged in tanks with layers of salt. After 20 days, the product was taken out of the tanks and the paste was put into troughs, where it was left in the sun and stirred every day for two to three months. Working with a perishable product such as fish meant cleaning was a constant task in order to avoid the usual problems of a bad smell.

Remains of two vast storage vessels or dolia
Remains of two of the six dolia or storage vessels, where the garum paste underwent the final stage in its preparation. Behind them, a column belonging to the later church is visible.

To the south-west were three rooms, in which six dolia – huge storage vessels – are preserved, where the final paste was prepared. One large dolium had a drain hole in which a multitude of fish scales, fish bones, and sea urchin spikes had been trapped. The factory operated over a long period of time, as demonstrated by numerous repairs, and it was still producing garum at least as late as the second half of the 5th century AD.

Next to the garum factory was a winery. Most wineries in the Roman world are found in the countryside, but this winery was inside the town near the consumers. An analysis of the waste at the site has found grape pips, yeasts, honey, cinnamon, and other products used in wine-making. In the north-east corner, the must was obtained by treading out the grapes on special platforms known as a calcatorium. Inside the tanks, large quantities of esparto fibres were found, which acted as a filter holding back the skins, pulp, and pips, which were then subjected to mechanical pressing.

Storage vessels or dolia sunken into the floor of the winery
The winery, with the dolia where the wine was stored visible in the foreground. Eleven of these vessels were present. They were carefully sunk into the existing floor, and a special resin had been applied to their insides.

The surviving archaeological remains suggest that there may have been two presses: one a lever and counter-weight press, the other a smaller screw press. Once the open-air operations were completed, the wine was moved to a cellar where the final stage took place in dolia: lined up along the walls are 11 dolia, a third of the body of which were buried below floor level. The insides of the dolia had been treated with resins precipitated in lime to provide a container that was better sealed, thereby preventing the wine deteriorating by contact with the air. The average capacity of each of the dolia is 880 litres, meaning that the cellar could store 9,680 litres of wine.

Further information

Julia Beltrán de Heredia Bercero (2002) From Barcino to Barcinona: the archaeological remains of Plaça del Rei in Barcelona, published by the Museu d’Història de la Ciutat (ISBN 849-3211346).

An account of Andrew’s visit can also be found at www.travellingthepast.com/spain/roman-barcelona/ (and you can also see his account of the Sagrada Família).

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 101 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.