Archaeologists have discovered an ancient forum, or plaza, that belonged to a mysterious Roman city that got wiped off the map by a civil war that broke out more than 2,000 years ago in Spain’s Iberian Peninsula.
The forum served as a central town square at a Roman site known as La Cabañeta, which is located near the municipality of El Burgo de Ebro in the Spanish province of Zaragoza. Archaeologists discovered the outer perimeter of this plaza a decade ago, but it wasn’t until this past summer that researchers resumed excavations and discovered the forum, according to a recent statement from the expedition team.
“This year, we have been able to continue the excavation work, discovering part of the corner of the portico and confirming that we are facing a large square that, due to its location in the city and its characteristics, can be identified as the forum,” said Borja Díaz Ariño, a researcher at the University of Zaragoza, in an email to Motherboard. (Díaz Ariño’s comments have been translated from Spanish).
“It is still early to determine the dimensions of the plaza, given that we have only dug out a corner and we do not know for sure the layout of the city streets,” added Díaz Ariño, who is co-leading the excavations at La Cabañeta with archaeologist Alberto Mayayo Catalán. “The importance of the discovery is not so much due to its dimensions (it is large for the time, but not enormous), but to its early chronology.”
This forum dates back to the first century BCE, making it the oldest plaza of this kind in the interior Iberian Peninsula, a region that was under Roman control at the time. Similar forums do not appear to have been more common in the area until the reign of the famous emperor Augustus, at least a century later.
As a result, the forum “offers a very precise image of a Roman city in transition from the 2nd to 1st century BCE,” Díaz Ariño said. It also reveals more about the mysterious settlement that once stood at the La Cabañeta site. While the name of this long-lost city is not known, researchers do know that it was razed to the ground in 70 BCE during the Sertorian War, a civil conflict that roiled the Iberian Peninsula for more than a decade. The city had only been founded a few decades before its destruction.
“We are still not able to ‘name’ the city,” Díaz Ariño said. “Its short life is a problem since we have little information from that period. It is possible that it corresponds to an 'oppidum'”—a specific type of Iron Age town—”to which Titus Livy refers as 'Castra Aelia', which would indicate that it could originally have been a military camp that would have evolved into a city, but at the moment we cannot confirm it.”
“The city seems to have had a strong commercial vocation as indicated on the one hand by the abundance of imported goods (some of which can be considered ‘luxury products’), but also the existence of a warehouse building, which is exceptional because of its characteristics, dimensions, and chronology,” he added.
Archaeological evidence has shown that La Cabañeta was inhabited mainly by settlers from Italy. The residents of this short-lived place also built what Díaz Ariño called “among the best examples of Roman public baths of the Republican era, whose closest parallels are found precisely in Italy (Fregellae and Musarna).”
“The material culture, especially the table ceramics, are also clearly Italian,” Díaz Ariño noted. “We have also recovered a significant number of inscriptions, and most are written in Latin, although there are also some in the local Spanish language of the Iberian.”
“Our goal now is to continue the excavation of the forum,” he concluded. “The forum is a multifunctional space intended for the development of economic and religious policies. That means it should have a temple (or at least a space intended for worship) that we have not yet located, as well as perhaps some space intended for the activity of policy, the identification of which would allow us to better understand how administered this city and what was its legal status.”