Villa de Toralla: Who Lived in This Luxury High-Tech Roman Villa on the Galician Coast?
When Julius Caesar arrived in Spanish Galicia in 61 BC the history of this place changed forever. The impact of Roman architecture and many aspects of Roman culture are still visible. The remarkable walls of the city of Lugo and the ancient Roman lighthouse of A Coruna are two of the most important ancient sites of Galicia. However, another of the fine examples of Roman heritage is Villa Toralla on the coast in Vigo. This 20th century find revealed the house of a noble Roman family that was in use between the 4th and the 5th centuries AD. Surprisingly, it also revealed the ancient grave of an earlier inhabitant.
History of Villa Toralla
The villa was discovered in the 1920s and is situated on the mainland Spanish coast, close to the shoreline above Veo Beach in Vigo. At that time, the land where the villa was uncovered belonged to the Mirambell family. Due to this fact, the villa is also known as Finca Mirambell. Later, the site came under the ownership of the city of Vigo. The eventual excavation of the site took many decades. In 2007, the first museum was opened on the site, but it took a further six years to finish building the education center that provided a proper exhibition of the archaeological finds there.
The extensive Villa includes outhouses for the servants and baths. (vigoarqueologico)
There is some evidence that the first settlements on this spot come from an earlier period, as the history of the Vigo area is strongly related to pre-Roman history. The pre-Roman settlements covered Toralla Island and the remains of an ancient cemetery were found there. However, it is Roman-era (4th and 5th century AD) archaeological finds that are most prevalent at the Toralla Villa site. They include mosaics, pottery and other household goods, along with the ruins of a salt factory.
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Remnants of household items found at the site. (CC BY-NC SA 3.0)
All the (Roman) Modern Conveniences
The layout of the main building of the villa has been uncovered and is typical of Roman noble houses. A portal with pillars flanked the building and many elements of those survive. The building was richly decorated with beautiful mosaics, many of which also survive until now. Small baths were included in the complex, where the people who lived there could rest and enjoy the sound of the waves of the ocean and the calls of the seagulls. There was also a complex of buildings for servants and a thermal system.
This impressive, technologically advanced accommodation even had its own private salt factory. Moreover, facilities for salt production existed in this area a long time before the villa was built and the site where the salt was produced covers dozens of square kilometers. All indicate that the first owner and builder of the house must have been of considerable means and social standing.
Clockwise: Grinding Stone; Underfloor Thermal System; Main building wall; salt production area. (CC BY-NC SA 3.0)
A Grave Anomaly
A few years ago, researchers unearthed a new and interesting part of the history of the villa's site. While preparing the area for the building of the museum, archaeologists discovered an unusual find, an ancient human grave. This grave is totally inconsistent with the villa and it is suspected that the grave is much older due to the style of burial characteristic of the pre-Roman period. The traditional burials of ancient Galicia near the ocean were located on the beach, so the discovery of a grave in an area such as this is always considered special.
The grave became such a precious aspect of the site that it was included in the structure of the museum and stayed intact as part of the foundation of the building. Sadly, due to the acidic ground that is common in Galicia, the human remnants didn't survive.
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The Curious Naming of ‘Toralla’
There is a certain controversy concerning the name of the area where the villa is situated. Although many excavations and much research have been accomplished there remains a curiosity. Why is the site called ‘Toralla’?
The area is a very popular spot for relaxation on the beach or an enjoyable place to spend an afternoon during a break from work. But the island that that lies near the site of the villa, and consists of a modern urbanization, is also known as Toralla. And herein lies a two-fold puzzle.
Aerial view of the Villa and Grounds. (grupothais)
Firstly, there is difficulty in finding the historical roots of the name of the island and also the popular reference to the ‘Island of Toralla’ seems to be incorrect according to records.
''’Toralla’ is the name that corresponds to the coastal zone - although it is losing it [the name] - and the ‘Island’, which everyone puts in front of the "of" and says “Island of Toralla." [sic] But in fact, "Toralla Island" is its name, as is seen clearly on the "Map of the Vigo Estuary", by Mateu in his lithograph at 53, Montera Street, Madrid, for the book of Nicholas Taboada Leal, Prime Vigo-official chronicler, "Topographical-historical Description of the City of Vigo Estuary and its Environs", published in 1840.”
"Toralla" seems to come from "tor" and its origin is unclear but its meaning: "mountain" could come from Latin, Iberian or, perhaps, have Celtic base. [sic] Professor and toponymic [sic], Mr. Sacau thinks "Toralla" comes from the Latin feminine form of the Celtic base "tor", and the Latin suffix "alia", a simplification of land, giving "toralia" - land in the form of a knoll. He later adds a number of place names that mean elevation: "Turido (Alcabre)," Toural (Teis), "Tour" (Navia), "Tourón (Oia)," Torroña "(Santa Maria de Oia) etc.'' (http://www.isladetoralla.com/index.php?pag=../html_en/historia)
Although the museum is open to the public and a large archaeological site has been uncovered, researchers believe that the site of Villa Toralla and its neighborhood may still hide many fascinating treasures. The site of the villa is now quite well explored but the areas around the larger smallholding may still contain some secrets and may reveal new exciting facts about this place in the future. Moreover, the entire area of Galicia is full of ancient Roman sites, most of them not fully investigated. The site of Villa de Toralla is the only one entirely unearthed so it is possible to recognize the rooms that belonged to the people who lived there in ancient times. Now it is open to be explored by anyone who visits. The rich descriptions prepared by researchers and the impressive ruins combined with an enthusiastic imagination will create a real time-travelling experience.
Top Image: Virtual reconstruction of Villa Romano de Toralla (O OLMO DOS FALSO SONOS)
By: Natalia Klimczak
Proxecto Toralla, available at: http://proxecto-toralla.webs.uvigo.es/YACI.HTML
Villa Romana de Toralla, available at: https://www.galiciamaxica.eu/galicia/pontevedra/mirambel/
Centro Arqueológico de Toralla, available at:http://quehacerenvigo.es/centro-arqueologico-de-toralla/
Aparece una pequeña tumba en la villa romana de Toralla by Maria Jesus Fuente, available at: http://www.lavozdegalicia.es/noticia/vigo/2013/11/22/aparece-pequena-tumba-villa-romana-toralla/00031385122240648403799.htm
Isla de Toralla, available at: http://www.isladetoralla.com/index.php?pag=../html_en/historia