Large Cache of Roman Artifacts from 100 BC Found on Mediterranean Isle
Archaeologists digging at the Son Catlar stone fortress on the Mediterranean island of Menorca (or Minorca) have unearthed a collection of buried Roman artifacts dating back to the year 100 BC, the University of Alicante in Spain reports. An assortment of military-related items was excavated near the fortress’s entrance gate, which means the Romans must have occupied this imposing defensive structure that was built many centuries before their arrival (by the island’s indigenous settlers, around 1,200 BC).
The current excavations at Son Catlar are being sponsored by the Institute for Research in Archaeology and Historical Heritage (INAPH), which is connected to the University of Alicante. Archaeologists from several Spanish universities have been involved in this work, which has been ongoing for the past six years. They’ve been searching for artifacts and ruins that would reveal more historical information about the many cultures that have made their mark on Spain’s Balearic island chain, of which Menorca is a part.
Among the Roman artifacts uncovered at Son Catlar were this spatula and surgical instrument (left) and a Roman knife (right). (University of Alicante)
Menorca’s Son Catlar Roman Artifacts: Weapons and Tools
The stash of items the INAPH team uncovered included many objects that would have been used by Roman soldiers and their support staff. This includes weapons of various types, knives, projectiles, arrowheads, spearheads, surgical tools, and a bronze spatula. Their location next to the Son Catlar gate is significant, because it shows they were buried as talismans or good luck charms.
“Roman soldiers were very superstitious and used to perform rites,” explained University of Alicante archaeologist and INAPH project director Fernando Prados. “The Romans gave a sacred value to the gates of the cities, and to seal one definitively would entail certain actions of a magical nature.”
Such as the burying of valuable personal or military equipment, for example.
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Excavated bent doorway at Son Catlar. (University of Alicante)
In Roman spiritual traditions, doorways could sometimes represent sacred entrance points. Sacred entrances were frequently associated with Janus, a god who offered protection to those who were undergoing transitions or traveling down new passageways to different places or times.
Valuable items left at the entry points to such passageways would be seen as offerings to Janus, who out of his benevolence would then prevent evil forces or beings from passing through. The Romans stationed at Son Catlar in the first century BC undoubtedly left behind these sacrifices to protect themselves from invading enemy soldiers, who might try to break in through the gate or otherwise breach the fortress’s solid stone walls.
An aerial view of the Son Catlar fortress site where the Roman artifacts were recently unearthed. (University of Alicante)
The Complex and Colorful History of Son Catlar and Menorca
The Romans were one of many foreign empires and kingdoms that occupied the Balearic island nations, including Menorca, between the first millennium BC and the first millennium AD.
The Phoenicians were the first ancient empire to set its sights on these tranquil and beautiful islands. They arrived as occupiers sometime in the early first millennium BC, asserting their authority over the indigenous inhabitants, who are now known as the Talaiotic people.
In approximately the sixth century BC, the Carthaginians supplanted the Phoenicians, and the islands remained a possession of this north African empire until the mid-first century BC. The Carthaginians withdrew from the region following their ultimate defeat at the hands of the Roman Empire during the Punic Wars, which lasted from 264 BC to 146 BC.
After that, the people of Menorca and the other Balearic islands enjoyed a brief period of independence. But that all ended in 123 BC, when the forces of the Roman Empire invaded and seized control of the islands.
The Romans claimed that they had no choice but to take this drastic action. They said these islands off the eastern coast of Spain were being used as a base of operations by pirates who were targeting Roman ships in the western Mediterranean.
Roman artifacts like these pottery fragments were found in one area of the Son Catlar dig site. (University of Alicante)
Like the Phoenicians and Carthaginians before them, the Romans were delighted to discover the presence of the sturdy, prehistoric walled settlement at Son Catlar. It possessed the ideal characteristics and dimensions required of a Roman military fortress.
This 2.4-acre (1-hectare) fortress enclosure, which is completely surrounded by a 2,854-foot (870-meter) long, six-foot (two-meter) thick stone wall, was built sometime around the year 1,200 BC by the long-lost Talaiotic culture. The Talaiotic people were compulsive stone megalith builders, and the fortified settlement they constructed at Son Catlar (located 4.7 miles or 7.5 kilometers to the south of the port city of Ciutadella de Menorca) represents perhaps their finest and most ambitious work.
The cache of weapons and other valuable items found at the entrance to Son Catlar demonstrates the eagerness of the Romans to occupy this heavily fortified location for as long as they remained on the island of Menorca—which turned out to be for quite a long time. It wasn’t until an attack by the Vandals in the mid-fifth century that the Roman forces were finally chased out of the Balearics. But they returned less than 100 years later, in 533 AD, and retook the island from the Vandal usurpers. They stayed there until the end of the seventh century, when they could no longer resist the efforts of Muslim invaders to establish a presence in the region.
Beginning in the eight century, Menorca and Majorca were occupied by a string of Islamic kingdoms, several of which seem to have made use of the Son Catlar fortress, just as the Romans had. Christian armies arrived in the 13 th century, however, and after they’d driven off the last of the islands’ Muslim occupants the Balearic islands were finally absorbed into Spain.
Menorca and the other Balearic islands have remained under Spain’s authority ever since. Thankfully, they enjoy far more independence and freedom now than they did in the past when a series of conquering empires were solely responsible for their fate.
A present-day view of Mitjaneta Beach on Menorca about 5 kilometers southeast of the Son Catlar fortress where the Roman artifacts were found. (pkazmierczak / Adobe Stock)
The Romans are Gone, but an Indigenous Masterpiece Remains
Over a two-thousand-year period, the island of Menorca was occupied by many foreign invaders. Each one likely made some use of the incredibly durable fortress constructed by the island’s indigenous inhabitants, the Talaiotic people, more than 3,000 years ago at the end of the Bronze Age.
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Today, the island’s residents are reconnecting with their lost ancient heritage, as Spanish archaeologists continue their excavations at Son Catlar. While many occupiers used the site, it was the original Menorcans who were responsible for creating it, and it is their legacy that is being honored by the ongoing INAPH project.
Top image: The excavation area at the Son Catlar fortress where the Roman artifacts were discovered. Source: University of Alicante
By Nathan Falde