Oldest Roman Camp of Northern Hispania Found in Portugal
A vast 10,000-man Roman camp has been discovered in northern Portugal. Not only is it one of the biggest ever discovered, but it’s also the oldest ever discovered in northern Hispania (the name of Spain when it was under Roman rule), dating back to 137 BC. Until recently, the oldest known Roman camp in Galicia and northern Portugal “was” Penedo dos Lobos (Manzaneda, Ourense). Coins discovered at this site associated it with the Cantabrian Wars (29-19 BC) when Emperor Octavian Augustus ended the Roman conquest of Hispania.
The same team that excavated the Penedo site are now responsible for the discovery of the temporary Lomba do Mouro Roman camp, which was built a century before Penedo dos Lobos. The discovery of the Lomba do Mouro Roman camp represents the largest and oldest Roman military fortified enclosure ever discovered and excavated in Galicia and northern Portugal. An article in Archaeology News Network explains that “pioneering technology” helped the archaeologists find the lost camp that was built as a base in the conquest of northwest Iberia around the second century BC.
A closeup of the evidence found at what is now the oldest Roman camp ever found in northern Hispania. (ERA Arqueologia)
In The Shadow Of An Ancient Military Machine
Dr João Fonte from the University of Exeter has published a new research article explaining that the Lomba do Mouro Roman camp covers more than 20 hectares (49 acres). It was only discovered with the use remote sensing technology, carried out by the romanarmy.eu research collective in an intensive archaeological survey conducted in September 2020.
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Sections of the Roman camp wall foundations were dated with a new technique known as “optically stimulated luminescence” (OSL). In physics, OSL is a method for measuring doses from ionizing radiation and this made it possible for the scientists to assess the last time quartz crystals in the foundations were exposed to sunlight, revealing how long they were buried under the walls, thus, disclosing the date of the wall’s construction.
Lomba do Mouro is the oldest scientifically identified Roman camp to date in northern Hispania. It was constructed by around 10,000 Roman troops.
The researchers say the soldiers were “crossing the Laboreiro Mountain between the Lima and Minho rivers” and that it was designed to be a temporary fortification. The rough shod architecture informed the scientists that the camp was designed to be used for a day or weeks, and that the army built it precisely where it was found because the Romans were “crossing on high ground for safety.”
Until the most recent discovery of the Roman camp in Portugal, Penedo dos Lobos, as shown here in an aerial view, was the oldest in this region of ancient Hispania.(romanarmy.eu)
The Roman Empire And The Latest Roman Camp Find
Ancient written Roman resources told the researchers that in 137 BC the Roman consul Decimus Junius Brutus entered Galicia “with two legions, crossing the rivers Douro and Lima and reaching the Minho.”
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The new University of Exeter article explains that the site remained elusive for so long because although ancient written sources mentioned the Roman army in Galicia and northern Portugal “crossing different valleys,” it was unknown where exactly these valleys were. Furthermore, because of the temporary nature of the Roman camp, radiocarbon dating was ineffective “because plant roots creep into the structures,” said the researchers in their latest paper.
You would think 10,000 Roman soldiers would leave behind a fair scatter of debris, but this is only the case for forts and temporary residences. Temporary camps, like Lomba do Mouro, were generally totally destroyed when the Roman army left, so as not to give their enemies any resources whatsoever.
The dating of the walls, together with the large dimensions of the enclosure, support the hypothesis that the camp may have been erected in 137 BC by soldiers of the Roman consul Decimus Junius Brutus when his two legions entered Galicia. However, until further dating is undertaken this is all speculation and the paper says that the team is struggling “to establish a direct association with the episode of Decimus Junius Brutus campaign.”
Top image: An aerial view of the 2,100-year-old Roman camp of Lomba do Mouro at Melgaço, Portugal. Source: University of Exeter
By Ashley Cowie