What did the Romans ever do for Villajoyosa?

Quite a lot, as it happens. But the Romans weren’t the first to realise that Villajoyosa might be a nice place to settle. People had been living in and around La Vila (as the town is known locally) for thousands of years before the Romans got around to creating their empire. You can find clues to Villajoyosa’s ancient history all along the coast — and even out at sea.

The Phoenicians came here to trade from present-day Syria and Lebanon 800 years before Christ. The Greeks knew it as Alonis well before the Romans built their town of Allon here.

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La Vila museum; bright modern galleries. The building has been nominated for a European design award.
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La Vila museum; the facade is all that remains of the old town school.
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The modern museum is constructed behind the old facade.

The best place to start looking at La Vila’s ancient history is the town museum on Calle Colón (above), which has some beautiful exhibits which wouldn’t look out of place in much bigger museums.

Even the museum building is unusual: it’s a brand new structure built behind the façade of the old town school (above). It was nominated for a European design award in 2018. Try to catch one of the guided tours; they are in English as well as Spanish.

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An exquisite Phoenician necklace, unearthed by archaeologists just across the river Amadorio in Poble Nou.
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Egyptian perfume jar (right) with an Egyptian container (left) which contained sacred water from the River Nile.

Among the exhibits unearthed locally is an exquisite Phoenician gold necklace (above), an Egyptian perfume jar and a beautiful 2,500 year old Egyptian flask used for flood water taken from the River Nile, believed to have had magical curative properties.

The flask was discovered by archaeologists at a cemetery in Les Casetes, in the Creuta area of La Vila. You can see some stonework from the cemetery in the nearby Barbera dels Aragones gardens.

Some of the other finds on display (including the necklace) came from another cemetery excavated in Poble Nou, across the river Amadorio bridge, now the site of a Mercadona supermarket on Carrer Jaume 1. Helpful explanatory plaques on the street show you the exact location. Archaeologists found tombs there dating from 700 years BC until the end of the Roman Empire. 

There’s more evidence of ancient settlements at Malladeta, on the southern outskirts of Villajoyosa. Head for the ruined 19th century tower on the cliff and the excavations are just below. Ancient Iberian people had a shrine here, built in the 4th century BC, and used for 400 years. At the spring and autumn equinoxes, they gathered to see the sun rise behind the Isla de Benidorm , which you’ll see out in the bay. Both dates were key times in their agricultural year.

The little bronze guy below is one of my favourites from La Vila museum; he was an offering to the gods in the 2nd century BC, found at Malladeta.

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Shrine on the clifftop at Malladeta on the southern outskirts of La Vila.
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The rooms of the shrine are clearly visible after the excavation.
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Bronze figurine from the 2nd century BC, found at Malladeta. This little guy was a votive offering to the gods, asking for health, protection or prosperity.

When the Romans arrived, they made quite an impact. They built a military camp in 83BC, capable of housing 500 soldiers, at the junction of present-day Calles Colón and Pizarro; look for the small metal FOSSA markers set in the pavement which indicate the boundaries of the fort.

FOSSA MARKER, Villajoyosa
These bronze markers set in the pavement on Calles Colon and Pizarro show where the Roman military camp lay. If you read Fossa (the Latin for ditch) the right way up, you are standing inside the camp.

The Romans then went on to make Allon their most important town in the Marina Baixa area. No self-respecting citizen would go without his regular bath, so they built a baths complex on present-day Carrer Canalejas, which were excavated in 2008. Sadly, the remains aren’t open to the public and you can only peek through the fence at a rather uninspiring mound of rubble and weeds.

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Roman baths in La Vila. The site on Calle Canalejas was excavated in 2008. Pic via creative commons Vilamuseu
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Mosaic from a Roman villa at Xauxelles on the outskirts of La Vila near La Ermita. There are plenty of finds from this villa on display at the MARQ museum in Alicante.

Wealthy Romans had villas outside the town of Allon. On show in La Vila museum are fragments of mosaic floors excavated from the villa of Xauxelles near the village of La Ermita.  To see even more, head to the impressive MARQ (archaeological museum) in Alicante where you’ll see finds not only from La Vila, but the whole region. 

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A beautiful stucco fragment from Villa Xauxelles, on the outskirts of La Vila, showing a lion attacking a gazelle. On show at the MARQ archaeology museum in Alicante.
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Roman road Malladeta, excavated in 2017 on the site of a new housing development, a few metres from the main N-332 road out of Villajoyosa.

A Roman road ran through Allon along the coast; part of it was excavated in 2017 on the site of a new housing development near Malladeta on the southern edge of town (above).

In all likelihood, the road then headed up towards present-day Benidorm. Head out of town in that direction to Playa de Torres to find the remarkable Torre de Sant Josep (below). It’s a five minute drive or a 45 minute walk along the cliffs from La Vila.

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Torre de Sant Josep, recently restored to the way it might have looked in the Roman era (minus the pyramid that would probably have sat on top).
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Built between 150-170 AD, probably for a wealthy citizen of Allon called Lucius Terentius Mancinus.

A Roman funeral tower, built during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, the Torre de Sant Josep is the largest of only three such towers in the whole Iberian peninsula.

The tower has just been restored to the way it might have looked when it was first built between 150-170 AD, complete with surrounding gardens (though the tower probably had a pyramid on top originally).

Nobody knows for sure who was buried here, though archaeologists have found a stone inscription of someone called Lucio Terencio Mancino. If such an imposing tower really was built for him, old Lucio must have been a seriously big cheese in Allon at the time. You can spot a couple of holes in the tower through which wine was poured in a religious ceremony twice a year; once on the anniversary of death and also on November 2, aka All Souls Day.

Perhaps the most remarkable Roman find of all is actually on the sea bed out in the bay,  25 metres under the waves. The wreck of a Roman cargo vessel, named the Bou Ferrer after the two divers who discovered it, lies about a kilometre off the modern port. It’s one of the most important finds of its kind in the entire Mediterranean.

The ship was probably heading for Rome when it sank in a storm off La Vila in the mid 1st century AD. On board were 3,000 Roman amphorae (storage jars) containing fish sauce from Cadiz, then a highly prized delicacy. The Bou Ferrer was also carrying ingots of lead; perhaps not an ideal cargo for a ship in trouble in stormy weather. 

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Roman amphorae from the Bou Ferrer. They contained fish sauce from Cadiz; 3,000 of them were on the Bou Ferrer when it sank.
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Lead ingot from the Bou Ferrer. You can just make out the initials GER and AUG, which indicate the names of the Roman Emperor (Germanicus and Augustus) at the time.
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Amphorae undergoing restoration. The jars are immersed in tanks of distilled water for about 10 months to get rid of the salt absorbed during 2,000 years under water.

A lot of the preservation work is being done at La Vila museum; try to catch one of their fascinating Bou Ferrer tours. You get to touch a 2,000 year old amphora, see a lead ingot salvaged from the wreck, and hear how items from the Bou Ferrer are being preserved in the museum laboratories (above).

See an interactive map of the Bou Ferrer’s likely route here. Take a look at this video showing divers at work on the ship. And this very cool underwater video from the University of Alicante was posted in January 2018. If you’re a sub-aqua diver yourself, there are guided tours to the wreck organised by Ali-Sub in Villajoyosa marina. Link here

© Guy Pelham 2017

Want to know more about archaeology around Alicante? Take a look at my blog about the MARQ archaeology museum here

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