The Romans arrive
To paraphrase Monty Python – what did the Romans ever do for Villajoyosa? Well, quite a lot, as it happens. And the Romans weren’t the first people to realise that Villajoyosa might be a nice place to settle down and make a home.
The Phoenicians came to La Vila Joiosa (as the town is known in Valenciano) to trade from present-day Syria and Lebanon 800 years before Christ. The Greeks knew La Vila as Alonis well before the Romans built their town of Allon here.
Check out the museum
The best place to start searching for Villajoyosa’s ancient history is the town museum on Carrer Colón (above). It features 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.
The Phoenician settlement
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.
Excavations in 2022 revealed clues to the actual location of the Phoenician settlement. It seems to have been built on the low hill now occupied by the old town of La Vila, but was destroyed by construction work when the present-day town was founded in 1301. Fragments of Phoenician amphorae and ceramics were dug up during building work near the town walls on Carrer Fray Posidonia Mayor. More here.
Archaeologists think the Phoenician town of La Vila was handily placed one day’s sail from the colony at Guardarmar (La Fonteta) and the island of Ibiza. The Phoenicians were a trading people, and La Vila lay on the sea route from their settlement at Cádiz (which they called Gadir) back to Phoenicia in modern-day Lebanon and Syria.
Some of the other finds on display (including the necklace) came from another cemetery excavated in Poble Nou, 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 clifftop 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 Islote (little island) 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; he was an offering to the gods in the 2nd century BC, found at the Malladeta site. He’s now in the MARQ archaeology museum in Alicante, along with quite a few other finds from around Villajoyosa – look for him in the Ibers gallery.
The Romans arrive
When the Romans eventually 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 (pic below).
The Romans then went on to make Allon their most important town in the Marina Baixa area. No self-respecting Roman citizen would go without his regular bath. So they built a baths complex on present-day Carrer Canalejas, which were excavated in 2008 (see pic below)
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. But big changes are underway!
Roman baths in La Vila. The site on Calle Canalejas was excavated in 2008. Pic via Creative Commons Vilamuseu
Work has finally started (autumn 2022) on restoring the ruins. Hopefully, we’ll get to see a serious piece of Roman history in the heart of La Vila sometime soon.
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 MARQ (archaeological museum) in Alicante where you’ll see finds not only from La Vila, but the whole region.
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). Archaeologists christened the road the ‘via Lucentina’ because it connected Allon with the town of Lucentum, the Roman town founded a few kilometres to the north of present-day Alicante.
Built in the first century AD, the road was a pretty substantial piece of engineering, wide enough (more than 4m) for two carts to pass side by side. You can see a reconstructed section of it nearby (above). The road had been in constant use for 2,000 years – the old main route to Alicante was built on top of it and was in use until the year 2000.
A few hundred metres away, excavations ahead of the construction of a new road, just off Avinguda d’Altea in the Plans area of Poble Nou, unearthed more remains, this time from the late Roman period (5th/6th centuries AD).
Torre de Sant Josep
In all likelihood, the Roman road continued up the coast 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.
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. It’s also known locally as La Torre de Hércules – I’ve no idea why.
The tower has been restored to the way it might have looked when it was first built between 150-170 AD, complete with surrounding gardens. It’s thought the tower may originally have had a pyramid on top though.
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 monument really was built for him, old Lucio must have been a seriously important guy 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.
Bou Ferrer: a Roman wreck
Perhaps the most remarkable Roman find of all is actually on the sea bed out in the bay, 25 metres (80 feet) 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 of Villajoyosa. It’s the most important find of its kind in the entire Mediterranean.
The Bou Ferrer was a big ship for its time – around 30 metres (100 feet) long and 9 metres (30 feet) wide. It was probably heading for Rome when it sank off La Vila in the mid 1st century AD.
Ships like the Bou Ferrer normally stayed well out to sea to avoid the wind pushing them onto the rocky coastline. So archaeologists think the Bou Ferrer must have suffered some kind of breakdown en route, so the crew decided to bring her into the shore for repairs. She never made it, sinking about one kilometre off the modern-day port of La Vila.
On board were hundreds of Roman amphorae (storage jars) containing garum, a fish sauce from Cadiz, then a highly prized delicacy for flavouring food. Other amphorae of wine and olive oil have been salvaged from the wreck.
Below the amphorae, in the keel of the ship, archaeologists made a fresh discovery. The Bou Ferrer was also carrying 22 ingots of lead, mined from the Sierra Morena in Andalucia. In total, well over a tonne in weight.
Property of the Emperor!
Unusually, they were marked with an imperial stamp – the letters IMP for Imperator, or Emperor. So they were probably the property of the Emperor Nero himself. The theory is they may have been destined for Nero’s new palace, the Domus Aurea, then under construction in Rome.
Much of the city was being rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 64AD, when Nero was famously supposed to have played his fiddle while the city burned (spoiler alert – he didn’t!). Lead was in great demand for his grandiose rebuilding project.
Two bronze coins found in the wreck have helped fix roughly when the Bou Ferrer went down. The coins have Nero’s head on them and they’ve been dated to around AD 66. Nero died in AD 68, so the sinking probably happened between the two dates.
A lot of the preservation work is being done at La Vila museum. There’s a permanent exhibition of finds from the wreck. 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.
As of 2023, the museum is bidding to build an ambitious permanent Bou Ferrer exhibition, featuring a 12 metre recreation of a cross-section of the ship, plus a virtual reality installation that will give visitors hands-on experience of what it was like navigate a ship like the Bou Ferrer. If they get the money to do it, it should be spectacular.
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, or this clip from a National Geographic documentary. The full programme is well worth a watch. Find it in the series “Drain the Ocean”; look for the episode in Series 2 called “Rise of the Roman Empire”.
See also this very cool underwater video from the University of Alicante, posted in January 2018.
Unfortunately, the once clear waters around the wreck are now clouded by the huge expansion of the nearby fish farm. It has more than doubled in size in the last few years, and you can only imagine the amount of fish crap it generates. Fish poo and antiquities don’t mix.
And if you fancy watching that “what have the Romans ever done for us?” Monty Python sketch once again – here’s the link. Always good for a laugh!
More ancient history?
Check out the MARQ archaeology museum in Alicante, for finds from La Vila and all over the province. See my blog here
Visit Lucentum – the Roman Alicante – and learn how the site was saved from the bulldozers in dramatic fashion. More in my post here.
© Guy Pelham