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Making ancient history modern; MARQ museum in Alicante

The MARQ archaeology museum in Alicante. Housed in a former hospital, it won European Museum of the year in 2004

Museum visits are generally for rainy days. Problem is, there aren’t that many rainy days on the Costa Blanca. So visiting the archaeology museum in Alicante (the MARQ) probably means sacrificing some sunshine.

But it is worth it. Especially this year (2023) as there’s an exhibition of Chinese Terracotta Warriors, including nine actual soldiers brought from the excavations in Xi’an. It’s a real coup for Alicante and the MARQ – the warriors don’t often leave China at all. More on this exhibition in a moment.

The Terracotta soldiers at the MARQ

The MARQ is housed in Alicante’s former hospital. It won European Museum of the Year in 2004 and it’s still really good. If your idea of an archaeology museum is dusty pieces of obscure pottery with labels in spidery handwriting, then think again. The MARQ is as technically advanced and interactive as any. 

Subtly lit galleries with video panels showing how life might have been for ancient peoples on the Costa Blanca

The Terracotta Warriors

This exhibition will be packing them in for the rest of the year!

Eight thousand of these warriors were made to guard the tomb of China’s first Emperor Qin Shi Huang, 221 BCE. I’ve had the good fortune to go to the grave site at Xi’an, and the sight of endless rank upon rank of life-size terracotta soldiers is simply unforgettable.

Nine of these amazing statues have made the journey to Alicante, the highlights of an exhibition of 120 pieces from Xi’an and other museums in China.

A general in the Terracotta army, dressed in armour. Each one of the 8,000 warriors is different.
An archer in the kneeling position (minus bow!)

Catch a guided tour – most are in Spanish, but there are some in English and French too (tap ‘visita guiada inglés/francés).  You can also go without a guide, but for just €8 per ticket, the tour is a bit of a no-brainer for me.

Each warrior was originally painted in bright colours, but the paint rapidly disappeared on exposure to the air when the soldiers were uncovered. There’s a clever graphic reconstruction of how a warrior would have looked when he was first created.

A replica of a funeral chariot from Xi’an
This soldier is a charioteer, with hands held out as if holding the reins.

The warriors are in Alicante till January 2024. And once you’ve seen them, there’s plenty more to check out in the permanent galleries. The Romans were big in this part of the world, so there’s a great collection of Roman remains from all over Alicante province. Including from our town, Villajoyosa, just up the coast from Alicante.

La Vila’s Roman villa

One of the big finds was the Roman villa of Xauxelles, near La Ermita on the outskirts of Villajoyosa. Most of it was excavated by a priest/archaeologist back in the 1940s, and it hasn’t been touched since, because (frustratingly) it lies on private property.

A stucco carving of a gazelle being attacked by a lion, from Xauxelles
Stucco work showing a face-off between a bear and a boar from Xauxelles
Two stucco figurines of women from the Roman villa, now in the MARQ museum in Alicante.
Fragments of mosaic floors from Xauxelles

But even that limited excavation turned up some fascinating finds, which you can see in the MARQ. There are fragments of mosaic floors and beautiful carvings in stucco housed in subtly lit displays. Villa Xauxelles must have been quite a place back in the third century AD.

Behind the display cases are video panels running the length of the galleries, showing you what life might have been like for people living along the Costa Blanca in ancient times.

There’s even a large scale replica of a Roman ship in the central gallery, with walkways that allow you to move around the vessel, peer down into the hold and see the cargo of amphorae (storage jars).

Bou Ferrer – Villajoyosa’s Roman ship

It’s very like a real-life Roman ship that sank off Villajoyosa port in the 1st century AD. Named the Bou Ferrer after the divers who discovered it, the ship is the most important find of its kind in the entire Mediterranean. More info about the Bou Ferrer here. See my blog on the ancient history of Villajoyosa/La Vila Joiosa here.

A lifelike model of a Roman ship, housed in the central gallery
Looking down into the hold to see the cargo of amphorae. A Roman ship similar to this one sank off Villajoyosa in the 1st century AD and is still being excavated.

Explanations are generally in Spanish, Valenciano (the local language) and English. There are plenty of other finds on show from all over Alicante province.

The little guy below is my favourite. He’s a votive offering to the gods, asking for health, protection or prosperity, and was found at a shrine excavated at Malladeta on the outskirts of  Villajoyosa. Find him at the far end of the Ibers gallery.

Bronze figurine from the 2nd century BC, found at Malladeta. He used to be on loan to Villajoyosa’s own museum – sadly, you now have to go Alicante to see him.

How to get to the MARQ museum in Alicante

The MARQ is on Plaza Dr. Gómez Ulla, round the back of Alicante castle. If you’re going by car, don’t bother trying to park on the street – it’s a real pain. Park for free in the Plaza Mar shopping centre on the other side of the Avenida de Denia and take the five-minute walk across the footbridge to the museum.

Or take the tram and get off at the MARQ-Castillo stop. The museum is a short walk away.

More Alicante history

Check out these posts to discover more history along Alicante’s coast:

© Guy Pelham 

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