In 2004, a council digger driver sent to excavate a new water deposit in a field on the outskirts of Salar, Granada, noticed a quantity of small tiles appearing in the bucket of his machine.
These pieces of Roman mosaic, part of a floor of an ostentatious villa, were the beginning of an amazing archaeological discovery that continues to unearth treasures from the Roman era.
The Romans left their mark all over the Iberian peninsula but this find is one of the most important in Spain. The town of Salar is located close to the route that linked Illiberis (Granada) and Llurco (Pinos Puente, Granada) with Anticaria (Antequera, Malaga) during a time when Andalucía (known as Baetica) was an important exporter of wheat, wine and oil to the rest of the Roman Empire. However, the owner of this luxurious villa was unlikely to have been a farmer, as the intricate detail in the colourful mosaics, the quality of the marble statues (some carved by the finest sculptors in Imperial Rome and shipped over) and the wealth of decoration, have led archaeologists to believe that the ‘dominus’ or owner of the property was a member of the Roman Senate or close to the Roman court. It is also possible that he had interests in, or owned, the marble quarries nearby.
The villa itself is located in a slight dip which is bordered by a stream, although the stream was likely to be have been further away from the property around 2,019 years ago when the villa was built.
Work on uncovering this invaluable part of Spanish history has been slow. Although discovered in 2004, funding wasn’t available for the first phase until 2006 and work was only able to continue until 2011 when the project ran out of money. In this first phase, archaeologists uncovered the triclinium, or formal dining room, with an intricate mosaic which was damaged by the digger. This would have been at the back of the property.
At the end of the open-air dining room is a stone grotto and fountain where two marble nymphs (revered by Romans as deities of nature and especially water) resided, but these are now in the Granada museum. The room has a shallow moat on three sides with a plug and pipework to drain it when the water needed changing.
Subsequent digs revealed that the triclinium opens into the peristylium, a central patio off which would have been the bedrooms and other living spaces, however this is yet to be uncovered. In this part of the villa the archaeologists discovered ‘tubi fittili’ - tapered, hollow terracotta pipes that fit one inside the other and were used to make vaulted ceilings.
Around this patio is a corridor, unique in that it has some of the most amazing mosaics seen in Spain. It depicts not only aquatic creatures (fish, a lobster and a crab), but also a mermaid with a sea serpent and a tiger playing with a ball.
The corridor on the other side of the patio is equally as stunning and possibly features the owner (dominus) himself, hunting a large boar with a podenco-type hound. His tunic is made of glass tesserae as opposed to the usual stone or pottery used. There are also realistic depictions of lions and leopards which suggests that the craftsmen had been to Africa or were from Africa.
A major find
It was in this part of the corridor that the statue of Venus Pudica Capitoline was discovered being used as a ‘filler’ in a wall that was built sometime after the villa was abandoned.
The Venus, discovered in 2018, was a major find, one that surpassed all the others (so far). The term pudica refers to the fact that she covers her pubic area with one hand, while the other hand covers her breast. Capitoline refers to the capital Rome, where the original statue, carved by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles in the third century BC, was displayed. Wealthy families and people of consequence had copies made to show off in their homes.
Salar’s Venus is missing one arm and both legs are in pieces but incredibly her slender neck remained intact when she was embedded, face-down in the wall. She is on display in the visitor centre in Salar’s town hall which hopes that one day, when funding is sufficient, to move her to a museum on the site of the villa. This Venus Pudica is one of only one hundred in the world.
Lack of funding
According to a spokesperson from the town hall, the local council is funding the whole project along with a small grant from the Diputación provincial government, crowdfunding and donations. The workers on the site are all volunteers from the University of Granada.
The current campaign will only run for a year due to lack of funds but it has already uncovered the corner of another room with intricate mosaic floor and, on the last day of the uncovering process earlier this week, one end of the long corridor with more of the colourful hunting scene mosaic depicting a lion and a man on horseback appeared from beneath the soil.
The rest of the year will be spent cataloguing the finds and meticulously sifting and rinsing the earth in the spoil heap, looking for fragments not only from the Roman era, but from subsequent occupation of the villa.
The town hall gives guided tours of the site and the visitor centre has information and artefacts not just from the Roman era, but also from prehistory and the occupation of the area by the Moors.
There is a detailed model of what the villa may have looked like over 2,000 years ago, although after the initial phase they have decided that it is most likely much bigger than what they originally thought.
Visits are by appointment only (https://www.aytovillaromanadesalar.es/) while the Facebook page ‘Villa Romana Salar’ is updated regularly with new findings and works in progress.