The secret to the origins of Malaga has been lying hidden for centuries at the mouth of the River Guadalhorce. The first settlement built by the Phoenicians on the coastline we now call the Costa del Sol was at El Cerro del Villar, then an island in the marshes at the river estuary.
Now recent geophysical surveys have confirmed that this settlement is truly unique.
“Before I didn't dare say so, but now it can be said that this is the best preserved Phoenician town in the Western world,” said the emeritus professor of Prehistory at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, María Eugenia Aubet, who was in Malaga last week for a conference that looked at the past, present and future of the Cerro del Villar settlement organised by the city's planning department.
In the cases of Cadiz, or Malaga city itself, the Romans and later civilisations settled on top of the Phoenician remains, destroying part of what had been there before them. However El Cerro del Villar is unique in that after the island was abandoned by what appears to have been a tsunami, no one settled there again and the remains have been preserved.
Houses and streets intact
“The ground-penetrating radar survey has confirmed that the town is intact with its houses and streets,” said Aubet, whose own research and conclusions after the excavation campaigns in the area in the 80s and 90s have now been proved right by the new technological techniques. After seeing the latest results, the archaeologist explained: “Just think, when we came in '87 they told us that Cerro del Villar was totally destroyed!”
According to the archaeologist, the remains can be found just 30 centimetres under the surface and go down to a depth of five metres, which corresponds to the time when El Cerro del Villar was founded at the end of the 9th century BC, according to the latest surveys. Aubet stressed the importance of resuming excavations at the settlement.
“Malaga isn't aware of what it has here,” she said.
The mayor of Malaga, Francisco de la Torre, said that if it were up to the city council “the excavations would have started years ago, but we haven't got the authority”. He proposed an agreement with the Junta de Andalucía - which owns the land and is responsible for heritage issues - to begin new digs on the site, with the collaboration of the University of Malaga.
De la Torre agreed to Aubert's proposal that Malaga organise and host the Phoenician Studies Congress that would draw more attention to the value of El Cerro del Villar.
Archaeologist José Suárez explained that the geophysical study involved three types of “x-ray” to collect underground information: ground-penetrating radar (GPR), geoelectric and geomagnetic survey techniques. The result has shown the precise perimeter of the island, even locating its harbour area.
According to María Teresa Teixidó, who directed the study carried out by the Andalusian Institute of Geophysics at the University of Granada, the surveys have revealed differentiated zones in the organisation of the town, with an urban strip with large houses, streets and a supporting transit road - as Aubet had indicated years ago - and an industrial and artisan quarter with smaller buildings and remains of iron and kilns.
Based on the geophysical study, the archaeologist José Suárez has drawn up a viability project for an archaeology park in Cerro del Villar, which includes the creation of a visitor centre, and analyses the compatibility of ongoing excavations with the presence of the general public.
A system of light walkways over the settlement would allow visitors to view the remains, of which only 10 per cent has been uncovered.
“We just started it, the city is yet to be discovered,” concluded Aubet.