Few would dispute that, in its long history, Cartagena's period of unsurpassed relative splendour was when it was a great Roman city.
It is well worth spending a day (or more!) exploring the fascinating history of the city in this era. Roman remains abound, as you might well expect. There is the great Roman Theatre, the remarkable amphitheatre, a paved Roman road (the Decumanus), various remains from the Hill of the Molinete, the Casa Fortuna, the Torre Ciega, buildings of the Augusteum, and, if this is not enough, a whole plethora of finds in the Archaeological Museum.
It is invidious to select just one or two of these, but at the very least, try to have a look at the following three:
First, there is the Archaeological Museum, on the calle Ramón y Cajal, quite near El Corte Ingles. Although the museum covers the whole of prehistoric and historic times, emphasis is on the Roman period. Entry when we have visited it (the last time in November 2011 on which the description below is based) has always been free, although it is usually necessary to present some identification. The arrangement of the museum is quite unusual – two floors arranged in a rectangle, surrounding and overlooking the excavated area of a late Roman (Palaeochristian) burial area. In fact, this burial area, or necropolis, was only discovered in 1967. The area was in the very north of the Roman city and the remains found, date from the 3rd to the 7th Centuries AD, although most come from the 4th and 5th Centuries. Some of the graves appear to have been very simple and others contained infants in large pottery jars (amphorae). Most graves consisted of flat barrows made with stones and covered with mortar and were rectangular or semi-circular. In addition, several family vaults have been found. It is quite fascinating to look down on to this ancient burial area as you walk around the museum.
As you begin your walk around the first floor of the museum, you are transported back somewhat further, to well over a million years ago, as you look at remains of over 30 animals including elephants, rhinoceros and hyena found in the nearby Victoria Cave! You then quickly pass on to other displays including stone and flint tools used by early man and one curiosity – a child's tooth from the middle Stone Age which was found in the nearby Cueva del Caballo. Moving forward into more recent prehistory, there is a whole range of ceramics from the Argaric period (Bronze Age), although these appear to have come from the Mazarrón and Lorca areas. There is also an impressive collection of pottery and personal adornments from the subsequent Iberian period as well as weapons (javelin and lance head, falcata type sword etc) from the nearby settlement of Los Nietos, as well as an eye catching decorated Greek vase which was discovered on that site. Finally, before the Romans appear, there are some Punic (Carthaginian) amphorae and a funeral monument.
Among the succeeding Roman remains are numerous funeral relics including urns from nearby Torre Ciega, and a whole host of inscribed stones, but, to balance everything, there are several cases of ceramics and some glassware from the Roman era. There are also various sculptures to be seen including the famous white marble head of a child which came from the Calle de los Cuatros Santos and is generally thought to be of a member of the Emperor Augustus' family. You can also see mosaics and remains of Roman columns and details are given of a typical Roman house, with fragments of painted walls on view.
Of course, one of Cartagena's principal riches in Roman times came from the surrounding lead and silver mines and you can see various Roman mining tools including picks, mallets and mattocks (hand tools similar to pick axes), together with some wooden steps, metal hooks, and miners' esparto sandals. A great selection of lead ingots is on display, though some are from more modern times and, if fish salting and garum (fish sauce) manufacture were particularly important activities of the time, you will see a selection of amphorae used to contain the end products. For those with an interest in coins, there is a vast display dating from Iberian times right through the Roman era.
Later, Byzantine times, are represented with the inevitable ceramics, including 6th Century oil lamps and a remarkable stone with an inscription commemorating the repair of Cartagena's defensive walls by one Comenciolo in 589-90 AD. This is followed by Visigoth remains including bronze and silver earrings and necklaces. Although Cartagena would never again have as great a relative importance as it did in Roman times, the city's history is completed with pottery from the Islamic era (actually found during excavation of the Roman theatre) and funeral stones, one of a Fatima bint Abi Bakr. Just to complete the funeral theme, there are further funeral stones from the old Cathedral from 1250 (Cartagena came under Christian control again from 1245).
The upstairs part of the museum is devoted to more modern Cartagena as well as housing temporary exhibitions. Of course, as you would expect, there are funeral stones (from the late 16th Century) and some impressive old coats of arms. There are also some interesting weapons with an 18th Century Trabuco (blunderbuss) especially striking.
The tour, however, ends appropriately with some more Roman relics – hinges, stone inscriptions, ceramics, coins and fragments of sculptures including a cornucopia with a basket of fruit, again of white marble, and dating from the 1st Century AD.
You can easily spend an hour (or even two) looking around the myriad of exhibits and, helpfully, some of the explanatory notices are also in English. It is an extremely worthwhile visit!
(to be continued in June)
Article by Clive and Rosie Palmer, who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia.