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Week of 28 January 2000

Vol. III, No. 21

Feature Article

Dig those revealing ruins

BU prof unearths archaeological treasures at naval base in Spain

By David J. Craig

The piece of black-and-white marble in Murray McClellan's hand looks like an ordinary rock. To his archaeologist's eye, however, it evokes images of life on another continent nearly 2,000 years ago.

"This piece stood out like a sore thumb," says McClellan, a CAS assistant professor of archaeology. He uncovered the rock last November at a U.S. naval base in Rota, on Spain's southern coast. "We knew what this was as soon as we saw it. It's from the wall of a Roman villa and probably came from North Africa, possibly near the Black Sea."

As part of a U.S. Navy incentive to ensure that military operations don't damage Rota's cultural resources, McClellan and a team of researchers dug in and around the base from November 17 to January 14, making them the first archaeologists ever to dig on a U.S. military base in a foreign country.

What they discovered are the scattered pages of an ancient story that McClellan is now trying to piece back together. The bulk of the material -- shards of marble, centuries-old coins, pottery fragments, fish hooks, hand-made square nails -- is from between a.d. 250 and a.d. 450, some from as early as a.d. 100.

McClellan has not finished analyzing data, but so far the artifacts tell this story: around the year a.d. 250, a wealthy citizen from the nearby coastal city of Cadiz built a farm settlement in the area of present-day Rota. Wheat, olives, tuna, salt, and some of the Roman Empire's finest garam, a staple condiment made from stewed fish guts, were produced there. At the center of the settlement stood a villa measuring 40,000 square meters and containing space for producing brick and for iron working, a bakery, and a bathhouse. The villa was inhabited by some 100 people, 90 of them probably slaves, and was most likely overrun by a.d. 500, by which time the Roman Empire had collapsed. Vandals and Goths then regularly pillaged the area.

Murray McClellan, a College of Arts and Sciences assistant professor of archaeology, discovered the remains of an ancient civilization beneath a U.S. naval base in Rota, Spain, late last year. He believes that he and his team of researchers are the first archaeologists ever to dig on a U.S. military site outside this country. Photo by Vernon Doucette

"We found just little bits of evidence of all that," McClellan says. "But all that remained of the villa was the marble. It had been badly damaged over the centuries, and then in 1956, when the Navy built their airport, it was just all scraped down. So I had about six inches of dirt on top of six inches of stone resting in sand, and that's it. No columns, no nothing."

Still, McClellan's discovery is significant. There have been about 25 Roman villas found in northern Spain, he says, but only one other in the province where Rota is. "So while we have a lot of literary evidence of what was going on at the coast," he says, "this is only the second time we have real archaeological material."

McClellan's task now is to determine the precise dates of his artifacts, what proportion of them are imports, and how many are made of each of the various materials. His preliminary reaction is that the settlement was richer than he expected.

"Our most important find is a decorative finger ring made of stone, called a bezel," says McClellan. "It's from the first century and was probably an heirloom that belonged to the owner." McClellan was also shocked to find that about 20 percent of the pottery remains at the site would have been the finest pottery at the time, imported from North Africa.

"And I would have thought their amphoras, which they used to store fish and garam, would have been produced locally," he continues. "But we found a whole variety of them, from all over the Mediterranean. After you put fish in one of these vessels, you wouldn't be able to reuse it because of the smell. So they would have been smashed and scattered all over the place."

In addition to the remains of the Roman villa, McClellan discovered in a ravine near the naval base remnants of hand axes and other stone tools that are 300,000 years old, evidence that pre-Neanderthal man once lived in the region.

Military complications
An archaeology excavation for the U.S. Navy has unique challenges. It took nearly four years from the time McClellan first surveyed the area until he was allowed to begin his work. And then he was given only 30 days to dig, until he convinced Spanish bureaucrats to let him work twice that long.

"It's amazing that it happened at all," says McClellan. "Technically, it's a Spanish-owned base occupied by the U.S. Navy, so I had three levels of bureaucracy to work through: the local civil authorities and the military from both countries."

His access was also surprising, McClellan says, in light of the fact that the U.S. and Spanish military have typically been reluctant to invite archaeologists to survey their bases in the past.

"Of course, they were terribly afraid that what I did was going to interrupt military operations," he says. "And it may well have, but what I found was only the lowest remains of walls. The damage was already done, and military operations won't be interrupted. If they want to lay down another runway, they can."

McClellan will go back to Rota at the end of April to present his findings to a Spanish admiral and to learn from military authorities how and when he can publish his findings. He also will petition to do more excavating on the nearby pre-Neanderthal site.

While the military oversight slows the academic research process, he says, there were advantages to digging on the naval base. "The base is almost a de facto natural and archaeological park," he says. "Outside of the base is all developed, and here it is pristine. On the first afternoon, I found 20 copper coins that were excellently preserved. In my 15 years' working in the Mediterranean, at hundreds of Roman sites, I saw probably three or four coins. I walked around in amazement at all these marvels."