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Searching for Portugal's lost Roman city of Ierabriga

Monte Castelinho, a mountain range that rises above the National Route No. 1 (EN1), at the entrance to the town of Carregado, has been classified as an important archaeological site for some time. But only in the last ten years have regular archaeological excavation campaigns taken place, which began with the discovery of a great Roman fortification and numerous military artefacts.

Searching for Portugal's lost Roman city of Ierabriga
Excavations at the site believed to be the Roman city of Ierabriga, Portugal 
[Credit: Publico]
This summer, a new campaign of excavation works has uncovered houses and other structures, a large amount of pottery, coins and other objects of common use, which reinforce the view that it is the Roman city of Ierabriga, considered to be the most important in ancient Lisbon (Olissipo) and Santarem (Scallabis).

Ierabriga is referred to in classical texts as being located some 30 miles from Olissipo, a distance which corresponds to this 'lost' Roman city.

It is true that the site on the Castelinho (located on the far north of Vila Franca de Xira, in the parish of Castanheira do Ribatejo), is already considered to be the most significant Roman site in the whole region of Lisbon and the Tagus Valley (Vale do Tejo).

The mountain is quite desolate and all the archaeological remains are very well preserved, making it possible to reconstruct much of the Roman settlement in this strategic point in the Tagus Valley, on the main Roman road that crossed the territory of Lusitania.

Searching for Portugal's lost Roman city of Ierabriga
This year's excavations have uncovered houses and other structures, a large amount of pottery, coins and other artefacts 
[Credit: Publico]
Joao Pimenta and Henrique Mendes, archaeologists from the municipality, have led these excavations and explained that the main focus is not to confirm that Ierabriga is located in the area, but to progressively discover and study a place of great importance for the knowledge of the Roman presence in the Iberian Peninsula. Then the site of the Castelinhos will be classified as a National Monument, which the town of Vila Franca plans to do in the future, to develop educational projects and even tourism.

The archaeological site extends for more than ten hectares located in the Quinta da Marquesa and archaeologists have opened a second excavation area this year, in the direction of the Tagus river, to the west of the first.

"The importance of Castelinho mountain during the Roman period of conquest, in the Republican period (1st century BC), is already known, and it is in this period that the research has focused, because we have a large fortification and a strong military presence during the time of Julius Caesar," explains Joao Pimenta, pointing out that there were, in fact, "indications that this site was already important during the later Roman Empire (1st and 2nd centuries after Christ), when this territory formed the Roman province of Lusitania."

Searching for Portugal's lost Roman city of Ierabriga
A Roman military shield boss is among many of artefacts that have already been recovered in the excavations 
[Credit: Publico]
According to the archaeologist, the objective was to establish whether the Roman fort was associated with a contemporary (or later) urban settlement, the Ierabriga referred to in several classical sources.

"We began this new excavation phase and the findings that came to light were quite significant, with the state of preservation of the structures from the Roman period, around the time of the Emperor Augustus. We have several buildings and a road, which suggests that the site was rebuilt and had great economic importance. It was a rich site, with a great commercial dynamic, which could really contribute to be the city of Ierabriga", explains Joao Pimenta, pointing out that a large amount of pottery of the sigillata terra type was found (objects painted with a red varnish that have stamps that allow us to locate and date its production), a large quantity of amphorae, coins from Augustus' time, fibulas and other materials. "During the course of this campaign we barely scratched the surface of the houses", he adds.

Do these finds to belong to an important Roman villa and not to a city? Henrique Mendes does not think so. "We are convinced that we have a major settlement and that we digging in a new zone where people were living with some degree of luxury, and which is clearly of great importance. We have already excavated an unpaved street, however, the size and type of construction does not necessarily correspond to a villa but is something different with comparable dimensions", he says.

Searching for Portugal's lost Roman city of Ierabriga
Map of Roman Hispania around 10 AD; the province Lusitania is colored in orange 
[Credit: WikiCommons]
Ierabriga is referred to in several classical sources from the "Itinerario de Antonino" (first century AD) to texts by the geographer Ptolemy. It is a city of great economic importance located in the Tagus Estuary around 30 miles from Olissipo, serving as a stopover along a major route from old Lisbon (Olissipo) with local markets, taverns and roadhouses. A milestone recently discovered next to Alenquer supports the view "Ierabriga" was located in the same area on Castelinho mountain. It is essential to uncover more concrete evidence that confirms this identification and to find definitive explanations for the subsequent "abandonment" of the city.

Joao Pimenta and Henrique Mendes have confirmed that a lack of water on the mountain top has progressively increased, forcing the population to move to lower areas, closer to Tagus estuary and its tributary of the Pipa river. In fact, vestiges from the Visigothic period have also found in the vicinity. 

"These is enough evidence to indicate that we have here an important site from the time of the Emperor Augustus and that, arguably, since there is no other candidate as good as this one, it is very likely that we are here in the presence of ancient Ierabriga", says Joao Pimenta.

Source: Publico [October 08, 2017]

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