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The seven horses that reveal an exceptional sanctuary in the great Ibero-Roman city of Cordoba

His name was Relato and his wife, whose name is unknown, was 40 years old and came from the neighbouring colony of Asido Caesarina (Medina Sidonia, Cadiz). The couple, probably humble people of a libertine status, died in the Ibero-Roman city of Torreparedones (Baena, Cordoba) sometime at the beginning of the new era. Both were buried in the eastern necropolis of the site, outside the walls, and a small funerary inscription, half a metre high, was carved on a limestone stele in their memory. 

The seven horses that reveal an exceptional sanctuary in the great Ibero-Roman city of Cordoba
Moment of the discovery of one of the zoomorphic votive offerings
[Credit: Jose Antonio Morena Lopez]

That tombstone was found in 2011 by the team of archaeologists who have spent several decades investigating the unique site, a fortified Iberian settlement that in Roman times, between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD, the period of greatest splendour, reached the status of a municipality. With several baths, an amphitheatre and a spectacular forum, Torreparedones has been dubbed the 'Pompeii of Cordoba'. Recent excavations in the area where the funerary epigraph was identified have not been able to identify human remains, the bodies of Relato and his wife, but have instead revealed a much greater surprise.

The discovery of a group of zoomorphic votive offerings representing figures of horses, carved in local limestone, has been dated to the 1st century AD. According to Jose Antonio Morena Lopez, director of the Torreparedones Archaeological Park and one of the directors of the research, these ritual pieces must be related to the presence of a sanctuary dedicated to a deity protector of the equine, which was very important for the Iberian aristocracy as an element of prestige.

"What is really exceptional is that this is the first time that two different sanctuaries have been recognised in the same city that are 600 metres apart and which could have been in use at the same time," says the archaeologist, referring to the other temple, also outside the walls and in the southern part of the site, dedicated to Salus, the goddess of fertility and health, which was in use from the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD.

The seven horses that reveal an exceptional sanctuary in the great Ibero-Roman city of Cordoba
Detail of one of the votive offerings with the figure of a horse found in Torreparedones
[Credit: Jose Antonio Morena Lopez]

Morena explains that the meaning of the horse votive offerings - there are seven in total, three of which are complete and four fragmented - is similar to that of the anthropomorphic votive offerings: "In other words, they would be presents or gifts deposited by the faithful in a place of worship after having made a request to a divinity who protects these animals". In the other sanctuary, offerings have been found that correspond to pregnant women imploring "a trouble-free birth".

The rescue excavations that have documented the probable presence of this second temple were carried out in September last year, after the discovery of illegal digs in the area of the Roman necropolis located next to the visitor reception centre. The results were made public a few days ago and the exhaustive study of the votive offerings will soon be published in a specialised journal.

In addition to the seven votive offerings, which were not found in situ, but had been dislodged (experts suggest that the building where the ceremonies and religious activities took place must have been located further north, at the top of the hill, so that these pieces rolled down the slope at some point), several interesting tombs have been identified. For the moment, no building remains have been found that could be interpreted as belonging to the sanctuary, only a sandstone pavement.

The seven horses that reveal an exceptional sanctuary in the great Ibero-Roman city of Cordoba
Aerial view of the Termas de la Salud [Credit: Torreparedones Archaeological Park]

The graves found consist of a primary individual burial in a limestone urn placed inside a large limestone shaft, which contained a common ceramic bowl, a ceramic urn with painted decoration in the Iberian tradition and a glass ointment-amphora. All these elements have allowed the burial to be dated to the first half of the 1st century AD.

The other is a collective tomb, of a family type and partly beneath ground level, which was apparently partially damaged and looted in ancient times, although it also showed more recent signs of disturbance. Only the very fragmentary remains of the stone urns and a bowl-lid from another ceramic urn have been recovered from inside the tomb.

"It is a very interesting burial from the point of view of its typology, as it is the third case documented at Torreparedones, and it could be said to be unique to this site," explains Jose Antonio Morena. "It is built with opus quadratum masonry and its uniqueness is marked by the presence of a moulded stone ledge that runs around the funerary chamber and on which the urns and grave goods would have been placed. It must have belonged to a wealthy family, perhaps even acquaintances of Relato and his wife."

Author: David Barreira | Source: El Espanol [trsl. TANN; June 03, 2021]

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