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Unique 4th century cathedral emerges in Empúries (Girona)

The exceptional site of Empúries, in the Girona municipality of L'Escala, was the gateway of Graeco-Roman culture to the Iberian Peninsula. In this enclave, in the 6th century BC, the ancient Greeks founded a city, Empòrion, whose port served as a landing point for the troops of the Republic in their war against Carthage. The famous writer and military man Marcus Porcius Cato set up a camp in the vicinity which was to become the embryo of a new colony at the beginning of the 1st century BC, and which was to merge with its predecessor under the name of Municipium Emporiae under the reign of Augustus.

Unique 4th century cathedral emerges in Empúries (Girona)
Aerial view of the Episcopal complex of Empúries [Credit: Catalan Regional Government]

But the site gradually lost its importance in the Late Antique period. It is precisely this history that archaeology is bringing to light. The latest excavations carried out at the site, between April and May, have resulted in the discovery of a magnificent basilica-cathedral dating from the end of the 4th century AD, part of a group of buildings that belonged to the ancient bishopric of Empúries, which at that time stood on the banks of the estuary of the river Ter.

It is a "unique" building, according to the researchers from the Archaeological Museum of Catalonia who directed the work, with three floors and more than 20 metres long. Inside, there have been some striking finds, such as a hoard of 184 bronze coins minted between the 4th and 5th centuries, which may have been hidden, and the pedestal of a sculpture from the ancient forum of the Roman city, possibly dedicated to Manius Cornelius Saturninus, magistrate of Emporiae in the 2nd century, which was reused to support the weight of the altar.

Some ten graves with stone sarcophagi have also been documented. Archaeologists have opened two of these sarcophagi and found them empty, which means that the people buried there were exhumed and buried elsewhere at a later date, perhaps because of their high status. On one of them, to add to the mystery, one can read the inscription "Secundus". Who could this man have been? The lists of bishops do not show any bishop by that name, although researchers believe that he must have been some important religious person, as he was buried inside the basilica-cathedral.

The excavations, promoted by the Museum of Archaeology of Catalonia and the Directorate General of Cultural Heritage of the Generalitat, and with funding from L'Escala Town Council, have continued in the wake of last year's campaign and have focused on determining the nature and function of the buildings located to the north of the present-day church of Santa Margarita. 

Unique 4th century cathedral emerges in Empúries (Girona)
Bronze coins found during the excavations [Credit: Archaeological Museum of Catalonia]

"The work will confirm that this area was the site of the late-antique episcopal complex of Empúries and that its structures constituted the epicentre of the new population centre that emerged after the abandonment of the Roman city", they pointed out. Geophysical prospecting has revealed that the area had a minimum extension of two hectares.

In addition to the basilica-cathedral, the most relevant remains of the whole complex, which was modified on several occasions between its construction and its abandonment at the end of the 7th or beginning of the 8th century, it has also been possible to document the baptistery, with a square floor plan and a baptismal font in the centre. Other structures, such as the bishop's palace, are still unknown.

The Episcopal see of Empúries was incorporated into that of Girona in the 9th century. From this time onwards, a small church was built over the remains of the central nave and the apse of the old basilica, also in various phases, which allows us to discover the evolution of the site up to the 16th century. A second temple, dedicated to Santa Margarita and built in the area of the complex, would last a little longer, until the 18th century. Both buildings were linked to a necropolis with several burial phases.

The research project in which these findings are part of focuses on gaining a deeper understanding of the genesis, growth and decline of Empúries through the study of its ancient port areas and three specific stages: the settlement of the Greeks in the 6th century BC, the arrival of the Romans around the 2nd century BC and the time when the population was concentrated in Sant Martí d'Empúries.

Author: David Barreira  | Source: El Espanol [trsl. TANN; June 14, 2021]

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