The Molinete project
Having explored the top of the hill, it was time to explore the excavations at the foot, and subsequently, with the help of an excellent website, (http://www.um.es/molinete/ , in Spanish, but translated for me by Google) I have been able to unravel the whole fascinating story of the Molinete Archaeological Park, and how it came into existence.
The real background story begins in the 19th century, when the Molinete hill was the red light district of Cartagena. It was densely built over, and occupied by sailors and prostitutes, and gave Cartagena the reputation of being a den of iniquity, known as the little Marseilles.
The good citizens of Cartagena decided to do something about it, and to remove this blot on their reputation, so the site was marked down for slum clearance. But it was not until the 1960s that the clearance actually took place and the buildings were demolished, not only at the top of the hill but also on the southern slopes, facing the town.
In the 1970s the town archaeologist, Pedro San Martin carried out the first excavations. The hill was obviously important. Polybius, who gave a good description of the town, identified it as the Arx Hasdrubalis, that is the citadel of Hasdrubal. Hasdrubal was the founder of Cartagena and father of Hannibal, and Polybius said that it was the chosen location for Hasdrubal’s palace, ‘erected at great cost when he was aiming at establishing royal power’. No firm traces of the palace have so far been discovered, though the shrine of Atargatis may have been part of it. A series of elaborate fortification walls was discovered – a confusing mass of Phoenician, Roman and Renaissance walls, the earliest of which could possibly have been Carthaginian.
Further work took place in the 1990s, and in 1995 an extensive programme of test pitting was conducted over the whole area, when 38 sondages were put down, each 5 by 5 metres square, covering the whole of the fenced area. They revealed that the area of the lower southern slope offered remarkable potential
Meanwhile intense debates were taking place over the future of the whole area. Competitions were held for a major redevelopment plan, including the northern slopes of the hill in a Special Reform Plan (a PERI in Spanish planning parlance). This led to a huge political struggle with street demonstrations, but the plans were amended and eventually accepted. The main development lay in fact outside the archaeological area, but archaeology was the magic ingredient that would turn the former red-light district into a great cultural asset. Archaeology therefore flourished. An annex to the Project provided legislation for the protection of the archaeological remains, and this became the germ of the Molinete Archaeological Park of 25,000 square metres, or 2.5 hectares – nearly 10 acres. The Spanish National Oil Company Repsol agreed to fund the new excavations.
In 2002 a building was discovered at the eastern end of the site which turned out to be the curia, the meeting place of the town council, with some fine architectural fragments and also a statue of a man in a toga, which perhaps represents the emperor himself, Augustus as Pontefex maximus. A health centre was built on top of it.
However the main discoveries were made at the western end of the street and proved to be extremely interesting. It begins with a set of baths with a large and elaborate hypocaust system. These were presumably public baths, or perhaps the not uncommon Roman system of private/public baths, that is erected by private enterprise or a semi-public corporation for public use.
Then adjacent to it, is what could be described in modern terms as being a conference centre. There were four large banqueting halls centred round an atrium. In front of them were service rooms, and in front of them, a series of shops facing out onto the main road. The whole complex may have had a semi ritual use, perhaps for the worship of exotic gods like Isis, or were they perhaps for the use of the various clubs or collegia in which the Roman merchants did business, as in the Rotary clubs today?
At the eastern end of the site, the excavation of the actual forum was still in progress. The work formed a slice through the northern half of the forum, revealing bases which presumably was held statues dedicated to gods, members of the Imperial family and patrons of the city.
It was surrounded by a lattice fence so you could see through it and indeed take photos through it, and there was a board explaining what was going on. I thought this was a far superior way of doing excavations than the unfortunate habit of the professionals in Britain, where they zealously fence off all excavations so that you cannot see what is happening.
Having visited the Roman Forum , it was time to hurry on to the other great site of the Roman town, the Roman theatre.