Rabaçal Museum - Area : Penela City Hall

Picture: Person working in the excavation
Picture: Aerial view of the Roman Villa
Picture: Detail of excavation

Archaeological Campaigns

Roman Villa of Rabaçal - Twenty years of Archaeological Campaigns

We visited the archaeological site in 1979, following a field survey, backed up by written information provided by an archaeological map of the Roman period in the area of Conimbriga (ROCHA, 1905; OLEIRO, 1956; ALARCÂP, 1975; PESSOA, 1986).

Conditions at the site, in terms of conservation of the archaeological remains, became more worrying as each year passed. Damage was clearly being caused to the buried structures by the simple turning of the earth, using traditional methods of agriculture. After tilling, the surface of the terrain would be scattered with small pieces of coloured mosaics and fragments of decorative marble plaques, pottery tableware and kitchenware and remains of building materials.

Once we had become aware of this situation, a small group of volunteers (consisting of archaeologists, a geologist, a restorer, members of the local population, teachers, young people and others from different professions, many of whom had connections with with Ecomuseum and Museum of Coninmbriga) drew up a research programme, subsequently approved by the authorities, which led to the first surveys carried out in 1984 (PESSOA, PONTE, 1984).

It must be stressed here that the local owners of the land showed nothing but goodwill and support for our efforts to preserve the archaeological site by allowing us to take soundings and proceed with further excavation work all over these lands.

In 1984, decorative mosaic floors, without parallel in Portugal, were discovered. The following year, the work was given a boost when the team was expanded and help was given by the Penela local authority, the Portuguese Youth Institute, and by other local, regional and national bodies. The archaeological site had been formed into a grid, and this year brought to light an octagonal peristyle with 24 columns, corridors with plinths decorated in bas relief, mosaics of the seasons (Autumn and Summer), and ceramics and coins dating from the 4th century AD.

The 1986 dig yielded three large rooms connected to the corridors of the portico of the peristyle: to the west, a three-apsed oecus triclinium; a room to the south-west, and a third one to the north-west. Only the first two have decorative mosaics. A variety of marble slabs was discovered, with bas relief and ionic friezes in limestone, which were used to decorate the triclinium.

The main outcome of the 1987 excavation was the detection of archaeological remains about 200 metres from the residential zone, at the edge of the villa rustica. In the villa urbana, the following mosaic figures were discovered: allegorical representations of Spring and Winter and the Triumphant Charioteer in the west corridor of the peristyle; a seated female figure in the centre of the triclinium and more busts in the corners of the border of this panel. Assessment was also made of the degree to which the mosaic floor of the room adjoining the south-west corridor of the peristyle was destroyed; twelve tombs were installed over it, possibly in the 16th century.

The large walls uncovered at the north end of the villa urbana during the course of the 1988 dig are believed to be part of a four-apsed place of worship. This year also saw the unearthing of the octagonal tower, which helped to distinguish the complex at the south entrance to the Villa. The site was finally safeguarded when the Penela local authority purchased the first parcels of land.

In 1989 the first hoard of coins (4th century AD) was found. By the end of this dig it was possible to build up a picture of all the linear motifs and the coloured mosaic floors in the pars urbana. The local authority acquired more land in the residential area and made an offer to buy land in the pars rustica. A set of documents defining the area of the site, the protected zone and the registered plan was submitted to the IPPAR (Instituto Português de Património Arquitectónico e Arqueológico). Other material justifying our proposal to have the site designated a national monument was also submitted.

A large number of walkways were constructed in 1990 over the triclinium, the south-west room and the corridors in the peristyle. We were thus able to make a detailed documentation of the entire complex and begin consolidation work on the structures.

In 1991, the whole central area of the peristyle (impluvium) and the triclinium heating system and respective water supply tank were uncovered. Examination of the coins so far collected gave us information on the issue of coinage in the latter half of the 4th and early part of the 5th century AD, as well as on western issuing centres (Arles, Rome, Siscia and Lugdunum), and eastern ones (Constantinople). The largest number of coins in this collection was minted in Arles - at the time, the issuer nearest to the province of Lusitania.

As work continued in the southern part of the residence in 1992, more details of the entrance complex came to light. It comprised an octagonal tower, corridor, vestibule, entrance hall and room adjoining the south-east corridor. We also learned about the complexity of the wall facings in the triclinium.

In 1993, the work revealed details of the four-apsed structure in the northern part of the pars urbana, linked by the north-west corridor of the peristyle.

The extended excavation, to the north of the urban area, in 1994 yielded new stratigraphic information, a fact associated with the concentration of even more significant lands. The stratum considered contemporary with the levelling of the land to establish a Roman building yielded coins from the time of Constantine II, dated 341-346 AD, which should be seen as a terminus ante quem. The length of time during which bronze coinage was used in this era led us to suggest the 2nd half of the 4th century as a likely date for this structure.

Once the archaeological area had been marked out in the pars rustica, it was possible, in 1996, to examine the remains uncovered, using stratigraphic methods, in order to determine the type of structures revealed, and ascertain their state of preservation. The buildings at the north-west end, at the highest level, of the excavated area had several kinds of flooring (opus signinum, fine slabs, coarse slabs, stone chippings), a hearth, drains, walls of varying thickness. The huge amount and variety of evidence from building materials found at the southern end of the area being studied during this same year, led us to think that this zone adjoins a more elaborate building. Such a building could have been located next to the ditch where the most important watercourse was; indeed, it is still used today, for irrigation purposes, by means of norias.

This area was excavated in 1997. It has revealed an important complex of buildings constructed in stone masonry, drains, tanks coated with opus signinum, as well as floors, raised on arches, which we identified as being part of the baths.

As Vitruvius recommended in the 1st century AD (De Architectura, Chap.XI, trans. A Blánquez, Madrid, 1954, p.130-131), this part is set apart from the main complex since it contains furnaces, wood-burning stoves to heat the air, water and floors of the other buildings in the residential and servants' quarters, to comply with one of the safety rules - precaution against fire. Its location to the north of the villa urbana prevents this source of heat combining with the other, natural one - the sun - to the south, to raise the temperature inside the main living zone; having the mouth of the furnace facing south protects it from the prevailing northerly winds. Hot air systems were also found in the walls and in the cupola of the building.

We must also say that the owners of this land unhesitatingly gave permission for excavation work to be carried out on their property, just like those who owned the site of the pars urbana. Without such co-operation, nothing would have been possible. The enthusiastic and self-sacrificing participation of hundreds of young people, from Portugal and abroad, the team of experts, the local people of Rabaçal and the local authority of Penela, have equally been crucial to the achievement of concrete goals.

Current studies are a factor of self-esteem for everyone concerned, and are of considerable interest in assessing the diversity and wealth of the cultural heritage in the Penela municipality. This work is helping to meet the need to valorise the town-country relationship, an essential ingredient at all stages of the research. It is also providing an insight into the Roman occupation of the region, particularly in terms of the role of the villae in the civitas of Conímbriga during the late Roman Empire.