Iruña-Veleia: Roman town (I BC-V AD)

Below article pays homage to the hardworking archaeologists at the Roman excavation site of Iruña-Veleia (10 km west of Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque Country, Spain) during a visit in August 2017, and Patxi at the small information office at this site. Translations of Spanish (Italicised) into English by G.Dijkman.

This article may serve as an English guide to the site, as it follows the route indicated below, to be found at the information office and on brochures.

Image above: A tour of the excavation site (G.Dijkman, August 2017, picture from brochure and excavation office)

Points of reference: an itinerary for your visit

1) Urban highest point (El apogeo urbano)

2) Road from Astorga to Bordeaux, via Veleia, ‘Ab Asturica Burdigalam’ (De Astorga a Burdeos, por Veleia)

3) Walls (Las murallas)

4) Inside of the wall (La cara interna de la muralla)

5) Casa de Pompeia Valentina

6) Domus with mosaics of rose motifs (Domus del mosaico de los rosetones)

7) Water supply for houses: cisterns (Abastecimento de agua para las casas: cisternas)

8) Priory of San Juan of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta (El Priorato de la Orden de San Juan de Jerusalén, Rodas y Malta)

9) Deposit, which turned out to be a temple (El Depósito que resultó ser un templo)

10) Adjacent constructions to the wall (Construcciones adosadas a la muralla)

General introduction: location of the site

The site of Iruña-Veleia is situated in the municipal district of Iruña de Oca at about 10 km to the west of Vitoria-Gasteiz, occupying the spur of Arkiz, bordered to the north, south and east by a large meander of the river Zadorra. Of its expanse of 126 hectares, 11 belong to the walled enclosure.

Bibat Museum, Vitoria-Gasteiz

Materials from the site excavation are found housed on the third floor of the Bibat Museum in the Archaeological section.

Image above: altar (G.Dijkman, picture taken at Bibat Museum, Vitoria-Gasteiz, August 2017)

Altar with votive inscription, found at the site, stating the name of 'Veleia', the first time this name has been recorded. This altar is now at Bibat Museum, Vitoria. It is made of stone and sandstone; the inscription reads: [E]VCA[R] / [P]VS.R.P / VELEIAN / SER / MATRI / DEIA / DEDI[C]AVIT, translated as '‘Eucarpo, slave to the republic of the Veleians (or Veleian), offering this to the Mother Goddess’.

Ara con inscripción votiva - Altar; Iruña-Veleia, Villodas-Trespuentes; Piedra, Caliza; Época romana; transcripción: [E]VCA[R] / [P]VS.R.P / VELEIAN / SER / MATRI / DEIA / DEDI[C]AVIT; traducción: ‘Eucarpo, esclavo de la república de los veleianos (o veleiana), lo dedicó a la Diosa Madre’.

History

The known occupation at the ancestral site of Iruña spans over more than 1500 years of history, from the first millennium BC to the 5th century AD. It seems that it was during this century when the late oppidum would be abandoned, not being documented as a new settlement until its use as a Priory of the Order of San Juan in the middle of the 14th century. After a little defined inhabitation during the end of the Bronze Age and throughout the Iron Age, it is during the first half of the 1st Century (Julio-Claudian period) when the first domus or Roman urban dwellings appeared.

Moving on into the 1st century, during the Flavian period, the city reached greater splendour, with luxurious dwellings and great public buildings, which must have formed an urban centre appropriate to to the importance that the city of Iruña had acquired. In addition, during the 2nd century important beautification works and improvements to the urban facilities were carried out. The settlement was referred to as Veleia in the ancient sources by Pliny and Ptolemy.

During the 3rd century, the area of the settlement reduced in size, although without a doubt it is in this period which we know the least about. At the end of this century or at the beginning of the next, the city walls were constructed which would be the last great works to be carried out in the city.

The walled city

The city of Veleia was walled at un unknown date in the late 3rd or early 4th century A.D., creating the divided areas of the site that remain of this today. This walled area, usually called oppidum, was the place in which most of the archaeological interventions were carried out from the end of the 19th century until the new approach of the interventions that began in 2010.

The fortification is therefore the area of the site that has undergone most historical analysis, and it is also its well-known. However, gaining even the smallest insight into the complex reality of society at the time is still a difficult task, and this is information, which will continue to be uncovered as new investigations are conducted.

Image above: inner walls of the site (G.Dijkman, August 2017)

Álava’s Archaeological Heritage - The Roman town of Iruña-Veleia

Iruña-Veleia is one of the finest Roman settlements in the Basque Country. The town (called Iruña in Basque) developed from a pre-Roman settlement that stood on a bend in the River Arkiz. Its strategic location and its links with Iter XXXVI road between Astorga and Bordeaux (Ab Astorica Burdigalam) allowed it to grow and flourish in the early centuries A.D.. Archaeological digs have brought to light major buildings which evidence that this was an important town in its day, including market, a temple, residential areas containing dwellings of various types, cictern, etc.

In the third and fourth centuries A.D. the town of Veleia underwent a period of change in which its borders retreated: from an area of about 126 ha it shrank to an 11 ha walled town (oppidum). The construction of the town walls were the last great public work carried out in the town. After this, it fell into decline and was subsequently abandoned and forgotten by the late Middle Ages.

Yacimiento Romano de Iruña-Veleia, Patrimonio Arqueológico de Álava - La ciudad Romana de Iruña-Veleia

Iruña-Veleia es uno de los grandes yacimientos de época romana del territorio vasco. La ciudad (Iruña en euskera) se desarrolló a partir de un núcleo de p0blación prerromano instalado en el meandro de Arkiz. Su estratégica posición y su conexión con la calzada Iter XXXVI que comunicaba Astorga y Burdeos (Ab Astorica Burdigalam), favorecieron su crecimiento y auge durante los primeros siglos de nuestra era. Las excavaciones arqueológicas han sacado a la luz importantes edificios que nos muestran la relevancia que tuvo en su día esta ciudad: mercado, templo, espacios de habitación con viviendas de diversos tipos, cisternas, etc. Entre los siglos III y IV d.C. se inicia un período de transformaciones. Veleia reduce su perímetro pasando de ocupar unas 126 hectáreas a centrar la actividad en las 11 del recinto amurallado (oppidum). La construcción de estas murallas sería la última gran obra pública realizada en la ciudad. A partir de entonces fue entrando en un período de decadencia, abandono y olvido hasta su definitivo despoblamiento ya muy avanzada la Edad Media.

The urban space and the road

Veleia is known principally as an important large inhabited town of the Roman era, hence the Basque name of ‘Iruña’, meaning ‘city’ in Basque Country. The other two major historic settlements are Pamplona, which carries the Basque name Iruña (Pamplona-Iruña) and Oiasso, nowadays called Irún. These inhabited areas, however, cover many more centuries. Their roots date some 3000 years back, when the higher reaches of the river Arkiz were occupied, in a protected and steep meandering of the river nowadays called Zadorra.

During the Iron Age, a large settlement arose here, which developed into a Roman city, taking advantage of its strategic position and its connection with the road that connected Astorga and Burgos with Bordeaux (Ab Asturica Burdigalam), named Iter XXXVI.

After it had known considerable growth and reached its zenith in the first centuries AD, the city underwent important changes between the III and IV centuries AD, in a time not well-known, followed by its apparent downfall. The most striking element of these changes was the construction of the wall, which, despite its impressive dimensions, considerably reduced the urban outer limits, although large areas outside of the oppidum were still inhabited. This indicated a great preoccupation for safety in this convulsive area at the time.

Henceforward, Veleia fell into oblivion. It was a period where only a few medieval villages were known to exist, and the Priory of Saint John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta, which raised an incomienda by building a church and various constructions in the XIV century. After this place had been deserted, the city ruins of Iruña and its surrounding area served as cultivation land and convenient quarries for the supply of stones, which were used to construct churches and houses.

Finally - a curiosity -, it was precisely here at Iruña that the famous Battle of Vitoria took place in 1813, with the troops of the Duke of Wellington passing the Trespuentes Bridge, on their way to attack the French army of Joseph Bonaparte.

El espacio urbano y la calzada

La excavación de esta gran superficie responde a los criterios científicos establecidos por el nuevo proyecto de investigación iniciado en 2010 a raíz del Plan Director de Iruña-Veleia, impulsado por la Diputación Foral de Álava en colaboración con la Universidad del País Vasco.

Veleia es conocida fundamentalmente por su importancia como gran núcleo de población en época romana, de ahí su denominación como Iruña, la ciudad en Vasco, del mismo modo que las otras dos grandes poblaciones históricas de Vasconia, Pamplona-Iruña y Oiasso-Irún, las ciudades por antonomasia del territorio en la Antigüedad.

Sin embargo, su existencia como núcleo habitado se extiende durante muchos siglos más. Su origen se remonta al menos unos tres mil años atrás, cuando se ocupó la parte alta del espolón de Arkiz, en un protegido y escarpado meandro del rio que hoy llamamos Zadorra. Allí se desarrolló una importante población durante la Edad de Hierro a partir de la cual crecería después la ciudad romana, aprovechando su estratégica posición y su conexión con la via que comunicaba Astorga y Burgos (Iter XXXIV).

Tras conocer un gran crecimiento y auge en los primeros siglos de nuestra era, la ciudad sufrió importantes modificaciones entre los siglos III y IV, iniciándose un período poco conocido de aparente decadencia. El elemento más evidente de aquellos cambios fue la construcción de la muralla que, pese a sus imponentes dimensiones, redujo considerablemente el perímetro urbano (aunque amplias zonas seguirían habitadas fuera del oppidum) evidenciando una gran preocupación por la seguridad, propia de aquellos tiempos convulsos.

A partir de entonces, Veleia fue entrando en un profundo olvido, sólo interrumpido por breves referencias a la existencia de algunas aldeas altomedievales y al Priorato de la Orden de San Juan de Jerusalén, Rodas y Malta que levantó una encomienda con iglesia y diversas construcciones a partir del siglo XIV. Tras su abandono, las ruinas de la ciudad, de Iruña para los habitantes del entorno, sirvieron de tierras de cultivo y fácil cantera para abastecimiento de piedras con las que construir sus iglesias y sus casas.

Para finalizar y como dato curioso, citar que fue precisamente aquí, en Iruña, uno de los puntos en los que se inició la famosa batalla de Vitoria de 1813, al atravesar las tropas del Duque de Wellington el puente de Trespuentes, en su ataque el ejército francés de José Bonaparte.

Image above: outer walls of the site (G.Dijkman, August 2017)

A tour around the site

Image above: macellum (roofed market place) on the 'Ab Asturica Burdigalam' road connecting Astorga to Bordeaux via Veleia (G.Dijkman, August 2017)

2) From Astorga to Bordeaux, via Veleia

Veleia occupied a position of great strategic importance in the outer eastern Plain. The Roman road ‘Ab Asturica Burdigalam’ ran through this area, and connected Astorga (ES) with Bordeaux (FR), known as Iter XXXIV. This important highway was a public road for regional communication, owned by the Roman Empire. Hence, it provided supply stations to facilitate communication and trade goods.

Where we stand now, the road entered the city and became an urban road, with pavements and porches through which access was possible to contiguous buildings.

2) De Astorga a Burdeos, por Veleia

Veleia ocupaba una posición de gran valor estratégico en el externo occidental de la Llanada. Por aquí discurría la calzada romana que unía Astorga con Burdeos, conocida como Iter XXXIV. Esta importante vía de comunicación tenía carácter publico, propiedad des estado romano, y por ello estaba provista de estaciones de servicios o postas para facilitar las comunicaciones y el tráfico de mercancías. Por el lugar donde non encontramos el camino penetraba en la ciudad y se transformaba en una vía urbana, con aceras porticadas que permitían el acceso a los edificios colindantes.

Image above: excavated on the spot by archaeologists, a piece of Roman Terra Sigillata, near the macellum (G.Dijkman, August 2017)

3) The wall

The wall was built at the end of the III or start of the IV century. Despite its more than 1200 metres, it merely protected a small part (11 Ha) of the city (oppidum), and most of the population continued to live outside of these limits, at least until the V century. The remaining wall reaches a maximum height of 9m, although in some parts all that remains is a low pile of stones. Its width varies between 4 and 5,5 metres.

The wall was constructed with two parallel layers of brickwork or stonemasonry, filling the space between them with small stone slabs cementing them together with simple mortar and limestone. The frontal southern part is one of the most monumental sections, with layers of round turrets at both sides of the entrance. On the exterior part of the wall, large stone blocks were used, some of which were taken from earlier buildings.

For the rest of the wall, material was used of inferior quality and the design was simplified, and rectangular instead of round turrets were constructed, but with equal impressive dimensions.

3) La muralla

La muralla fue construida a finales del siglo III o inicios del IV. A pesar de sus más de 1.200 metros de trazado, sólo protegía una pequeña parte de la ciudad, el llamado oppidum (11 Ha), por lo que buena parte de la población siguió viviendo fuera de sus límites, al menos hasta el siglo V. Los restos conservados alcanzan 9 m de altura máxima, aunque en algunos lugares apenas queda una hilada de piedras. Su anchura varía entre los 4 y los 5’5 metros. La muralla se construyó a partir de dos lienzos paralelos de sillería o mampostería, rellenándose el espacio entre estos con pequeñas lajas de piedra unidas con una argamasa pobre de cal y arena. El frente sur es uno de los tramos más monumentales, con impuestos torreones circulares flanqueando la puerta de entrada. En el paño exterior se emplearon grandes bloques de piedra, algunos reaprovechados de edificios anteriores. En el resto del trazado se utilizó material de peor calidad y se simplificó el diseño, construyéndose torreones rectangulares en lugar de circulares, pero manteniendo sus potentes dimensiones.

Restoration

Between 2011 and 2016, sections of the southern wall were restored. The aim of these works was to reduce the speed at which this part of the wall was deteriorating, and to ensure a proper understanding of it. Archaeological research has brought to light new findings, amongst which a striking votive altar. This altar is inscribed with the name of Veleia, and thus it confirms its identification with the ruins and, hence, the city of Iruña.

Restauración

Entre los años 2011 y 2016 se restauraron algunos tramos de la zona sur de la muralla. Estas intervenciones tuvieron como objetivo frenar el proceso de deterioro y asegurar la correcta lectura de las murallas. Incluyeron actuaciones arqueológicas que dieron lugar a nuevos hallazgos, destacando un ara votiva con una inscripción en la que aparece el nombre de Veleia y que, por tanto, confirma definitivamente la identificación de las ruinas de Iruña con dicha ciudad.

4) The interior side of the wall

This sector was excavated by J.C. Elorza in 1975. These works were of short duration, as it was discontinued by the ‘National Congress of Archaeology’ held in Vitoria-Gasteiz around this date. The drum-shaped columns found in the interior, confirm the reutilisation of earlier materials and the urgency of its construction. Nothing more for sure is known about the other constructions leaning against the wall immediately above the natural rock.

4) La cara interna de la muralla

Este sector fue excavado por J.C. Elorza en 1975. La actuación realizada respondió a una iniciativa sin continuidad relacionada con el Congreso Nacional de Arqueología celebrado en Vitoria-Gasteiz por estas fechas. Los tambores de columna que se aprecian en el paño interno, confirman la reutilización de materiales previos y la premura de su construcción. No se conoce con seguridad la funcionalidad de las otras edificaciones que se adosan a la muralla construidas directamente sobre la roca natural.

Image above: The house of Pompeia Valentina (G.Dijkman, August 2017)

5) Casa de Pompeia Valentina

The name of Pompeia Valentina is inscribed in a fragment of ceramics recuperated during the excavations of this house. It concerns a house of Italic type (domus), typical of the powerful families of this era. The main façade featured a central entrance (faucēs) with two lateral rooms used for commercial purposes (tabernae).

The house was organised around a patio (atrium), around which the other dependences were situated: the main room (tablinium), where the pater familias used to receive his clients, the sleeping quarters (cubicula), the dining room (triclīnium) and the kitchen (culīna). The atrium, decorated with a mosaic pavement, featured an opening above (compluvium) to ventilate and illuminate the other rooms, which functioned as rainwater storage in an underground cistern (impluvium).

This domus was constructed in the first century AD and was altered afterwards, adding other rooms grouped around a large patio paved with flagstones, surrounded by columns.

5) Casa de Pompeia Valentina

El nombre de Pompeia Valentina aparece inscrito en un fragmento de cerámica recuperado en la excavación de esta casa. Es una vivienda de modelo itálico (domus) típica de las familias pudientes de la época. La fachada principal presentaba una entrada central (fauces) con dos estancias laterales de uso comercial (tabernae). La casa se organizaba a partir de un patio (atrium) en torno al cual se situaban las demás dependencias: la principal (tablinum), donde el pater familias recibía a su clientela, los dormitorios (cubicula), el comedor (triclinium) y la cocina (culina). El atrio, decorado con un pavimento de mosaico, presentaba una abertura superior (compluvium) para ventilar e iluminar las otras estancias, así como para permitir el almacenamiento del agua de lluvia en una cisterna subterránea (impluvium). Esta domus fue construida en el siglo I y modificada después, con el añadido de nuevas dependencias organizadas en torno a un gran patio enlosado rodeado de columnas.

6) Domus with mosaics of rose motifs

This house has a similar structure as the domus of Pompeia Valentina. Its original floor, however, is disguised with important reforms applied in the late Roman era. It takes its name from the motifs decorating the ground of the lower atrium, where the cistern is found. The partial breakage of the floor shows the details of its fabrication technique: small stones or tiles of various colours (teselae) embedded in a layer of lime mortar, as a way of fixing the design of the previously designed decoration.

6) Domus del Mosaico de los Rosetones

Esta casa posee una estructura similar a la domus de Pompeia Valentina, pero su planta original está enmascarada por importantes reformas realizadas en época tardorromana. Toma su nombre de los motivos del mosaico que decora el suelo del atrio bajo el cual se encuentra la cisterna. La rotura parcial del pavimento permite apreciar los detalles de su técnica de fabricación: pequeñas piedras de diversos colores (teselae) incrustadas en una capa de mortero de cal componiendo la decoración previamente diseñada.

Image above: cisterns (G.Dijkman, August 2017)

7) Water supply for houses: cisterns

The excavations of Gratiniano Nieto in 1950, showed subterranean rooms constructed in the first century AD, which were entirely reshaped in the third century AD, after a fire. In addition, later excavations brought to light another cistern of this same last period. This cistern is of quadrangular design with two monolithic pillars supporting the cover. It shows walls of two panes of stonemasonry with a filling of mortar between the two panes and an interior designed to prevent the escape of water. It was no longer used in the fifth Century and it was bridged/filled with various materials, amongst which various human skulls.

7) Abastecimiento de agua para las casas: las cisternas

Las excavaciones de Gratiniano Nieto, en 1950, documentaron en este punto tres estancias subterráneas construidas en el siglo I d.C. y fuertemente remodeladas en el siglo III, tras un incendio. Actuaciones posteriores detectaron, además, una cisterna de esa última época. Este aljibe es de la planta cuadrangular con dos pilares monolíticos para soportar la cubierta. Presenta muros de dos hojas de mampostería con relleno de argamasa entre ambas e interior enlucido para evitar fugas de agua. Dejó de utilizarse en el siglo V e se colmató con diversos materiales de relleno, entre los que aparecieron diversos cráneos humanos.

Image above: drawing by Ricardo Becerro de Bengoa (XIXth century) of the Priory of San Juan de Jerusalén, Rodas y Malta, picture taken of paper information leaflet (G.Dijkman, August 2017)

8) The Priory of San Juan of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta

In the Middle Ages, the members of this order constructed various buildings on these ruins, which were to become a priory - a type of branch of a major monastery. According to written sources, they “put back together the walls of the ancient area and also raised the Priory house”, which included various rooms and a church. Nowadays, its ruins are covered by vegetation and all that remains visible are some walls. Ricardo Becerro de Bengoa, in the XIX century, visited these ruins and made this drawing.

8) El Priorato de la Orden de San Juan de Jerusalén, Rodas y Malta

En la Edad Media, los miembros de esta orden construyeron sobre las ruinas romanas diversos edificios para asentar un priorato (especia de sucursal de un monasterio mayor). Según las fuentes escritas “recomppusieron las murallas del antiguo recinto y alzaron también su casa prioral” que incluiría diversas dependencias y una iglesia. En la actualidad, sus ruinas están ocultas por la vegetación y apenas se distinguen algunos muros. Ricardo Becerro de Bengoa, en el siglo XIX, visitó las ruinas y realizo este dibujo.

Image above: 'imaginary temple' & temple basic structure, with a Corinthian capital, now at the Archaeological Museum Vitoria-Gasteiz (information brochure at the dig)

The capital is now at the Bibat Museum, which offers the following description:

Iruña-Veleia, Villodas-Trespuentes; Stone and sandstone, late Roman era; it has three broken faces, whilst the fourth is leaning to the wall of the building. It features all three classic elements of Corinthian architecture: a listel, astragal, acanthus or calyculus leaves, or wisps. An abacus in the form of a curvilinear square with concave sides forms the crown of the capital.

Iruña-Veleia, Villodas-Trespuentes; Piedra, Arenisca; Época romana altoimperial; tiene falladas tres caras, adosándose por la cuarta a la pared del edificio. Se reconocen en él los elementos clásicos del orden arquitectónico corintio al que pertenece: listel, astrágalo, hojas de acanto y calículos o volutas. Un ábaco en forma de cuadrado curvilíneo de lados cóncavos corona el capitel.

9) The deposit, which turned out to be a temple

The location of these mighty ruins at the beginning of the XIXth century made its discoverer priest Jaime Verastegui assume that it was a large deposit of water distribution. The subsequent discovery of a series of shafts and a large Corinthian capital, however, unmistakably indicates a large building of public character with architectural features that are characteristic of official buildings. Most probably, we stand before the foundations of a temple, which by its mere location has to be one of the most important sacred buildings of the city.

9) El Depósito que resultó ser un templo

La localización a comienzos del siglo XIX de estas potentes ruinas, hizo suponer a su excavador, al sacerdote Jaime Verastegui, que correspondían a un gran depósito de distribución de aguas. Sin embargo, la recuperación en sus trabajos de una serie de fustes y de un capitel corintio de grandes dimensiones, indica la existencia inequívoca de un gran edificio de carácter público, con la decoración arquitectónica propia de los edificios oficiales. Muy probablemente non encontramos ante la cimentación de un templo que por su localización debió de ser uno de les edificios sagrados más importantes de la ciudad.

Image above: temple with a view to the southwest (G.Dijkman, August 2017)

10) Constructions adjacent to the wall

The excavations by Gratiniano Nieto in this area in the 1950s revealed an alley and various other late Roman constructions attached or adjacent to the wall, which defy interpretation. It is interesting to get closer to the interior decoration of the wall of the oppidum and observe the various restorations.

10) Construcciones adosadas a la muralla

Los trabajos de excavación de Gratiniano Nieto en esta zona, realizados en la década de 1950, posibilitaron el descubrimiento de un callejón y diversas construcciones tardorromanas e difícil interpretación, adosadas a la muralla. Es interesante acercarse al paramento interior de la muralla del oppidum para observar sus diversas reparaciones.

Source

  • texts: paper information brochure (edition: www.araba.eus); displays around the sight; exhibits and descriptions at Bibat Museum, Vitoria-Gateiz; G.Dijkman
  • photographs: G.Dijkman, during a visit to the site in August 2017

References

social linkedin box white 24social facebook box white 24text: Godi Dijkman | research: www.nusapenida.nl