In recent years, as we drove along the Murcia to Caravaca de la Cruz motorway, we noticed open green roofed structures erected a little way to the left of the road, a few kilometres before passing the Cierva Lake.
These have been erected to protect the excavated remains of a remarkable Roman Villa, within a gated, locked and fenced off area. Subsequently, we contacted the tourist office in Mula (968 661 501) who were very willing to arrange to meet us there one morning and show us around the ruins.
To reach the site, you need to turn off the autovía del noroeste (RM15) coming from Murcia at the turn-off marked Mula/Pliego, go under the motorway and take the minor road going to the Reservoir (Pantano) of La Cierva. The remains are immediately adjacent to the road on the right, half a mile or less up this minor road.
Background to Los Villaricos
The Roman conquest of Spain saw the development of a series of rural establishments known as “villas”. Broadly speaking, these were units of agricultural exploitation with residential as well as working buildings and not just large houses. This is the nature of Los Villaricos which is now regarded as a particularly important example of Roman settlement in the countryside. It dates from the 1st Century AD and continued in use until the 5th Century. Among finds have been ceramics from Africa, some coins and blue glass.
On arrival at the villa site, you will find a signboard outside which gives details about the remains and their chronology, although this and the other signboards inside, are solely in Spanish. On entering through the gate, there is a constructed and slightly elevated metal pathway around some of the remains which first passes the area of the villa’s thermal baths, some of the best conserved in Murcia. The first part of the baths you see is the warm room, then going round to the cold area where the water channel is clearly visible and is of such a size as to suggest that it may also have served other buildings in the area. The cold pool, which you accessed by four steps, is impressively large. There is also a small bath accessed by steps.
The scheme of the baths at Los Villaricos is typical in that the cold baths (frigidarium) are followed by the warm baths (tepidarium) and the heated area (caldarium), almost in a line. The oven to heat the baths was beside the two warmer areas and in a ventilated cellar space. The heat was channelled through the underfloor area of the rooms to be heated before being vented. Two ovens have been identified, the second perhaps used to generate the steam for a sauna-like room which is of octagonal shape. The rooms in the warm part of the baths are raised to allow the creation of the space beneath them (hypocaust) through which the hot air could circulate. The brick pillars and an arch through which this air passed are still clearly visible.
The Villa’s Residential Area
As you reach the far corner on your walk around the metal pathway, you come to the residential rooms of the villa. The browner areas are the rooms themselves while there is also a grey, gravelled area which is the site of the patio or “peristilio”, around which the main rooms of the villa were situated. Under the patio was a remarkable cistern to which rainwater was directed from the roof for domestic use. This cistern is the only one of its type so far discovered in Murcia and the floor above was supported by large stone columns. Its dimensions were around 4.5m by 3m with a height of 1.5m. At one time, all the rooms would have had mosaic floors. Today, the remains of just one mosaic are exposed to view in one of the rooms. The parts of this mosaic which remain are superb with the original colours standing clearly out.
At the very end of the walkway is an area known as the basilica which was used for celebratory events during the main Roman occupation of the villa. Subsequently, after partial abandonment of the villa, it became a place of Christian worship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, adjacent to it are many tombs and burials. Around 50 burials have so far been discovered, generally simple graves excavated in the ground and covered by slabs of stone within what had previously been the residential area of the villa. Unfortunately, the mosaic floors of parts of the villa’s residential area were often destroyed to make way for the burials. Some of the graves contained fragments of pottery or tile and they have been dated to between the 5th and 7th Centuries AD. Two other burial sites of earlier dates have also been discovered a little distance from the residential area of the villa.
The Industrial Area of the Villa
We then continued round a stone/gravel path into the open to a viewing platform from which you could see the wider environment in which the villa was situated. This included the Cerro del Almagra, a hill in which there was a quarry from which came the stone used in the villa and for parts of the tombs.
The next viewing platform we came to was in the area where the villa’s wine and olive oil production took place. This area is known as the “torcularium”. The first of the rooms here was used to store the olives before pressing. Elsewhere, you can still see the stone base of presses used to crush the olives. Following the pressing, the oil ran through a hole in the wall to a large collection area. In turn, this linked to three tanks at a lower height into which the oil was decanted. The signboards also tell of another four oil deposit/collection areas in another room with three rectangular basins alongside each other and a smaller squarish one. The warehousing area at one side is surprisingly large (30m by 10m) and you can still see the bases of various columns in it.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this olive oil processing area. It is said that Los Villaricos may house the second largest Roman olive oil processing plant ever found in Spain. During recent excavations, it is believed that four presses for oil production were identified as well as specific work areas and tools.
Article by Clive and Rosie Palmer, who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. These can be seen at, and obtained from, www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Clive and Rosie’s book, “Exploring Murcia, Days Out” is available to buy from the CHM/Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes (who also stock other of their books including the follow-up “Exploring Murcia, More Days Out”), or phone Patti on 968 433 978.