Cartagena has some excellent museums dealing with its maritime and more modern military history. The following are, in our view, well worth a visit.
The National Museum of Underwater Archaeology is on the seafront roughly halfway along the Paseo de Alfonso XII. It is located in an impressive modern building entered down a slope. When we last visited it, there was a small entrance charge (pensioners free) and it opened Tues-Sun from 10am, though closing early on Sundays (3pm). Its collection consists mainly of objects recovered from the sea and dating from the 7th Century BC to the 19th Century. In the main, the remains come from the coastal areas around Cartagena, and most of the information boards and signs are in Spanish and English.
After some introductory panels and videos on the nature of underwater archaeology, we were particularly fascinated by the remarkable story about the finding and excavation of two Phoenician ships just off the Playa de la Isla beach at Mazarrón. Between 1993 and 1995, the remains of Mazarrón I, were excavated and recovered while excavation of the second vessel took place a few years later, before it was again covered over on the seabed. Astonishingly, virtually the entire hull of this 8 metres long second ship was preserved. The boat had been transporting 1797 lead bricks which weighed 2820 kg! Also found were objects such as amphorae, a wicker basket and ropes. Various videos showed aspects of the excavation. Some items recovered from Mazarrón II were also on display. In another case were remains of Mazarrón I, including parts of the keel and shipboards. Other exhibits nearby related to the Escombreras I Roman Ship, a merchant vessel en route from a Neapolitan Port which floundered in the Bay of Cartagena around 150 BC.
The other main corridor/aisle in the museum had displays about the earliest navigators in the Mediterranean and how various civilisations beginning with the Phoenicians, built their boats, together with some cross-sections. There were remains from other shipwrecks, including that of Bajo de la Campana (late 7th/early 6th Century BC) at the mouth of the Mar Menor. Among items found was a consignment of thirteen elephant tusks, some containing Phoenician inscriptions, various ceramic items and over 200 tin ingots.
A myriad of other items were also on display – Phoenician pottery and metal; Iberian ceramics, early coins, stone anchors and amphorae; and pottery remains from ancient Greece. Medieval ships and shipbuilding were represented and items such as medieval Islamic and Christian coins, amphorae and ceramics from the 9th and 10th Centuries were displayed. From more modern historical times, there was one case which included items from the Navidad shipwreck which took place in the 19th Century just off Cartagena. Near the entrance, were anchors from two Spanish frigates which ran aground on the west coast of Virginia in 1750 and 1802 respectively.
The Naval Museum opened in 2011 and, when we visited it that November, it looked as if it was still very much in the process of transferring exhibits from its previous location, although we found our visit to be well worthwhile nevertheless. The new museum is on the sea front just round from the Ayuntamiento toward the Arsenal and there is a small entry charge. When we last looked, it opened in the mornings (except Mondays) from 10am-3pm.
The building in which the museum is situated was originally built between 1776 and 1785 as part of the Prison for Slaves who toiled in the new shipyards and a number of the exhibits in the museum related to the archives preserved from this time (and earlier) about prisoners and slaves forced to work in the galleys and shipyards. There were many other displays to which further ones will by now no doubt have been added. One set related to Spanish history in the Mediterranean as the scene of many naval campaigns against the Turks and Berbers. There were examples of armaments used at this time – a crossbow, various muskets (some 16th Century), and manacles. Elsewhere, photographs showed the Cartagena Shipyards as they were in the early and mid 20th Century. As well as numerous models of ships, including destroyers and submarines, many built in Cartagena, the museum had paintings on display of boats and individuals from a wide variety of eras which had some relationship with Cartagena and its naval activity. Finally, there was an exhibition related to naval diving, which was not really surprising, as this activity is headquartered in Cartagena.
The Military Museum is situated in the Plaza General López Pinto with the entrance from Calle San Juan. When we visited it in November 2011 it opened from Mon-Sat (not holidays), between 10am-1.30pm and entrance was free.
The museum has a grand collection of historic guns and artillery pieces, most with explanatory panels in both English and Spanish. One of the larger guns from the Cabo Tiñoso battery was on display, together with the sobering information that a similar gun had sunk the merchant ship Castillo de Olite, near Escombreras, on the morning of 7 March 1939, producing the greatest naval catastrophe in Spanish history with 1476 dead and 342 wounded. The ship had been carrying troops just before the end of the Civil War.
Across from the main entrance, was a collection of shells and bullets of all shapes and sizes and further artillery pieces. There was even a radio-controlled plane which had been used in the 1950’s by the Spanish army for firing practice. For us, one recurring theme as we walked around the museum was evidence of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Walking up the stairs to the museum’s first floor, there was a small sign which noted that it was there that Chief of the Regiment of Artillery in Cartagena, Colonel Gerardo Elias Armentia Palacios, was shot dead by the Republican 206th Brigade as it assaulted the building in March 1939.
Upstairs, there is a long gallery with many side rooms. In one was a model showing Cartagena and its bay with the various gun batteries which were established during the early 20th Century. Photographs of the batteries were in the next room. The central passage itself contained detailed models of guns in cases, as well as pictures of prominent Spanish military figures around the walls. Also to be seen on this first floor was a collection of regimental flags, models of tanks, planes and military vehicles, and full sized rifles, machine guns and handguns by the score. Add to all this a comprehensive collection of uniforms and you will appreciate that if you have the slightest interest in military history, there will be something here to interest you!
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 email@example.com. Clive and Rosie’s most recent book, “Exploring Murcia, Days Out” is now available to buy from the CHM/Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes (who also stock other of their books), A Time 4 A Change in El Algar or phone Patti on 986 433 978.