Archaeologists find centuries-old Roman, Gothic and Islamic buildings on the banks of the Tagus

by Lorraine Williamson
the Toletum near the banks of the Tagus

Archaeologists are conducting the largest non-invasive survey – without excavations – in Spain on 80,000 square metres on the banks of the Tagus, where the Old Germanic people the Goths built the gigantic palace complex Urbs regia in the 6th century. 

In Toledo’s Vega Baja, the Visigoth king Teudis built the kingdom’s new capital in the mid-6th century. This became Europe’s most important city after Constantinople. It was a palace complex with at least three basilicas in addition to the main palace. Furthermore, it is here that princes were crowned. The so-called Urbs regia, on the banks of the Tagus River and at the foot of the thousand-year-old Toletum, was criss-crossed by wide roads and dotted with ancient Roman buildings. However, the Arab invasion put an end to these structures, landing them under tonnes of earth. 

Is there anything left of those impressive buildings?  

A report prepared by the government of Castilla-La Mancha, through the Impulsaclm Foundation, reveals the existence of a large number of buildings. One of them with 30 rooms, two other Roman buildings-possibly a palace, canals and streets up to eight metres wide.  

However, experts dare not give an exact chronology of the complex until an archaeological site survey has been carried out. The scant research carried out in recent decades points to indisputable Roman, Gothic and Islamic origins. 

Analysis with georadar 

A total of 80,000 square metres have now been analysed with georadar – the largest survey in Spain, according to the report – divided into seven plots. However, only one of these falls within the area legally protected by declaration as Good of Cultural Interest (BIC). As a result, while this is protected from urban development around it, the rest are not. The entire area is surrounded by apartment buildings and shops, and new projects involving concrete and glass are being announced. 

Survey started in 2021 

The survey started in January 2021 and will soon provide an exact subsurface map as the data obtained by the georadar is linked to the results of the 1990 archaeological surveys and aerial photographs from 1957, 1973 and 1980. The Vega Baja houses the remains of major historical buildings such as a Roman circus, a villa, the martyr church of Santa Leocadia -now Cristo de la Vega-, traces of the Visigothic royal palace and the ruins of the monastery of San Bartolomé. 

Varying results per plot 

The georadar results vary considerably according to the plots analysed.

Plot 1

Plot 1 covers about 36,000 square metres and has uncovered ‘palaeochannels’ (streams or pipes) and two streets connecting at a Y-shaped junction and bordered by ‘complex buildings, with multiple enclosures, with floors of cobbles, lime mortar or something similar’. However, what the functions were cannot yet be specified.  

Plot 2

This 18,500 square metres plot shows complex buildings, organised around large open spaces – courtyards – with unbuilt areas accommodating rooms with gabled roofs. The structures were found at a depth of barely 40 centimetres. It seems, say the researchers, that they are “related to a paved road running east-west through the centre of the plot”. The most spectacular of the rooms is the so-called Building 2, under what is now Calle de Espaderos, as it has 30 rooms. A three-metre-wide door gave access to the outside, a large open space gave access to the rest of the rooms. The outbuildings were not connected to the outer wall, so a wraparound corridor ran along the entire west side of the building. 

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Plot 3

In the small plot 3, owned by the Ministry of Defence, georadar images show four buildings on a paved street. Experts estimate that this street was 8.40 metres wide.

Plot 4

The analysis of plot 4 (23,000 square metres, adjacent to a car park) “has allowed the presence of large underground buildings to be visualised and accurately located”. Due to abandonment and collapse, it is impossible to determine the nature, but it is ‘very likely that they are large masses of masonry and rammed earth’. 

All structures in this area have an orientation similar to that of the Roman circus. ‘This is a constant feature of urban planning observed in the Vega Baja plain. By combining the underground buildings in one image, we can see how even the Islamic maqbara (cemetery) is arranged almost parallel to the Roman building’. Experts point out that a large building was also found ‘with a clear erosion by a stream/paleocauce’. Its configuration in the shape of a semicircle makes it similar to the Roman palace of La Cercadilla (Cordoba), which was destroyed in 1992 for the construction of the AVE station, and the Roman villa of El Solao (Rielves, Toledo). 

The complexity of the archaeological remains found, despite the deformation caused by the presence of fills introduced by the car park, is similar to other zones of the plain. It is not possible to establish the chronology and functionalities of the buildings encountered. 

Plot 5

No details are given about plot 5.

Plot 6

Plot 6 (15,000 square metres) shows something that appears to be a 10-metre-wide roadway. There are also collapsed buildings and possibly quarries. 

Plot 7

Plot number 7, located next to the Virgen del Carmen school, is ‘the probable location of a Roman building that belonged to the circus’. 

The history of the Vega Baja plain in a nutshell 

After the conquest of the city by Alfonso VI in 1085, the Vega Baja plain was turned into an area for grazing cattle and burials outside its walls. Several churches and hermitages were built here between the 12th and 13th centuries, but in the 18th century the area fell into decline and became a marginal habitat. The abandonment worsened in the 19th century, especially after the War of Independence, when several buildings were demolished. The area was thus transformed into an orchard area. Traces of its imposing past were gradually lost until archaeologists and new technologies brought traces to light again.

Also read: Spectacular Roman bath complex in Toledo further revealed

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