Possible location of mythical temple of Hercules Gaditanus found

by Lorraine Williamson
possible temple discovered in the bay of Cadiz

Scientists from the Andalucian Historical Heritage Institute (IAPH) and the University of Seville have located the traces of a large Roman and Phoenician building. They did this by analysing – with free software – measurements in the area in the bay of Cadiz. This was followed by fieldwork in situ. 

The mythical temple of Hercules Gaditanus, called Melqart in Phoenician times, was an important place of pilgrimage in antiquity. Millennia later, its location remains a mystery and has become a kind of holy grail for historians and archaeologists. Moreover, they have been searching for it for centuries.  

Traces of a monumental building found

However, a researcher from the University of Seville, Ricardo Belizón, shines new light on the case. Together with a team of scientists from the University of Seville and the Andalucian Historical Heritage Institute (IAPH), he has located traces of a monumental building in the Sancti Petri canal. This is a coastal area in the Bay of Cadiz between Chiclana de la Frontera and San Fernando. The area is an intertidal zone; it is above water at low tide and underwater at high tide. Belizón analysed the measurements of the area using free software.  

If confirmed, the sanctuary, which was visited by Julius Caesar and the Carthaginian conqueror Hannibal, among others, and which dates back to at least the 9th century B.C., would actually be in the area that various archaeological finds have been pointing to for centuries.  

‘Who knows how far the land extended into the sea on the southern side and how much of this land must have been the sea. Especially in what is now called the marshes? The question, rhetorical at the time, was asked by the historian and traveller Antonio Ponz in 1794. This was when he surveyed the labyrinth of sea and land that makes up the Bay of Cadiz. And it is precisely this doubt that Belizón wanted to dispel when he investigated what the coastal landscape of Cadiz looked like in antiquity in a thesis that has taken a surprising turn.

‘We researchers are very wary of spectacle archaeology, fuelled by the mass media. But in this case, we are confronted with some spectacular finds. They are first-class returns,’ Francisco José García, director of the Prehistory and Archaeology Department at the University of Seville, said at the presentation in Cadiz on Wednesday.  

Site 

The site lies in a large marshy channel with an island and the castle of Sancti Petri rising above it. For more than two centuries, the site has yielded important archaeological finds. Accidental or otherwise, today these fill the display cases of the Museum of Cadiz. For example, the large marble and bronze statues of Roman emperors – one of which was found after an explosion in the 1920s – and several votive offerings – containing precious objects – from the Phoenician period. The discoveries formed a line between the slopes of the islet itself and a headland of fine sand and rocky intertidal flats known as Boquerón point.  

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Building 

The rectangular structure measuring 300 by 150 metres – the same size as the island on which it stood – that can be seen underwater seems to fit the classical descriptions. These speak of both the site and its description as a large Phoenician monumental complex, accessible by crossing two columns, with a frontispiece – a decorated triangular upper part of the façade – depicting the 12 works of Hercules. Inside the building was a flame that was never extinguished. The sacred place was separated from the present Boquerón headland by a canal and was accessible to Phoenician, Punic and Roman ships and became famous for the large number of supposed relics from the ancient world that were kept there.  

Fieldwork 

In addition to digital research, the researchers have also conducted fieldwork. This has been carried out through excursions at low tide. During which the remains of important ashes and even ceramic remains could be documented. The research has been going on for almost two years now. However, a lot more archaeological fieldwork is needed to confirm or reject what is, at first sight, a well-founded hypothesis.  

More surprises 

The digital modelling of the historic coast of Cadiz has not only revealed the possible temple of Melqart. But, in this ancient landscape, south of the sanctuary there is an inner harbour and a coast with varied, as yet undefined buildings, mainly from the Roman period. Moreover, less than two centuries ago was a flooded area –

This is also the era from which the area of the temple stems. The area is larger than the entire excavated area of the site of the Roman city of Baelo Claudia (Tarifa), which the team located in a naturally marshy area north of the temple, near the river Arillo de San Fernando. ‘It is larger than the area of Gades – present-day Cadiz – and its size would change the image we had of the bay until now,’ says Antonio Sáez Romero, professor at the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology and responsible for this discovery.  

Other hypotheses about the location of the temple 

The new hypothesis is consistent with several findings and proposals made since modern times and throughout the 20th century. However, it also conflicts with others that suggest other locations for the temple. The last is one put forward in a study by Antonio Monterroso-Checa, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cordoba. This scientist rejected the possibility that the sanctuary was located in Sancti Petri. This was for reasons such as orographic changes and the lack of new evidence for the classical location. Furthermore, he pointed to the possibility the monument was located on the hill of the Martyrs of San Fernando. Moreover, a place that used to be an island!

Research and time will provide a definitive answer to the question that has been alive for more than two centuries. The end of the mystery may be some time away. With such an extraordinary discovery, our hearts may be racing, but we want to be very careful. It is very interesting and suggestive, but now the most interesting part begins,’ sums up Sáez Romero enthusiastically. 

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