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In 1923, construction work on the new tobacco factory revealed a large number of archaeological remains. They were mainly related to an extensive cemetery (with more than 2,000 documented burials) formed between the 3rd and the 5th centuries AD on the banks of the River Francolí.
Most of the archaeological excavations were supervised by Monsignor Joan Serra i Vilaró, an archaeologist who was exceptional both for his scientific and documental rigour and his firm desire to preserve and exhibit part of the remains by building a monographic museum (1930) to explain the Early Christian Necropolis of Tarragona.
Today, almost ninety years later, you can still see part of the necropolis and some of its most outstanding pieces, such as the Tombstone of Optimus and the Sarcophagus of the Lions. An interpretation centre offers visitors information on the world of the dead in Tarraco during the Roman and Late Roman periods.
In the early 3rd century AD, anyone departing Tarraco towards the south on the Via Augusta would have found themselves passing through a densely populated suburb that stretched between the walled town, the port and the river (the Tulcis of the Romans). Warehouses and other port facilities were juxtaposed with suburban houses and craft workshops.
Among all this tumult, on either side of the Via Augusta and the other main roads there was a large number of tombs. Sometimes the remains of the deceased were indicated with just a small tumulus, while others had grand mausoleums and funerary monuments built by their families to demonstrate their magnificence.
It is possible that in 259 AD the mortal remains of Bishop Fructuosus and his deacons Augurius and Eulogius were laid to rest in the area nearest the river. From that time on this place would have become the most important cemetery for Tarraco’s growing Christian community.
“May the earth rest lightly on you”
This poetic expression appears on many Roman epitaphs. It expressed the desire that the weight of the earth covering the body should not prevent the deceased’s soul from beginning its journey to the afterlife.
The Romans believed that the dead had to receive the necessary funerary rites so that that the gods Manes (ancestor spirits) would receive him or her among them; if not the soul would be condemned to wander eternally in the form of an evil spirit. Thus, after the preparatory ceremonies, the body was taken in procession to the place of rest, outside the walls and alongside a road or path.
Once the body had been buried, a funerary banquet was held next to the tomb. The tombs covered by a kind of table (mensa) that we find in the Early Christian Necropolis of Tarragona correspond to this ritual. The Christians maintained similar funerary practices and customs, although over time they began to take on different meanings.
By the late 2nd century AD, the Romans preferred to be buried rather than cremated, which until then had been the most common practice. The place and type of burial mainly depended on the social and economic status of the deceased. They ranged from a simple grave dug in the earth to a sumptuous mausoleum with a funerary crypt.
Two crypts were found during the excavations of the necropolis, the Crypt of the Arches and the Crypt of the Engineers, the latter of which is included in the tour of the site.
Simple graves could contain coffins made of diverse materials, including wood, stone, lead, tiles or cut-down amphoras. Above ground, a more or less elaborate tumulus indicated the position of the tomb, sometimes in mainly family groupings.
Burials inside mausoleums and churches were in decorated sarcophaguses or below tombstones made of high-quality marble or with mosaic decoration. Various sculptures that would have formed part of different funerary monuments have also been found. Death was also taken advantage of to demonstrate the status and power of the living. Normally the deceased were buried just with the cloth that acted as their shroud. Only in exceptional cases do we find objects relating to the life of the deceased. In the Early Christian Necropolis of Tarragona we have the case of a girl of about five who was buried with an ivory doll, an extraordinary piece that was to be her plaything for the rest of eternity.
“The innocent Marturia lived for four years. She left in the year of the first consulate of Eugenius Augustus. Marturia, may you live among the blessed”
This is the epitaph of Marturia, a little girl who was buried in the Early Christian Necropolis of Tarragona in 393 AD. From a Christian family, death took her very early, who knows whether due to an incurable illness or an accident.
She is one of the people whose name we know thanks to the epitaphs that accompanied the dead. Through these inscriptions we know that they had names such as Lucius, Marturia, Optimus, Ampelius and Fabian and that they were soldiers, jewellers, politicians and architects. We know that some of them had very short lives, while others lived nearly ninety years. We know that some were pagans and that others aspired to live eternally at the side of Christ. We know that there were people born in Tarraco and others who came from inland Hispania or such distant places as Greece and Egypt.
Their remains also give us information about their lives. By studying their bones, physical anthropology can tell us what illnesses they had, what they ate, what their life expectancy was and how tall they were. That is how we know that the average height of the inhabitants of Tarraco was 1.65 m for men and 1.54 m for women.
On Friday 21 January 259, on the orders of the provincial governor, Aemilianus, the bishop of Tarraco, Fructuosus, and his deacons, Augurius and Eulogius, were burned alive in the arena of the amphitheatre.
Their remains were collected and taken to the town’s main cemetery, on the banks of the River Francolí. Their presence would have made it a desirable place for the members of Tarraco’s Christian community to be laid to rest near the tombs of the saints (tumulatio ad sanctos).
At the beginning of the 5th century, with Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, a basilica dedicated to the memory of the saints was built in the area of their tombs. To the north, in this same period, another basilica was built as part of an important ecclesiastical complex that was in use until the 7th century.
The fish, the dove, the cross, the palm, the chrismon and the ring are all Christian symbols we can find on various tombs in the Early Christian Necropolis of Tarragona and that testify to the presence of a Christian community in Tarraco.