The project ‘Domus-La Alcudia: Living in Ilici’ achieves its objectives in the new excavations and obtains a verified and uninterrupted sequence of occupation in the northeastern sector of the city, one of the highest points of the original topography, where there were indications of occupation between prehistory and the medieval period, as reported by Sonia Gutiérrez Lloret, professor of Archaeology at the University of Alicante and co-director of the project along with professors Julia Sarabia, Victoria Amorós, and Jesús Moratalla, all from the UA’s Archaeology department, specialists in various periods and historical issues.

The campaign also includes a large team of prehistory and archaeology specialists from the University of Alicante and other research centers, such as the Institute of Archaeology of Mérida-CSIC (Trinidad Tortosa) and the University of Murcia (Alicia Fernández). Students and graduates of the Master’s in Professional Archaeology and Comprehensive Heritage Management at UA and an excellent team of specialized technicians and laborers, the result of collaboration with the Elche City Council, also participate.

Gutiérrez Lloret explains that Domus aimed to contrast the idealized narrative of superimposed cities with the true material history of Ilici. And for this, instead of focusing on a specific period or monument, we made diachrony (time in a space) our objective, rejecting the arbitrary clichés that have so conditioned and continue to condition the interpretation of La Alcudia, ever since the casual discovery of the Lady of Elche in an unknown context on the eastern slope of the hill, says the archaeologist, who emphasizes that all cities, as constructed spaces, are a succession of continuously transforming urban landscapes, and La Alcudia is an impressive example.

Roman sewerage network in the street (cardo), in the excavations of La Alcudia de Elche.
Roman sewerage network in the street (cardo), in the excavations of La Alcudia de Elche. Credit: Proyecto Domus-La Alcudia / Universidad de Alicante

Thus, Sonia Gutiérrez points out that the excellent preservation of the stratigraphy in this sector has already provided interesting new findings, such as the discovery, for the first time, of an early Islamic occupation (8th and 9th centuries), demonstrating that the madina Ilš of the Treaty of Teodomiro in 713 was in La Alcudia, long before a new city inherited its name, giving rise to Elx in the 10th century. We have confirmed the importance of Roman Ilici through an intense and monumental urban remodeling dated between the 4th and 5th centuries, with the layout of streets and buildings that were in use, after various remodelings, until the Visigoth period. An early imperial urban phase from the 1st century AD corresponding to the colonial foundation, an important context from the 3rd century BC, and levels reaching the full Iberian period have also been documented.

In all, this last campaign has marked three fundamental milestones in understanding the history of La Alcudia: the materialization of late Roman urbanism, the confirmation of the city’s importance in the turbulent 3rd century BC, and the documentation of its Iberian roots, stresses the researcher.

In the veins of the Roman city

Additionally, the excavation of a Roman street intersection has brought to light, beneath its pavement, the lead pipes through which water circulated to supply houses and baths, along with the impressive underground sewer network that sanitized the city. The new data obtained shows that much of the visible Roman remains in various parts of the city actually belong to the 4th and 5th centuries, the true period of splendor of the city of Ilici, while the materiality of the early imperial city remains elusive, comments Gutiérrez.

Roman lead pipe (fistula) in situ under the street pavement
Roman lead pipe (fistula) in situ under the street pavement. Credit: Proyecto Domus-La Alcudia / Universidad de Alicante

Between Punic and Romans: the turbulent 3rd century BC

Moreover, the archaeologist notes that one of the most striking discoveries, which has revealed the complexity of the 3rd century BC, is reflected in an unusual intensity of construction during its second half, comparable to that detected in other nearby urban settlements like the Tossal de Manises.

It is the corner of a monumental structure more than 9 meters long by one meter wide, preserving the masonry base with large adobe walls and vertical beams designed to support some overhanging parapet, on a heterogeneous foundation 2 meters wide, which substantially transformed the pre-existing domestic urban fabric.

The regularity and characteristics of its design, with parallels in the Punic and Hellenistic world, and its chronology reinforced by the discovery of a Hispano-Carthaginian coin (221-218 BC), place it in the context of the Second Punic War, that is, the conflict between Punics and Romans that devastated the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula.

Iberian mill reused in 3rd century B.C. constructions and sequence of Iberian uses underlain by the Iberians
Iberian mill reused in 3rd century B.C. constructions and sequence of Iberian uses underlain by the Iberians. Credit: Proyecto Domus-La Alcudia / Universidad de Alicante

The Iberian roots of the settlement

On the other hand, the excavation of the deepest levels has shown that the area was densely inhabited between the 3rd and 4th centuries BC, since more than 4 meters deep relative to the current agricultural soil and below the levels of the first half of the 3rd century BC, floors and structures that reuse pieces from earlier phases succeed each other, such as a spectacular Iberian rotary mill, reaching the adobe and clay rooms, similar to others documented in La Alcudia, that place us on the eve of the society that produced the Lady of Elche.

Some significant clues, such as a boat-shaped mill or Bronze Age pottery, indicate that the occupation could be much older, but it is not possible to document it without damaging other valuable remains that need to be preserved.

Researchers remind that the ultimate goal of a diachronic project is to enhance each detected historical phase, explaining not one but all the stories written in the very soil of this sector of La Alcudia.

Concealment and sealed reservoir
Concealment and sealed reservoir. Credit: Proyecto Domus-La Alcudia / Universidad de Alicante

Snapshots of history on soil

Although archaeology in general and our project, in particular, study processes rather than events, research sometimes brings astonishing surprises capable of freezing time in an instant, says Sonia Gutiérrez while highlighting two of these “snapshots”: On one hand, the discovery, in a humble room from late antiquity, of an ancient locally produced jar, carefully sealed with clay and wrapped in a cloth, whose warp was imprinted in the clay.

We do not know why or what it contained, although in earlier Roman times it was considered good luck to make similar ritual offerings, while in later periods of instability they were often used as hiding places, explains the archaeologist.

On the other hand, a small pit filled to the brim with broken pots (lids and pots, jars, storage jars, and amphorae still with remains of their plaster stoppers). This humble dump, which someone filled with old junk, is a ‘treasure’ that has provided us with an excellent material context from the 7th and 8th centuries that will allow us to know not only how the last inhabitants of La Alcudia lived, but also where the products they stored came from, the researcher says, humorously noting that sometimes our joy is indeed in a well.

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