Sand Dunes Preserved These Roman Baths in Spain for Thousands of Years

Archaeologists found a bathing complex, an intact tomb, medieval pottery and more at sites along the country’s southern shore

A group of people stand in front of a blue sky and blue sea while looking at a structure, with many small holes like windows and tall walls
View of the remarkably well-preserved wall of a Roman-era bath complex—one of many remarkable discoveries recently announced by the University of Cádiz in southeastern Spain Courtesy of the University of Cádiz

Archaeologists at the University of Cádiz recently announced the discovery of a series of ancient and prehistoric structures along Spain’s southern coast, offering a glimpse into the varied, long history of human settlement in the country’s Andalusia region.

First, report Zamira Rahim and Vasco Cotovio for CNN, the team unearthed the remains of a sprawling Roman bath complex, or thermae, where the empire’s ancient citizens gathered to wash, exercise and relax. Preserved beneath sand dunes for nearly 2,000 years, the baths’ 13-foot-tall walls have now been excavated for the first time since their abandonment in late antiquity, per a statement.

So far, researchers have only surveyed two of the rooms from the complex, which sits on the coast near the Caños de Meca beach. They estimate that the entire structure once extended over 2.5 acres.

The site features multiple rooms decorated with red, white and black stucco and marble, suggesting the baths once boasted rich decorations, reports Colin Drury for the Independent. According to the statement, double-walled structures such as these allowed the ancient Romans to create heated thermal enclosures for steaming and ritual bathing.

The Roman Empire first seized land in the Iberian Peninsula in the second century B.C., eventually coming to control a majority of what is now Spain, notes Encyclopedia Britannica. Roman leaders established public baths in the imperial style throughout the empire, including in the city of Toledo to the north.

At the same site, archaeologists also uncovered more recent fragments of history, including medieval ceramic remains that were likely crafted during the 12th or 13th centuries.

In an added twist, about a third of a mile down the coast, at the Cape of Trafalgar, researchers discovered two more ancient treasures: a collection of at least seven Roman-era “salting pools” and a 4,000-year-old Bronze Age tomb, reports Isabel Laguna for Spanish wire service Agencia EFE.

Archaeologists tour the various dig sites near Cape Trafalgar, a cape in Spain's southeastern Andalusia region. Courtesy of the University of Cádiz
A view of a "salting pool," where ancient Romans prepared garum, a fermented sauce made from fish guts Courtesy of the University of Cádiz

Like the bathing complex, both the pools and the tomb were preserved for thousands of years beneath sand dunes overlooking the Mediterranean, per CNN. The salting pools were likely used to prepare foods, including garum, a fermented sauce made from fish guts, herbs and salt.

The Bronze Age burial structure, on the other hand, stands out as remarkably intact. Inside, notes EFE, researchers discovered at least seven corpses, including the complete skeleton of an adult woman adorned with a green beaded necklace, shells, two small gold earrings and a bone comb.

The individuals who buried their kin here “must have felt that it was a special place to bury their loved ones,” archaeologist Eduardo Vijande, who is leading the Bronze Age site investigation, tells EFE, per a translation by Spain’s News.

All told, the newly discovered sites will help archaeologists learn more about the various fishing communities that have thrived along the southeastern coast of Spain for centuries. The fact that researchers have discovered such an array of settlements in the region is “wonderful,” says Patricia del Pozo, Andalusia’s culture minister, in the statement. She tells EFE that officials are hoping to create a museum or historic heritage designation at the site of the many digs.

The finds, adds Pozo in the statement, indicate that the coastal region was “an ​​incredibly attractive area for all types of civilizations, which endows us with incredible history.”

As CNN reports, these aren’t the only recent Roman-era discoveries in the region: Last July, authorities conducting a routine inspection of a frozen seafood vendor in the southern coastal town of Alicante discovered 13 Roman amphorae among the sellers’ wares, prompting an official investigation into their provenance. Per a statement from the Spanish Civil Guard, ancient Romans may have used these clay vessels to transport oil, wine or garum across the Mediterranean Sea.