Are Catalans Ignoring Archaeology?

By James, N. | Antiquity, September 2009 | Go to article overview
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Are Catalans Ignoring Archaeology?

James, N., Antiquity

"Ours is a small-scale but a great museum, Small-scale, because it does not house towering Greek sculptures or majestic jewels from ancient Egypt. Great, because it shelters ... our deepest roots. A story that is reconstructed, piece by piece and with passion and rigour, by archaeologists captivated by worlds lost."

So declares the new introduction to the Museum of Archaeology of Catalonia (MAC), in Barcelona. It is too modest. The collection is big. It concentrates on Catalonia and ks culture area but there are finds from further afield, notably Bronze Age Argaric material. Extensive space is devoted to the late prehistory of the Balearic Islands, a magnificent collection from the Greek and Roman site of Empuries (Ampurias, ancient Emporium, Emporiae), and to the late prehistoric 'Iberian' culture, including the Tivissa treasure. There is also a good collection of Visigothic material. To the visitor from northern Europe, the museum is a reminder of how much there is to find in a country for so long heavily populated.

Founded in 1934 under Pere Bosch Gimpera, the museum is part of Barcelona's 'cultural quarter', in Montjuic Park. The latest phase of a fitful but persistent programme of improvements was opened in March 2009. The museum runs a busy schedule of activities. In connection with the recent temporary exhibition, 'Europa fa un milio d'anys' (Europe a Million Years Ago), there were lectures, workshops for schools, an evening concert inside the museum and a trip to the Atapuerca caves.

The public response fails to match such earnest commitment 27 332 visits in 2007 fell to 24 968 in 2008 (Catalonia 2008a, 2009a). Compare the Joan Miro Foundation, near by, the Contemporary Art Museum, or the museum at Empuries, with 1 045 538, 492 854 and 212 643, respectively, in 2007 (Catalonia 2008a). Archaeologists in England could compare Devizes (Wiltshire Heritage) Museum or the Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum with 21 344 and 35 506, respectively, in 2004-5 (Wright 2006)--provincial collections; not growing weeds by the entry.

Catalans are keenly aware of their distinct language and history; but something is badly amiss in Barcelona. The visitor numbers are not being mentioned but the turnover of seven directors in twelve years is (SOSMAC 2009a). Plans are a foot to reorganise the museum but they are controversial.

As well as the galleries in Barcelona, the museum is responsible for monuments and other galleries (including the museum at Empuries, which received 212 643 visits in 2007; Catalonia 2008a) and for the Centre of Underwater Archaeology of Catalonia. Should these connections not make the museum in Barcelona livelier? One of the MAC's monuments is the Iron Age settlement of El Moli d'Espigol. The museum assumed responsibility for it in 2003; and the government of Catalonia designated it as a national archaeological site in Mar& 2009 (Catalonia 2009b).

El Moli overlooked the Lleida Plain around Tarrega. The excavators, Fr. A. Llorens and then Joan Maluquer de Motes and Miquel Cura (1975-94), showed that it was occupied from 600 to the late first century BC in three main phases, roughly 550-425,400-225 and during the late second and earlier first century BC (Cura 2006). Each of these phases was walled. The first two are thought to belong to the aggressive Ilergetes, mentioned by Polybius and Livy. The tight, orderly plan and the density of occupation are reminiscent of some of the district's older villages today. The second phase is remarkable for differentiation in the sizes and construction of buildings. Its fiery destruction is thought to date to the Second Punic War. The final occupation was smaller; and then, in the later first century, settlement throughout the district was evidently reorganised under the Romans. Jordi Principal (MAC; who worked with Cura) urges that the site is important for revealing the early development of Iberian culture. For the quality of building and finds and the apparent ranking of its inhabitants, he and his colleagues argue that El Moli d'Espigol was a political centre--a little oppidum (Principal et al.

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