Monday, January 02, 2012

'Exceptional' Spanish archaeological site thought to have been targeted to order | Mail Online

By Leon Watson

Last updated at 9:59 AM on 2nd January 2012

They weren't just thieves - they were incompetent thieves who managed to destroy an ancient relic.

Art historians have been left horrified after an historic Roman villa was broken into and its centrepiece, a fifth-century mosaic, was hacked up with a chisel.

The damaged happened at Santa Cruz, in the tiny hamlet of Baños de Valdearados, near Burgos in northern Spain.

Wrecked: Where thieves stealing to order damaged the archaeological site known as the Villa Romana in Banos de Valdearados, northern Spain

It was discovered last Wednesday at around 1pm, when two Catalan tourists visited the site and found wrecked.

Mayor Lorenzo Izcara said: 'The thieves did a lot of damage, a tremendous amount of damage, because they chipped away at it barbarically, probably with a cold chisel.'

Historian and mosaic research specialist Guadalupe López Monteagudo, who heads a specialised department within the Center for Human and Social Sciences at the Superior Scientific Research Council, described its rarity.

She said: '[In it] two scenes are superimposed: the courtship of the god Bacchus and his victorious return from India on a carriage pulled by panthers.'

'This type of composition is only to be found in two other mosaics, one of which is in Córdoba, while the other one is in Israel.'

Mayor Izcara said: 'In the winter, it is only open on demand; visitors call a number posted on the door and someone shows them around.

'The rest of the year there is someone keeping watch during the day, and villagers always drop by to take a look.'

Several scenes of a Roman mosaic dated back from the 4th century dedicated to the god Bacchus and with special artistic and historical value were stolen from the site

The last tour took place on December 23, meaning that the theft could have taken place any time between then and the following Wednesday, although the mayor believes it may have happened on the night of December 27.

'Since the mosaic is visible from the outside, the [Catalan] visitors immediately realised what had happened.

'The thieves had also broken some wooden beams, which protect the enclosure,' he added.

The tourists saw that three large portions of the mosaic were missing: one in the central part and two more in the lower part, representing the wind gods.

The entire mosaic takes up 66 square meters, and the mayor said considering the enormous size of one of the stolen portions, the criminals must have cut it up in pieces 'because it would not have fitted through the hole they made to get in'.

This is not the first time the site has been vandalised. In November, several individuals broke in and destroyed a few square centimeters of the mosaic, forcing authorities to change the locks and adopt a few additional security measures.

Santa Cruz, in the tiny hamlet of Baños de Valdearados, near Burgos in northern Spain

'The restorer told me then that the mosaic would be very difficult to steal because it had reinforced concrete, but they've stolen it all right,' says the mayor, who had already warned the regional government of Castilla y León about the need to improve the site's surveillance system.

The director general of the regional heritage department, Enrique Saiz, notes that with 23,000 archaeological sites and 150 cultural assets scattered across the territory, it is impossible to keep an eye on them all.

Meanwhile, a technical report has been commissioned to see how similar crimes can be prevented in future. Mr Saiz warns about a rise in attacks against the country's artistic heritage.

'The means used here were clumsy. We are used to things happening inside churches, where it is possible to spirit away an item, but to show up with picks and rip off a slab of floor…'

Guadalupe López, author of the 1998 work Roman Mosaics of Burgos, believes the damage sustained by this particular mosaic is such that 'the best thing to do at this point is to remove what is left of it and take it to a museum as soon as possible for restoration'.

'It is a pity, because it was one of the best-preserved mosaics in the entire peninsula and its artistic value is enormous,' she said.

Although the police investigation has so far yielded no information, Ms López believes this type of theft can only be of interest to an individual.

The mayor confirms that, according to the Civil Guard, it is likely to have been a commissioned job.

The Roman villa of Baños de Valdearados was discovered in late November 1972, when a building machine was leveling some ground located on farmland. So far, only a fourth of the archaeological site has been excavated.

'It must have been an estate owned by the economic elite of the period of the latifundios [large, poorly exploited estates],' López explains.

The artist who made the mosaic did not leave a name behind, although it was likely the work of a local workshop. Successive digs have unearthed 10 rooms that were once part of this villa of the lower Roman Empire.

A regional official is scheduled to come to Baños de Valdearados in early January, and the mayor hopes that the visit will be 'to see if some measures are taken, because we cannot do anything more ourselves'.