Sitting proud on top of a limestone hill, overlooking the vineyards of the Penedès wine country, and the framed by the majestic Montserrat Mountain in the background, Olèrdola is a fascinating look into the history of wine and wine culture in the Barcelona and Catalonia area of Spain.
The Olèrdola complex is located 45 minutes southwest of Barcelona city, a few kilometres inland from the seaside towns of Sitges and Vilanova i la Geltrú (the latter with Roman ruins), and a few kilometres southeast of Vilafranca del Penedès, the capital of the comarca (county) of Penedès. Today it is one of the five branches of the Archaeology Museums of Catalonia.
The hilltop actually has evidence for human occupation going back to the Chalcolithic, some 4,000 years. At that time the Chalcolithic communities in the area built a tumulus – a burial mound made of stones – on the hilltop. Besides the burial mound, other evidence for the Chalcolithic communities on the hilltop is elusive besides the finding of a hearth, and some stone tools, and it is probable that the settlement on the hill was seasonal, possibly related to farmers bringing their flocks up the hill to graze at different times of the year. The region itself has a lot of evidence for the Neolithic and Chalcolithic, as shown in the map below.
A part of this Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze Age activity in the area is the prehistoric rock art, of which there are a number of sites very near to Olèrdola. These sites are part of the UNESCO prehistoric rock art sites of the Iberian Mediterranean Basin that has nearly 800 sites stretching down the eastern side of Spain from north of Barcelona to the south around Cartagena. (Some of these nearby prehistoric rock art sites can be visited here).
Interactive Google Map for the Final Neolithic – Chalcolithic sites around Olèrdola and the central Catalan coast. Data adapted from Alcaina (2014).
The burgeoning town
From the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age (around 600-700 BC), the first clear signs of the permanent, urban nature of Olèrdola begins. This is the construction of a powerful double-walled perimeter wall that enclosed the northeastern edge of the Olèrdola hilltop. This wall created a barrier to the entry to the top of the hill, with the remaining sides protected by the natural high cliffs. Inside the wall, 3.5 hectares was enclosed, providing the future space for the town.
At this time about 2,700 years ago is when the Barcelona and Catalonia area first saw the introduction of wine and wine culture. While it is true that Spain had wild grapes growing before the Iron Age, and it is possible that the communities made wine, it is from around 2,7000 years ago that the evidence for grape cultivation and wine making becomes very apparent in the archaeological record across Spain. This introduction of wine to Spain has been linked to the Phoenicians.
The Phoenicians originated from present day Lebanon, and developed a trading empire that covered the Mediterranean. Along with the introduction of wine cultivation to Spain, they also introduced other fruit tree cultivation such as olives, figs, almonds, and pomegranate, and once the locals began growing these crops, the Phoenicians began trading with them, and thus began the Spanish Iron Age expansion into commercial farming.
Olèrdola was a key urban centre at this time Based on the later classical writers, the Iron Age tribe in this part of Catalonia was the Cessetans / Cossetans, and the the hilltop site of Olèrdola was ideal as their central stronghold and was one of their most important Iberian sites. The urban centre expanded, with the rows of houses and buildings being built along the inside of the walls.
With the arrival of the Romans and their establishment in Tàrraco – present day Tarragona – 50 km to the southwest at the end of the 3rd century BC, the Iron Age towns of Catalonia and Spain begin to change, and become Romanised. Olèrdola was no different, and was strategically placed as a fortress. The main Roman road – Via Augusta – ran from from north to south of the eastern coast of Spain and passed by the foot of Olèrdola hill on its way from Barcelona to Tarragona.
It seems that during peace times of the Roman period that Olèrdola was for the most part abandoned, and that with the the dissolution of the Roman Empire around 400-500 AD there is little evidence for urban life on the hilltop. It is not until the 10th century that there is clear evidence again for a town at Olèrdola, when the lands south of Barcelona were returned to Christian rule from the Muslims who controlled the territory from the 8th century. It is unclear what happened to the town during the Al-Andalus period. While there is slight evidence for Muslim construction methods along the perimeter wall, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for the occupation of the town. It is intriguing as to why they would have ignored a defensive site for three hundred years when they were at war with their Christian neighbours to the north in Barcelona.
With the conquest of the Penedès and surrounding areas in the 10th century by the Counts of Barcelona, Olèrdola once again becomes an important settlement, with the construction of a castle, church, wine presses and celler, and general urban expansion. The town grew to such an extent that a secondary settlement of El Pla dels Albats with associated chapel and graveyard sprung up on the outside of the walls.
Over time in the later medieval period, Olèrdola lost its importance to the medieval town of Vilafranca del Penedès in the plain below, that would eventually become the capital of the comarca. Olèrdola changed from a thriving town, to a quiet rural backwater consisting of a country farmhouse and rectory on the hill.
The following gives you an itinerary of the main features of the Olèrdola museum and archaeological complex, in order of the monuments as you will visit them.
Interactive Google Map for the main points of interest on the Olèrdola complex itinerary. Each point on the map is detailed below, and if you view the Google Map as a larger map (top right icon), you can search the map’s points by name or keyword.
Roman Wall (1st century BC) – Muralla Romana (segle I aC)
The first point on the itinerary is the entrance to the old Roman town, flanked by the stone towers and the Roman wall that encloses the top of the hill. Built out of massive limestone blocks that were quarried from the bedrock of the hill, the walls are an imposing feature testifying to the ancient roots of the site. The Roman walls were built in the 2nd to the 1st century BC, and were built upon the earlier Iberian Iron Age walls.
Iron Age wall (8th-1st century BC) – Muralla preibera i ibera (segles VIII-I aC)
On entering through the gates you immediately come across the remains of the earlier Iron Age walls that were built upon during the Roman period. These walls date back to when the town was a major settlement of the Cessetans / Cossetans, the Iron Age tribe of the region. There is two main phases of the walls: an initial pre-Iberian Iron Age walls, and an expansion of these in the Iberian and Iberian Iron Age when Olèrdola became an oppodium.
Iberian Iron Age dyeworks / tannery (4th-3rd century BC) – Tintoreria / Adoberia ibèrica (segles IV-III aC)
Directly inside the walls near the town entrance is a series of buildings from the 4th to the 3rd century BC that includes an Iron Age dyeworks / tannery and a metal working site. The dyeworks / tannery building includes a series of water tanks and channels for soaking and rinsing the materials. The metal workshop is mostly invisible as it has a medieval building on top of it. These Iron Age buildings include an intriguing ritual deposit of the bones of a young sheep in the foundations, a practice seen in other Iron Age sites in Catalonia.
Medieval building (12th century) – Edifici medieval (segle XII)
Built by the entrance to the medieval town, and on top of the previous Iron Age buildings, is a complex of medieval buildings including a blacksmith’s and other shop fronts that held other crafts.
Roman cistern (2nd-1st century) – Cisterna romana (segles II-I aC)
Heading uphill into the enclosure and leaving the wall behind, you come to the large water cistern dug into the bedrock in the Roman period (2nd to 1st century BC). This cistern was fed by a series of channels collecting rainwater from the site visible across the hill, that drained into the cistern after going through a filter of sand and gravel. The cistern held about 350 m3 of water, and has a rock cut staircase to allow access to clean and maintain the cistern.
Medieval wine press and cellar (11th-12th century) – Àrea de premsat i celler medieval (segles XI-XII)
A few metres to the west of the Roman cistern is the remains of the medieval wine press and cellar from the 11th to 12th century AD. The remains of the wine press can be seen in the cuttings into the bedrock, and the cellar, located next to the cistern, is half-buried, with the walls covered by stone walls and a work staircase through which the barrels were accessed. This would have been a significant winery, and it is suggested that there were a number of presses in it, allowing for different types of wine to be made at the same time. It is also possible that it is evidence of a commercial monopoly of wine making in the area that fits in with the feudal society.
Medieval wall (10th century) – Muralla medieval (segle X)
During the 10th century the perimeter of the hill flanked by the high cliffs was enclosed by a wall. This wall, while defensive in nature, was probably more a statement of power and propaganda by the new castle and town’s owner, rather than purely or practically defensive. The wall can be seen in the above image to the right of the wine cellar, and it continues around the hill and can be seen in various spots.
Iberian Iron Age house (3rd-2nd century BC) – Casa ibèrica (segles III-II aC)
To the east of Roman cistern and medieval wine cellar, and immediately to the west of the Roman quarry, is the residential area during the medieval period and the previous Iron Age period. Here a number of rock cut house foundations are visible, with rock cut silos in their centre. These Iron Age houses are rectangular, and one to two-roomed buildings.
Medieval houses and silos (10th-13th century) – Cases i sitges medievals (segles X-XIII)
In the same area as the previous Iron Age houses are the 10th-13th century medieval houses and silos. This was the main residential area, and consisted of dozens of houses in a series of lanes going across the site, and down hill towards the main medieval town wall.
Roman and medieval quarry (2nd-1st century BC / 10th-11th century) – Pedrera romana i medieval (segles II-I aC / segles X-XI)
Directly to the west of the previous house is the remains of the Roman and medieval stone quarry. In the Roman period there were two quarries – one at the base of the Roman wall, and the second here within the enclosure. The Romans cut massive blocks to build the walls, and you can see some partly cut blocks, as well as the scars of the previous extractions. The quarry was later reused in the medieval period to build the church and the remaining town walls.
Pre-romanesque church (10th century) – L’església preromànica (segle X)
Uphill from the medieval wine cellar and the residential area, about halfway to the summit, is the first church of the town – the remains of the 10th century pre-Romanesque church. It stands beside the Romanesque church, but all that remains of the pre-Romanesque church is the foundations and the curious horseshoe arch doorway.
This style of doorway is an example Mozarabic architecture, and is a rarity in Spain and Catalonia. This part of Catalonia was under the Muslim Al-Andalus control from the 8th to the end of the 9th century. Once the land was conquered by the Christian Counts of Barcelona, the church was built, but in a Mozarabic style – “Mozarabic” meaning Iberian Christians living in Al-Andalus.
The Sunyer I, Count of Barcelona (? – 950) ordered the erection of the pre-Romanesque church around 929, and it was consecrated by Bishop Teodoric in 935 under the patronage of San Miguel and San Pedro. The destruction of the church has been attributed to Muhammad ibn Abu ‘Amir: Al-Mansur, during one of his incursions into Catalan lands (978-985).
Romanesque church (10th-12th century) – Esglèsia de Sant Miquel, edifici romànic (segles X – XII)
Built directly beside the original church, the Romanesque church of Sant Miquel was built under the order of ‘el levita Sunifred’, and consecrated in 992 by the Bishop of Barcelona Vives. The church was built under a number of phases, and although the town practically disappeared in the 12th century, it remained a parochial church until 1885.
Necropolis of Sant Miquel (9th/10th-20th century) – Necròpolis de Sant Miquel (segles IX/X – XX)
Around the church is the early medieval necropolis of Sant Miquel. These graves take the form of the human body (anthropomorphic shape) and are carved into the bedrock. Many are very small and represent the burial of infants and young children. Olèrdola was one of the first places where these types of tombs were identified, so the style of necropolis is known as “sepulturas olerdolanas” (Olerdolan graves). Over 20 rock cut graves are in the necropolis, and a corresponding necropolis is found the the nearby Santa Maria chapel outside the town walls.
Medieval castle (10th-12th century) – Castell medieval (segles X-XII)
Located uphill from the church at the summit of Olèrdola is the remains of the medieval castle and Roman watchtower. There is little left of the 10th to 12th century castle today – just a small outline of one end of the building with a small part of one vault visible. Below is a reconstruction of the castle and connecting 1st century BC watchtower. The castle is estimated to have consisted of at least two floors, with each floor containing a floor space of 133m2 (19m x 7m). This was connected to the the 7 x 5m watchtower containing three floors. Little is known about the castle, with few written records. We do know that Count Sunyer of Barcelona took control of Olèrdola in 929, and ordered the establishment of a castrum on the hill, so the castle dates from then, alongside the church mentioned above.
Roman watchtower (1st century BC) – Talaia Romana (segle I aC)
The summit of the hill has the remains of the 1st century BC Roman watchtower mentioned above. Little remains of this, and it is unclear how extensive the tower was as the subsequent medieval castle was built right up against it. From the reconstruction it is estimated that the tower was at least three stories, of 7 x 5m each.
Medieval street (10th-12th century) – Carrer medieval (segles X-XII)
Along the eastern ridge of the hill, parallel to the medieval wall there is a medieval street layout – possibly originally dated to the Iberian Iron Age – with stairs cut into the bedrock and a central channel for rainwater. On both sides of the street you can see cut into the rock various house foundations and silos etc.
Medieval structures (11th-12th century) – Estructures medievals (segles XI-XII)
To the northwest of the main wall, outside of the delimited town, are various rock cut features testifying to the extramural habitation on the hillside.
El Pla dels Albats, extramural neighbourhood (10th-12th century) – El Pla dels Albats (segles X-XII)
This extramural neighbourhood continues to the northeast of the walled town, where a large group of houses and buildings were located in an area today called el Pla dels Albats / Plana dels Infants and another downhill called la hondonada de Les Feixes. In this area other medieval rock cut wine presses can be seen.
Santa Maria chapel (10th-12th century) – Capella de Santa Maria (segles X – XII)
This chapel is related to the building of the main church of Sant Miguel on the hill, and is also surrounded by a necropolis.
Pla dels Albats necropolis – Necròpolis del Pla dels Albats
The necropolis in the Pla dels Albats area contains around 100 rock cut graves, many of which are infants. The older name of this side of the hill is Plana dels Infants that translates to ‘Plateau of the Infants’ and Pla dels Albats translates as ‘Plateau of the dead before receiving the Sacraments’. In other words, both names relate to fact this this area is a substantial infant graveyard. Overall, 25% of the tombs are those of newborns, 45% of children or adolescents and 30% are of adults.
A brief history of research of the Olèrdola complex
As was common in early modern historical and antiquary circles, the identification of the cities cited in the Greek and Latin sources was a key concern for the scholars of the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. A wide variety of ancient cities were suggested for Olèrdola. The 17th century scholar Àngel Vidal was the first to write about Olèrdola. His notes were later published in the end of the 18th century, where he identified Olèrdola with Carthago Vetus, a city mentioned by Ptolemy (the misidentification was partly based on a mistranslation of the original text, which had located Carthago Vetus north of the Ebro River). This erroneous linking of Olèrdola with Carthago Vetus was one of the reasons that the ruins of Olèrdola were so renowned, and of such interest to the romantic historians.
Consequently, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the monuments at Olèrdola reached an international audience via their inclusion in Alexandre de Laborde’s 1807 Voyage historique et pittoresque en Espagne and 1808 Itinéraire descriptif de l’Espagne. De Laborde was a French politician and antiquarian of Spanish heritage and Romantic bent. His 1807 publication included 900 engravings of Spain, including two of Olèrdola: an idealised rendering of the rock-cut necropolis, and an equally idealised drawing of the Olèrdola castle and Roman watchtower, overlooking the Romanesque church and Montserrat. (Both drawings are so idealised, one would wonder whether Laborde had in fact visited Olèrdola at all, or drew them based on descriptions that he heard).
This renewed nineteenth century interest in the Olèdola monuments developed alongside the growing Renaixença (Renaissance), the early 19th-century romantic revivalist movement in Catalonia. This nationalist movement sought to uncover, renew, and glorify Catalan language, culture, and history. A significant part of this was the research of archaeological sites and ruins.
The origins of the wall at Olérdola, built with the massive ‘Cyclopean’ blocks, and the unusual rock-cut anthropomorphic tombs were keenly debated over many generations of scholars, and a long list of possible peoples were suggested as the builders: Carthaginians, Iberians, ‘Megalithic Peoples’, Pelasgians, Phoenicians or Semitics, Romans or Tyrrhenians (Etruscans).
Milà i Fontanals – a major figure of the Renaixença, and also from the nearby town of Vilafranca del Penedè – emphasised Olèrdola’s medieval past in his research. This medieval perspective suited well with the Renaixença currents, for which the glorious medieval past of Catalonia was the foundation of its national construction.
In 1880 Olèrdola went from being owned by the Bishopric of Barcelona – who had owned it from the twelfth century – to private property. The parish obtained the permission of this Bishopric to build a new church in la Plana Rodona ( the current town of Sant Miquel d’Olèrdola downhill) and Olèrdola went on sale to defray the costs. The rectory farmhouse and all the grounds of the walled enclosure were purchased by Jaume Abella i Casas. The Church reserved the right of inspection of the archaeological remains and the Sant Miquel church was changed to the category of hermitage.
The first half of the twentieth century saw the intermittent research continue, with excavations taking place, as well as restoration works on the Romanesque church. These also continued after WWII. In 1963 the Diputación de Barcelona acquired the lands of Olèrdola mountain, with the Museu Arqueològic de Barcelona in charge of its management. During the 1960s a new access road was built, along with the the demolishing of the old masia (farmhouse) / rectory and the construction of the present suite of buildings that house the museum, researchers’ residence, and guard house. The museum was inaugurated on 7th November 1971, with the opening of the walled enclosure the Pla dels Albats to the public.
A decade later archaeological excavations began again, with focus on two different areas within the enclosure. The first was the previously excavated area at the entrance to the left of the gateway, alongside the main wall that had been. The second was a larger expanse around the Roman cistern and Roman quarry. In 1990 the Olèrdola monumental complex was transferred to the Generalitat de Catalunya, and became part of the Museu d’Arqueologia de Catalunya, and in 1996 the Diputació de Barcelona transferred the administration Olèrdola ruins to the Generalitat de Catalunya of the. A major campaign of excavations began in 1995, and continued until 2006, with intermittent excavations and research carried out since then.
To learn more or book a private tour of Olèrdola and the Penedès wine country, contact us today.
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