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Javier Larequi, student of the School de Philosophy y Letras

La Custody, the city destroyed by blood and fire

Tue, 02 Jul 2019 12:47:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

The passage of the Roman soldier Quintus Sertorius through the Iberian Peninsula in his confrontation with Pompey, founder of Pamplona, claimed an outstanding victim in 76 B.C. in Navarre. We are undoubtedly talking about the pre-Roman city that two thousand years ago housed the Custody of Viana. 

The Numantine resistance or the passage of Augustus through the Cantabrian wars are well known among history buffs, but perhaps less so are the client networks created by the Roman military in Hispania. These alliances led in some cases to the destruction of some pre-Roman cities, as happened with La Custodia de Viana. 

The material wealth of the territory surrounding Viana has been known for many decades, where remains dating back to the Lower Paleolithic period can be found. La Custodia is a site core topic to understand the centuries prior to the arrival of the Romans in the Ebro Valley and, above all, to understand that moment of change in an Iron Age society that enters contact with Romanization. It could be said that the influence that Logroño exerts on the territory today was exerted by La Custodia at that time. 

However, it was not until 1971 when the destruction and warfare of the first century BC began to surface in the municipality of Viana. The researcher Juan Cruz Labeaga discovered this site when he documented on the ground ceramics or metals in fire levels and burnt bones or adobes. 

Although since 1994 the site of La Custodia has been recognized as an Asset of Cultural Interest, it was not until 2017 when the UNED of Pamplona began excavation and geophysical prospecting work at La Custodia with funding from the La Caixa Foundation and the Caja Navarra Foundation, as well as from public institutions such as the Government of Navarra and the City Council of Viana.  

The archaeological work has been hampered, however, by the fact that the site is divided by National Highway 111. As it is located on a very dangerous section of the road that connects Viana and Logroño in a straight line, La Custodia is not open to visitors. The construction of this road network has caused serious damage to the site, but even greater damage has been caused by the planting of vineyards over a large part of the area, especially since the granting of the Rioja appellation for Viana wines. At the same time, this site has also suffered from plundering and poaching over the last few decades.

The pre-Roman city

The site of La Custodia housed an important pre-Roman city - perhaps the capital - of the Berona ethnic group, which came to control part of what is now Navarra, La Rioja, Burgos and Álava before the arrival of the Romans to the Iberian Peninsula. A city that, in addition, was reaching its maximum splendor at the end of the Iron Age at the time of its destruction. Although there is evidence of a repopulation after the catastrophe, it was never consolidated. 

As a settlement, it is likely that La Custodia arose at the end of the Bronze Age, around 900-700 BC. At that time it was a group of small houses that gradually expanded. 

Although the indigenous name of this city may have been Uarakos, in classical times it was renamed Vareia and was located in another site on the other side of the Ebro. There is no doubt that it was the Beronian city destroyed by Sertorius in 76 B.C. in the campaign narrated by Titus Livy in his monumental work on the history of Rome. 

If it is confirmed that a coin recently found in the excavation corresponds to the mint of Uarakos, the researchers assure that very few people will be able to doubt that this was the indigenous name of this city. Opponents of this thesis argue that the absence, so far, of silver coins, clashes with the supposed wealth of La Custodia. 

On the other hand, 52 coins from the Basque city of Barskunes have also been found, which is a much higher amount than the rest of the mints. This fact has led many scholars to wonder whether La Custodia could really correspond to Barskunes. 

In any case, whatever the name of the city, what is clear is that La Custodia was the economic engine of the territory that nowadays surrounds Viana.

Traditionally it has been thought that the settlement of La Custodia was located on a plain, but the truth is that it was located on four walled terraces that are currently between 10 and 15 meters high for the most part. 

Despite the fact that its extension of fifteen hectares almost doubles that of Numantia, the inhabitants of La Custodia did not replicate the Numantine resistance and in 76 B.C. they succumbed to the violence of Sertorius during the civil war that confronted Pompey as he passed through this territory. This is attested by the multiple Roman weapons and the levels of fire found in the excavation of the last two years. 

At the same time as the destruction of the pre-Roman city, the decadence of the nearby hill of Monte Cantabria, located next to Logroño, was also accentuated from the 2nd century B.C. onwards.

Archaeological intervention

Javier Armendáriz, professor at the University of Navarra and the UNED of Pamplona, has been the director of the two excavation campaigns carried out in La Custodia. The first one had as main goal to clean the stratigraphic cut of the trench with the road in order to better appreciate the different levels of occupation: the wall, the streets or the houses. 

The excavation has focused in recent weeks on a street, with its paving and sidewalks. The appearance of a level of burnt building remains and collapsed houses on the street has confirmed the fire that La Custodia suffered. Among the many discoveries in this area, there are some unpublished bollards on the corners of the sidewalks that were used as a chamfer to prevent the rubbing of the carts on the sidewalk.

In Roman cities the streets functioned as a drainage system core topic to cope with storms and floods. This function was even more important in the case of La Custodia, being fifteen hectares in size. The ancient settlers themselves were aware of this status, since the first thing they planned was the street. This was also fundamental in any Roman city to collect the dirt from the houses, since the citizens sometimes used it as a dumping ground. 

In addition, both in 2017 and 2018, two geophysical prospecting campaigns were carried out in two of the best preserved plots of La Custodia that have allowed us to find out the urban fabric of the city, which has blocks of houses of different typology. On the one hand, the typical Indo-European houses that can be found in other Navarrese settlements such as Las Eretas in Berbinzana have been found, as well as others from the Italic model more from the eastern subject .

Material wealth

As La Custodia was violently destroyed, it must be taken into account that its neighbors did not have time to take its objects. This fact, as confirmed by the archaeological interventions, has shown that it is a site very rich in materials. However, it must also be taken into account that many remains have appeared on the surface in recent decades. 

From the numismatic point of view, there are indigenous coins that correspond to ten different Roman, Iberian and Hispanic mints that are very important for understanding the Ebro Valley as the main trade route of the time in Hispania. 

Perhaps what is most striking is a collection of at least a dozen bronze hospitality teapots. These pieces represented in geometric or animal form pacts sealed by the inhabitants of a city, but we cannot translate them because they are written in Celtiberian language. 

Both the graffiti that have appeared on ceramic pieces and the engravings on hospitality teapots are the oldest epigraphic remains found in Navarre. 

On the other hand, if we take into account that no graffito or registration written in Latin has yet appeared, we can conclude that by 76 B.C. Romanization had only just begun in the middle Ebro valley. 


Along with objects of adornment staff, the violence of Sertorius' attack has also led to the discovery of Roman slingshot projectiles and spearheads. Fragments of pottery have also been found, both local and imported, which sample shows how in pre-Roman times La Custodia had already woven a commercial network that transcended the Iberian Peninsula. 







Killed with a sword

One of the most surprising findings was, as confirmed by paleoanthropologist Patxuka de Miguel, the incomplete skeleton of a young male aged 16-19 years. His bones show a significant injury caused by a sword that carried away the entire left temple of his head. As if that were not enough, the debris of a house fell on him and the body of that young man burned on the sidewalk. The reason for death was the blows of the sword, but the burns that have appeared on the bones show that both the fire and the blow occurred simultaneously. 

In this year's campaign, human skeletal remains of another male with very robust bones were also found mixed with faunal remains. 

These discoveries have confirmed that a melee took place in La Custodia between the armies loyal to Pompey and those backing Sertorius. The aggressors may have surrounded the city and burned it from the outside, but after these findings it is clear that they were forced to enter the interior of the city.

Box Sertorian wars

The Roman historian Titus Livius described in his book Ab urbe condita the advance of the military Quintus Sertorius through the middle valley of the Ebro in 76 B.C. It was at this time that Sertorius destroyed the pre-Roman city of Cascante, just before camping next to Calahorra, which was an allied city, to plan the attack and destruction of La Custodia from there. 

This aggression was not part of a process of conquest of Hispanic territory by Rome, but part of a civil war between the Populars of Gaius Marius, with the support of Sertorius, and the Optimates of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, with the support of Pompey. 

The confrontation moved to the Iberian Peninsula when Sulla seized power in Rome in 81 BC and removed Sertorius from power in the province of Hispania Citerior. Sertorius' response was to make himself strong in the Iberian Peninsula, where he had gained the favor of cities such as Calahorra, and, of course, not to abandon his position. 

Pompey the Great arrived in Hispania around 77 BC as proconsul to counteract the popularity of Sertorius. In this way, many other cities such as La Custodia sided with Pompey and it was also in this context that this general founded Pamplona. 

The conflict lasted from 77 to 72 BC, a period in which cities such as La Caridad (Teruel), Botorrita (Zaragoza) or La Custodia in Navarra were razed to the ground. The final victory was Pompey's, who imposed the power of Rome after the decisive assassination of Sertorius in 73 BC.

partnership with universities

Since 2017, Professor Javier Armendáriz has been directing the excavation of La Custodia. Actually, he began studying the site much earlier in the framework of his research on the Iron Age in Navarra. For many years, Luis Arazuri, from the Center of programs of study Tierra Estella, has also been dedicated to know the territory of La Custodia and to collect materials that have been surfacing on the surface. 

The team is still small, but has the experience of archaeologists Álex Duró and Javier Nuin, paleoanthropologist Patxuka de Miguel and geophysicist Ekhine García. 

In addition, students such as Iván Ruiz from the UNED of Pamplona and Carlos Astráin, Luka García, Sara Navaz, Íñigo Portela and Ane Urrizburu, students of Diploma of Archaeology at the University of Navarra, have also participated in the excavation. Some of them have been able to enjoy their first archaeological experience in La Custodia. 

There is still very little work that has been done on the site of La Custodia, but the City Council of Viana is sample determined to continue with this project that would contribute to further recovering the immense heritage of Viana. 

Few news could be better for Viana on its 800th anniversary than the confirmation of the existence of an important pre-Roman city in its vicinity. After the two excavation campaigns, it is clear that it was not just any city and there is no doubt that the importance of La Custodia de Viana transcends the borders of Navarra.