I felt more like a forensics detective than Indiana Jones when I finally managed to cup my hands round Curly’s smashed-in skull and lift it out of his hastily dug grave in one piece.
It took four hours and a lot of patience, bent over in the 30C Spanish heat, to free the skull finally from the concrete-like grasp of the 1 700-year-old dirt. One slip and his bones would have crumbled to dust.
Curly — named after the third Marx brother by the volunteer who discovered him — was the last of 30 skeletons discovered in shallow graves back stage of the largest theatre in Roman Spain at Clunia.
Three hours’ drive northwest of Madrid and an hour from the nearest supermarket, the theatre is now the gateway from the medieval village of Penalba de Castro to the beautiful mosaics and massive foundations of the ruined Roman city.
Thirty people had been buried in a rush and the only clue so far about who they were, or why they died, was a single arrowhead found in one of the graves.
Working on an archaeological dig is not many people’s dream holiday, but I decided to spend a week at Clunia to find out why it is growing in popularity. Clunia’s sun, location and all-inclusive package of accommodation, food and excursions seemed appealing.
Mysteries swirl around the largely unexcavated ruins of Clunia, one of the most important cities in Roman Spain. Built by the Romans on the massive 3 360ft (about 1km) Alto de Castro plateau soon after they had conquered the area in 55BC, the city was given a makeover in the first century AD, which included the construction of a huge 9 000-seat theatre.
By the end of the second century AD the theatre’s stage and one-third of the seats had been torn out to make way for a circus arena. Barely 100 years later, both the city and theatre had been largely abandoned.
I arrived at the site to find Mike Elkin, the American archaeologist in charge of the volunteers, already having lunch at a long table with 30 archaeologists, Spanish students and volunteers. The vest tops at the table were tight and the tans deep and the rapid-fire Spanish of the archaeologists a challenge for my Spanglish.
The working day began at 7am and finished at 3pm. After that there was a big sit-down lunch, followed by dinner at 9.30pm. In between the hours were our own; sometimes there were excursions to explore the region.
The first day I felt a tingle of excitement when we crossed the Prohibido El Paso cordon at the entrance to the site and turned from visitors to archaeologists. And there was something magical when professor Francesc Tuest started spraying the patch of dirt we were digging with water to reveal the edges of a pit that had been filled with rubble about 2 000 years ago.
Tuest explained that archaeology was like removing the flesh of an orange while leaving the skin intact, his way of reminding us that rather than just the brute force of pico, pico, pico — the Spanish for pick-axe — we had to find the edge of the pit, identify layers and watch out for artefacts.
Then, a eureka moment — I saw something pale and grooved in the dirt. Bending down I realised I had found a fragment of Roman pottery. Although the professionals just shrugged and threw it into the finds tray, to me it was special and deeply satisfying. I had previously only seen anything like it in a museum display case.
Although there was rarely a chance to shower before lunch, there was always time for a Mahon — the regional beer.
At 3pm we headed to Restaurant Los Cuatro Bolos in nearby Huerta de Rey for a three-course lunch: rustic dishes such as oreja de cardo (fried pig’s ear) and never-ending glasses of tinto de verano (rough local red wine mixed with sweet tonic water), which helped both to break down barriers and turn the meals into Spanish lessons.
In the afternoon it was too hot to work so we would explore the countryside by taking one of the shepherd trails lined with sunflowers that spread out from the village, or better still, by jumping into Mike’s Land Rover to kick up dust along the back roads and through villages where dogs chased the wheels of passing cars.
One such trip took us to the ruins of the Roman city of Tiermes where an aqueduct plunged us into the total darkness of an 80m underground tunnel; we stumbled along it before being thrown out into the blinking daylight and thyme-scented air of a ruined hilltop mansion.
Another trip took us to a mass grave from the Spanish civil war of the 1930s. It had been discovered only three days before. The Republican flag still flew proudly over a black canopy that hid the skeletons of the 46 victims of the nationalist death squads buried in two trenches. The local mayor was sitting on his knees as he helped to scrape the dirt from the bones, as if in an act of penance. The gold fillings still shone from the bullet-holed skulls.
Back at Clunia I was told, at last, that I could take my turn excavating Curly. I was even more surprised when that night I was asked by one of the archaeologists in Spanish whether I would like to come back next year, and I answered “Si!”. —