The Intriguing Red and Black Inscriptions Unearthed at a Roman Quarry in Spain

The Roman quarry of El Mèdol , located in modern-day Tarragona (Tarraco in ancient times) in Catalonia is literally a man-made marvel. This limestone quarry was used by the Romans to build the city center of ancient Tarraco and other major Roman monuments in the area. Virtually, at the center of the Roman quarry lies the ‘agulla de Mèdol,’ a 20 meter (65.6 feet) tall limestone column “needle.” The base of the  agulla is where Roman quarrying began, giving an estimation of the vast volumes of limestone quarried from here.

At the base of the agulla, and in other parts of the quarry, inscriptions in red paint and charcoal were discovered. These have formed the basis of a fabulous study in epigraphic interpretation by Professor Maria Serena Vinci of the Bordeaux-Montaigne University, published in the  Journal of Roman Archaeology .


The agulla de Mèdol: a 20 meter (65.6 feet) tall limestone column needle. The base of the rock “needle” is where the Roman quarry began, thus providing an estimation of the vast volumes of limestone quarried here in ancient times. (Enric /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Professor Maria writes, “Painted inscriptions on  building materials  are rarely preserved, normally being lost with the shaping of the ashlar or due to weathering. Although quarry marks are often difficult to interpret and their meaning is not easily accessible to us, they are useful for approaching aspects of the work organization that would otherwise remain unknown. The discovery of El Mèdol inscriptions provides basic information for study of the complex mechanism that was a building site and the organization of the work from quarry to completed monument.”

The key epigraphic find was the 16 red paint marks, probably ochre, and 3 black charcoal marks. Additionally, 58 other engravings were also uncovered. These inscriptions are “all linked to the phases of extracting and shaping the stone in the quarry.”


One of the red ochre inscriptions found at the Spanish Roman quarry. ( Journal of Roman Archaeology )

Traditionally, epigraphy has often proved to be a frustrating exercise for historians. The center of Tarraco and the Roman quarry are located 5.6 miles (9 kms) apart.

In this case, another challenge was that the laborers hired to work at the sites were the ones who made the inscriptions. For them, the interpretation of the language was merely functional and used solely to mark the progress of the building, and the quantity of limestone being used, along with the dates of construction. This made the epigraphic reconstruction an even more challenging task.

However, the collapse of many layers of stone on top of the original carvings helped in their preservation. The excavation of these pieces was carried out as late as 2007.

The marks on the inscriptions were recreated and obtained through advanced  digital processing  and imaging. Without this technology, the meaning and reconstruction of these inscriptions would have been impossible.


Another typical inscription found on the limestone remains at the Roman quarry. ( Journal of Roman Archaeology )

The oldest Roman settlement on the Iberian Peninsula, dating back to the 3 rd century BC, is  Tarraco (Tarragona’s ancient name). Tarraco was a blend of complex architecture and fine engineering, with an everlasting quality that allowed for the retention of most of its original grandeur, many centuries after the empire crumbled away.

Part of the ancient archaeological Tarraco landscape was the  Roman quarry  of El Mèdol. This immense quarry was used to supply the Romans in this area of Spain with vast supplies of  limestone.

The limestone quarry is more than 656.6 feet (200 meters) long, and between 32 and 131 feet (10 and 40 meters) wide. In the center of the quarry remains a single massive column, a common feature of Roman quarries, known as the ‘agulla de Mèdol’ (agulla is Galician for needle).

“From the very first phases of its monumentalization, public building at Tarragona involved the intensive exploitation of local resources thanks to a geology that provided good-quality building stone. In fact, almost all its monumental public edifices were built of limestone quarried from sites in the immediate vicinity,” writes Professor Maria.


The Les Ferreres Aqueduct, also known as Pont del Diable in Tarragona, Spain was certainly built with limestone from the El Medol Roman quarry. ( Leonid Andronov  / Adobe Stock)

Of the six Roman quarries surrounding Tarraco, the quarry at El Mèdol remains the largest. The quarry is home to 1,765,733 cubic feet (50,000 cubic meters) of bioclastic limestone from the Miocene era, in shades ranging from white to red.

The quarried limestone was transported along the  Via Augusta , one of the main communication routes of the  Roman Empire , located along the edge of the quarry. The quarried limestone was then used to build the Provincial Forum ( Colonia Iulia Urbis Triumphalis Tarraco)  of the ancient city of Tarraco, center of the imperial cult of Hispanic Rome, and capital of Hispania Citerior.

The quality of limestone was outstanding and perfectly suited for construction. On the site, six extraction points have been identified, with ‘El Clot’ as the most prominent.

The traces of  charcoal found at the base of  agulla, date the first quarrying to the late Republican period (133-31 BC). The pace really picked up though during the reign of  Augustus, and continued throughout the 1 st century AD.


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