Santa Maria de los Arcos Church in Tricio, La Rioja, Spain (NVRP Excursion 8/06/2014)

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Tricio, La Rioja, Spain

Tricio, La Rioja, Spain

On Wednesday 6 August, 2014, the Najerilla Valley Research Project team visited the site of the church of Santa María de Arcos de Tricio, an 18th-century church located outside the small northern Spanish town of Tricio. The site is interesting to those of us on the NVRP because of the site’s earlier use as a Roman mausoleum. In fact, in the later construction of the church, parts of the Roman temple were dismantled and reused as construction material—particularly the Roman columns which line the sanctuary’s interior today.

During the Imperial period, Tricio was a mansio (rest stop) in the Roman road network of La Rioja, Spain. Tricio was also an important center of pottery production (as attested by numerous epigraphic finds and pottery remains recovered in the area). The urban center of Tricio is located on a small hilltop southeast of the city of Nájera, and it is surrounded by an extensive territory of rich farmland and pottery workshops. The church of Santa María de Arcos is located about 500 meters northeast of the town. Some time after the Christianization of the region, the Roman mausoleum was converted into a Christian cemetery and church building, maintaining its primary function as a burial ground continuing into the modern day.[1]

Reconstruction of the Church.

The existing building at the church site today is in baroque style, having been built ca. 1700 AD. However there is earlier textual mention of the site “Santa María de Arcos” beginning in the mid-11th century AD, including an Act of Consecration from 1181.[2] However the excavators believe the church site was constructed earlier during the 10th century, in the period when the area was repopulated following the Reconquista of Nájera and Viguera in 923.[3]

The first archaeological investigations of the Santa María de Arcos de Tricio began in 1979 with the excavations headed by the director of the Museo de Logroño, Dr. J. C. Elorza. These excavations focused on the southern exterior face of the Church’s apse. In the same year, the architect D. A. Peropoadre undertook the site’s first restoration project, cleaning and removing earth from the apse. Afterward in 1980, professor S. Andrés of the Colegio Universitario de Logroño undertook excavations of the sacristies around the apse, removing the altarpiece and excavating the entirety of the church building.[4]

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Interior of Santa María de los Arcos, with Roman columns lining the sanctuary. Photograph by JJH Lewis.

The excavations of the church confirmed the site’s use as an earlier Roman necropolis and later continued use for burials in the Christian era. 40 cm below the modern surface were a series of burials without enclosures and covered with slabs of limestone. The excavators attributed these burials to the 19th century, when Tricio suffered a plague whose death toll surpassed the capacity of the local cemetery, and therefore the church was used for overflow burials. The burials are typical of plague—they seem to have been made very rapidly, are without coffins or markers and appear to have no overall organization. They are covered with a slab of limestone, probably as a measure to prevent the spread of the epidemic from the graves. In the next level below the 19th-century burials along the three naves of the church, the excavators located an orderly set of Roman graves. The graves are generally covered with large, well-made slabs, which had in some cases been moved or removed in part or totally at some point in the past. The excavators determined that all of the burials from this level had been looted—the bones were in the customary Roman east-west layout, but the coffins had been opened and the burial goods were missing.[5]

In addition to the burial evidence, the excavators mapped out the evolution of the site’s different building phases. The excavators concluded that the site began as an amphiprostyle Roman funerary mausoleum with four columns, which were later dismantled and reused in the 10th century during the construction of the Visigothic church. The building was renovated in the 18th century—three sacristies were added to the apse, an altar to the center, along with a small polychrome wooden altarpiece in baroque style. The floor level was also raised approximately 1.8 meters in order to prevent flooding, the walls of the apse were removed to the north and south, and the triumphal arch was widened in order to place a gate separating the apse from the rest of the building. Finally, a gable and belfry were added to the front of the building and the naves and sacristies were tiled.[6]

Throughout the investigation, the excavators recovered a large amount of ceramic fragments of Hispanic sigillata, especially in the tombs. All of the Tricio area is very rich in ceramic remains coming from the Roman workshops scattered throughout the countryside around the church site.[7]

Archaeological site plan showing different building phases of Santa María de los Arcos.

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Southern wall of Santa María de los Arcos. Photograph by JJH Lewis

Modern cemetery on the northern side of Santa María de los Arcos

Modern cemetery on the northern side of Santa María de los Arcos. Photograph by JJH Lewis.

NVRP team scouting the area for surface ceramic remains. Photograph by JJH Lewis.

NVRP team scouting the area for surface ceramic remains. Left: Scott de Brestian, Right: Victor Martinez. Photograph by JJH Lewis.

NVRP's Victor Martinez with a piece of terra sigillata surface find. Photograph by JJH Lewis.

NVRP’s Victor Martinez with a medieval ceramic ware surface find. Photograph by JJH Lewis.

Medieval ceramic surface find. Photo by JJH Lewis.

Medieval ceramic surface find. Photo by JJH Lewis.

Further Reading:

Luis Caballero, Fernando Arce, M.a de los Ángeles Utrero. “Santa María de los Arcos de Tricio (La Rioja), Santa Coloma (La Rioja) y La Asunción de San Vincente del Valle (Burgos). Tres miembros de una familia arquitectónica.” Archeología de la arquitectura 2 (2003): 81-83.



[1] Cancela Ramírez de Arrellano, “Santa María de Arcos, Tricio (La Rioja): campañas 1984-1986,” Museo de Zaragoza 5 (1986): 289-296.

[2] A. Ubieto, Cartulario de Albelda, no. 66 (Anubar), Textos Medievales, no. 1, Valencia, 1969.

[3] Sebastian Andrés Valero, “Excavaciones de Santa María de los Arcos,” Cuadernos de investigación: Historia 9, Fasc. 2 (1983), 113-126. Accessed 8/12/2014 at <>.

[4] S. Andrés, “Excavaciones en Santa María de Los Arcos, Tricio (La Rioja),” I Coloquio de Historia de La Rioja (1983, fasc. 2): 113.

[5] C. Ramírez de Arrellano, “Santa María de Arcos,” 292-3.

[6] S. Andrés Valero, “Excavaciones de Santa María de los Arcos.”

[7] C. Ramírez de Arrellano, “Santa María de Arcos,” 293.






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