First Roman villa excavated in the province

The Roman villa of Benicató, the first to be excavated in the region of La Plana, is located among the orange groves outside Nules, 700 metres southwest of Caminàs. The existence of the archaeological site has been known since 1888, when an anonymous article was published describing the discoveries made in the ‘pujol’ or slope of Benicató, which was being levelled out for agricultural use. Researchers in the area unearthed the remains of a Roman villa from the period of Roman rule which was in use until the 6th century CE. The initial excavations carried out by E. Codina and J. B. Porcar in 1956 revealed a square peristyle1 with a circular tank or pool in the centre. Up to 17 rooms have been identified around it, two of them paved with mosaics decorated with geometric and plant motifs.
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Archaeological documentation
However, the most important excavations were those led by F. Gusi, director of the Archaeological and Prehistoric Research Service (SIAP) of the Provincial Government, in 1973 and 1974, as they allowed new rooms to be documented and the collection of numerous remains. 13 rooms dedicated to preparation and storage and distributed around the courtyard mentioned above were identified. The baths were located in the northeast, with two rooms decorated with mosaic paving heated by a hypocaustum2 system. The rooms dedicated to domestic use contained semi-buried dolia3 remains one metre across. The remains recovered suggest that the enclave may have been inhabited between the 1st century BCE and the 6th century CE, reaching its apogee in the 2nd century CE. The studies carried out in the 1980s and 1990s focused mainly on cleaning the structure, on interpreting the functions of the villa and studying the coins found.

Mosaics, murals and marble

This villa was almost certainly quite luxurious, based on the remains and materials discovered, not just the mosaics, but also murals, marble cladding, lamps, fine ceramic plates, glass… In addition, together with materials documented from the Roman era, some fragments of Campanian4 pottery were found. Equally, among the many coins discovered, mostly from the period of the Roman Empire, were a denarius and an as from the ceca5 in Rome (170-91 BCE). Campanian pottery only provides an approximate date between the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. The excavations have uncovered pottery fragments and coins from the Republican period (2nd-1st centuries BCE) thought to correspond to an early occupation phase. Subsequent interventions by the SIAP focused on two main priorities: the excavation of specific untouched sectors and cleaning the excavated area in order to rebuild the ruins at a later stage so that they could be opened to the public.

The first excavations in 1956 uncovered the remains of a large villa with a large porticoed courtyard at the centre of which there was a circular pool to collect rainwater

Porticoed courtyard with 16-metre sides

The villa was built around a 22 x 24 metre peristyle with a porticoed gallery, where it is still possible to find the bases of the bluish grey limestone columns and a circular pool with a 7.6-metre diameter. 35 rooms with a total surface area of 594.45 square metres were distributed around this courtyard. According to researchers, the residential area was located in the northeast and southeast of the peristyle, while the industrial area was at the northeast. In the case of the baths, which are made up of four rooms, the best preserved ones can be found in the east wing, while what is clearly the hypocaustum2 is found in two rooms as attested by the small reconstructed brick arches and the opus signinum6 floor. The walls were painted red and blue, with a marble plinth. One of the rooms contained a mosaic floor with black and white geometric motifs.

Thermal Baths

The thermal baths of the villa in Benicató were made up of five rooms forming a square block with a total surface of almost 77 square metres. The cold room was at the west side of the baths while the two hot rooms were at the east. Room number 2, 21 metres square, was decorated with a tessellated mosaic and red and blue stucco. This room would have been the frigidarium7 and would have also included a space used as a changing room or apodyterium8. This room led to the tepidarium9 (room 3), located to the east and 18 metres square. A heat chamber which seems to have been made up of arches was documented under the flooring. There was a 20-centimetre bench around three sides of the room (south, east and west) and this must have been used to house hot air distribution in the walls (a system known as concameratio). The marble remains found in this room were probably part of the decoration.
The caldarium10 was a rectangular 9.8 square metre room with a brick arch heat chamber under an opus signinum floor. The caldarium was connected to the north with another room (number 5), which is hard to identify but might be the furnace. These baths cannot be conclusively dated as it is not known whether this mosaic was contemporary to construction or was added later. Thanks to recent studies by T. Pasíes and the documentation provided by F. Sales and F. Esteve we know there was another 5 x 5 metre mosaic decorating room number 2, and directly linked to the northeast end of the portico. Some fragments are conserved in the SIAP collection. It is a black and white geometric mosaic, with a central composition of several concentric friezes around a square central design or emblem.

Irregular and loose geometric execution

The other mosaic was found in room number 13, in the east gallery of the villa courtyard and has been studied by R. Navarro (1977), V. Felip and J. A. Vicent (1991), and F. Arasa (1998). It was made up of cubic, black and white tesserae and the decoration motifs used were mostly linear friezes with a central motif of two squares forming an eight-point star within another geometric shape.

The enclave of Nules was inhabited from the 1st century BCE to the 5th-6th centuries CE, reaching its apogee in the 2nd century

The phase with reforms dated to the second half of the 3rd century BCE also includes this room. Researchers found that the mosaic was covered by a layer of sediment with numerous iron objects and 16 coins which allow it to be dated to the period between the reigns of emperors Marcus Aurelius (161-180) and Valerian (253-260). There is also a mortar floor above this which dates from another phase of occupation of the villa according to Esteve. The mosaic may have been so well preserved due to the construction of this second floor. However, the numerous cuts and fillings now observed may be the result of the extraction work. The execution of the design is irregular and somewhat loose for an exclusively geometric composition. The mosaic is made up of a series of juxtaposed emblems and panels forming a U-shaped surface measuring 3.65 x 4.20 metres.

The excavations carried out have documented up to 35 different rooms covering a surface of almost 595 square metres

Local craftsman with limited experience

Given the somewhat careless technique, the Benicató mosaic is thought to have probably been the work of a local craftsman with limited experience who copied black and white motifs, fashionable at the time. In terms of chronology, it is very hard to date these compositions to a specific period in time as they were evidently greatly disseminated and cover an extensive chronological arc, although the formal and stylistic characteristics strongly suggest they were late. The predominance of black over white and the width of the strips support this theory, while confirmation of this could be provided by analysing archaeological materials uncovered in the excavations. Two phases of occupation of the villa were identified. The first spans from the mid-1st century to the mid- or late 3rd century, with its apogee being documented in the 2nd century. Despite the fact that some rooms were reused and repurposed subsequent deterioration was observed from the late 3rd to the mid-4th century. The villa is thought to have been abandoned in the middle of the 4th century. The two mosaics are thought to have been produced, the porticoed courtyard remodelled and the pool built in its period of maximum splendour (second half of the 2nd century BCE). The discovery of sixteen bronze coins, in use from the early Antonine period to the mid-3rd century also appears to support this. After the period of crisis following the Frank and Alamanni invasions in the middle of the 3rd century, it remained occupied until the 6th century when it was definitively abandoned.

The villa of Benicató had thermal baths, with one cold room and two hot rooms

1 Peristyle: Gallery of columns surrounding a building.Hypocaustum: From the Greek term meaning ‘heating from below’. This floor heating system was invented or perfected by Roman engineer Caius Sergius Orata and used in the thermal baths of the Roman Empire.
3 Dolium (pl. dolia): Roman pottery cask or jar used to store and transport food
4 Campanian pottery: Term used to identify a group of pottery production using black varnish and manufactured in Campania, Lazio, Etruria and Sicily but disseminated throughout the western Mediterranean. It is dated from the late 3rd century to the 1st century BCE.5 Ceca: Official establishment where currency was manufactured and minted.


6 Opus signinum: Construction material from ancient Rome consisting of small pieces of broken tile, mixed with lime and sand and crushed with a mallet. Used to render terraces, thermal baths and floors.7 Frigidarium: Cold water baths.8 Apodyterium: Changing room in Roman thermal baths.9 Tepidarium: Warm water baths, between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius, heated by the hypocaustum.10 Caldarium: Hot steam baths used within the complex of Roman thermal baths. Temperatures can reach 60 degrees Celsius.


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