Romans in the Canary Islands: A fascinating journey through history 🏛️🏝️

Romans in the Canary Islands
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The history of the Romans in the Canary Islands was until recently a totally unknown chapter in the chronicle of the Roman Empire. Although often overlooked in conventional accounts of Roman history, the fact is that the Romans were aware of these islands, and the recent discovery of archaeological sites in the Canary Islands has shed light on their actual presence in this Atlantic archipelago, so far from their shores.

This time, we will delve into history and archaeology to explore how and why the Romans came to the Canary Islands, where they settled, what activities they carried out and, finally, why they left. A journey through history that we are sure will fascinate you.

What do the classical sources say about the Canary Islands?📜

The Canary Islands, referred to as the Fortunate Islands in classical texts, were mentioned by authors such as Pomponius Mela and Pliny the Elder. Classical sources also highlight a voyage made by explorers sent by the Mauritanian king Juba II between 25 BC and 7 BC, marking a turning point in the navigation and knowledge of the Canary Islands during antiquity.

It seems that at the time of this exploration, the existence of the so-called Hesperides Islands, which corresponded to the current islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, was already known.

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Did the Romans arrive in the Canary Islands? 🏛️

The existence of a purple factory on the island of Lobos was already known at the time of the expedition of King Juba II. This factory was discovered in 2012, when the presence of the Romans in the Canary Islands was finally confirmed for the first time, thanks to the discovery of the Roman site on Lobos Island, off the coast of Fuerteventura.

This discovery marked a turning point in the understanding of the expansion of the Roman Empire and its activities in distant regions beyond the geographical scope of the Mediterranean. The Romans were attracted to the Canaries by mainly industrial interests, in particular the production of purple, a dye extracted from molluscs and highly valued in Roman society as a symbol of luxury and power, since it was associated with emperors. This alone explains why they were interested in establishing a factory thousands of kilometres away from their government centre.

The Roman archaeological site of Lobos Island 🏝️

The Lobos Island archaeological site, located on a small islet off Fuerteventura, is an archaeological gem and the only fully confirmed Roman site in the Canary Islands to date. It is a factory for the extraction of purple, with remains that indicate an occupation from the 1st century BC until the 1st century AD, when the exploitation of purple ceased, and therefore the interest in occupying the site.

Recent georadar explorations have revealed up to three more areas of archaeological interest that would extend the area of more than 500 square metres excavated so far at La Concha Beach, southwest of Lobos Island.

Given the enormous importance of this discovery not only for the history of the Canary Islands, but also for the history of the Roman Empire itself, once the excavations are completed there are plans to create an archaeological centre on the site where visitors will be able to learn about the fascinating history of the first Roman settlement on the islands.

Lobos Island in Fuerteventura
Lobos Island seen from Fuerteventura

Historical remains of Roman presence found 🏺

Many Roman manufactured materials have been found at the Lobos Island site, including pottery made on a potter’s wheel, and metal pieces. Objects related to domestic activity have also been found, such as kitchen pottery and tableware. These findings are indicative of the daily life of those who worked in purple production, and suggest a seasonal presence of the Roman Empire on the island.

We would not therefore speak of a permanent Roman presence on the island of Lobos, but rather that those who worked in the factory went there every year during the favourable seasons for mollusc fishing. During these periods, they resided on the island for several months and, based on the findings of amphorae and pots from the Baetica region, it is believed that they would later return to the coast of Gades (Current Cádiz, southern Spain) with their cargo.

Roman archaeological site of Lobos Island
Roman archaeological site in Lobos Island

Discoveries of animal remains and amphorae on the island indicate that the Roman workers brought provisions with them to Lobos Island that they could not obtain on the islands, including wine and oil; there is also evidence of animals such as lambs and goats during their stay, from which they obtained meat and milk.

Roman remains in other Canary Islands 🗺️

In addition to the site at Lobos, in the 1980s an amphora of oil was found at El Cotillo, Fuerteventura, dated to the 4th or 5th century AD. This finding suggests that the Romans were also familiar with other parts of Fuerteventura, and that they continued to maintain some kind of activity or trade on the island in later centuries, possibly related to fishing and the salting factories on the North African coast and in Baetica. It also remains to be discovered to what extent they maintained contact with the aboriginal peoples of the Canary Islands, who were already populating the islands after migrating centuries earlier from North Africa.

Apart from these discoveries, there is no unanimity among the scientific community about the remains found on other Canary Islands, such as those supposedly also found on Lanzarote, at the archaeological sites of El Bebedero and Buenavista, which many experts attribute to remains from the Middle Ages or even later periods.

In any case, the findings from Lobos Island and Fuerteventura alone suggest a much greater Roman presence in the archipelago than previously thought, and have forever changed the knowledge of this region in Roman times. The presence of the Romans in the Canary Islands, although limited and focused mainly on the production of purple, offers a fascinating window into the history of the Roman Empire and its expansion across the Atlantic. 🏺🌊📜🌞

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