Thieves take chisel to Roman mosaic

"Exceptional" archaeological site thought to have been targeted to order

Not only were they thieves - they were incompetent ones at that. The individuals who stole part of a fifth-century mosaic from the Roman remains of Santa Cruz, in the Burgos hamlet of Baños de Valdearados (population 419), "did a lot of damage, a tremendous amount of damage, because they chipped away at it barbarically, probably with a cold chisel," explains Mayor Lorenzo Izcara.

The mosaic was exceptional, says the historian and mosaic research specialist Guadalupe López Monteagudo, who heads a specialized department within the Center for Human and Social Sciences at the Superior Scientific Research Council. In it, "two scenes are superimposed: the courtship of the god Bacchus and his victorious return from India on a carriage pulled by panthers," she explains. This type of composition "is only to be found in two other mosaics, one of which is in Córdoba, while the other one is in Israel."

The mayor of Baños de Valdearados, located 80 kilometers from the provincial capital, says that the theft was discovered last Wednesday at around 1pm, when two Catalan tourists came to the Roman villa wishing to visit it.

"In the winter, it is only open on demand; visitors call a number posted on the door and someone shows them around," says Izcara. "The rest of the year there is someone keeping watch during the day, and villagers always drop by to take a look."

The last tour took place on December 23, meaning that the theft could have taken place any time between then and the following Wednesday, although the mayor believes it may have happened on the night of the 27th.

"Since the mosaic is visible from the outside, the [Catalan] visitors immediately realized what had happened," Izcara explains. "The thieves had also broken some wooden beams, which protect the enclosure," adds Izcara. The tourists saw that three large portions of the mosaic were missing: one in the central part and two more in the lower part, representing the wind gods. The entire mosaic takes up 66 square meters, and the mayor says that considering the enormous size of one of the stolen portions, the criminals must have cut it up in pieces "because it would not have fitted through the hole they made to get in."

This is not the first time the site has been vandalized. In November, several individuals broke in and destroyed a few square centimeters of the mosaic, forcing authorities to change the locks and adopt a few additional security measures. "The restorer told me then that the mosaic would be very difficult to steal because it had reinforced concrete, but they've stolen it all right," says the mayor, who had already warned the regional government of Castilla y León about the need to improve the site's surveillance system.

The director general of the regional heritage department, Enrique Saiz, notes that with 23,000 archaeological sites and 150 cultural assets scattered across the territory, it is impossible to keep an eye on them all. Meanwhile, a technical report has been commissioned to see how similar crimes can be prevented in future. Saiz warns about a rise in attacks against the country's artistic heritage.

"The means used here were clumsy. We are used to things happening inside churches, where it is possible to spirit away an item, but to show up with picks and rip off a slab of floor..."

Guadalupe López, author of the 1998 work Roman mosaics of Burgos, believes that the damage sustained by this particular mosaic is such that "the best thing to do at this point is to remove what is left of it and take it to a museum as soon as possible for restoration."

"It is a pity, because it was one of the best-preserved mosaics in the entire peninsula and its artistic value is enormous," she says. Although the police investigation has so far yielded no information, López believes that this type of theft can only be of interest to an individual. The mayor confirms that, according to the Civil Guard, it is likely to have been a commissioned job.

The Roman villa of Baños de Valdearados was discovered in late November 1972, when a building machine was leveling some ground located on farmland. So far, only a fourth of the archaeological site has been excavated.

"It must have been an estate owned by the economic elite of the period of the latifundios [large, poorly exploited estates]," López explains. The artist who made the mosaic did not leave a name behind, although it was likely the work of a local workshop. Successive digs have unearthed 10 rooms that were once part of this villa of the lower Roman Empire.

A regional official is scheduled to come to Baños de Valdearados in early January, and the mayor hopes that the visit will be "to see if some measures are taken, because we cannot do anything more ourselves."