Gibraltar Museum



La Barcina – from Beach to Town Square


The following article has been extracted from the 1999 book ‘Gibraltar at the end of the Millennium: A Portrait of a Changing Land’ by Clive and Geraldine Finlayson.


In January 1997 we had the opportunity of excavating at the northernmost point of Main Street, where it meets Grand Casemates Square. Given our earlier successes in Main Street outside the Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned and within the Gibraltar Museum premises in 1995 and 1996 (see Chapter 7) we were optimistic that we would discover evidence of the Medieval City of Gibraltar here too. Of course we could not be sure of how much would be left after years of destruction caused by sieges and development. José María Gutiérrez, Carmen Blanes and Paqui Piñatel, archaeologists from our team were given the task of conducting the excavation under the direction of Paco Giles and Prof Clive Finlayson. We had set up this Gibraltar Museum Medieval Research Group in 1995 following the success in the Gibraltar Museum excavation. We knew Paco, Director of the Museo de El Puerto Santa María (Cádiz), well from the Gibraltar Caves Research Project (Chapters 1 and 2). Paco, one of the most experienced and respected archaeologists in Spain, is one of those persons who has the ability to combine the professionalism of work while making it fun and his dedication and way of motivating the team have been the key to the success of these excavations.


Getting back to the excavation itself, an area was selected on the eastern side of Main Street where we could proceed without denying movement between this street and Grand Casemates Square. The first layers were removed with the use of an excavating machine and subsequently assisted with a kango hammer which allowed us to quickly reach the archaeological levels. Speed was of the essence in an emergency excavation such as this one given that the development was being held back and we were under the constant reminder of the cost to the project. As was the case in the Cathedral excavation a year earlier the amount of public interest which the excavations generated was at times overwhelming, very gratifying and a contrast to the solitude of Gorham’s Cave!


The soundings revealed a substantial wall which ran from south-east to north-west under Main Street. Towards the middle of the street this wall ended. It was a solid and well-crafted structure. As we continued to expose the wall we realised that the western end of it was much wider than the rest. When it was completely exposed it measured 4 metres in width! This was no ordinary wall. The wall was constructed out of local limestone and the typical mortar composed of red sand and lime. The method of construction was clearly of the type we had found earlier outside the Cathedral and in the Museum so we proceeded on the basis that we had found a 14th century wall built in the time of the Merinid control of Gibraltar. This was confirmed later on when we found a lime paving with ceramic which was characteristic of this period.


The Merinids (Banu Marin) were a North African Berber sect that had overrun much of the Maghreb during the late 13th and early 14th centuries in response to a fundamentalist call which arose out of discontent with the way in which the Muwahiddun (Almohad) dynasty had become “soft”. The Merinids conquered the whole of the Maghreb. In February 1333 they laid siege to Gibraltar, which had been conquered by King Ferdinand IV of Castille in 1309, and it was recovered for Islam on the 18th June by Abd’l Malik the one-eyed son of Abu’l Hasan, leader of the Merinids. The Merinids eventually controlled the southernmost parts of Al-Andalus including Gibraltar and Algeciras and from there up to its territorial limits in Ronda. For the greater part of their control of this territory they had to contend with the advancing Castillian armies in the north-west (Jerez, Arcos, and Medina Sidonia) and with a volatile relationship with the Nasrid Muslims in the north-east, centred in the Alhambra in Granada. It was under the rule of the Merinids that Gibraltar was strengthened and the majority of the oldest archaeological and architectural remains found in Gibraltar today date from this period. The Merinids eventually lost Gibraltar in 1374 when it was taken over by the Granada Nasrids until its fall to the Spaniards in 1462. In their limited 41-year period of control of Gibraltar the Merinids did more to construct within it and fortify it than had anyone before and many after that and we shall return to this subject later.


The earliest plans that we have available of Gibraltar are those drawn by Luis Bravo de Acuña in 1627. Bravo was an engineer who was concerned with the repair and strengthening of the fortifications of Gibraltar. The originals are in the British Museum in London. The significance of these plans is that they pre-date the sieges to which Gibraltar was subjected in the 18th century, and which destroyed much of its urban fabric, and the consequent and subsequent major modifications to the fortress done by the British in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even though the Spaniards had made changes to the fortifications after 1462 the basic layout of Gibraltar had changed little so that Bravo’s plans are especially useful in helping us understand the structures that we uncover under five centuries of paving in the present City of Gibraltar.


Bravo’s plan served to confirm to us that the structure we had excavated at the junction of Main Street with Grand Casemates Square was the base of a tower which controlled a gate which divided the area of Casemates (which in Spanish times was called La Barcina) from that to the south (La Turba – see Chapter 4). We decided to test the deduction further and we secured permission to excavate to the west of the tower, on the other side of Main Street. We were able to do this once the work at the eastern corner had been completed, otherwise we would have closed access to Main Street. We were able to confirm that this was indeed the gate which was described as the Gate of the Barcina (Puerta de La Barcina) when we found a second wall on this opposite side of the road. The end of the first wall which we had discovered during the first phase of the excavation was indeed the opening of the gate itself! Unfortunately the second wall was in much poorer condition than the first and a number of service pipes broke directly through it.  We did not have the time either to extend the excavation further as the developers were becoming increasingly nervous about delays but at least we were able to document the situation of this gate and recover artefacts from the Merinid period which supplemented what we had from the Cathedral and Museum excavations. Many persons have told us how a wall was uncovered underground when the foundations were being laid for the International Commercial Centre. It seems most likely that this wall would have been the continuation of the Merinid wall that divided La Barcina from La Turba towards the sea wall. That the destruction of such an important piece of Gibraltar’s heritage should ever have been permitted without even allowing for its proper documentation is but one example of the rape to which our heritage was subjected to right up to the 1980s. At least the existing structures of the Gate of the Barcina were documented and protected before the new paving of Main Street was laid.


This little corner of Main Street with Grand Casemates Square turned out to be very informative. Above the ground there was a piece of wall which for years had been covered with concrete painted in a horrible blue colour.  When we excavated the Gate we realised that this structure was in line with our wall so we removed some of this concrete and established that it was a part of the same medieval wall.  Our plan had been to have left this testimony in full public view but we had to desist as the advice of the Government’s structural engineer was that this little piece of medieval history contributed to the support of the adjacent building and that it would not be safe to leave it exposed! The medieval wall lies above the surface, covered in modern brickwork and ‘enhanced’ by a small flower bed…


Behind this structure there is a high wall which runs roughly from south to north and determines the eastern perimeter of Grand Casemates Square. The small section which we exposed of this wall confirmed to us that much of it is actually the wall which separated La Barcina from the upper medieval town, known in the 17th century as La Villa Vieja.


Bravo’s plan shows this district of La Barcina with its many houses, churches and two streets. Apparently it was a district in which the wealthier people lived and Portillo says that the area had gardens and orchards until the arrangement of houses and streets was effected. He described some of the houses with gardens and Muslim towers. It was well populated and had two main streets, Real and Santa Ana. The churches of San Sebastián and la Santa Vera Cruz were located here. Many of the houses had been destroyed during the 1727 siege, this part of Gibraltar being in the front line, to the extent that much of the Grand Casemates Square was made an open square and the ruins of the buildings removed in 1731.


We had this background of knowledge when early in 1998 we were given the opportunity of selecting an area of the Grand Casemates Square for excavation. This was the first time in our brief history of urban excavations that we were to be allowed to excavate ahead of a development project and therefore without pressure from the developers. Using the existing plans of Bravo and, especially, a detailed map of this area dated 1753 we chose an area in the northern end of the square, close to Grand Casemates Barracks which were erected in 1817.


We knew from old historical accounts that the area of Grand Casemates Square was where Ferdinand IV had ordered the construction of an atarazana, a building for the construction and repair of galleys, from which the English word arsenal is derived. We also knew that it was here that the Merinids constructed their atarazana after 1333. We also knew that medieval Gibraltar had two gates facing the sea in this area, known in Spanish times as the Puerta del Mar and the Puerta de la atarazana – the Water Gate and the Atarazana Gate. The rest was conjecture or educated guesswork! Bravo’s plan showed a long, arched, building in this area but we did not know what it was. The 1753 plan also showed a long building in this position and it was described as the Shot House. This detailed plan showed what appeared to be a series of square blocks running along the length of the external walls of this shot house. A number of 18th century authors described this shot house and also referred to the presence of an atarazana in this square in medieval times but they were, of course, writing three centuries later. We formed an opinion which we decided to put to the test. The shot house was, or at least was on the site of, the old atarazana. Since we had positioned the Gate of the Barcina a year earlier we calculated from the plans where the southern wall of the shot house ought to be and we started digging…


At first when you excavate you begin to see structures which are difficult to interpret which is why you have to proceed with great caution. It is only once you have opened up a considerable area that you begin to see the relationship between the structures that you are able to proceed with a certain degree of confidence. It was common during this particular excavation to find the first part of a walled structure and not be able to even identify the direction it was pointing until the trench was opened up more. It was like cleaning a small spot in a very dirty window, then as more of the window was cleaned so more of the view came into focus. The structure we were referring to was in fact the southern wall of the atarazana – our calculations, based on intuition and the 1753 plan, were out by only one metre! Let us summarise what we found.


The excavation at Casemates revealed the process of occupation of the square from its origins to the present day. The main feature of the excavation was the south wall of the atarazana, not that ordered to be constructed by Ferdinand IV but that built under the rule of Abu’l Hasan. There was ample evidence of this in the type of construction and in the ceramic found associated most of which was, characteristically Merinid, with a small number of Nasrid items illustrating that there was contact between Gibraltar and Granada. During the first phase of the excavation, between the 20th April and 31st July 1998, we excavated the greater part of this wall but the entrance to the building, in the west, could not be excavated. We reached an agreement with the Government of Gibraltar to carry out an exploration where we expected the entrance to be when the developers opened up that part of the square. We were able to do this between the 24th and the 28th May of the following year. The calculations were again spot-on – we found the entrance on the first day! In all the building was 40.8 metres in length – almost the entire width of the present day square - an impressive achievement by medieval standards.


The wall which we excavated was the southern one, the northern wall having presumably been destroyed when the Casemates Barracks were constructed. Any remains would now be under this building. Our wall could be divided, in construction technique, into two. The westernmost two-thirds, that is those closest to the sea, were a series of pillars of solid limestone, each 2.5 metres wide and over a metre long. Between each pillar was a low wall which was lined with bricks.  We have interpreted this construction, based on our knowledge of other atarazanas and on Bravo’s drawings, to represent a series of arches which would have provided the cover in the building. The low portions in between the pillars would have enabled people to work on the ships from the sides, a useful arrangement allowing width to an otherwise constricted space. The eastern third of the wall, that closest to the Rock, was very different.  Instead of limestone blocks this rear end of the building consisted of smaller blocks of rock which included much sandstone, all brought together with the typical lime and sand mortar. Where the two types of construction met we discovered another wall, also of Merinid construction, running southwards at right angles. What did this all mean?


We found that the sandy substrate at either end of this wall was very different. Towards the Rock it was clearly a beach sand. Here, at approximately one-and-a-half metres below the present surface we were standing on the old western beach of Gibraltar. To the west of the wall, however, the sand was siltier and had clearly been submerged for long periods. The conclusion was inevitable. The original coastline of Gibraltar had been more than half-way up the Grand Casemates Square and not where the old Water Gate had been located. The stone pillars had been designed to withstand tidal submersion and had been buried into the old sea bed! A channel would have been dredged into the inside of the atarazana and the ships thus brought inshore via the Gate of the Atarazana. Portillo describes how the galleys were brought into the atarazana by a gate which was close to the Water Gate and which in his time was sealed. In earlier times the sea entered via this gate right into the atarazana which was directly opposite. The spaces between the pillars presumably allowed the free movement of tidal water into and out of the building. At some subsequent point, probably very soon afterwards, the outer western defensive wall was erected to protect the ships and the atarazana. It is clear that no sea-wall of any kind existed in 1333. Once captured by the Merinids, Gibraltar was immediately besieged by King Alfonso XI and he set up two camps – one above the Castle and the other on the red sands so he had no difficulty landing on the shore. Later in this siege, when the catapults had no effect on the galleys in the atarazana, he ordered the admiral Alfonso Jofre to burn the Muslim galleys but his ships could not get close enough because the Muslims had made a barricade. Clearly, this defence was an improvised measure in the absence of a wall and no doubt influenced Abd’l Malik to have a line wall erected quickly afterwards to protect the new atarazana. Two entry and exit gates were opened in this wall, the Water Gate and the Gate of the Atarazana for the ships.


The atarazana was the earliest construction that we found anywhere in Grand Casemates Square although just east of the end of this building and at a lower, and presumed earlier, level we did find evidence of a slipway made of traditional mortar close to where the seashore would have been. This discovery led us to presume that some kind of facility for drawing up vessels existed in this site before the atarazana was constructed, perhaps in the reign of Ferdinand IV or during the Muwahiddun rule of Gibraltar in the 12th and 13th centuries.


When we started our excavations something puzzled us and we were not able to solve the puzzle until we had determined the position of the old coastline. In the area between the old coastline and the Water Gate we found many houses and the oldest ceramic that we could find was late 15th and 16th century Spanish. Below these levels, where we expected to find older materials, all that we could find was sterile sand with archaeological materials and the remains of marine molluscs, especially oysters. The answer was really quite simple. In Merinid times this area was tidal so there were no houses there. It could only have been afterwards that the inter-tidal area must have somehow been reclaimed or a sturdier sea-wall erected or even that the channels were no longer dredged and silted up and this enabled the first houses to be built there, in Spanish times. On the landward side of the beach, however, there must have been at least a few houses associated with the atarazana and here we found much evidence of pre-Spanish occupation. The tidal problem must have been quite severe even in the late 16th and early 17th centuries when the sea occasionally flooded the houses in Casemates, entering via the Atarazana Gate until it was sealed and the old mole constructed at the end of the 16th century. The sea now seems very far away from this area yet we found it impossible to excavate below one-and-a-half metres anywhere in Casemates because of the twice-daily seepage of tidal waters!


The catalyst for the building of houses in what was essentially a port area must have been linked with the evolution in shipping technology. The atarazana would have suited the small Muslim sailing ships but would have become redundant in the days of the larger galleys. So when we look at Bravo’s plan this building appears on dry land and it must have served as a store for grain or some other similar function although its actual use is not recorded. It was then that houses could be built in what, in spite of occasional floods, must have been a relatively uncluttered and pleasant area. Close to the atarazana, in some cases touching its walls, we found the remains of many houses with wells and the remains of many domestic animals, especially goats and sheep but also cattle, horses and donkeys. Another intriguing feature of the 16th century levels was the presence of many very large oysters. These were also present in older levels but the unique feature of those found in the later sequence was that many had been punctured with a metal spike or similar instrument. We later studied this habit with marine biologists Darren Fa and Alex Menez and it did seem that the 16th century Spaniards of La Barcina had developed a taste for oysters and had found a way of opening them by puncturing the animal’s muscle from the outside. The presence of knife marks on the inside of many shells showed clearly that these people were after the animal for food. The tradition of eating oysters seems to have persisted into the 18th century as Poole, who visited Gibraltar in 1748, relates how an inhabitant invited him to eat oysters which were a local speciality. Poole remarks at the large size of these oysters. They were even popular as recently as 1856, for according to Kelaart:

“On the left is the bay, which at this part has extensive oyster-beds, reserved for the Gibraltar market.”

Oysters of such size are not found anywhere in the Strait region today and one has to dive into deep water to find them with any regularity. Clearly a combination of exploitation and, more significantly, habitat loss through progressive reclamations has eliminated these animals from our waters.


Returning to the chronological sequence at Casemates much of the ground overlying the houses of La Barcina was cobbled with irregular stones which had clearly been worn by the sea (see also Chapter 4). This was an 18th century level and probably corresponded to the levelling of the square which took place in 1731. There was also much evidence of fires which we attributed to the sieges of the 18th century. In one place we found a large part of a musket, including the remains of the wooden butt. The heat to which it was subjected must have been intense from the way in which the metal had been melted and reshaped. Many musket balls and larger shot were also found as well as the remains of clay pipes. It is during this period that the atarazana had been used as a Shot House as described in the 1753 plan. The spaces between the pillars had been filled up with a different type of mortar, no doubt to ensure the isolation of the ammunition now kept within. When the British took Gibraltar they must have utilised existing buildings as much as possible. A building such as this one, with thick stone walls, must have volunteered itself for this function. Its importance was such that, even after the destruction of the 1727 siege the building continued to be used and it must have been after the Great Siege of 1779-83 that it died. It may have been severely damaged during the siege or the decision may have been taken not to have such stores of ammunition so close to the line of enemy fire. Its final fate was sealed when the Casemates Barracks were erected early in the 19th century and its remains were hidden underground for close to two centuries, below the boots of parading soldiers or the tyres of modern-day cars, until we found it once again in 1998.


Gibraltar became a vigorous trading port during the relative peace and calm of the 19th century. Old photographs taken in the mid- and late 19th century show the great commercial activity which took place in Waterport. We found substantial evidence of this in the higher levels of our excavation where the diversity of ceramic was unparalleled including china, Italian ceramic and from diverse geographical areas of Spain such as Triana (Seville) and Talavera.


Part of the atarazana was left exposed as part of the Grand Casemates Square renovation project. For us it has been one of the most exciting episodes in our quest for entering the past and understanding how the environments of Gibraltar have been modified by people. In these few centuries what must have been a pleasant beach with a shallow inter-tidal area was converted as part of the initial urban structure of Gibraltar into a safe haven for the repair and construction of medieval galleys. The need to protect it must have determined the construction of the initial sea-wall along the line of the present Grand Casemates Gates, then running southwards along the eastern side of present-day Line Wall Road (Chapter 5). 


By the time the Belgian traveller Anton van den Wyngaerde sketched this part of Gibraltar in 1567 the walls had been significantly strengthened, as we shall see in Chapter 5. The Spaniards had no further use for the atarazana and proceeded to reclaim the inter-tidal zone and build houses upon it.  When the British took over in the 18th century they, once more, changed the area’s function. The port which had become a residential area now had a military function and the remaining houses were soon demolished after the 1727 siege. The atarazana’s life came to an end when the Shot House was destroyed or demolished but the construction of the Grand Casemates Barracks meant that the military function of the area continued into the 19th century and indeed into the 20th. It is only right that we should now commemorate the life of a building which served Gibraltar so well for four centuries.