Roman Safe Recovered From 1st Century Burned Villa To Be Restored

A 1st-Century Roman safe used during the empire to keep jewellery, important documents and luxury clothing has been recovered from the remains of a luxurious Roman home and is to be restored.

The remains of the furniture item, or “arca ferrata” – literally an ‘ark’, were found during archaeological excavations in the 4th-Century Roman home of Mitreo, located in the city of Merida, in the western Spanish region of Extremadura.

The safe was a type of large wooden box that was covered in bronze and other metals, and located in one of the rooms of this luxury house dating back to the 4th Century AD that had seemingly suffered a fire.

It was decided to leave the ark where it was when it was discovered in 1994, and some preservation efforts were undertaken to protect the artefact, but now it has been decided that it should be removed. The footage shows the ark being removed so that it can be restored.

The process to remove the arch that was found in Mitreo house, in Merida, Spain, March 2021. (Consorcio Ciudad Monumental Merida/Real Press)

Ana Maria Bejarano Osorio, an archaeologist with the Monumental City of Merida Consortium, a public organisation whose main goal is to preserve and share the knowledge of the city’s archaeological heritage, told Real Press in an exclusive interview that the preservation work had only been done on the box’s surface.

Years later, in 2017, the experts in charge of the site decided that it was time to remove the safe from the remains of the Roman home so that it could be properly restored.

According to the archaeologist, “the ark is important because there are not a lot of arks like this preserved from the Roman Empire and there are currently only four other pieces like this in Zaragoza, in northern Spain, and the ones preserved in Pompeii in Italy”.

The archaeologist added: “The ark is in a very bad state, because it was partially sunk into the ground as the top part of the house collapsed on it during the fire and partially destroy the piece, which was also partially burned.”

She added: “We only have the wooden frame, which is burned, and the bronze parts that were covering the box on the outside and inside, as well as some other luxury decorations.”

These safe boxes, or arks, were often located in reception rooms where the owner of the house received visitors and in order to avoid robberies, it was affixed to the walls or to the ground using iron nails. They were often ornately decorated with worked metal.

The ark would have been used to keep items, clothes and money, as well as jewellery and other precious items.

Bejarano Osorio explained: “It is unclear what the owner did for a living, but it is clear that it was probably a wealthy family, because the surface of the house is around 3,386 square metres (36447 square feet), with 15 rooms, including the bathrooms and the kitchen, as well as four other rooms, where products were on sale, that might have been rented out as shops.”

The house also had two more rooms on the second floor, including the one that collapsed during the fire, the causes of which are unknown.

The archaeologist said: “It is unclear what they did for a living, but it might be something related to commerce or business, and they could even have been using the four extra rooms themselves to sell their wares.”

The safe box currently measures around 3 by 1.5 metres (9.8 by 4.9 feet), but according to the archaeologist it was crushed due to the collapse of the second floor, so it is unclear what its measurements might have been before that.

The discovery of this safebox in the Casa del Mitreo (Mitreo House) is deemed to be one of the most exceptional items located and documented in the last few years in the archaeological sector in Merida, not least due to how unique a find it is in the context of the Roman Empire.

The Roman house is very important in the city of Merida, as it is located in the city centre and it has amazing mosaics in five rooms, and one of them, according to the archaeologist, is considered to be one of the best the Empire ever produced.

Now the safe box located in the house has been removed during a difficult process. Its remains have been consolidated in order to avoid the metal from rusting and to avoid the burned pieces being damaged.

The piece was finally lifted and taken to the Institute of Cultural Heritage of Spain (Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de Espana-IPCE) where it will be restored to its former glory.