Barcelona’s History Museum Underground

Many museums are above ground, but this one is completely underground! It just feels strange to see such a big excavation right underneath the bustling Gothic Quarter of old Barcelona.

The Museum of the History of Barcelona or in Catalan, Museu d’Història de Barcelona, (MUHBA) is a history museum that conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the historical heritage of the city of Barcelona, from its origins in Roman times until the present day.

Entrance to the underground museum is through Padellàs House courtyard, one of the best examples of Catalán gothic courtyards in private houses (built between 1497 and 1515, reconstructed 1931). There you go down the elevator to visit the remains of a whole quarter of the ancient Roman city of Barcino in the archaeological underground. The archaeological area under Plaça del Rei covers over 4000 m2

In the modern entrance to the Museu d’Història de la Ciutat, you can see some ancient ceramics and other objects which were found in the excavations. There is an exhibition about daily life in Roman houses and a walk over factories (laundry, dying, salted fish and garum, winery), shops (tabernae), walls (intervallum, inner parts of the towers) and streets (cardo minor). There are also found the remains of the early Christian and visigothic Episcopal architectural complex (cross shaped church, bishop’s palace, baptistery). This is the largest Roman ruins to be found outside of Rome.

The story and the tour began with the founding of the Roman city of Barcino between 15– 10 BC under the reign of Emperor Augustus. It was a colony for soldiers who had completed their obligations to the empire, their families and slaves.  Built at a defensive location on the top of a hill it was fortified by a stone wall with the city laid out in a grid pattern as was the Roman preference.

Barcino – Barcelona in Roman times

In the Gothic District, you will often find remnants of buildings from Roman times, such as parts of the viaduct or the Roman city wall. But it was the excavations under the Plaça del Rei that showed the sophistication of the Roman community in the 1st century. Barcelona was founded as a colonia c.10 BC, providing it with a privileged urban status as a settlement for military veterans. As this model shows, the new city had an unusual octagonal shape. The area we are focusing on here lies in the top right-hand corner of the Roman Quarter, where the shops and factories were.

As we gazed around at the stone walls, walkways and columns before us we noticed that, surprisingly, the Romans recycled stones, tiles, pottery and other rubble as fill inside the walls as they expanded the city’s perimeter;  little or nothing was wasted.

We can see here the interior of one of the 78 towers of the Roman Wall that was built against the outside of the first wall. The different stones came from different periods and helped the archaeological research of the area.

This was a defensive ring road called Intervallum that was located between the wall and the first line of houses. It is not very visible because, in the later period, when law and order were breaking down, people began encroaching on the road.

In any case, it is full of services – the Roman drainage system. But it was originally a wide road, such as one might expect to find in a military fort. 

Life in the Fifth Century

Mosaics floor from the 6th Century A.D.

Busts and pedestals from 5th Century A.D.

You can observe if you look carefully some form of civil life and recreation the Roman had. This is a board game carved onto a pavement where citizens can play a game or two of cinco en raya or “Five in a line“, the forefather of tic-tac-toe.

Laundry and Dyeing Shop

However, the real triumph of Roman archaeology is to be found in the north-east corner of the town, where an extensive area has been uncovered and preserved for display. These are not the usual town houses, but the industrial quarter, a very smelly area where one finds first a fullonica (laundry) and then tinctoria (dye-works). 

This was a collection of four rooms, each with a trough containing elaborate drains where the remains of the fulling process can be found — ash, lime, and urine – very good chemicals for cleaning cloths.

One of the rooms even had an opus sectile floor, which we often think of as being a rather posh flooring, but here it was used in a very utilitarian way, in a room dedicated to attending the customers.

Artefacts that were used to hold the Roman robes, like the buckles and pins, were fold in the excavation site.

Next door was the tinctoria, or dye-works. Here they would dye clothes, and the remains of the dyes were recovered: a blue dye using indigotine and Egyptian blue; a reddish/brownish dye using haematite; and finally an orange-to-yellow dye using saffron.

Salted Fish and Garam Factory (5th Century AD)

Salted Fish and Garum Factory (5th Century A.D.)

My favourite part of the museum, the place where they made salted fish and garum; reminded me of my heritage where in Teochew salted fish and fish sauce are widely used. The oysters from the local coastline and the garum of Barcino were celebrated foods in the antiquity. Garum was made by macerating fish offal in salt, sometimes adding prawns, oysters or other shellfish.

The basis of garum consisted of fish offal (eggs, blood, guts, gills, and so on), often mixed with whole small fish, macerated in salt. Its flavour could be varied by adding prawns, sea urchins, oysters, and cockles. Studies of the fish fauna and molluscs at the site found that sea urchins were used as part of the base to make this garum.

The garum factory was laid out around an open-air courtyard, where two large tanks were used for salting the fish, and a series of smaller troughs contained the garum paste. The manufacture began with a fishsalting process where alternate layers of cleaned and chopped fish were arranged in tanks with layers of salt. After 20 days, the product was taken out of the tanks and the paste was put into troughs, where it was left in the sun and stirred every day for two to three months. Working with a perishable product such as fish meant cleaning was a constant task in order to avoid the usual problems of a bad smell.

To the south-west were three rooms, in which six dolia – huge storage vessels – are preserved, where the final paste was prepared. One large dolium had a drain hole in which a multitude of fish scales, fish bones, and sea urchin spikes had been trapped. The factory operated over a long period of time, as demonstrated by numerous repairs, and it was still producing garum at least as late as the second half of the 5th century AD.

The Winery (4th Century A.D.)

Most wineries in the Roman world are found in the countryside, but this winery was inside the town near the consumers.

The surviving archaeological remains suggest that there may have been two presses: one a lever and counter-weight press, the other a smaller screw press. Once the open-air operations were completed, the wine was moved to a cellar where the final stage took place in dolia: lined up along the walls are 11 dolia, a third of the body of which were buried below floor level.

The insides of the dolia had been treated with resins precipitated in lime to provide a container that was better sealed, thereby preventing the wine deteriorating by contact with the air. The average capacity of each of the dolia is 880 litres, meaning that the cellar could store 9,680 litres of wine.

An analysis of the waste at the site has found grape pips, yeasts, honey, cinnamon, and other products used in wine-making. In the north-east corner, the must was obtained by treading out the grapes on special platforms known as a calcatorium. Inside the tanks, large quantities of esparto fibres were found, which acted as a filter holding back the skins, pulp, and pips, which were then subjected to mechanical pressing.

The Episcopal Group (4th-8th Century A.D.)

Christian quarter of Barcino, which occupied almost a quarter of the walled city form the Episcopal Group. There you can visit the various buildings for Christian worship like the baptistery from 4 AD, where the first Christians were christened; the reception room of the bishop from 5 AD, Bishop’s Palace from 6AD and a church.

As the Roman Empire declined the new religion of Christianity gained in popularity until, by the fourth century, Christianity was Barcino’s official religion as well as entwined in its political life. Here you can the ruins of a 4th century baptistery of an early Christian Church. 

Evidence of a small necropolis exists and there’s a display of several pieces of sarcophagi decorated with Christian motifs, some originating from Rome.  Additional renovations in the sixth century changed the bishop’s residence into a grander palace, added a new church and show a religion gaining in influence, power and wealth. 

Lastly we admired the remains of intricate tiled mosaic floors and the remnants of some of the remarkable paintings that decorated the ceiling of the baptistery and walls of the episcopal hall.

Other Points of Interests

The early city walls and towers dating from 15-10 BC and the 4th century AD. Columns and decorative capitals from the Roman forum and basilica were shifted here.

Many artefacts were excavated and placed near where they were excavated. They showed the quality of life these Barcino residents had during the 4th-6th Century A.D.


This is a museum well worth the half day I spent in the underground. Do take your time to look around and appreciate how they have incorporated a 14th century palazzo over a 1st Century ruins.

Visited Aug 2018

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