Why did a Roman city on an isle off Spain burn in the third century? Why are both Christian and Muslim ancient burials located there? Why did archeologists on the island find a large pool for baptism replaced by a smaller one, even as Christianity was flourishing?
Ancient intrigues are at the forefront as the University of Portland has teamed up with Spanish scholars to study the ancient city of Pollentia, on the island of Mallorca. Since 2014, crews of faculty and students from U.P have excavated, studied bone composition and taken overhead images of ancient sites with drones, among other tasks.
Founded as a Roman military outpost in 123 B.C., Pollentia stood at a trade crossroads and was important for Roman imperial defense. It developed with temples, an amphitheater and workshops. In the early years of Christianity, many churches were built — or created from repurposed pagan temples or Jewish synagogues.
One ancient source mentions a Christian monastery in the area that got a visit from superiors because the monks were misbehaving.
Popular scholarship held that the town was more or less abandoned from the big fire until the 13th century, but Miguel Angel Cau Ontiveros of the University of Barcelona says evidence shows that the site was populated steadily, meaning residents witnessed the Muslim advance into the western Mediterranean and other turbulent periods.
“The city didn’t die,” Cau said during a spring lecture at U.P.
As for Christian origins on the island, Cau says the faith usually began in port cities and spread to the country. Many church ruins have been found in the Mallorcan countryside, and teams are now searching for earlier Christian sites in Pollentia.
Many mysteries require more study, but Holy Cross Father Richard Rutherford has a theory about the big baptistery being replaced by a smaller one. In very early Christianity, adults were converting and being baptized, explains Father Rutherford, an expert on ancient sacraments and a leader in the U.P. Pollentia initiative. As the faith became established, the priest says, baptism was for children — thus the child-sized pool.
Father Rutherford and Cau paid tribute to the late Father Ron Wasowski, a U.P. environmental science professor who traveled to Mallorca to work on the project. The priest died in Portland late last year.
“Rest in peace,” Cau said. “We miss you.”