Objects found at an excavation site near the Spanish town of Elda point to the existence of an Eastern Orthodox monastery dating back to the time of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.

The Spanish daily El Pais reports that the University of Alicante has concluded after 25 years of research that the liturgical material found at the El Monastil site near Elda, about 40km inland from Alicante, “constitutes a unique group belonging to the Eastern Christian ritual” in Spain.

However, the discovery of circular objects made of lead that were found at El Monastil have provided the final piece to a puzzle that had occupied the minds of historians since the 19th century.

The lead objects with Greek inscriptions were identified as weights that Emperor Justinian ordered to be kept in the main churches of each city of the Byzantine empire.

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“The churches functioned as guarantors that buyers of precious metals were not deceived and that the coins matched their real value. If the operations were fraudulent, the tax revenue was lower,” said Professor Antonio Manuel Poveda, the director of the Archaeological Museum of Elda.

He said the monastery at the El Monastil site functioned as an administrative and financial centre for the Byzantine emperor.

The research took 25 years to reach a conclusion because of difficulties in identifying the architectural remains and liturgical furniture found at the site said Prof Poveda.

He said that what had originally identified as a Roman or Visigoth site on a hill on the outskirts of Elda were in fact the remains of a Byzantine basilica and was the first such building to be unearthed in Spain.

The discovery at the site of a large octagonal column base, typical of Byzantine architecture, strengthened the conclusion that the site was originally an Orthodox monastery.

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Also found on site was a pyxide, a cylinder shaped ivory box in which the liturgical wafers were kept. The box was decorated with a scene of Heracles’ third labour – his capture of the Golden Hind of Artemis – which corresponded to Byzantine practice of trying to fuse the imagery of their Greek ancestry with Christian artefacts.

The Spanish researchers also identified metal instruments used in the Byzantine liturgical rituals, such as a cochlear teaspoon and a lancia, a small knife, both used during holy communion rites.

Prof Poveda said these objects: “constitute the only Hispanic group identified to date as belonging to the Byzantine Christian ritual in Spain.”

In 1991, 10 graves were found when a service road was being built about 200m from the main site. Four of the 16 bodies that were unearthed were found to be wearing rings with Greek letter Sigma engraved on them and one ring with a Greek cross on it.

“We had many loose elements, but nothing confirmed to us with total certainty that it was Byzantine monastery,” said Prof Poveda.

Roman rule ended in Spain in 400 AD. Emperor Justinian reconquered Spain in 552 to create the Byzantine province of Spania. The Visigoths defeated the Byzantines at about 610 and they finally withdrew from Spain by 625.


A video clip of archaeological work at the site of a Byzantine settlement uncovered at Son Pereto on the Spanish island of Mallorca.