Never before seen Roman watchtower found in Morocco, here’s why it was built

Stephen Nartey November 08, 2022
Researchers at the site. Courtesy of the Republic of Poland/Smithsonian

Ancient Roman observation towers until recently were known only in places like Scotland, Germany and Romania. An archaeological excavation at the ancient city of Volubilis in northern Morocco has revealed a similar watchtower of Roman origin in Africa.

This discovery which had been buried for ages is the first of its kind unearthed in the region. It is being linked with the activities of the Roman Empire in the fifth century CE in Morocco. The team which stumbled on these findings was made up of Polish and Moroccan archaeologists who were working at the site of El Mellali near the ancient city of Volubilis, according to Arkeo News.

Morocco played a critical role in the military expeditions of Rome with the Berber dynasty in the fifth century CE but a natural disaster ensured the historical relic was buried forever. With the help of satellite imagery, the archaeologists made out the oval architecture with a rectangular form.

The watch tower is made up of foundations, staircases and some cobblestone pavers. The base of the tower and wall measure up to 2.8 meters high. Aside from the discovery of the tower, the researchers found roman spearhead fragments, military hobnailed sandals and roman military belt fittings.

An archaeologist with the University of Warsaw, Maciej Czapski, said there have been publications linking the site to the Roman Empire, but, prior to the excavation it was not definite. According to Czapski, they dwelled in the southern part of the province based on French publications on the site. This could not have been possible without extensive research ahead of the excavations at the city of Volubilis. The researcher said they were lucky to have stumbled on the findings after digging briefly at the site.

Czapski said their discovery will offer other researchers an insight into how the Roman Empire built its defensive systems which were mostly constructed on the outskirts of the empire. The blind spots could possibly open such observation towers to attacks from rebels or neighboring states.

The research team said they were seeking to establish how the Roman Empire protected its acquired territories and how they engaged with local communities to fortify their presence and dominance. The archaeologists have not established the age of the observation tower.

There is however a possible linkage the watchtower was constructed between 138 and 161 A.D. when Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius’ predecessor was king. It was constructed to consolidate Roman territories during the first and third centuries A.D. against enemy raids.

These enemy attacks point to possible insurrections from the Berber kingdom which had a strained relationship with the Roman Empire during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Historical records suggest that Volubilis came into being during the third century under the supervision of the Carthaginian mountain dwellers at Zerhoun.

The Berber dynasty laid claim to parts of Volubilis and historical accounts point to it being one time capital of the kingdom of Mauretania. Before it was taken over by the Roman Empire with other lands in North Africa, the Berber dynasty exercised some control over the region with its ally the Carthage. The Roman Empire took over the region after the fall of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C.

The city witnessed a massive economic boom with regard to the export of grains, olive oil and wild animals for gladiatorial fights during the reign of the Roman Empire. The geopolitical tensions between the Roman Empire and the Berber dynasty threatened this economic growth, thereby, compelling Rome to fortify its interests by erecting the walls.

This came to an end when the Roman Empire’s influence in the region dwindled with the military campaign of the Third Century Crisis. Volubilis however went into extinction with an earthquake that hit the region in the fourth century.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: November 8, 2022


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