Some years ago, a Portuguese bank decided to relocate its headquarters to a new address in downtown Lisbon. A grand, late-18th-century building straddling Rua Augusta and Rua dos Correeiros in the Baixa district of the city was chosen to accommodate the financial institution, and work began in earnest to refurbish the property.
As foundation work progressed, excavations revealed evidence of earlier civilizations. Archaeologists were summoned and confirmed the remains of large Roman fish-preserving tanks. As more finds were unearthed, construction work was temporarily halted.
These Roman fish-preserving tanks are located in the subterranean Nucleo Arqueologico — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
It soon became apparent that the building team had stumbled upon a veritable treasure trove of ancient artifacts, and the deeper archaeologists dug, the more significant the discovery became.
Indeed, they realized that the bank was being built on a site that had been occupied first by Iron Age settlers, then by the Romans and later the Moors. Investigators also identified previously unknown architectural infrastructure from the 15th to late 18th centuries.
The developers eventually decided to revise their blueprints and integrate the site into what was originally going to be the basement. Thus the Núcleo Arqueólogico was created, a commendable example of how financial success can go hand in hand with culture.
This site's now often referred to as the Rua dos Correeiros Archaeological Site, and visitors are invited to explore for themselves the architectonic jewel set beneath the Millennium BCP bank.
Guided tours of the underground labyrinth of tunnels and terraces are conducted at regular intervals and begin in the small museum at the rear of the reception area. Iron Age broaches, Roman amphorae, coins, rings, knives and hairpins together with Moorish oil lamps and ceramics are all neatly displayed in cabinets set over a glass floor, which reveals a tantalizing glimpse of what’s in store below the modern bank.
The tour of the Núcleo Arqueólogico proper takes visitors past a series of 3rd-century Roman mosaics before you're ushered downstairs to follow a network of narrow walkways that weave through "Olisipo" – the thriving Roman port that once stood on the banks of the River Tagus.
The aforementioned fish tanks are clearly visible and would have been situated in a riverside factory that manufactured garum, a fish sauce. Linger here, and it's easy to imagine the industrious toing and froing, as this much sought after condiment was made, although you're spared its rich, pungent aroma.
Elsewhere in the Núcleo Arqueólogico is a 5th-century Roman burial chamber. It was discovered along with a skeleton of an adult male that has been preserved forever in eternal sleep.
Another fascinating aspect of the tour is the walls and foundations of Islamic origin. The Moors occupied Lisbon from the 9th to the mid-12th centuries, and visitors can ponder a well-maintained ceramic kiln constructed in bricks of adobe. Further on, and the timeline enters the medieval period, where walls, pavements and domestic rubbish tips can be discerned.
Fast forward a few centuries and the original foundations of the building that houses the bank can be identified, reconstructed after the great earthquake of 1755. You can still see the wooden piles used to prop up the ground floors, and the outline of a forge is clearly visible.
Núcleo Arqueólogico is free to explore and remains one of the most absorbing and engaging of Lisbon’s notable attractions.