An ancient necropolis 
in Ibiza town

ibiza necropolis

While Ibiza’s reputation these days is rooted in a playful image of sun, sand, clubbing and relaxation, in the past that wasn’t always the case. Home to the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Phoenicians and others over a period spanning thousands of years, these civilisations played a vital role in shaping Ibiza as we know it today. It’s because of these people that the island’s history is peppered with stories of trade, invasion, conquest and death. Indeed, scratch beneath the surface and there’s evidence of this everywhere you look – nowhere more so than in Ibiza town, a city that groans under the weight of bygone times.

Founded by the Carthaginians in 654BC, the ancient hub of Ibiza town is now considered a UNESCO World Heritage Listed Site. But back then, the city was a busy trading port with a large harbour and fortified walls (different to the ones visible now). During this period, the Carthaginians made the island home and while that meant that for the most part it was brimming with life, the prospect of death came hand in hand alongside it. That led to the erection of one of the Carthaginians’ largest ever burial grounds just outside the walls of Ibiza town – a place where the dead were laid to rest and ritual was infused with the earth.

ibiza's "city of the dead" was erected by the carthaginians

Now known as Puig des Molins, thanks to the windmills (molins) perched atop the hill it’s situated on, this elaborate cemetery is one of the largest in the world, housing up to 4000 tombs from all over the Mediterranean. Stemming from an Ancient Greek name that literally translated means ‘City of the Dead’, the necropolis spreads across three staggered levels over an area of 10,000 metres squared. Typically for this period, the living and the dead remain within close proximity of each other, so the necropolis lies just 500 metres west of the Puig de Vila, and it’s here that the Carthaginians laid the deceased to rest while continuing with daily life within the wall’s limits.

Throughout its existence, the necropolis experienced periods of tremendous growth. During the Punic times, from the 6th century until the middle of the 4th century BC, for instance, it expanded to include an area of over five hectares, reaching far beyond what is visible to us today. As more people arrived, naturally the number of deaths increased, and with them came burials drenched in tradition, designed to help the dead seamlessly transition to the next life. For this reason, many tombs were adorned with objects and utensils that were believed to help in this task – some of which are still visible in the onsite museum today.

this cemetery is one of the largest in the world, housing up to 4000 tombs

A large proportion of the necropolis is characterised by hypogea – a series of underground tombs that consist of a rectangular access well and an underground chamber. Due to vegetation coverage on the site, currently only around 350 to 400 of these are visible, though the real number is estimated to be more around 3,000, and that’s alongside additional burial sites. Walking among them is like stepping back in time while simultaneously lighting the ignition of imagination – albeit wearing a hard hat because naturally we’re much more cautious these days.

For those with keen minds and a thirst to learn more, there’s an excellent onsite museum that offers a wealth of insight into the cemetery and the largest collection of Punic artefacts in the world. Displays include relics found buried among the graves, including jewellery, mirrors and other ornaments, as well as statues of the Goddess Tanit – the Mother of Gods worshipped by the Carthaginians. The museum also dives into the subject of death, covering rites, burials and cenotaphs, and the processes behind funerals, including the preparation of bodies.

There are five rooms in total at the museum, each dedicated to a different subject. Room 1 is entitled Eternity through Fire: Dying in the Phoenician Period (625 to 525 BC) and examines funeral rituals. Often this began with the washing of the corpse – for hygienic and purification reasons, and for people with esteemed social status, would be followed by the application of make-up, combed hair and the anointment of the body with perfumed oil. A cremation followed, after which the bones would be collected and buried, either in a decorative ceramic urn, or directly into the walls of the hypogeum.

Room 2 unearths more funeral rituals, this time spanning the period of 525 to 25 BC, and its increasingly African influences. In Punic ideology, great care was taken of the body and the grave — a testimony of the individual’s relevance to the community. Nevertheless, during this period the rituals were simplified, which resulted in a reduction in the number of tombstones. This theme is explored further in Room 3, where a spotlight is shone on the emergence of hypogea, and the evolving nature of Carthaginian society accentuated by the Punic Wars (264 to 146 BC).

Room 4 hails the arrival of the Romans to Ibiza, examining how Punic and Roman traditions lived side by side for many decades, while Room 5 tells the more modern story of the Sainz de la Cuesta collection, an exhibition curated by archaeology enthusiast Sainz de la Cuesta, who first visited Ibiza in 1931 and subsequently embarked on a mission to collect a stunning display of artefacts. When he died, his wife donated the collection to the museum, providing a remarkable repertoire of pieces from excavations of the years.

The curtain of history looms heavy at Puig des Molins, but it offers a fascinating insight into the Ibiza of the past, not to mention the many men and women who trod on Balearic soil long before we arrived. These days, the cemetery is trampled primarily by a beautiful herd of goats who’ve been employed as natural lawn mowers – close your eyes and perhaps you’ll hear the faint sound of bleating on the breeze. It’s either that or several millennia’s worth of ghosts rising up to tell tales of life, death and all that lies between. 

If you’d like to visit Puig des Molins next time you’re in Ibiza, visit our Concierge team and they can organise an excursion to Ibiza town for the day. 

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