In 1908, archaeological excavations began in Empúries. The Junta de Museus, under the direction of Josep Puig i Cadafalch and with the support of Enric Prat de la Riba, had bought the land with the intention of studying the first Greek settlement on the Catalan coast.
The team of archaeologists, led by Puig i Cadafalch, moved to the Vila Teresita, the future Hostal Empúries, which would become the first hotel on the Costa Brava.
An extraordinary discovery
The bust of Asclepius was found on October 25, 1909. Looking at it one could see that it was a statue made to stand upright. Emili Gandia wrote in his diary that the figure was in a large compartmentalized cistern, 1.50 meters deep, with its back turned and its nose broken.
Excavations lasted until November 27, 1909, and on an upper terrace at the site of the first discovery, the lower part of the statue was found, which matched the previous one, although the marbles were different. Nearby are the right arm, left forearm and other small fragments. There were also a tombstone, a snake, some feet, a girl’s head, legs, cornucopias…
The presence of numerous remains of unrelated marble statues made them think they came from other places and had brought here to melt them in a lime kiln.
Asclepius or Serapis?
The serpent, however, was made with the same type of marble as the bust of Aclepius, and was soon associated with this Greek god. However, other scholars considered that it was the god Serapis, because next to it was an inscription that suggested this cult. In fact, the ancient navigators of the Mediterranean took Serapis and Isis as their protective gods.
The original Asclepi (or Serapis) was taken to Barcelona and was exhibited in the Parc de la Ciutadella with the snake in front. Years later, in 1932, when the Barcelona Archaeological Museum was inaugurated, it was moved to the new museum. In Empúries there was a copy made of polyester.
The Civil War
In 1938, the Barcelona Archaeological Museum was already located in one of the pavilions done for the 1929 International Exhibition, and because during the Civil War there was a truck park next door that was the target of Franco’s aviation, for to protect the pieces of the museum, they placed them inside the Roman tombs.
Asclepius was surrounded by sacks of sand. Then it was moved to Mas Perxés d’Agullana, in the countryside, and on February 8, 1939, with the arrival of Franco’s troops, it was dismantled and loaded into an unpacked truck, along with other parts, which in 20 trucks crossed the French border to go to Ceret. There they were loaded into 22 train carriages, and together with the parts carried from El Prado, they were taken to Cornavin, Geneva.
The set was deposited in the Palace of the League of Nations.
Come back home
Despite Franco’s pressure, the League of Nations did not deliver the pieces until the end of the war. On May 9, 1939, the train left with the statue via Irun to Madrid. From Madrid the Aesculapius returned to Barcelona.
It would take almost 70 years for Asclepi to return to its place of origin, in Empúries.