ARANDA DE MONCAYO, Spain -- The roads leading to this tiny, hilltop village of 200 inhabitants are so narrow and untraveled that no one has ever bothered to paint a white line down the middle.
But lately there has been a bit of international intrigue here. A man, who largely kept to himself but was sometimes seen out at night wandering around with a metal detector, has been arrested.
Investigators searched his homes, here and elsewhere, and found more than 4,000 looted antiquities. Most of them, they say, had been dug up from the hill next door, which on close inspection has an unusual array of crumbling stone structures. Two thousand years ago, it seems, a bustling metropolis, called Aratikos, sat atop that hill, only to be destroyed by invading Romans.
"You and me, we see stones if we look over there," said Rosario Cabrera, the mayor of Aranda de Moncayo, as she stood on the village ramparts, nodding in the direction of the Aratikos hill. "But an expert sees a doorway."
Ms. Cabrera sees more than that these days. An investigation that began when two bronze helmets appeared for sale at a German auction house has the mayor envisioning a new future for this sleepy village, which is surrounded by grazing sheep. First, she wants a proper archaeological excavation. And then, perhaps, a little museum.
"It could bring a lot of tourists here," said Ms. Cabrera, who was born in Aranda de Moncayo and is a pharmacist in the village next door. But she is fast becoming an enthusiastic expert on the Iberian Celts who settled in these parts and became targets of Roman aggression because the area was rich with copper, silver and iron. Historians believe that the Celtic warriors of Aratikos put up quite a fight, but that the ancient city, which is about two hours north of Madrid, was eventually burned to the ground.
Archaeologists say the helmets are a rare and intriguing find that illustrate just how hard it is to keep looted antiquities from being sold to private collectors. Spanish museums currently have only bits and pieces of similar helmets that were found in two other areas of Spain inhabited by Celts. But experts contend that at least 18 helmets have been illegally plundered from Aranda de Moncayo, far more than ever found before, raising questions about why so many were in one place and what role they played in burial and other rituals.
"These helmets are like a page torn from a book," said Martín Almagro-Gorbea, president of Spain's Royal History Academy, who pressed the Spanish government to pursue the trail of the two helmets that were put up for auction in 2008. "We don't know the whole story. The worst is that altogether, these helmets are much more interesting than individually. They have a story to tell us."
Police officials say the arrest in March of Ricardo Granada, 60, is just the first salvo in an ongoing investigation that could involve a cast of international players and take a long time to resolve. "The more intermediaries we investigate, the more leads open up," said Captain Jose Manuel Vivas, the chief of the Civil Guard unit that is carrying out the investigation.
Efforts to reach Mr. Granada were unsuccessful. Zeroing in on him was not easy for investigators, who came to believe that he had collected antiquities in the area for some 20 years. How to be inconspicuous in a village where everyone knows everyone and the roads are largely deserted? "I don't like to go into too much detail about our work methods," Captain Vivas said. "But I can say that the most difficult part of the operation was placing an undercover agent in that village."
The mayor kept quiet about the investigation, but rumors were rife. Some villagers made a point of avoiding the rocky hill, for fear that the police would think they were involved. Most knew the area had a rich history, having found coins and bits of pottery over the years, but the exact location of the ancient city was always in question.
Mr. Granada was known around town as the "man in the wooden house." He kept to himself and spent much of his time living in a different village. Once, Ms. Cabrera said, Mr. Granada bought a plot of land at the foot of the hill. But he did not appear to know much about the delicate methods of archaeologists, like using soft brushes to painstakingly dislodge ancient trinkets. He dug up the land using a backhoe and heaved loads of dirt onto the back of a truck, Ms. Cabrera said.
It was experts at the Roman-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz who spotted the helmets at an auction in 2008 and called the police to ask that they be held so Spain could claim them, said Michael Müller-Karpe, a researcher at the museum. But the Spanish authorities did not act, and the helmets were eventually given back to the auction house for sale. Later, Mr. Müller-Karpe found out that Spain had tried to prevent the sale of such helmets in the past and been rebuffed. "They spent a lot of money and didn't succeed, so maybe that is why they did not pursue this," he said.
Mr. Müller-Karpe said the sale of looted antiquities is a massive business that is hard to control, in part because there are so many archaeological treasures to be found in remote places that are not policed. "You will never have enough policeman in the world to watch over all the possible sites," he said. "That is why you need to keep an eye on the sales."
The handling of antiquities, experts say, is a bureaucratic tangle in Spain, with both the national government and regional governments having jurisdiction. Asked about the site, the Culture Ministry referred questions to the regional government, which said it was reviewing the matter.
The villagers know that in these hard times, money may be scarce for new projects, but some still dream of a museum that will attract visitors from far and wide.
"A lot of people are old here, and they just want peace and quiet," said Pilar Gonzalez, who runs a small restaurant and hotel on the main square with her husband. "But really a museum, anything, to bring people here would be so beneficial for us."
Rachel Chaundler contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.