A Gothic murder mystery instead: the bodies of Cueva Foradada

Simon Keynes gave us a well-known murder mystery, here’s an almost completely unknown one. If I were really in shape for this, instead of being completely worn out after a weekend of travel and something like a holiday, I might try and do this in film noir private eye style, or worse, gothic horror. It’s tempting, but as it is you’ll have to make do with just the facts. (Ma’am.) At least, such facts as there are, because this one really is a mystery.

The valley of the Rio Alto, Huesca, Aragón

The valley of the Rio Alto, Huesca, Aragón

This is the hillside of a valley which is now the location of a major hydro-electric project, but that isn’t what I came to tell you about. The story is up on the hillside, not down in the valley. Before the dam, in 1968, a Basque archæologist by the name of Ignacio Barandiaran was working on a survey in this general area with a more senior chap named Antonio Beltrán Martínez, looking for evidence of the Bronze Age settlements in the area. They heard tell of a cave in the area whence ancient bodies had apparently occasionally been taken in the past, and suspecting a necropolis, got their stuff up there as quickly as they could. But they did not find a Bronze Age necropolis.

One entrance to the Cueva Foradada, where the bodies were buried

One entrance to the Cueva Foradada, where the bodies were buried

Here is one of the two entrances to the cave. They meet a short distance in, and then the tunnel runs back, and kinks sharply to the right a certain way back. Here the diggers found the way blocked with rocks, but no longer so that ingress was impossible. Here it is, as photographed by Dr Bandarian:

Stones piled in the Cueva de Foradad to block off the inner chamber (lines at top right show-through from sketch on next page)

Stones piled in the Cueva de Foradada to block off the inner chamber (lines at top right show-through from sketch on next page)

And behind there there is a hammerhead-like chamber, about six metres by one and a half by one and a half, with a crevice at the back that might perhaps lead to a lower gallery; there was no scope to investigate. When they dug in the chamber, though, they rapidly found bones. There were quite a lot of them, mostly broken and very disturbed. A few animal ones among them, and some fossilised droppings suggested that as well as the looting that the local stories implied, the cave had for a while been the dwelling place of wolves. The archaeologists rapidly gave up trying to establish any kind of stratification, they’d arrived years too late, possibly centuries. They just got the remains out and tried to work out what they had and how they’d come there. Interestingly, they came with a certain amount of metalwork and tableware, but it was very hard to imagine any settlement in such a confined space.

This became even more odd once the bones were analysed. They came from a total of probably thirty-eight different bodies, thirteen adults or adolescents (of whom four were men and seven women, 2 unidentifiable), ten older children, five of less than ten years, seven of less than five, 2 babies and a newborn. One of the older children was a girl. They also found, in the order they’re given in the report:

  1. a single gold tremissis from the Girona mint struck in the name of King Witiza, between 702 and 710
  2. a bronze belt buckle in two parts with an iron hinge, illustrated below (note the interlace) and probably of seventh-century date
  3. four bronze jetons, all decorated on one face only except one which carried degenerate lettering on the underside, and four finger-rings of which the jetons were probably once the decorations
  4. a holed bone disc
  5. six glass beads, holed for suspension
  6. remains from probably four glass vessels, including two clear ones, of Visigothic style and sixth- to eighth-century date
  7. various bits of iron including what seemed to be the tooth from a harrow or similar agricultural tool and a lot of pieces not identifiable
  8. and sherds from four pottery vessels, two of them similar globular jars and two differing ones with handles, one tall and one not

The coin found in the Cueva de Foradada

The coin found in the Cueva de Foradada


Photograph, line-drawing and silhouette side elevation of the brooch found in the Cueva de Foradada

Photograph, line-drawing and silhouette side elevation of the brooch found in the Cueva de Foradada

All the material goods that could be dated piled up to this late Visigothic date, in as much as none of them couldn’t have been in use at the same period as the coin. Since there was no evidence of any other period of habitation, the archæologists were pretty sure all the bodies came from the same time. But that had some disturbing implications. This was no usual burial ground. Apart from anything else, the population distribution is all wrong: no old people, far too many grown children. Also, just the impracticality of it; it’s a long way up a hill, down a passage that’s no cinch to get down if you’re alive and vertical; manhandling thirty-eight inanimate bodies in there, even horribly small ones, would be a very strange way to bury in a culture and an area that favoured open hill-top sites for that sort of thing. Likewise, it’s a very small habitation for so many people all at once, and one would hardly move in once one set of inhabitants had died without moving their bodies out, would one? And there just isn’t enough stuff for a prolonged occupation, anyway; eight vessels total, and those partly high-quality?

No, these people weren’t able to pick and choose their belongings, it seems reasonable to say. They were presumably hiding with what they could carry. How long were they there? Who knows? It would partly depend on the rather macabre criterion of whether the blockage in the passage was put in before or after they died, which can’t be told. And there we reach the end of the facts. The article that put me on to this suggested, somewhat romantically and straining the absolute most out of the coin’s date, that these were Visigothic nobles fleeing the incoming Muslim armies around Girona, running for the hills and not, finally, making it. I don’t buy it, myself: were the Muslims really hunting down Visigothic fugitives and walling them up in mountain caves? It seems very very unlikely, and at odds with the way that many Gothic nobles found new careers with the new rulers in the early stages of al-Andalus. This must be more local. But what local circumstances could lead a small group of families, most likely from a deserted settlement at Selva de Paúles two miles up the valley, to grab a tiny bag of belongings from their homes and run, presumably pursued to their final retreat and then die there, either behind a wall that their enemies had erected to trap them in or else, to be walled in after their death rather than taken out and buried? I don’t have an answer, but then I didn’t promise you one. They can’t all be happy stories; the Middle Ages had bad times aplenty, after all. But one doesn’t usually get such unedifying and, well, horrid, stories as this, that seem to belong in a modern horror film rather than the imaginary tapestry of medieval life.


I was originally set onto this story by a mention in Philippe Sénac, “Stratigraphie du peuplement musulmane au nord de l’Ebre (VIIIe-XIe siècles)” in idem, De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 61-73 at p. 63, whence the association with fleeing nobles, but the full report from which the messy details and the last three illustrations come is Ignacio Barandarian, “Restos visigodos en la Cueva Foradada (Sarsa de Surta, Huesca)” in Estudios de Edad Media de la Corona de Aragón Vol. 9, Estudios XLIII, Publicaciones de la sección de Zaragoza 13 (Zaragoza 1973), pp. 9-48, illus. at pp. 7, 12 & 14 resp. Sénac says that the people in the cave died by violence, but this is only implied by the implication of hostility in the circumstances set out in the report, and the only actual cause of death suggested there is starvation. If Dr Sénac has extra information, he doesn’t say what it is. For the Gothic accommodation to the incoming Muslim régime, at least for the first few years, you could do worse than see Abilio Barbero & Marcelo Vigil, La Formación del feudalismo en la Península Ibérica, 2nd edn. (Barcelona 1979), pp. 207-213.

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20 responses to “A Gothic murder mystery instead: the bodies of Cueva Foradada

  1. One oddity that strikes me is that there is (apparently) only one piece of money, and no identifiable weapons. I realize that coins were not as common as they were in later times, but one would think that a group of nobles (or even peasants) would have more than one coin and no weapons among them. I know that if I was fleeing an invading army, I’d grab money and weapons long before I grabbed a bunch of glass vessels.

    To me this suggests that whoever they and their enemies were, they were captured, divested of most of their valuables, forced to enter the cave, and walled in alive. Of course that would raise the question of why they were allowed to keep even the stuff they did have, and makes no answer to the question of who they were and who did this to them.

    This assumes, of course, that there was no cache of coins, weapons, and/or other articles that remained undiscovered by Barandarian and Beltran.

  2. This is a fascinating assemblage of material evidence indicating a very ugly mystery. However, the principle message of this combination of material evidence and mystery seems to be how ‘thinly descriptive’ material remains are. This is a substantial collection of material evidence and yet we know nothing and can never know anything about the situation of social action that led to the creation of this material assemblage. On this basis it is the perfect warning about the explanatory weakness of material remains for history.

  3. Wesley, hullo and thanks for commenting, but I think you prejudge the material remains too quickly. Usually, yes, material evidence is pretty weak for political analysis, but of course chronicles or whatever are pretty weak for diet and settlement. To each sort of evidence its questions! But here, actually, there’s quite a lot to get from the material and its circumstances. We can conclude that the bodies are roughly contemporary and not a regular burial series; we can conclude that they probably died elsewhere or else together, because living people wouldn’t live in a cave with the decaying dead and anyway there’s no good evidence for actual habitation; and from the material culture they did have we can start to say something about them. Obviously it would be nice if the Chronicle of 754 or whatever said, “and guess what, I heard of this case in Sobrarbe where the Muslims totally walled a bunch of Christians up in a cave and left them to die! But where people made peace willingly they let them live as I’ve said”, but in fact it says nothing useful on that kind of scale. And as nothing else does either, I’d say the material evidence is winning in the way that it usually does, by telling us things we can’t get from textual sources.

    That said, kishnevi, you’re right, the assemblage is weirdly balanced. I’m actually not so bothered by the single coin as a tremissis is actually a pretty high-value thing, being gold, so it might well be a convenient way to carry round enough buying power for a few weeks’ food. But the eight vessels don’t seem like enough for 38 people and are as you say odd things to take with you. I think we may be looking at some fairly well-off peasants who ran for it in a hurry; or possibly one of the couples was wealthy, and militarily- or governmentally-officed, hence the buckle and clear glass stuff, and the rest were his followers in some way. Hey: maybe it wasn’t the Muslims at all, but the locals running off a hated estate manager and his family and collaborators? But the children, is still a bit horrible whatever way we read it.

    • The material remains tell us nothing about the social meaning of themselves to the past people who used and manipulated them. All they tell us is their spatial distribution over time and all that lends itself to is a rather dry statistical sociology of objects.
      Do you not have the feeling that the flight to object studies is the result of history’s failure (or more likely refusal) to cope with the epistemological challenge of ‘textual’ approaches (literary theory, ‘post-modernism’, discourse analysis, etc) and their problematisation of reality. It seems to me that history is giving up on trying to understanding the people of the past in favour of indicating its objects because the objects of the past have some glamour of reality to them.
      Maintaining this realism is more important than effective analysis because historians are worried that the distinctiveness of their discipline (and thus their institutional purpose) will be eroded unless they can cling on to some kind of really real reality of the past. So objects takes priority at the expense of people and little or nothing is better understood or more effectively explained.

      • I think I disagree with you on almost all counts there. In the first place you are positing material evidence and textual evidence as if they were exclusive alternatives, rather than complements. (Also, here as I have said there is no textual evidence that could help us solve the question of what happened here.) Nextly, I don’t think at all that history is failing to cope with the epistemological approaches you mention: I myself tend to eschew such approaches unless I can see an immediate utility to them but blogs like In the Middle are all over this stuff. I think that here you confuse reality of perception, which is indeed problematic conceptually, with reality of occurrence, which is not, but may be impossible to recover. On that, I’d invite you to look at another post I wrote that draws that line quite sharply. As you can see from that I would indeed argue that it is a link to reality that distinguishes history from literary criticism, and I would agree that objects do represent such a reality in an immediate way, indeed, I’ve taught as much and mentioned it here. But I don’t at all agree that use of such sources is a substitute for effective analysis: the objects themselves require as much analysis as a text, in different ways, and can tell you as much, albeit in answer to different questions. Your comment presupposes that `social meaning’ is the only field of enquiry that history is concerned with, which isn’t the case at all. And I think this case is a prima facie example of how sometimes we have to conduct enquiries that can be answered or simply discard evidence.

        • In what fashion can objects achieve this immediate representation of reality if, as we (I think) agree, they need to be ‘read’ as texts? The purpose of history cannot be to point at objects and indicate their occurrence; it must be to comprehend what those objects meant to the people who crated and used them and the ‘use rules’ that they applied to them because otherwise we will not get to grips with anything (this is after all what anthropologists – the originators of the material culture approach – are trying to achieve).
          Barandiaran, Martínez, and yourself have indicated the existence of this remarkable assemblage but that is all you can do with it so why concern ourselves with it in the first place? If there is a need to discard evidence and move on if no analysis (only indication) is possible doesn’t that consign all material remains to the analytical cutting room floor?
          p.s. Who loves ya baby!

          • Well, certainly they have to be `read’, or interpreted, though I think that intertextuality can be taken too far in as much as the way we interpret objects is not by use of the same techniques as we would use for an actual written or printed text (unless they have text on). The question of audience is entirely different, for one thing. However: the objects self-evidently represent reality, whether we interpret them or not. So does a text, but, paradoxically, only if read as object (e. g. testifying to the existence of paper-making, printing, an author, etc.). Again, I think you are appropriating to one enquiry the work of many: anthropologists did indeed originate an approach calling itself `material culture studies’ but you seem to have forgotten archaeology, which has been at the task in hand rather longer.

            As to your second paragraph, I think you are misreading me. I was not arguing that analysis of these items is impossible, I was arguing that analysis of them by means of texts is impossible so the objects have to be used. I think the original report and my post amply demonstrate that we can do a lot more with these objects than simply note their existence. Are you arguing that Barandarian’s and my deductions are invalid because we’re not approaching the items in a literary-critical fashion? If not, how are you arguing this deposit should be understood? If you’re arguing simply that it can’t be, we may have reached an impasse as I think that is self-evidently false.

            • Archaeologist mean by ‘material culture’ what anthropologists mean. They also (ab)use the term culture to mean something akin to’a specific distribution of assemblages of remains’; i.e. they use it to indicate the presence of remains and the patterns those remains form. An archaeological culture is just broad scale indication.
              Perhaps we have reached the end of this discussion so let me make one point. If we return to the crime/crime-fiction metaphor with which you opened this post I am arguing that crimes are only solved by traces and remains in fiction. In real life they are resolved through talk and that it is the most conversational sources of evidence that we ought to be dealing with (i.e. for the primacy of text in history).

              • Well, I can’t get a forensic investigator to comment here but I can get an anthropologist. I think they may not thank you for your characterisation of their subject. For now I think firstly that you slip definitions from material culture to archæological culture in that first paragraph, and that these two are not in fact the same thing, and secondly that if you are arguing that no field other than textual history is worth a damn, as it seems that you are, then you’re probably right that this discussion is over.

  4. In the post, you stated that when they found the blockage, ingress was not impossible. Does that mean there was an opening, or did they have to do a little digging? I just wonder because of the possibility that maybe the cave had been plundered at some point. A tremissis could easily be missed as well as the buckle. Perhaps at some point the cave contained more artifacts? Not real sure how much I actually believe that, but, hey, any port in a storm…

    • I assume that the picture is how they found it, so a bit of climbing required but surmountable. I think it had been raided before, because that was how they heard about the place, people had been known to take bodies out of it. What was left was presumably buried, but then so were the bodies. You’re quite right, therefore, that there could have been more stuff in there at first.

  5. Ahh, scratch that. I totally forgot about the jetons and rings.

    • Plundering sounds plausible to me. I’m not sure why the jetons and rings necessarily make it less so, unless you’re assuming all plundering must be thorough plundering. Or have I missed something obvious?

  6. One interesting take on what you might take if you’re running off to hide in caves, is the remains that have been found from cave-dwelling Jewish rebels in the Bar Kochba revolt in AD 132. The Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum had some pieces from that, which I seem to remember included glassware. Most poignant was the fact that they also found door keys. There were rebels or their families who must have thought that after it was all over they could go back to their houses and settle down again. So I don’t think you can necessarily assume that when your family heads for the hills you take only the top 10 things that a survival manual would advise.

    • Interesting comparison. If there was originally no more stuff than was found one could perhaps imagine that the whole settlement from nearby hived off to the cave to hide with, say, a couple of days’ food and water in clay jars and vessels to drink out of. And presumably were followed… But it still doesn’t answer the question: where were the old people? Maybe they fell behind. Ugh, there’s no solution to this mystery that doesn’t involve unpleasant answers is there?

  7. Hi all,

    I have come to this monograph more than a year on form it’s conception. I was not looking for anything of the sort but have been captivated by Mr Jonathan Jarrett’s intruging and insiteful text.

    I know very little of the methods used, or (ab) used as one gentleman put it, by those seeking the turth of our herritage. However it occurs to me that if the bodies of whom ever it is that have been found in the cave were indeed walled in their own tomb, then surly the wonders of moden sience would be abel to sermise if or not these folk had starved, and thus if they were or not left to die behind the cold stone of the wall?

    Also I find it curoius that in a space with approxmately 9m square of area and about 1.5m/5′ of head space there have been found, the parts of at least 38 different people with the great possibliity of even more (as it is reported that cave has been looted). I realize that there may exist a lower chamber, hwoever, if the said 6m x 1.5m x 1.5m is indeed the case then each of the unfortuate people would have had a mear 24cm to stand in, assuming there were no more than 38 people.

    If the people were hearded in and bricked up why would the perpertrators then go into the cave to carry out their work, would not blocking both entrances be sufficent, espesialy when so many folk are to be conceled? why make life hard for ones self?

    On that premise alone I would have thought that it unlikly these bodies were animated when the rocks were piled?

    In saying that, who know’s the workings of a man’s mind, be he contemporary or 1700 years dead? Sadly, because of this, text or material usage is not going to give us the fate of the bodies in the cave.

    Thank you Jhonathan for furnishing me with the facts of such a charming and mysrirous happening. It makes one want to look for ones self!

    • Hullo Simon, and thankyou for your thoughts. I think you are quite right with your point about available space, it does make it unlikely that the people in the cave were alive and conscious when the blockage was put in. (For a start, I don’t see how one could actually build it there in that narrow space with people able to push from the other side.) But, equally, I don’t see why there should be tableware in the cave if these were deliberate burials; it’s too late for grave-goods with burials in any case, but if these were grave-goods, tableware would be extremely odd. So I fear that they ran there and then were incapacitated, perhaps by smoke (although one would expect signs of burning to have been noticed by the archæologists) or even killed in the cave, or nearby, and then piled back into it.

      Sadly, I think that the bodies were too disjointed and damaged for any kind of post mortem analysis to have been possible. Some kinds of death by violence might have shown—cut marks on ribs, for example—but crushing damage to skulls would be indistinguishable from damage after burial, I think, and something like smoke inhalation would be completely undetectable. So I doubt we can ever know more than we do, and I don’t know if the remains were retained anywhere for further analysis.

  8. Note now this interesting parallel from Cantábria; the post author suggests that we should see the case he has, where again it seems that bodies associated with late-Visigothic-period goods were walled into a cave, as an attempt to stop the bodies from walking such as John Blair would love and Andrew Reynolds hate. But if that’s what’s happening here, how on earth do the babies get wrapped up in it? This would have to be a whole household on a big farm being simultaneously taken as supposed zombies or something. Victims of a food poisoning incident or similar perhaps? But even then: this is still weird…

  9. (My English is not as good as I would like, so, sorry for it). Here in Cantabria there are many caves used as burial sites in Visigothic times. The most significative ones are Las Penas, La Garma and Riocueva (where we have been excavating last year), but there are more, as Cudón or El Juyo. In all of them there is a clear conection between Visigothic age items and human remains. In another group of Cantabrian caves (Portillo del Arenal, Los Hornucos, Hoyos 1, La Pila, Venta del Cuco…) that relationship has not been proved yet, but seems very probable. And, out of Cantabria, there are the examples of Los Goros (Álava), Cueva Larga (Palencia), Mina La Condenada (Cuenca), El Tejón (La Rioja), La Mora (Soria), Contrebia Leucade (La Rioja)… all of them with a clear burial use between late 7th and late 8th centuries.

    Perhaps, the most similar example to foradada was Las Penas, with many bodies (all of them younger than 35) and objects (belt-buckles, tools, ornaments, pots, etc.) placed deep inside the cave and remains of a wall that sealed the acces gallery. In La Garma, the 5 bodies where placed in the lower gallery (Galería Inferior) where you can only reach after descending two pits of 7 and 15 meters, respectively (as occurs in Los Goros, where the bodies and objects where placed in a gallery where you can only reach across a 20 meters deep pit).

    We don´t know yet what happened in these caves and why they were used as burial sites in 7th and 8th centuries, but I think there are some interesting signs that could help us to uncover the mistery: almost all the known examples are multiple burials; the dead´s age is always very low, in almost every case under 35 or 40; the bodies were “very dressed” (with many buckles and ornaments in a time when it is not usual in outdor cemeteries) and were accompanied with tools and every-day objects; and, last but not least, in some cases we have found remains of ritual practices related to dead, as burned grain and a very curious skull destruction.

    Perhaps we never find the “murder” but I think that, in some cases as Las Penas or Foradada (if not in all of them), we should look for it with a microscope.

    • Your English is fine! And what you say is very interesting: I hadn’t realised this was so widespread a phenomenon. I think that I have heard only of la Cueva Foradada because it can just about be dragged into a `Catalan’ sphere. I don’t know any longer what to makes of these sites, indeed I never did, but I agree that if an answer is to be found, it is to be found in still more careful examination of the remains. Good luck!

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