The journey from castle to kingdom in early Asturias

Wall exposed by the 2012 excavations at the castle of Gauzón, Castrillón, Asturias.

Wall exposed by the 2012 excavations at the castle of Gauzón, Castrillón, Asturias.

Here is another thing that I’ve been meaning to write about for ages. Back in March, as you may well remember, I wrote a review of James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland. A few days later, with admirable and self-confessed disregard of that subject, esteemed commentator Mouguias notified us there of one of a small avalanche of web news stories based on a press release from the excavation of the castle of Gauzón at Castrillón in Asturias. One can tell a press release was involved as almost all the versions of this story a quick play with a FWSE reveals have the same final paragraph, and the big news of that press release appears to be that the excavators, as of April 2012, had found structures that they could clearly date to the reign of King Alfonso III, who was cunning enough to maintain a suite of chroniclers at his court and is thus known as the father of the Spanish Reconquista.1 He may well have a right to this title, though the extent of his actual reconquests have been minimised in recent literature; it’s just that if anyone else did too, we’d be very unlikely to know.2 Anyway, Gauzón looks to be part of that story, not least because a splendid thing called the Cruz de la Victoria that Alfonso had made apparently proclaims in its inscriptions that some of its jewels were worked at Gauzón, and it’s all quite exciting; there’s even some publication, which I will have to follow up as it is, as they say, Relevant To My Interests.3 This is not, however, what had caught Mouguias’s attention. His relevant words are:

Apparently it can be proven now that the kingdom of Asturias sort of existed back in the VII century, even before the Arab invasion.

We might justifiably lay some stress on the word “apparently” there, but it’s based in the second linked story, which says:

El trabajo de los arqueólogos ha permitido arrojar luz sobre una remota época envuelta en las tinieblas de la historia. Las pruebas ya realizadas con el Carbono 14 han constatado que ya en el siglo VII, es decir, antes de la Batalla de Covadonga (722), en lo alto del Peñón de Raíces se levantaba una fortificación defensiva, una atalaya que además de controlar la navegación costera, representaba un símbolo de poder.

«En él se emplearon los mejores medios disponibles en la época, las mejores técnicas constructivas y lo mejores materiales, lo que significa que además de su función militar, el rey quería hacer ostentación de la categoría económica, social y política que había alcanzado el Reino de Asturias, que no tenía nada que envidiar a otros», manifiesta Iván Muñíz.

My Castilian’s not my best language, but I reckon something like:

The work of the archæologists has been able to shed light on a remote epoch enveloped in the shadows of history. The tests already done with Carbon-14 have shown that in the seventh century, that is, before the Battle of Covadonga (722), there was a defensive fortification put up atop the Peñón de Raíces, a watchtower that, as well as controlling coastal traffic, represented a symbol of power. “They used the best means available at the time in it, the best construction techniques and the best materials, which means that as well as its military function, the king wanted it to make a show of the economic, social and political category that the Kingdom of Asturias had attained, which had nothing to envy elsewhere,” Ivan Muñíz explains.

is a fair rendition of that. A bit of further web excavation reveals that this evidence came to light in the 2007 season, and it seems to have been charcoal that they dated. All the same, as I already said in reply to Mouguias’s comments, the basic stumbling block I find is that castles do not necessarily a kingdom make. It wasn’t so long ago that I was writing here about 1970s work that wanted us to see an independent lord of a clan in every mountain valley in this area going back into the Iberian Celtic past or further, and while that’s overstated, there is a step missing before we follow this logic all the way and say, Asturias already existed as a separate thing in the seventh century. Why can’t this just be some sea-lord’s holdout?

The castle rock of Gauzón

The castle rock of Gauzón: a fairly impressive site in its local context…

Not yet having read the print publications, I can only guess here, and I suppose that the argument is either the one implied by the quote there, that the work is just so high-standard that it must be royal, or else a version of the argument by which Leslie Alcock, beatae memoriae, identified South Cadbury with a putative Camelot: to man such a fortress implies the ability to raise considerable manpower and a military, therefore probably singular, leadership, we may as well call such an authority a king.4 Now, the former of these is subjective, obviously, and the latter doesn’t really dispose of the sea-lord idea, especially as Gauzón seems to be rather smaller than South Cadbury.5 But the problems with the whole idea seem to me to be twofold. Firstly, if it really is a high-status late-seventh-century structure in origin, one’s got to at least consider the possibility that the Visigothic kings of Spain were involved. Asturias has something of a narrative going, dating back to Barbero and Vigil already mentioned if not further, that the Visigothic kings never controlled it, and the archaeological jury is probably going to be out on that for a long time (as the texts are, inevitably, court-centred and so “would say that wouldn’t they?”).6 It’s political. Nonetheless, if what one is arguing is that there’s unprecedented evidence of royal-standard power in Asturias before the raising of the independent kingdom by Pelayo that’s usually dated to 718, this site and the early building here could serve either side of that argument.

Secondly, there’s a question of scale. This is, recent work is making very clear, a land of forts and strongholds.7 Is Gauzón different? How far did the controller of this one reach? Pelayo’s kingdom was before long centred at Oviedo; the chronicles of Alfonso III’s reign suggest that the Muslim seat of government in the province had been at Gijón. These are roughly 40 km and 35 km from Gauzón, respectively. It wouldn’t have to be a very big province to include all three centres, but there is therefore so little space between them that one would want to ask whether such plurality of centres shouldn’t in fact make us think of plurality of powers. I suppose that what one would really need to make the case is other castles that belong to the same building programme being identified by recurrence of these high-quality materials and techniques at another site. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell a situation where we have many independent castle lordships, as the area seems to have boasted in the fifth century at least, apart from one where those castles are all under a single authority. Of course, Alfonso III is there to tell us that the latter did, at some point, arise, and the excavators are probably right that Gauzón has a lot to tell us about how things moved from the former to the latter situation. Somehow Alfonso wound up in charge of this place, and if it wasn’t him some forebear of his was probably to blame. Barbero and Vigil would have seen here a local chief being bought or bullied into a wider political network, I might see a castellan losing his autonomy in exchange for access to court patronage. The excavators seem to think this place has the potential to be a type case of this transition, and that’s going to be interesting whether or not they’re right. But all the same: I don’t think we can found a seventh-century proto-kingdom on one charcoal layer, can we?


1. The chronicles are edited, and provided with suitably impressed historical context, in Juan Gil Fernández (ed.), José Luis Moralejo (transl.) & José Ignacio Ruiz de la Peña, Crónicas Asturianas: Crónica de Alfonso III (Rotense y «A Sebastián»), Crónica Albeldense y «Profética» (Oviedo 1985). There are three other editions of almost the same date with translations into French and Spanish, but this is the one with the supporting essays. The only English translation is a slightly tricky one by Kenneth Baxter Wolf of a synchronised version of the two texts of the Chronicle of Alfonso III in his Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Translated Texts for Historians 5 (Liverpool 1990). I should probably write a post at some point about why I don’t think that version is enough…

2. Peter Linehan, History and Historians of Medieval Spain (Oxford 1993), pp. 95-127; Amancio Isla, “Monarchy and Neogothicism in the Astur Kingdom, 711-910″ in Francia Vol. 26 (Sigmaringen 1999), pp. 41-56.

3. On the Cross, you can see Achim Arbeiter and Sabine Noack-Hailey, “The Kingdom of the Asturias” in K. Howard, A. M. Lucke & John P. O’Neill (edd.), The Art of Medieval Spain A. D. 500-1200 (New York 1993), pp. 113-119, where there is a rather snazzy illustration of this rather stunning object (see also here). The publication of Gauzón includes, most recently that I can find, Iván Muñiz López & Alejandro García Álvarez-Busto, “El castillo de Gauzón (Castrillón, Asturias), Campañas de 2007-2009: El proceso de Feudalización entre la Antigüedad Tardía y la Edad Media a través de una fortaleza” in Territorio, sociedad y poder: revista de estudios medievales Vol. 5 (Oviedo 2010), pp. 81-121, which means that we can all read it as it’s online here, with a lengthy English (or at least, auto-translated) summary! The latest news appears to be even more recent than that, however, with finds of wood from the palace buildings that they hope to carbon-date, so more could be coming soon. (Why not dendrochronological dating, I wonder? A mischievous part of me wonders if a precise year that wasn’t in the reign of Alfonso III would upset people, but maybe the sample just isn’t good enough…)

4. Leslie Alcock, Arthur’s Britain: history and archaeology AD 367-634 (London 1971, repr. Harmondsworth 1973, 2nd edn. 1989), pp. 221-226 & 347-349; cf. Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003), p. 5.

5. See L. Alcock, S. J. Stevenson & C. R. Musson, Cadbury Castle, Somerset: The Early Medieval Archaeology (Cardiff 1995).

6. A. Barbero & M. Vigil, “Sobre los orígenes sociales de la Reconquista: cantábros y vascones desde fines del impero romano hasta la invasión musulmana” in Boletín de le Real Academia de Historia Vol. 156 (Madrid 1965), pp. 271-339; eidem, Sobre los orígenes sociales de la Reconquista, Ariel quincenal 91 (Barcelona 1974, repr. 1979 & 1984).

7. Margarita Fernández Mier, “Changing Scales of Local Power in the Early Medieval Iberian North-West”, transl. Carolina Carl in J. Escalona & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 87-117.

12 responses to “The journey from castle to kingdom in early Asturias

  1. I am so glad you came to write on this topic.
    There is one more fact that I think is worth consideration, here: the fortress of Homon de Faro, in Lena, at the very gates of Asturias on the top of the mountains.

    http://www.lne.es/asturias/2012/05/12/curriechos-campa-torres/1240817.html

    Sorry I couldn`t find a more academic link
    Archaeologists have discovered there a certain fortress, a certain wall across the road to La Meseta as to stop an invading army. There are also some hints of fight in the place. Since this wall stood very close to the Roman camp of La Carisa, in Mount Curriechos, which was being excavated at the time, at first they believed Homon de Faro to be part of the Roman invasion, too. However, the remains were eventually dated between late VII-early VIII centuries.
    Someone prepared the defense against invaders, there. Were they locals fighting off the Visigoths? Were they Visigoths (the men of Pelayo) fighting off the Arabs? If you put together Homon de Faro, along with Gauzon which was being raised at the same years approximately, you might make the case for an organized defence policy, both at the coast and the mountain passages.
    Now I am looking forward to a post about the “Biblia de Danila”!

    • Flip, I’d forgotten I’d promised that one… I agree that Homon de Faro and Gauzón do seem to fit together, and this would be one case where it would be very very interesting to compare reports and see if the building styles (and any precise dating that’s possible) are similar. If they’re not, we might suppose that these were local initiatives… but they might still be local initiatives being carried out under orders from Gijón or wherever! Proving the negative here would be extremely difficult, but alas, logic is not quite enough without evidence…

  2. Sorry, I can`t give you much information about Homon, my sources are not available here. There is one more thing I would like to add, though. You mentioned three “centers of power”, namely Xixon, Oviedo and Gauzon. There is at least a fourth one, Pravia, some 20 km West of Gauzon.
    It is Pravia where king Silo reigned and was buried, late VIIIth century. Pravia was protected by the Castillo de San Martin, at the Nalon estuary.

    http://www.castrosdeasturias.es/castros/25/19/11/.-el-castillo-de-san-martin

    This “Castillo” was already a hillfort (“castro”) back in Iron Age. There is some pattern going on here.
    If you are really interested in this stuff, the guys who excavated Gauzon, Ivan Muniz and Alejandro Garcia, together wrote a comprehensive guide of all medieval remains in Asturias, including a detailed account of their own findings: “Arqueologia Medieval en Asturias”.
    As to the Cruz de la Victoria, in case someone doesn`t know, the Asturian Junta General picked it as the standard of the army which was raised in 1808 to fight the French, and today it is the symbol of Asturias, flying in every public building.

    • Brilliant, thankyou. I knew about Silo’s burial in Pravia but had never thought to wonder if there was also a fortress there! and the more modern context is also valuable to remember, but the most valuable thing may be the archaeological synthesis. Even if one may expect a certain point of view to emerge predominant, actually having the relevant evidence all considered together is something that in fact happens all too rarely…

  3. In case you are interested, Universidad de Oviedo offers the following to download:

    http://www.unioviedo.es/reunido/index.php/TSP/article/download/9429/9243

    About Homon de Faro and El Muro, two walls raised between VII-VIII th centuries isolating Asturias from the Meseta.

  4. Apparently, a third wall has been discovered further to the east! A great entry in a great blog from a Cantabrian Archaeologist, pictures and all: http://mauranus.blogspot.com.es/2012/04/cotero-del-medio-una-defensa-lineal-de.html

  5. Update: now they have found a Visigoth coin (Recaredus, VIth century) turned into a jewel, along with a seal made with black amber, apparently intended for wax.

    http://www.lne.es/aviles/2013/09/08/dorado-castillo-gauzon/1466134.html

    • Wow, and not just that, if you read far enough, they also have bodies, which hopefully heralds further radio-carbon dates, and a Leonese novén too, so we know that people were coming to the site much later as well. But that coin certainly raises some questions! Firstly, I believe they’re right in saying this is the oldest Visigothic coin found in Asturias (not that means much when there’s no metal-detecting allowed…), but it’s obviously not been deposited as a coin, but as jewellery. It’s jewellery meant for display, too; it’s hung so as not to damage the portrait, and so that viewers could see it, unlike some Anglo-Saxon coin jewellery where the hole is at the bottom so that its wearer can see the image when they lift it up. Whoever wore this had no problem with wearing Reccared’s face and name visibly. On the other hand, the coinage was obviously not current when this was done, or why would you? Holing it probably removes its market value. Such treatment seems to suppose that it was a special thing or rare. I don’t want to accept the suggestion Muñiz makes that this is part of claiming succession to the Visigothic monarchy, but it’s at least plausible.

      On the other hand, though, it was found in the fill around the walls. Obviously, then, it had been deposited somewhere before the ditches before the walls were filled, and was presumably in a secondary context here, carried over with the earth. I don’t see why it needs to be a ninth-century deposit, especially when the other coin that’s been found is fourteenth-century. This place was obviously somewhere for a long time…

  6. I am more intrigued by the seal, though: a coin is just a coin, after all, but an actual seal in such a central place might point some sort of office, right? Somo chancillery of sorts. I can smell of real power, here.

    • That really depends on when it’s from; by the fourteenth century many a castellan or priest might also carry a seal, don’t you think? I would like some more detail on this seal, and a picture would be nice too while I’m asking…

  7. Pingback: Building states on the Iberian frontier, III: who’s a lord and who’s not? | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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