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.
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.
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:
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:
- a single gold tremissis from the Girona mint struck in the name of King Witiza, between 702 and 710
- a bronze belt buckle in two parts with an iron hinge, illustrated below (note the interlace) and probably of seventh-century date
- 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
- a holed bone disc
- six glass beads, holed for suspension
- remains from probably four glass vessels, including two clear ones, of Visigothic style and sixth- to eighth-century date
- 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
- and sherds from four pottery vessels, two of them similar globular jars and two differing ones with handles, one tall and one not
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.