In Marca Hispanica XIV: l’Esquerda, city of helpful archæologists

L'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Osona, Catalonia

L’Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Osona, Catalonia, from above

You’ve heard quite a lot about the site of l’Esquerda here by now, and more if you braved the numbers at the Kalamazoo paper indeed. I haven’t finished, however, as I was there a couple of months back as part of this trip whose telling I am still unwinding, and firstly it is one of the best-displayed archæological sites I’ve ever seen, secondly it is highly photogenic and thirdly and most importantly it has given me a heartening story, which I will now share. But first! The obligatory scenery photo!

The end of the l'Esquerda peninsula, with the River Ter visible on both sides

The end of the l’Esquerda peninsula, with the River Ter visible on both sides

I won’t try and explain once more why this place is important, I’ve done it before.1 So, just the travelogue here. The first thing is to explain that I hadn’t even planned to go to Roda de Ter, where it is, next. I had been meaning to go to Sant Pere de Casserres, but couldn’t face planning it at the end of the previous day’s labours and so woke up next day to find, on inspection, that there was no public transport there at all. I could have got halfway out on the bus back to Folgueroles from market, but it wasn’t market day in Vic and even had it been I’d still have had to walk the rest and would have arrived late and then had to walk all the way back too. Really, the only way out was a hiking route, which despite the previous day’s experience I would have been prepared to chance if I’d had time to do it; but by the time I’d made sure of this, I would have arrived just as the museum shut and had to come back in the dark. No. So instead I took the next day’s plan instead, which was to Roda de Ter and l’Esquerda, and because Roda is quite big and new-industrial, I could just hop on a bus to it and be there and back in half a day. So I did.

Outskirts of Roda de Ter, and trucks, viewed from la Muntanyeta

Outskirts of Roda de Ter, and trucks, viewed from la Muntanyeta

Excavations at la Muntanyeta, Roda de Ter, 1973

Excavations at la Muntanyeta, 1973, which I must have walked straight over

The view on the left, which I got by hauling up onto a hill to see if I could work out what direction I needed to go in, didn’t impress me much with the town. It seemed a lot as if the most important thing in it might be the trucks. This just goes to show what lies hidden though. You will observe that I have been able to find an older photo of exactly the same vantage, and this is because although all I could see up on this hill was a reservoir and a pylon, when they put that reservoir in in 1973, they found a set of stone-lined tombs that probably dated back to the seventh or eighth centuries. I must have been standing practically on them; I got quite a shock when I downloaded the article from which that picture comes a few days later apropos of something else I’d read by complete coincidence.2 So, as has been remarked elsewhere lately too, people do go on living where the archæology is. But anyway. I saw nothing useful from here, as I then thought, but when I got into the town I found the archæological site well signposted, and furthermore that the route to it led me over this:

Roman and Romanesque bridge over the River Ter at Roda de Ter

Roman and Romanesque bridge over the River Ter at Roda de Ter

The River Ter, viewed from the Pont Romà, Roda de Ter

The River Ter, viewed from the Pont Romà, Roda de Ter

The lower course of this bridge is Roman; the upper is Romanesque, but how would you tell? They just wanted a bridge that worked, and they wanted this because this road is on one of the main routes north through the Pyrenees, the strata francisca.3 There may have been several routes called this, but the one through Roda is predictably mentioned in a lot of its charters; this may be the only place left where I could be sure I was actually standing on that route, and I walked up into the town with a certain kind of connected smugness going on, crossing the river…

The Riu de Ter in spate, viewed from l'Esquerda

The Riu de Ter in spate, viewed from l’Esquerda the same afternoon

… which was extremely high this spring…

… and eventually arrived. This was one of several moments of recognition this trip gave me where I realised I was looking at something for real that I knew only from pictures in books, and you too have seen the wreck of a church just visible there on the blog. But up close it is more impressive even if it is only half there:

Ruins of Sant Pere de Roda, l'Esquerda

Ruins of Sant Pere de Roda, l’Esquerda

More below the cut…

Signage at the entrance to the archaeological site of l'Esquerda

Signage at the entrance to the archaeological site

The church is of course only a part of the site’s history, which has Bronze Age layers but is principally visible from the Iberian (Celtic) period onwards. Then, there was a substantial fortress with two big square towers, and a central road between them that led into the settlement. It was burnt, twice, so the towers obviously weren’t quite enough, but nonetheless when the Carolingians arrived in the area that didn’t stop them going, “we can do something with that,” and topping the towers and walls back up again.

Foundations of the one of the Iberian, then Carolingian, gateway towers at l'Esquerda

Foundations of the one of the Iberian, then Carolingian, gateway towers

Platform of the erstwhile Carolingian watchtower at l'Esquerda

Platform of the erstwhile Carolingian watchtower

Out towards the end of the peninsula, however, they made do with a more temporary wooden watchtower arrangement, whose stone platform and postholes are still visible; I learnt later that there is a plan to rebuild the tower as a kind of historically-based climbing frame for reenactment-minded children and, you know, I’m fine with that.

Ruins of the east end and apse of Sant Pere de Roda, l'Esquerda

Ruins of the east end and apse of Sant Pere de Roda, allegedly Carolingian in their lower courses

Of course, if you’re an attentive reader you know how this settlement ended.4 Once it was back under comital control, which may not have been for a while, the frontier had moved out and the area was a lot less crucial. It became a centre for terraced farming and for watermills and the old fortress ceased to have any real function, except in as much as from 927 onwards, and probably before, it housed the church of Sant Pere.5 Almost every church at a significant site in this area seems to have been dedicated to Peter, which raises the questions of what single authority might have been able to do that; once again the Carolingians spring to mind, and indeed a Carolingian-period forebear has been detected in the lower courses of Sant Pere de Roda as it now stands (which is mostly Romanesque). If you can see it, you’re a better architectural historian than I am, but somewhere in the ground-level courses of the apse there’s supposedly a change in fabric.6 What I mainly noticed was how deeply shady the inside of the church was. It could hardly have been any lighter when the other wall was up as well, you know? Just to make this point, this shot was taken of the other side of the church, so as to grab the bit where the tower once stood, only a few minutes later and you can see from the skies in these photos that there wasn’t much cloud to change the light levels.

South side of Sant Pere de Roda, l'Esquerda, showing base of the old church tower

South side of Sant Pere de Roda showing base of the old church tower

It must always have needed candles. But then, there are various signs that this was a kind of mother church for its area, more or less independent of and probably predating the cathedral, and since wax was not an uncommon render from dependent churches at this time, maybe candles wasn’t a problem for them!7

Reconstruction drawing of the medieval settlement at l'Esquerda

Reconstruction drawing of the medieval settlement at l’Esquerda

Now I could go on showing you pictures of this place all day, and they would mainly be of foundations and postholes. They would also mainly be of twelfth-century buildings as that’s basically what stands, and that includes the church.7bis

Town square of l'Esquerda, with excavated burials in the shadow of the church walls

Town square of l’Esquerda, with excavated burials in the shadow of the church walls

But below the buildings older things lurked. This here is the town square, at the end of that same road that the Iberians had put between their two towers centuries before. And those holes in it are graves, of course. There was a fairly substantial cemetery here and its excavation was one of the first medieval cemeteries properly dug in Catalonia, mainly by Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer.8 Remember that there name while I lead you out through the buildings, down the street past the blacksmiths and the old granary…9

Ruins of blacksmith's house at l'Esquerda, Roda de Ter

Ruins of blacksmith’s house

Remains of the town granary at l'Esquerda, Roda de Ter

Remains of the town granary

Experimental crop fields at l'Esquerda, Roda de Ter

Look! Science! Honest!

Now, here’s where the story really starts. What you see here is a small set of fields that everyone at the Kalamazoo session already heard about, and if you’ve been reading a while so have you, because what is going on here is the growing of historic crops as identified in the ruins of that granary, which you see replicated here as that little white-walled building in the fields. I had read about these experiments and already knew then that I was basing my paper of the next month on them.10 So, when I finally wandered out of the site and realised that there were people in the larger building beyond it, which are the site offices, I thought it would do no harm to try my Catalan and say hullo. This turned out to be an excellent, excellent idea, because just as I shouldn’t have been there that day, so shouldn’t Professora Ollich, but she was. And so, she happened to be in when a strange hairy Englishman came calling and was then happy to talk to him at length about burial customs and ceramic dating in the area, things almost impossible to learn from publications I can get hold of. She showed me round the whole place too, including the skeletons in the loft (quite literally), some of whom have now been dated by radio-carbon to the seventh century, a good century and a half earlier than anyone supposed,11 and the experimental fields and reconstructed granary…

Reconstruction of a medieval granary at l'Esquerda, Roda de Ter

Reconstruction of the medieval granary

Zoomorphic door-bolt on the reconstructed granary at l'Esquerda, Roda de Ter

Zoomorphic door-bolt on the reconstructed granary

… and eventually, after a pause in town during which I was able to sit in the sun with a beer—a vital study process in this area that I hadn’t so far had time for—since Professora Ollich was heading back to Vic herself via one or two calls, also the town Museum, which was shut but not to her, and where I got to meet one of her team-mates, the equally-helpful Maria Ocaña and also this chap:

Skeleton in the Museu Arqueològic de Roda from the burial ground in front of Sant Pere de Roda, l'Esquerda

Skeleton in the Museu Arqueològic de Roda from the burial ground in front of Sant Pere de Roda

I cannot express in simple words how useful this all was, not least because this was not the end of it, and I will tell you more subsequently, but at the very least it made up for the previous day and then some. I was introduced as a kind of minor curiosity to several citizens, and they all went, “ah, anglès!” with a kind of sideways look. Afterwards I was told that this was because Peter Reynolds, a major contributor to the crop-growing experiments here and about whom I’ve told you before, had acquired a reputation during his many years of visiting as something of a lovable eccentric, as well as a reliable bringer of rain. I guess they were all waiting to see if I would do something weird and English other than be confused and polite, or maybe that was enough. Anyway: because I was there the wrong day and because Professora Ollich is an absolute star, I got special access to several things that were not otherwise accessible, a rapid grounding by possibly the most knowledgeable person in the field about this site’s and the wider area’s archæology, the germ of a future project and also a lift home. And the help did not stop there, but this post must as it’s huge. Nonetheless, you would do me a kind favour if, assuming you are somewhere where this won’t be thought weird, you pause and sing out, “Hurrah for Imma Ollich!”, because it is richly richly deserved I tell you.12 And if there is a wider lesson, it’s: say hello, you never know what will come of it. This is a lesson I could do with learning from myself, but I’m glad I picked this chance to test it.

My copies of two books from the Museu Arqueològic de Roda

Bookswag from the Museu!

1. And if I’m not enough for you, there’s Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Maria Ocaña i Subirana, Maties Ramisa i Verdaguer & Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona, A banda i banda del Ter: Història de Roda (Vic 1995), or a shorter but English introduction in Ollich & Rocafiguera, “Ancient patterns in settlement and urbanism. The medieval site of L’Esquerda, Catalonia” in Medieval Europe 1992: a conference on medieval archaeology in Europe, 21st-24th September 1992, at the University of York (York 1992), pp. 131-138.

2. I. Ollich & S. Raurell, “Tombes de llosa als turons de la Plana de Vic: una població alt-medieval per cristianitzar?” in Acta Historica et Archaeologica Mediaevalia Vol. 10 (Barcelona 1989), pp. 223-250, online at, last modified 4 December 2010 as of 11 April 2011, which I found out about in J. Sales, “La necròpolis del Turó del Prat d’Ori: la transició del món antic al món medieval a les terres d’Osona. Campanyia d’excavacions de 2004 a la necròpolis tardoantiga i/o altmedieval del Turó del Prat d’Ori” in Monografies del Montseny Vol. 20 (Viladrau 2005), pp. 167-180, which talks about la Muntanyeta at pp. 171-173 and which was just lying round my handy Catalan-based relatives’ house; for detail on Muntanyeta see now Ollich, Ocaña, Ramisa & Rocafiguera, A banda i banda, pp. 81-84.

3. For more on the road system here see Jordi Bolòs i Masclans, “Aportacions al coneixement de les vies de communicació” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols. 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), I pp. 409-436.

4. In fire, probably, as we all will (or so Arthur Brown tells me). I cite here as I cited in the previous post I. Ollich i Castanyer, “Roda: l’Esquerda. La ciudad carolingia” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Catalunya en la época carolingia. Arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 84-88, transl. as “Roda: l’Esquerda. The Carolingian town”, ibid. pp. 461-463.

5. And this is roughly where I come in, in as much as the best reference for this part of the place’s history is I think now J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London 2010), pp. 87-99. On the church as building, however, I point you instead to Jordi Vigué i Viñas, I. Ollich, Antoni Pladevall i Font, Albert Benet i Clarà & R. Rosell i Gibert, “Sant Pere de Roda (o de l’Esquerda)” in Vigué (ed.), Catalunya Romànica II: Osona I (Barcelona 1984), pp. 340-348.

6. I will admit that I glean this detail from the site signage, rather than from publication; I don’t think this detail is in ibid., though it may be in I. Ollich i Castanyer, “Poblat d’Esquerda” in Antoni Pladevall (ed.), Catalunya Romànica XXVII: visió de sintesí, restauracions i noves troballes, bibliografía, índexs generals, ed. M. L. Ramos Martínez (Barcelona 1998), pp. 200-201.

7. The best examples are in a list of renders from the cathedral of Seu d’Urgell, printed in Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Les actes de consagracions d’esglesies del bisbat d’Urgell (segles IX-XII)” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 1 (Montserrat 1978), pp. 11-182, no. 3, which has renders largely in hams and wine, but quite a few in wax and a good number in pepper! Unfortunately, this last and its association with ibid. no. 2, which is a large, detailed but forged act of consecration of the cathedral which evidently dates from some centuries after its alleged date of 819 (this list claims 839), make it difficult to rely on; on that, see Baraut, “La data de l’acta de consagració de la catedral carolíngia de la Seu d’Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 7 (1985), pp. 515-529. Nonetheless, there are smaller examples of uncontestably tenth-century date such as F. Udina Martorell (ed.), El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 121, or Eduard Junyent i Subira (ed.), El Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic, segles IX i X, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 171.

7bis. The above drawing showing this phase, and photographed from I. Ollich i Castanyer & M. de Rocafiguera i Espona, L’Esquerda: 2500 anys d’història, 25 anys de reçerca (Roda de Ter 2001), pp. 52-53.

8 Vigué, Benet & Ollich, “Poblat de l’Esquerda” in Vigué, Catalunya romànica II, pp. 327-340, updated by Ollich, “Poblat d’Esquerda”.

9. Those at the Kalamazoo paper will have heard quite enough about this granary already, but for reference, you can see Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona & Maria Ocaña i Subirana, “From the granary to the field; archaeobotany and experimental archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York 2008), pp. 85-92, DOI:10.1007/s00334-007-0111-0.

10. And you can read about those experiments too, since they are printed about in Peter Reynolds, “Mediaeval cereal yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge” in Acta Historica et archaeological mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 495-507, and that is online for free at, last modified 4th December 2010 as of 8th April 2011, as well as being repr. in I. Ollich, M. Rocafiguera and M. Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació Arqueol&oagrave;gica sobre Conreus Medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), mostly online via Google Books,, last modified not available as of 8th May 2011, pp. 121-128.

11. Cf. the works in n. 8 above, which figure the burials as late ninth to early tenth-century on the basis of the church, also now dated earlier as said in n. 6 above; the new dates aren’t published yet but I hope that Professora Ollich will let me know when they are.

12. It’s pronounced `Olyik’, with as little of the `l’ as you can manage, but not none! or else you sound like you come from Barcelona, apparently. This, along with the fact that around Gurb people say “Merci” not “Gràcies”, was one of the many things about local Catalan I was fortunate to get some help in here. I’m still struggling with the way they use the verb `to go’ as a past auxiliary though, mainly because French uses it as a future auxuliary…

21 responses to “In Marca Hispanica XIV: l’Esquerda, city of helpful archæologists

  1. I’m really enjoying the tales of your wanderings “in Marca Hispanica” :-)

    This may, of course, be partly due to the fact that they have something very familiar for me – as an art historian I’ve had my fair share of visiting small medieval country churches in the middle of nowhere (in my case that would mostly be Nowhere, Italy), including encounters with rather hostile locals, but also unexpected encounters with nice and helpful people. I remember one time when [m] and I were visting a certain nunnery to look at some wall paintings, the nun who had let us in came by saying “Incidentally, Dottore X who directed the recent restoration campaign of the paintings has just come by – would you like to meet him?” Well, we sure as hell would (though, in deference to the place and situation, we didn’t quite phrase it like that).
    As for the hostile locals, they’re not really hostile, of course. They just think that anyone who’s come to look at a heap of old stones where, in their opinion, there’s NOTHING INTERESTING TO SEE must be a nutcase. And therefore potentially dangerous…

    And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and exercise my pronunciation of Ollich so I can do the chant you suggested. Those Catalan ‘l’s are really tricky. Well, there’s a reason why I prefer using the Latin Raimundus Lullus rather than Ramon Llull ;-)

    • Oh, I know the locals aren’t hostile, but they’re also not sure what a strange foreigner wandering across the landscape portends I guess. (Doesn’t Terry Pratchett have something about the ominous omen of a theodolite somewhere, or is that Douglas Adams?) Once there’s a regular flow of foreigners (or in the case of Roda, a regular occurrence of the same one) they know what’s going on. But there are a lot of the good stories out there too, it seems, and I’ve not had half the trouble that some people can report from their archive work…

    • Damn, I did not see that. I’m not sure I can do it, and it is largely too late (and too Castilian) to be something to make me rearrange things so that I can. But I would have expected spam about it, and Peter Linehan’s plenary ought to be tremendous fun. Thankyou for pointing me at it!

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  3. Wow, that first pic is stunning.

    Maybe I should put Spain on my list of places to go, and learn some Spanish. Is there any time of the year when the temperature is not going over 20°C? Because that’s the upper limit I consider tolerable – I probably should explore the South Pole or someting. :)

    • Thankyou, Gabriele, the first picture’s not mine of course but it does the job very well I think. As for visiting in the cool, I think you might have trouble there. The winter is not so warm—as I have found—but it also tends to be when the streams and rivers run and this can make places a lot harder to get to. L’Esquerda would still be accessible though!

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  5. Very nice! (And I need to catch up here.)

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