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?
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.