Seminar CCXXXIV: ground-level archaeology in early medieval northern Spain

Despite my usual policy of alternating them with what I think of as local-content posts, I’m going to crack straight on with another seminar report. This is mainly because if I had been doing this contemporaneously this is where the post announcing the upload of Justinian II’s coins would have fallen, and on my own blog I can be compulsive about chronology if I like darn it, and partly because the next local-content post requires me to read sixty pages of Italian to do it properly so will take time, but it also gets us back to the Iberian Peninsula, because on 17th March 2015 there had come direct from there no less a figure than Professor Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, to speak at the Institute of Archaeology and British Museum Joint Seminar with the title, “Agrarian Archaeology in Northern Iberia: a general overview of medieval landscapes”, and I felt I should be there and take part.

Archaeologists at work at Lantarón in Castile

One of Professor Quirós’s teams at work at Lantarón in Castile, not the right area but a good picture!

Although in some ways I catch the worst of it in Catalonia, where scientific archæology and money to do it both seem rare, actually Northern Spain has been doing really well in the field of ‘new archæology’ in recent years, especially as cheaper techniques than radio-carbon dating have begun to proliferate, and up until the market crashes of 2008 there was also quite a lot of work being funded. Professor Quirós has been at the forefront of a lot of that work, and so is remarkably well-placed to give a synthesis.1 Here he was focused especially on the Basque country (which is after all where he works) and started his comparisons from there, but I know very little about that area so that was fine with me.

The castle and aldea of Treviño, Basque Country

The castle of Treviño, Basque Country, dug by Professor Quirós and crew some time ago

The paper basically consisted of a series of short ‘state of knowledge’ round-ups of various sorts of evidence and then an overall summary and speculation on the remaining unknowns. The geographical focus also meant that a lot of that knowledge was about farming and peasant settlement, because there simply isn’t much else that’s so far been located until quite late on, except one outlier site of which we will say more in a moment. So we had material from field survey, the archæology of structures, zooarchæology, artefactual evidence, field systems, manufacturing and palæobotany, all taken thematically and joining up at particular questions. All this has been going on with quite some energy in the last decade or so, and the points it’s bringing up are probably best discussed in the overall chronology that Professor Quirós was now able to put forward. This went something like this.

    1. In the fifth and sixth centuries we start to see new villages forming, in the first real change since the collapse of the Roman Empire, which never had much business up here anyway, but the landscape is decentralised and disarticulated, with very low levels of material culture not being transported for any distances. Silos, previously built big, are now built small, suggesting accumulation has dropped to a household level from a community one. Land use seems, from pollen and so forth, to be going up over the period but there’s little sign of increase at the settlements.
    2. In the seventh century, however, field systems begin to show up and so does long-range transhumance (visible in the huts of the travelling herdsmen), and the one estate centre they’ve managed to locate, at Aistra, starts up in this period as well, with enough command of labour to get terraces built, not a small job. This all suggests the beginnings of some hierarchy.
    3. In the eighth century, in what seems to be a much wider phenomenon, settlements here begin to nucleate and cluster but the vestigial links between them visible in the previous century drop off again, even as the social strata in them begin to pile up higher, especially at Aistra where there are now granaries and selective consumption of animals. This is also the period when we start to get rural churches, which also suggests an available surplus being cornered by one particular interest group, and we know from elsewhere in northern Iberia that these groups are probably the same ones as showing up at the top of the secular hierarchies, they’re not separate.2 It is probably not unconnected with these as wider phenomena that there were peasant revolts in Asturias at this sort of time…3
The church of San Martín Getaria, Gipuzkoa

The church of San Martín Getaria, Gipuzkoa, which though itself not early medieval apparently sits over an early medieval cemetery and thus the closest I can quickly find to this phenomenon in standing fabric

  1. In the ninth century there starts to be documentation, mostly from the monastery of Valpuesta at the very western edge of the zone, but the archæology also speaks of more field system organisation and a return to transhumance, while the ways that animals are being slaughtered suggest a system of renders; there are communities which seem never to dispose of particular cuts of pork, for example, even though they have the rest.4 Cattle also start to turn up in the west, suggesting people doing things differently, but on the other hand, animals seem to have begun to shrink in this period, and their diets (which can be got at via isotopic remains in their bones) became more restricted. Those two things are obviously probably linked but they may suggest a shift to home husbandry and therefore enclosure of what had previously been commonly-available pasturing.
  2. Finally for this paper, in the tenth century these trends continue but organisation by the powerful also becomes more obvious: bishoprics are set up for the area, fortification becomes common-place, agriculture intensifies (as we can tell from silos at some fortresses) and the area is in general participating in the economic take-off run and (I think) consequent seigneurialisation that Georges Duby or Pierre Bonnassie would have been happy to see.5

There’re also a couple of general phenomena that struck me as interesting, because they seemed unusual to me. In the first place, the area never seems to have been very short of metal tools; we don’t find very many of them (though some) but right through the period we do, apparently, find shaft furnaces for ironworking, even at fairly humble sites. In the second place, cerealiculture was really diverse: although when we have renders specified in documentation they are almost always in wheat or barley, peasants were also growing millet, particularly, and several others too as well as fruit, legumes and flax for linen and rope. Meat was probably rarely on the menu but when you compare it to high medieval Catalonia (my only comparator) it looks as if the Basque peasants had a rather better ‘third harvest’ than their south-eastern neighbours later on.6

Excavation under way at Aistra, Basque Country

Excavation under way at Aistra, on one of what seem to have been a good many dismal days in 2009

All in all this was a fairly impressive sweep through what archæology can actually tell us about societies in a period where documentation is scant or lacking, and one wants of course to go and chase up half the data and see for oneself. One would also wish—and Professor Quirós would be with that one—for another estate centre, because although Aistra sounds like a marvellous and rewarding place to investigate (as long as you like rain), the fact that it got going so much earlier than its investigators were expecting and than a documentary picture would have made likely means that a comparator is dearly necessary to make sure that this place wasn’t just weird in some way.7 It would still need explaining even if it was, of course, but as we know some places just did get special attention. Nonetheless, to have a decent basis for being able to assert anything about change on this kind of scale is amazing, and as Andrew Reynolds, chairing, said at the beginning of discussion, whereas Professor Quirós had been kind enough to say that English archæology of this period was the necessary comparator because of its quality, what has been done recently in Spain might well be thought to reverse the situation, and as you will see from the footnotes, he should know. And since I generally aim to bring the Iberian Peninsula back into people’s pictures from the margins where it too often sits, I am fine with that, as long as I can get the site reports…

1. As well as the various project blogs linked in the post above, see (just to pick the most comprehensive things on this post’s themes from his last few years of publications) J. A. Quirós Castillo, “1911-2011: un siglo de excavaciones arqueológicas en los castillos medievales del País Vasco” in idem & José María Tejado Sebastián (edd.), Los castillos altomedievales en el noroeste de la Península Ibérica, Documentos de arqueología medieval 4 (Bilbao 2012), pp. 123-143; Quirós, “Los comportamientos alimentarios del campesinado medieval en el País Vasco y su entorno (siglos VIII-XIV)” in Historia agraria Vol. 59 (València 2013), pp. 13-41; Quirós & Giovanni Bianchi, “From archaeology of storage systems to agricultural archaeology” in Alfonso Vigil-Escalera Guirado, Quirós & Bianchi (edd.), Horrea, barns and silos: storage and incomes in Early Medieval Europe, Documentos de Arqueología 5 (Bilbao 2013), pp. 17-22; Quirós, “Archaeology of power and hierarchies in early medieval villages in Northern of Spain” in Ján Klápšte (ed.), Hierarchies in rural settlements, Ruralia 9 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 199-212; and Quirós (ed.), Agrarian archaeology in early medieval Europe, Quaternary International 346 (Amsterdam 2014).

2. I’m thinking here of work like Margarita Fernández Mier, “Changing Scales of Local Power in the Early Medieval Iberian North-West” in Julio 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, and especially Robert Portass, “Rethinking the ‘small worlds’ of tenth-century Galicia” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103.

3. That is, if it really was a peasants’ revolt; on the misinterpretations of this episode, which has served many historiographical agendas, see this old post.

4. The Valpuesta documents are edited in Desamparados Pérez Soler (ed.), Cartulario de Valpuesta (Valéncia 1970). On peasant diet in the area see Quirós, “Comportamientos alimentarios”.

5. I’m sure you know the works I mean, but for completeness let’s get them in: Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (London 1974) and Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, but see also La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran 10 (Auch 1990), a conference in which both took part.

6. I’m thinking of the studies that have come out of the experimental archæology done at l’Esquerda in Catalonia, particularly Peter Reynolds, “Mediaeval cereal yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge” in Acta Historica et archaeological mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 495-507, online here, repr. in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera & Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació Arqueològica sobre Conreus Medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), pp. 121-128, and Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Ollich, Rocafiguera & Ocaña, “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, but here also especially Reynolds & Christine E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Ollich (ed.), Actes del Congrès Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351.

7. There seem to be only interim reports and some specialist publications on Aistra so far, the reports being: A. Reynolds & Quirós, “Aistra (Zalduondo): I Campaña” in Arkeoikuska 2006 (Vitoria 2006), pp. 94-100; eidem, “Despoblado de Aistra”, ibid. 2007 (2007), pp. 159-167; Quirós, “Poblado de Aistra”, ibid. 2008 (2008), pp. 209-211; & Quirós & Reynolds, “Despoblado de Aistra: IV Campaña”, ibid. 2009 (2009), pp. 176-180.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s