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In July, a team consisting of staff and students from the University of Reading (Aleks Pluskowski, Rowena Banerjea, Guillermo García-Contreras Ruiz, Rob Fry, David Thornley (formerly at Reading) and Caedmon Bradley), students from the universities of Granada and Montpellier, spent a week in the province of Guadalajara, central Spain, prospecting and surveying two castles associated with the medieval Christian – Muslim frontier. The project was funded by the Society of Antiquaries and the Erasmus Programme, as pilot studies within the “Landscapes of (Re)conquest project” which is investigating the character of medieval frontiers in South Western Europe. The central part of the Iberian Peninsula represents an exceptional area for investigating the dynamics of frontiers, colonisation and social reorganisation during the formative period of the Middle Ages, when political control of territory fluctuated between Islamic and Christian authorities. Our fieldwork focused on two castles – Molina de Aragón and Atienza – that were linked to medieval frontier authorities during both Islamic and Christian periods of rule. Both sites are defined by the presence of substantial enclosed wards, largely devoid of structures above ground. The use of these spaces and therefore the roles of these fortified sites during the various phases of occupation remain unknown, and the complete lack of palaeoenvironmental investigations has also detached them from their landscape context. The aim of the project was to conduct geophysics surveys within these wards, to obtain environmental data from excavated irrigation channel and terrace within the vicinity of the sites, and to collect samples of building fabric and document phases of construction. This information would be used to characterise how the landscape was used and organised by Islamic and Christian frontier authorities.

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Most of our fieldwork was focused on Molina de Aragón, which consists of a fortified complex, located on a hill overlooking the valley of the River Gallo in the Upper Tagus, one of the principle mountain ranges in Spain and recently designated as a UNESCO Global Geopark due to its unique geological formations. The role of the site changed over time, from a rural fortification during the Islamic period, ruled largely by Berbers (8th–10th centuries), to a focal point for the defence of Al-Andalus against the expansion of Christian kingdoms from the north (10th–11th century) and subsequently the capital of an independent Islamic state, the Taifa of Molina, following the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate. In 1129, Molina was conquered by King Alfonso I of Aragon. After fierce territorial disputes, it was bequeathed to the Lara family who maintained a virtually independent frontier lordship into the 14th century and developed the associated town. Molina passed to the Kingdom of Aragon for a short period (c. 1366–1375), after which it was incorporated into Castile, and finally into Spain. After functioning as a military barracks throughout the 19th century, the fortress was abandoned from the beginning of the 20th century. Rob Fry and David Thornley conducted magnetometry surveys within the wards of the castle, whilst the rest of the team focused on excavating and sampling an irrigation channel at the edge of the medieval town, taking cores to identify suitable deposits for further environmental sampling and sampling a terrace for OSL dating and geoarchaeological analysis. Environmental sampling was led by Rowena Banerjea with students from Granada and Montpellier. Caedmon Bradley documented the walls of the castle at Molina de Aragón with photogrammetry for his third-year dissertation.

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The second fortified complex included within the project – Atienza – is located within an expansive valley of the mountain range of the Sierra Norte. From the 8th century it was settled and used as a rural fortification by the Berber tribe of Banu Salim. During the Umayyad emirate and caliphate (9th c-10th century), Atienza was an important strategic centre on the border between al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms. In 1086, the fortress was conquered and became part of Christian Castile. Subsequently, it became the centre of a frontier lordship, securing the border against both neighbouring Muslim territories and the Christian Kingdom of Aragon (11th-12th century). Atienza remained loyal to the kings of Castile in times of internal civil war (13th-14th century), and its prosperity was represented by the construction of fourteen churches, alongside the expanded castle and urban defences. From the 15th century its strategic and economic importance dramatically declined. In the 19th century it was significantly affected by the War of Independence. Here, Rob Fry and David Thornley conducted magnetometer surveys within the castle itself, its outer wards and some of the adjacent parts (now abandoned) of the medieval town. The aim of the surveys was to identify the degree of disturbance and the presence of buried structures where traces of occupation may have been preserved, to inform future excavations.

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The results of these pilot projects are currently being analysed, but they represent an important foundation for more extensive future investigations into the role of these centres of authority in the medieval multicultural frontiers of Iberia.

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Tune in to BBC Radio 3 tonight at 10:45pm to hear Professor Roberta Gilchrist feature as part of ‘The Essay: The Fall and Rise of the British Castle’ series.

Roberta will explore how women played a significant role in the history of British castles alongside the men who inhabited these spaces. Very often the visitor to a medieval castle in Britain is confronted with a mass of information and interpretation about the military activities of the men who inhabited these spaces, but very little about the women. Roberta argues that traditional interpretations of castles ignore the gendered spaces – the gardens, the apartments, the kitchens where female servants cooked, or indeed the adjoining parklands where aristocratic women occasionally hunted.

More details on the programme here: http://bbc.in/1uxmBkyRobertaGilchrist_3283-e (1)

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I’ve recently returned from Tübingen University in SW Germany: I had an invitation to visit from Professor Jörn Staecker, whom I’d last met when we were both giving lectures in Korkyt Ata Kyzylorda State University in Kazahkstan. Tübingen has a strong commitment to archaeology, with a research centre in medieval archaeology and I was also visiting because Reading has recently established a strategic partnership with the university to develop academic contacts. Last year Tübingen gained a prestigious government grant to run a multi-disciplinary research project on resources, their perception and exploitation. The project has many themes and some deal specifically with the medieval period: they involve the analysis of past landscapes in the area of the south Black Forest and the  impact of resource use and management by monasteries and castles in the area around the Bodensee (Lake Constance), on the border between Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Tübingen Castle, the home of the university’s archaeology department

Tübingen Castle, the home of the university’s archaeology department

It was only in the 1180s that there was a general intensification of resource use and this could be related to the development of specific identities for both the urban workers and the peasantry which gave both the towns and countryside a different character.

I also had individual meetings with post-doctoral fellows and PhD students researching aspects of medieval landscapes and also workshops with other postgrad students working on the medieval aspects  of the resources project.

I also visited and discussed sites which I had long wanted to see, such as the great Cistercian monastery of Bebenhausen, where I was shown around by Christina Vossler who had written up the recent excavations for her PhD. We also visited the Benedictine monastery of Hirsau, famous for its pioneering  role in the spreading of the Cluniac reform in southern Germany. The monastery was founded in the early eleventh century and parts of that monastic church survive. However, by the end of the same century Hirsau had become such an important pilgrimage centre that a new monastery was built less than a kilometre away, a very unusual development. I was also shown Lichtenstein, the site of a medieval castle (surviving as a set of earthworks and some standing masonry) in a stunning and defensive position overlooking a steep-sided river valley. Close by there is a Gothick castle built in the 1840s by the Dukes of Würtemberg.

Bebenhausen: the abbey church

Bebenhausen: the abbey church

Archaeology (Palaeolithic, late prehistory, classical and medieval) is located in the castle of Tübingen , which probably originated in the eleventh century but was converted into a palace in the seventeenth century. It overlooks the historic town of Tübingen, which has a medieval market and collegiate church at its core and its streets are lined with large timber-framed town houses of the sixteenth century: in all, a remarkable survival of a late medieval town.

The nineteenth-century castle of Lichtenstein

The nineteenth-century castle of Lichtenstein

There will be further exchanges between the departments: Aleks Pluskowski and Alex Brown for example will go to Tübingen in January to talk about the Baltic Crusades project and Jörn Staecker will come to Reading for the first Medieval Social Archaeology Research Group workshop on religious transformations. Future exchanges for postgraduates were discussed as well as combined  undergraduate fieldtrips.

 

 

About today’s blogger

GrenvilleAstil_w Professor Grenville Astill specialises in monasticism, industry, urban and rural settlement in medieval North Western Europe. He leads one of the longest running and most extensive research projects on a medieval monastery at Bordesley Abbey (http://www.reading.ac.uk/bordesley/) alongside a reconsideration of the process of medieval urbanisation. He has also conducted a research project in Brittany which tracks change in the countryside from the later Bronze Age to the 1920s using a combination of archaeological, documentary and building evidence.

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A long view on the trench

A long view on the trench

Over the last three weeks a joint UK-Polish team have been excavating the Prussian stronghold of Swieta Gora (sacred hill) in Masuria, north-east Poland, within the framework of the Ecology of Crusading project.

Excavations at MasuriaThe main focus of the excavation, now in its third season, has been the embankment at the northern end of the site, which was always assumed to be be early medieval.

It turns out the embankment is 17th century, but underneath there are preserved occupation layers and features from the last phase of Prussian tribal settlement at the site, just before the region was overwhelmed by the Teutonic Order’s crusades in the 13th century.

We’ve recovered a tonne of cultural and environmental data, with evidence for the exploitation of species such as bison and auroch. Last week photographer Magnus Elander was documenting the excavation and surrounding landscape as part of our outreach programme.

Keep up-to-date with the excavations on the team’s Facebook page

Read about Dr Aleks Pluskowski

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Rosie Weetch

Rosie Weetch

 

The British MuseumTwo of our current PhD students have been appointed to prestigious positions at the British Museum.

Rosie Weetch is just about to complete her PhD on Late Saxon brooches (supervised by Dr Gabor Thomas & Hella Eckardt) and has been working as a project curator at the British Museum since 2012, helping to design the new early medieval gallery and in particular researching and displaying the famous Sutton Hoo treasure.

Helen McGauran will submit her thesis on the circulation of Bronze Age soft-stone artefacts in Bahrain and Cyprus (supervised by Dr Wendy Matthews & Stuart Black) this June, before starting as Project Curator on the Zayed National Museum Project.

Helen McGauran

Helen McGauran

Her role is to carry out targeted research into topics and key sites to support the Interpretation team in presenting information on the archaeology of Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates from early prehistory up until the end of the pre-Islamic period, within the new Museum in Abu Dhabi. She will also be involved in some aspects of artefact and other object selection.

Read about postgraduate research in Archaeology

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