Now finished, the Moncayo Archaeological Survey (MAS) was a collaboration between the Departments of Archaeology at the Universities of Durham and Winchester, together with help from the Diputación General de Aragón. The project, which commenced in 2000, aimed to investigate changing settlement patterns and economic systems of a study area in northern Spain against the background of Late Pleistocene and Holocene climate, landscape and vegetation change.
The study area
The MAS study area is a northeast to southwest transect of 33 km, stretching from the River Ebro in the north to the foothills of the Sierra de Moncayo in the south. The transect intentionally comprises a variety of landscape units, including the slopes and foothills of the Sierra de Moncayo, alluvial terraces of the rivers Ebro and Huecha, and 'badlands' at the alluvial margins.
Today the lower-lying landscapes are used for both dry and irrigated agriculture, while the foothill and montane areas are either occupied by pine and beech forest (particularly within the boundaries of the Parque Natural de la Dehesa del Moncayo), or are garrigue landscapes used for sheep husbandry. Several excavations have previously been carried out within the MAS study area, notably in the village of Ambel (Gerrard 2000; 2003), the town of Borja (e.g. Aguilera 1979, Bona et al. 1979) and at the Bronze Age site of Moncin (Harrison et al. 1994), but systematic survey had never been undertaken.
The primary means of archaeological prospection for MAS was fieldwalking, which was carried out by teams of students from the University of Durham, led by Prof. Chris Gerrard. Landscape evolution was investigated using geoarchaeological approaches such as examination of satellite imagery and aerial photographs, and geomorphological survey and sampling from exposed sections. This aspect of the project was led by Dr Keith Wilkinson. An examination of the historical evidence was also undertaken to examine settlement, economy and landscape change from the medieval period onwards.
The archaeological evidence
The field investigations carried out provide important new evidence that is complementary to that from prior excavations. The earliest archaeological evidence recorded by the survey consists of Middle Palaeolithic Levallois blades and cores recovered from the surfaces of river terraces of the Rio Huecha and its tributary, the Barranco de Valdejunquera. No evidence was recovered of Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic activity, but MAS recorded at least two Neolithic sites in the study area, the first to be encountered in Aragón. One of these comprises a hearth dated by AMS radiocarbon to 4330 - 3980 cal. BC, an associated chert knapping scatter and a single sherd of pottery, buried by nearly 3m of sediment (Wilkinson et al. 2005).
By contrast, MAS recorded many Bronze Age sites. Bronze Age settlement seems to consist of small and scattered communities overlooking the valleys and it would appear that the landscape was intensively exploited durin gthe second millennium BC. Population expansion and intensification of agricultural production in the Bronze Age may explain the increased erosion of valley sides recorded by the geoarchaeological studies.
Iron Age settlement is concentrated in fewer locations. The situation of the Iron Age sites also changes from that seen in the Bronze Age and hilltop sites are preferred. It is unclear whether these settlement changes reflect any change in population levels, but it is clear that the landscape was a more stable place in the first millennium BC than before, as few deposits resulting from slope erosion are recorded from this period.
Roman sites are widespread throughout the MAS study area and range from farmsteads and villas to the town of Bursau (modern-day Borja). Settlements are mainly situated in valleys and adjacent to their fields; the regular spacing of recorded settlements argues for a level of planning above that seen during earlier periods.
In the post-Roman period the number of settlements falls; only isolated Visigothic and Islamic-period sites were found during field surveys, and these only in the valleys. It is probable that, for the 9th and10th centuries at least, the reduction in the number of sites is a product of the nucleation of settlements in the location of the present-day villages. Tax returns suggest that a significant proportion of the village populations was Muslim even after Christian rule was established in Aragón. The same documentary records indicate increases in population between the 15 and 17th centuries, although because this expansion took place within existing settlements, no increase in the number of sites was recorded by the fieldwalking.
The geoarchaeological record suggests that despite rising populations and new areas being taken into cultivation, erosion was not a significant problem. The expulsion of the Muslims from Aragón in 1610, however, may have had an adverse impact on the landscape, given that the Muslims were irrigation specialists. The 17th century also saw a cooling of the climate as recorded by dendroclimatological records from the Pyrenees. The net effect of these two phenomena seems to have been the initiation of the first large-scale erosion since later prehistory.
Use of data
A rich documentary and structural record exists for the post-medieval record thanks to the ownership of much of the study area by Cistercian monks (based at Veruela after 1141) and the Military Orders. These lines of evidence provide data at a higher temporal resolution than those of the field survey and geoarchaeology, and the task of MAS was to synthesize the two to produce a coherent narrative. Most of this work was undertaken by the investigators, but several undergraduate and Masters dissertations have also been based on the MAS data. The digital resources that have resulted from the survey are also used to teach students the rudiments of GIS and how such technology can be used to aid archaeological interpretation.
Aguilera, I. (1979) Estado de las investigaciones arqueológicas en el valle de la Huecha. In Estado Actual de la Arqueología en Aragón, 224-27. Institución Fernando el Católico, Zaragoza.
Bona, I.J., Royo, J.J. and Aguilera, I. (1979) 1ª Campaña de excavaciones arqueológicas en Bursau, Borja (Zaragoza). Cuadernos de Estudios Borjanos 3, 35-85.
Gerrard, C.M. (2000) Opposing identity: Christians, Muslims and military orders in rural Aragón (Spain). Medieval Archaeology 43, 143-60.
Gerrard, C.M. (2003) Paisaje y señorio: la casa conventual de Ambel (Zaragoza). Institución Fernando el Católico, Zaragoza.
Harrison, R.J., Moreno, G.C. and Legge, A.J. (1994) Moncín: un poblado de la Edad del Bronce (Borja, Zaragoza). Gobierno de Aragón, Zaragoza.
Wilkinson, K.N., Gerrard, C.M., Aguilera, I., Bailiff, I. and Pope, R.J.J. (2005) Prehistoric and historic landscape change in Aragón, Spain: some results from the Moncayo Archaeological Survey. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 18, 31-54.