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Landscapes of the Medieval Commons in Villanueva, Asturias, Spain


Abstract and Figures

This brief report provides an overview of the aims and preliminary findings of the first two seasons of excavation of fields and structural remains in Asturias, Spain, buried by a medieval flash flood. It also describes a workshop developed in collaboration between the La Ponte Ecomuseum in Villanueva, Asturias, and the UCL Institute of Archaeology based on the heritage and archaeology of the region. The project uncovered ceramics, faunal remains and evidence of changes in land use during the period before the site was inundated.
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Moshenska, G and Fernández Fernández, J 2017 Landscapes of the Medieval
Commons in Villanueva, Asturias, Spain.
Papers from the Institute of Archaeology
27(1): Art. 1, pp. 1–5, DOI:
Landscapes of the Medieval Commons in
Villanueva, Asturias, Spain
Gabriel Moshenska* and Jesús Fernández Fernández
This brief report provides an overview of the aims and preliminary ndings of the
rst two seasons of excavation of elds and structural remains in Asturias, Spain,
buried by a medieval ash ood. It also describes a workshop developed in col-
laboration between the La Ponte Ecomuseum in Villanueva, Asturias, and the UCL
Institute of Archaeology based on the heritage and archaeology of the region. The
project uncovered ceramics, faunal remains and evidence of changes in land use
during the period before the site was inundated.
Keywords: Common land; community heritage; landscape archaeology
In two summer seasons of excavation in
2015 and 2016 a team from UCL Institute
of Archaeology worked with La Ponte
Ecomuseum in Villanueva, Asturias, north-
ern Spain to uncover the remains of medi-
eval fields, which were buried in a flash
flood at some point between the fourteenth
and fifteenth century. With a population
of approximately 50 people, the village of
Villanueva is located in central Asturias,
twenty kilometres south of Oviedo, which
has been regional capital since the medi-
eval period. Like many villages in the area,
Villanueva has experienced a steep decline
in population over recent decades, and this
has affected traditional agricultural practices
and patterns of land use.
One of the distinctive features of Villanueva
is the presence of the La Ponte Ecomuseum,
a community-based heritage organisation
founded in 2011 and dedicated to research-
ing, preserving and communicating the his-
tory and archaeology of the area. La Ponte
maintains an active programme of archaeo-
logical fieldwork in collaboration with the
universities of León and Oviedo, as well as
working with museum and heritage studies
scholars (Alonso González and Fernández
Fernández 2013; Fernández Fernández et al.
2015). The collaboration with UCL began in
2014 with the award of a Marie Curie Cofund
grant to Jesús Fernández Fernández, Director
and research lead for the Ecomuseum, held
at Oxford University and UCL.
Project Aims and Background
This project consisted of two two-week long
workshops involving students and staff
from UCL as well as several Spanish univer-
sities; staff from the Ecomuseum and local
residents. The workshops included visits to
* University College London, England, GB
La Ponte Ecomuseum, ES
Corresponding author: Gabriel Moshenska
Moshenska and Fernández Fernández: Landscapes of the Medieval
Commons in Villanueva, Asturias, Spain
Art. 1, page 2 of 5
archaeological sites, historic buildings, muse-
ums and historic landscapes alongside the pri-
mary work of excavation and post-excavation
in Villanueva. The aims of the project were
twofold, focused on the heritage aspects of
the workshops and the excavation itself.
The aims of the workshops were to intro-
duce the students to the regional and local
archaeology on a landscape scale, ranging
from the Palaeolithic to the industrial period.
The area around Villanueva is rich in archae-
ological heritage including Palaeolithic cave
art, Iron Age hillforts, medieval churches,
vernacular architecture and historic path-
ways. Other parts of the workshop focused
on material culture including lithics, animal
remains and medieval ceramics. To intro-
duce the students to the local archaeologi-
cal ceramics, the workshop included a visit
to the workplace of Selito, the last surviving
artisan working in the tradition of the pot-
tery industry of Faro which dates back to the
medieval period (Figure 1).
A secondary aim of the workshop was to
familiarise the students with the work of
the Ecomuseum and the field of commu-
nity archaeology and heritage. This included
highlighting the connections between local
material and intangible heritage, and the
roles of oral history and ethnography in its
collection and preservation. La Ponte is not a
museum in the traditional sense, and we felt
that it was important for students to under-
stand the function of Ecomuseums as hubs
for communities, allowing them to take con-
trol of their own heritage.
The workshop also formed part of a longer-
term project to investigate currently inhab-
ited villages of medieval origin in Asturias.
This project has run since 2009 under the
direction of Margarita Fernández Mier of
the University of Oviedo (formerly of the
University of Leon) and Jesus Fernández
Fernández (Fernández Mier et al. 2014). The
project focuses on two villages, Villanueva
and Vigaña, and has in the past included a
Figure 1: Selito demonstrating traditional ceramic techniques to students from UCL.
Moshenska and Fernández Fernández: Landscapes of the Medieval
Commons in Villanueva, Asturias, Spain
Art. 1, page 3 of 5
field team from UCL led by Andrew Reynolds.
The work in Villanueva focuses on the chang-
ing patterns of agricultural land use and man-
agement as common fields. In 2015 and 2016
this project focused on an area in Villanueva
where flood debris had buried medieval agri-
cultural land, preserving a unique sealed
deposit. The aim of the excavations in this
period has been to uncover this land, and
take samples from the soil to study the envi-
ronmental evidence, soil taphonomy and
other aspects of medieval agricultural fields.
Results to Date
The focus of the excavations in 2015 and
2016 was a 3m by 10m trench excavated
in an area of open field, to the south of
the present-day village, close to the medi-
eval church (Figure 2). The location of the
trench was chosen in part based on a series
of test pits excavated around the village over
several years. Approximately 30cm of mod-
ern soil overlaid layers of stony debris from
the flash flood. The thickness of this layer
varied across the village, and in the trench
it reached a depth of approximately 80cm.
Towards the bottom of the flash flood debris
we recovered building stones and roof tiles
from buildings destroyed in the flood. Below
the debris layer we found a layer of medieval
agricultural soil containing datable ceramics
and fragments of animal bone.
The majority of the ceramic remains are
domestic cooking and storage vessels of vari-
ous sizes with rounded bodies and flanged rims,
made with a slow-wheel technology, alongside a
small quantity of handmade vessels. The forms,
fabrics and incised decorations of the vessels are
typical of the late medieval period in the area.
The sizes of the pottery fragments and their
degree of roundedness is consistent with sam-
ples taken from contemporary open fields in the
area that have been under plough. Comparing
these contemporary examples with larger, less
rounded samples taken from land worked with
hand-tools indicates that the medieval agricul-
tural layers were probably under cultivation that
included the use of ploughs.
Figure 2: The excavation site showing the remains of buildings destroyed in the flash flood.
Moshenska and Fernández Fernández: Landscapes of the Medieval
Commons in Villanueva, Asturias, Spain
Art. 1, page 4 of 5
During excavations into the buried agricul-
tural soils we uncovered postholes and traces
of an interior floor surface that predate the
layers buried in the flash flood event. Charcoal
from one of the postholes was radiocarbon
dated to between 1275 and 1385. The pres-
ence of agricultural soils above the structural
layer demonstrates a change in land use in the
period prior to the flash flood.
Zooarchaeological remains excavated
from the trench amounted to 179 bones
and fragments of bone, of which 69 could
be identified to a specific species. These
were divided into four categories: cattle
(Minimum Number of Individuals [MNI] = 3),
equids (MNI = 3), pigs (MNI = 6), and sheep
and goats (MNI = 4), which represent a typi-
cal assemblage for settlements of this type
(compare Sirignano et al. 2014). Most of the
animal bones found in the trench were teeth
or small fragments of bone (less than 10cm
in length) with taphonomy consistent with a
ploughing scatter based on domestic refuse.
Based on the distribution of the ceramic
and zooarchaeological remains in the layers
beneath the flood debris we observed a clear
distinction between two layers. The upper,
darker earth contained considerably larger
quantities of ceramic, animal bone, charcoal
and organic material compared to the lower,
although pottery types and taphonomy
remained consistent between the two. A
more detailed analysis of the seeds and other
organic materials is forthcoming, and will
hopefully shed light on the changing agricul-
tural practices between these two layers.
Future Plans
In the next stage of the project we intend to
further explore the structural remains found
in the final stages of the 2016 excavations to
trace the extent and form of the structure.
The presence of these remains was a sur-
prise and offers insights into the stages of
development of the settlement, prior to its
destruction. The change between domestic
and agricultural use suggests a more com-
plex organisation of land use than is gen-
erally assumed in this period, warranting
further research. In addition to the excava-
tion we will continue the analysis of archaeo-
botanical remains and soil taphonomy. The
work of the La Ponte Ecomuseum will con-
tinue to form the basis for communicating
our research to the local community and we
intend to involve UCL students in the public
archaeology dimensions of the project.
Competing Interests
The authors have no competing interests to
Alonso González, P and Fernández
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and Heritage Commons Management
in Asturias (Spain): The Ecomuseum of
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Fernández Fernández, J, Alonso González,
P and Navajas Corral, O 2015 La
PonteEcomuséu: una Herramienta
de Desarrollo Rural Basada en la
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Fernández Mier, M, Fernández Fernández, J,
Alonso González, P, López Sáez, J A, Pérez
Díaz, S and Hernández Beloqui, B 2014
The investigation of currently inhabited
villages of medieval origin: Agrarian
archaeology in Asturias (Spain). Quaternary
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Sirignano, C, Sologestoa, I G, Ricci, P, García-
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Moshenska and Fernández Fernández: Landscapes of the Medieval
Commons in Villanueva, Asturias, Spain
Art. 1, page 5 of 5
How to cite this article: Moshenska, G and Fernández Fernández, J 2017 Landscapes of the Medieval
Commons in Villanueva, Asturias, Spain.
Papers from the Institute of Archaeology
, 27(1): Art. 1, pp. 1–5,
Submitted: 13 December 2016 Accepted: 16 December 2016 Published: 17 February 2017
Copyright: © 2017 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Papers from the Institute of Archaeology
is a peer-reviewed open
access journal published by Ubiquity Press.
... The programme in question took place under the auspices of the Community Archaeology of the Commons in Asturias project, a collaboration between the La Ponte Ecomuseum in Villanueva de Santo Adriano and the University College London (UCL) Institute of Archaeology (for further details of this project and its archaeological findings, see Moshenska and Fernández Fernández 2017;Fernández Fernández et al. 2018). Since 2015 the Ecomuseum team have worked with staff and students from UCL to excavate part of a medieval settlement and its associated common agri- cultural land. ...
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