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Durham University

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Moncayo Archaeological Survey, NE Spain

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


The Moncayo Archaeological Survey began in 2000, under the direction of Prof. Chris Gerrard, and is investigating population, economic and environmental change to the north-west of Zaragoza in Spain. The area selected for study comprises a NE-SW transect of 33 km, stretching from the River Ebro in the north to the foothills of the Sierra de Moncayo in the south. The topographic units here consist of the floodplains, channels and terraces of the Ebro and its south bank tributary, the Huecha, as well as the mountainous terrain of the Sierra de Moncayo which rises to 2313 metres. Borja and Tarazona are the local market centres.

This is an interdisciplinary project with contributions from Keith Wilkinson (University of Winchester) and Isidro Aguilera (Museo de Zaragoza) which combines landscape archaeology with earth science methodologies and approaches. The basis for our reconstruction of landscape change is topographical maps, aerial photographs, CORONA satellite imagery and walk-over survey including the correlation of sub-surface deposits, the recovery of artefacts and 14C and luminescence dating. Early results suggest two episodes of significant landscape change which have identified from the geomorphological record dating to the Neolithic/Bronze Age and post-medieval period. These episodes are interpreted here as the result of human land-use change: that in the prehistoric period from clearance of woodland in the Neolithic and the subsequent expansion of agriculture in the Bronze Age, and that in the 19th century from the removal of upland woodland following changes in land ownership and management. Evidence for erosion and deposition was not found for either the Roman or medieval periods when archaeological and historical evidence indicate that local population was at its highest and agriculture most intense, nor from the height of the Little Ice Age when climate is thought to have been at its most extreme. Our preliminary results are already available.

Systematic field survey is currently underway, recording material by field/property. A paper on our methodology has been published and early results underline the importance of irrigation on the gravel terraces of the Ebro and the Huecha; the central Ebro basin is the most arid inland region of Europe. In the simplest terms, the story of local irrigation is the history of transporting water in gravity-flow canals from west to east, bridging climatic and topographical transitions between a higher terrain where water is more plentiful and a lower one where water is scarce, unreliable and drought threatens. Understanding the capture, storage and distribution of water is therefore fundamental and our attention has also moved towards developing methods to date these hydraulic systems (see project).

We have also started to document phases of settlement through excavation, such as that carried out in 2017 in Bureta, Zaragoza. Here an intriguing site, still under study, revealed a vast building with plaster floors, robbed out walls and remains of feasting during the Visigothic period (6th-7th centuries).

Published Results

Journal Article

  • Bailiff, I.K., Gerrard, C.M., Gutiérrez, A., Snape-Kennedy, L.M. & Wilkinson, K. N. (2015). Luminescence dating of irrigation systems: Application to a qanat in Aragon, Spain. Quaternary Geochronology 30(B): 452-459.
  • Gerrard, C & Gutiérrez, A (2012). Estudio arqueológico del Somontano del Moncayo: avance metodológico. Salduie: Estudios de prehistoria y arqueología 10: 259-270.
  • Gerrard, CM (2011). Contest and co-operation: strategies for medieval and later irrigation along the Huecha Valley, Aragon, north-east Spain. Water History 3(1): 3-28.
  • Wilkinson, K. Gerrard, C.M., Pope, R. Aguilera, I. & Bailiff, I.K. (2005). Prehistoric and historic landscape change in Aragon, Spain: some results from the Moncayo Archaeological Survey. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 18(1): 31-54.


From the Department of Archaeology