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Durham University

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Religious orders on the frontier: monks on the edge of Christian Europe

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


This project examines the establishment and impact of the religious orders after the Christian reconquest of NE Spain in the early 12th century. It adopts an archaeological perspective to place monastic achievements into a wider landscape context. Through our excavations, documentary analysis, standing building survey and topographical recording of monasteries, residences, granaries and watermills we are investigating themes such as settlement form in a multi-faith society and the transformation of irrigation systems, crops, woodlands and fields on the frontier.

The first part of this project was a study of the archaeology of the Military Orders, in particular the Templars and the Hospitallers. Many books have been written about their history and unusual blend of monastic ideals and soldiering. Nowhere was this more the case than in Aragon and Catalonia where the local aristocracy were well disposed in the Templar’s favour following the capture of Zaragoza in 1118. Especially after September 1134 and the death of King Alfonso I of Aragon, ‘el Batallador’, there was a fear that recently conquered ground might immediately be lost, either to the Almoravides or to Alfonso VII of Leon and Castile, so strategic donations helped the Orders to accumulate properties and privileges. In this project we have studied and published the archaeology, architecture and history of the Templar, and later Hospitaller, preceptory at Ambel. We also consider the interpretation of graffiti and material culture, as well as documenting the environmental impacts of Holy War, making comparisons with the Baltic and the Holy Land.

The second part of this project is a study of the archaeology of the major Cistercian monastery at Veruela, Zaragoza. This entails an improved understanding of the acquisition and exploitation of Veruela’s monastic estate, including its management of farming, woodland, irrigation systems, rural settlements, granges and domestic buildings. As is often typical of the wealthiest monasteries, abbots from Veruela also selected houses on their estates and developed them with additional chambers, stables and chapels; one such can be found nearby at Bulbuente. The complex here comprises a re-used and enlarged Roman stone tower with an adjoining rammed earth and brick-built palace of the 14th-16th centuries.
Excavations at Bulbuente in the summer of 2013 and 2014, together with the recording of the standing buildings and tracing of graffiti, reveal a more involved history, including the destruction of the complex during the war of the two Peters between Castile and Aragon (1356-1375), and kilns for the production of glazed wall/floor tiles used at Veruela in the 16th century. Relatively few monastic manor houses like Bulbuente have been excavated across Europe but they were important judicial and administrative centres and served not only as stopping off points during tours of inspection for the abbot and his retinue but also as an occasional escape from the confines of the monastic precinct.

Excavations at the Islamic settlement of La Mora Encantada, just outside the present day village of Bulbuente, have provided vital clues to understand the settlement pattern in the area prior to the Christian reconquest in the early 12th century. Domestic contexts containing local pottery and silos for grain storage were identified. The important botanical samples containing seeds of the 11th century are being studied by Ed Treasure. This is the first medieval archaeobotanical study to be conducted in the area.

Published Results

Authored book

  • Gerrard, C.M. (2003). Paisaje y señorío. La casa conventual de Ambel (Zaragoza): arqueología, arquitectura e historia de las Órdenes militares del Temple y del Hospital. Zaragoza: Institución Fernando el Católico.

Conference Paper

  • Gerrard, C.M. (2010), Edificios en el paisaje medieval: el papel y recursos de las ordenes militares en Ambel (Zaragoza), in Ortega Ortega, J.M. & Escriche Jaime, C. eds, I Jornadas de Arqueologia medieval en Aragon. Teruel, Spain, Museo de Teruel, Instituto de Estudios Turolenses, Teruel, 53-78.
  • Jaquin, P.A., Augarde, C.E. & Gerrard, C.M. (2004), Analysis of Tapial structures for modern use and conservation, in Modena, Claudio, Lourenço, Paulo B. & Roca, Pere eds, 2: Symposium on Structural Analysis of Historical Constructions,. Padua, Italy, Taylor & Francis, Leiden, 1315-1321.

Journal Article

  • Miccoli, L., Gerrard, C. M., Perrone, C., Gardei, A. & Ziegert, C. (2017). A collaborative engineering and archaeology project to investigate decay in historic rammed earth structures: the case of the medieval preceptory in Ambel. International Journal of Architectural Heritage 11(5): 636-655.
  • Gerrard, C.M. & Borowski, T. (2017). Constructing identity in the Middle Ages: relics, religiosity and the Military Orders. Speculum 92(4): 1056-1100.
  • Gerrard, C. & Gutiérrez, A. (2015). Melchor de Monserrat. Treasures of Malta 21(3): 61-68.
  • Alexander, M M, Gerrard, C M, Gutiérrez, A & Millard, A R (2015). Diet, society, and economy in late medieval Spain: Stable isotope evidence from Muslims and Christians from Gandía, Valencia. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 156(2): 263-273.
  • Jaquin, P., Gerrard, C., Augarde, C. & Canivell, J. (2013). Damage in historic rammed earth structures: a case study at Ambel, Zaragoza, Spain. Revista Digital de Arqueologia, Arquitectura e Artes 1: 32-41.
  • Pluskowski, A, Boas, A J & Gerrard, C M (2011). The Ecology of Crusading: Investigating the Environmental Impact of Holy War and Colonisation at the Frontiers of Medieval Europe. Medieval Archaeology 55: 192-225.
  • Jaquin, P.A., Augarde, C. & Gerrard, C.M. (2008). Chronological description of the spatial development of rammed earth techniques. International Journal of Architectural Heritage 2(4): 377-400.
  • Gerrard, C.M. (1999). Opposing identity: Muslims, Christians and the Military Orders in Rural Aragon. Medieval Archaeology XLIII: 143-160.

Chapter in book

  • Miccoli, L, Perrone, C, Gardei, A, Ziegert, C, Kaiser, C, Fontana, P & Gerrard, C (2016). Analysis and diagnosis of earthen buildings: The case of Ambel preceptory in Aragon, Spain. In Earth construction & tradition vol. 1. Feiglstorfer, H. Institute for Comparative Research in Architecture, Vienna. 203–232.
  • Gerrard, C.M. & Dauber, R. (2008). Building Biographies: Graffiti, Architecture and People at the Hospitaller Preceptory at Ambel (Zaragoza), Spain. In The Military Orders. Volume 4. On Land and by Sea. Upton-Ward, J. Aldershot: Ashgate. 235-250.
  • Gerrard, C.M. (2000). Espacio y vida cotidiana: la casa conventual de las Ordenes Militares de Ambel (Zaragoza). In Las Ordenes Militares en la Peninsula Iberica. Lopez-Salazar Perez, J Cuenca: Ediciones de la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha. 1467-1487.

Conference Proceeding

  • Jaquin, P.A., Augarde, C.E. & Gerrard, C.M. (2007). Historic rammed earth structures in Spain: construction techniques and a preliminary classification. Proceedings of International Symposium on Earthen Structures 2007, Bangalore, Interline Publishing.
  • Jaquin, P.A., Augarde, C.E. & Gerrard, C.M. (2006). Analysis of historic rammed earth construction. 5th International Conference on Structural Analysis of Historical Constructions, Delhi, Macmillan India Ltd.


From the Department of Archaeology