Plus-sized architecture, industry and trade with the Mediterranean… if you were to believe the Romans, you’d think the arrival of all this on Europe’s Atlantic coast was thanks to them. But meet the archaeologists excavating an Iron Age ‘factory’ and you’ll have quite a different view; people were producing and exporting Mediterranean goods on a near industrial scale long before the Romans arrived.
Journey along the Atlantic coast of Galicia in northwest Spain, and you’ll find a shoreline that’s packed with Iron Age hillforts. DigVentures’ Archaeology Ambassadors had been traveling south for the last few days, but now it was time to head north to meet Rafael Rodriguez, one of the most renowned archaeologists working in Galicia, and whose work is turning Atlantic archaeology on its head, so that he could show us some of the incredible discoveries currently being made at A Lanzada.
Hugged by white sand beaches, A Lanzada is a rocky promontory that sticks straight out into the bright blue Atlantic Ocean, with commanding views of the surrounding coastline. When we arrived, its surface was crawling with archaeologists, busy excavating the ruins of an Iron Age settlement that had sunken into the sand dunes.
When the ruins were first identified, Rafa’s team had assumed these huge structures would largely be Roman, with a few bits of earlier Iron Age occupation underneath. Their discoveries swept those preconceptions out to sea almost as soon as they started excavating.
There, in the ground, were the remains of an enormous building. Its walls were 2.5m thick, it had buttresses, and it dwarfed the few little Iron Age roundhouses that had already been uncovered.
“I’d never seen anything like it. The shape is perfectly Iron Age; you can see it has straight walls, with rounded corners. But the size is so large that it simply could not be Iron Age” Rafael told us, with his arms held wide open. What then were the possibilities? Perhaps it was part of the later 9th century monastery, or the 18th century mausoleum?
“After digging, it was clear that neither was the answer” said Rafa.
Iron Age Factory
Sunk into the floor surface, Rafael’s team found dozens of clay basins, each measuring approximately 50cmx50cm and each surrounded by its own small wall. An intriguing set up, but one that’s found producing garum – a fermented fish sauce that was popular throughout the Mediterranean world and often associated in this part of the Atlantic world with the arrival of the Romans.
But this was no Roman enterprise. Sealing the ruined building was a layer of sand containing Iron Age material dating to around 200BC. Carbon dating on material from inside the building confirmed that it was in use as early as 300BC.
“It was thought that before the Romans arrived, the Galician people couldn’t build something like this, something on this scale. But these excavations confirm that the opposite was true. For the first time on Galicia’s Atlantic coast, we have clear evidence that people were capable of constructing and producing a highly desired commodity on a near industrial scale” Rafael told us.
The Mediterranean connection
If not the Romans, then who were the Iron Age Galicians producing such vast quantities of fish sauce for? The industrial middens provided another clue.
From the middens, Rafael’s team were able to figure out the exact recipe for the sauce. The key ingredient was limpet, making up about 80% of the production waste, along with mackerel. But among all this waste was plenty of pottery from the Phoenician world.
“We also found whale, seal, and locally caught puffin. But more bizarrely, we found the bones of a dog and a wolf, both of which had clearly been eaten” said Rafael.
As alarming as this may sound, dog and wolf are both known to have been consumed at feasts linked with Mediterranean death rituals around this time and, according to Rafael, there are many parallels in the Mediterranean world of factories that are connected with religious buildings and organisations.
“It confirms the extent of Mediterranean trading connections along the northwest Atlantic. But it also does so much more; it shows us that there was a mixed Atlantic and Mediterranean community living here for a good 200 years before the Romans arrived” says Rafael.
Did the Romans Build Roundhouses?
When the Romans did eventually arrive in Galicia at the turn of the millennium, they left a major imprint on the archaeology. Traditional round stone houses were replaced by rectangular villas, and at A Lanzada, things are no different. Or aren’t they?
Rafael points out a Roman complex cutting diagonally across the factory buildings. Inside, you can quite clearly see a roundhouse, but it’s not an indigenous one. It’s Roman, and there is absolutely no doubt about it because when you look closely, you can see that it is structurally conjoined to the building, which is contemporary with the first Roman occupation of the area.
In sum, the Romans were adopting and assimilating indigenous Galician architecture as early as the first century.
Subsumed by the sand dunes
Once the Romans arrived, activity moved over to a much more sheltered part of the site. The factory was no longer in use, and eventually the Roman buildings were also abandoned and subsumed by the sand dunes.
But as we moved round to watch the archaeologists at work in this part of site, something new was emerging from the dunes. Earlier excavations had already recovered several skeletons, including Cornelia; a woman who had been buried around 100AD and surrounded by a ditch, as well as two men who’d had their skulls smashed in and their throats slit sometime between 800-1000AD. Now, we could see the archaeologists carefully extracting the skeletons of two very young babies. For now, their story is one we’ll have to wait for Rafael’s team to uncover.
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