Archaeology of the medieval peasantry: the village of Zaballa (2012). Abstract


This volume gathers the results of the archaeological project at the medieval site of Zaballa (Iruña de Oca, Álava) which has taken place over more than 20 months of fieldwork and had consisted of two years of data compilation and laboratory analysis. This archaeological project has by necessity adopted a preventive character as a consequence of the construction of a big public project which had totally affected a deserted medieval village.

Zaballa is documented since 1025 and was occupied until the mid 15thcentury. As with other deserted villages from the Alava province –which are very hard to find on the surface due to they lack of monumental structures, even in those cases in which old place names remained–, are recorded under the legal category of ‘Area of Archaeological Presumption' (Zona de Presunción Arqueológica).

The main aim of the first phase of the project of Zaballa was to locate the site, to evaluate the potential of the archaeological remains and to design the intensive archaeological intervention. In the second phase, an area of more than 3 has. of surface was excavated, although it was not possible to determine the depth of the site, in fact, some sectors of the archaeological area had beeb hugely affected by the public construction works. During the third phase more than thirty specialists have analysed the archaeobiological, geoarcheological and all the archaeological evidence recovered in the intervention. As a result, we can conclude that the site of Zaballa was occupied between the 6thand 17thcentury.
The first period of occupation is dated between the 6thand 7thcentury and is characterized by a low intensity settlement. It is a little site consisting of a limited number of peasant domestic units.

Around 700 AD the densification of the site led to the formation of the village. The peasant community, which occupied an extension of more than 9000 m2, had a diversified economy in order to reduce risks linked to agrarian specialization. Although the community shows clear social differentiation, such differences as exist are not represented by means of architecture or material evidence.

A church dedicated to Saint Tirso was constructed in the centre of the medieval village by external elite groups around 950 AD. The construction of the church moved the settlement to the valley, which was notably transformed. A series of agrarian terraces and other material elements related with the productive activities executed in the village can be dated to this moment. Among the main manorial markers it is worth noting the big silos used for rent storage, which lay in the proximity of the church.

In the 11th and 12th century the emergence of acute social differentiations within the peasant community is attested: such as, for example 30 coin treasure hoard dated to around 1100 AD or the finding of a series of bronze- made personal jewellery in one of the dwellings. In the latter century the transformation of the medieval manorial church in a parish for the peasant community took place provoking a series of significant reforms in the ecclesiastic building.

In the 13th Zaballa suffered a deep transformation probably due to its integration inside the area of control of one of the main seignorial groups organized within the Cofradía de Álava. After the migration of part of the inhabitants of the village, particularly the richest ones, the houses of the farmers were rebuilt in the western slope of the valley, following a planed and organized constructive outline. Under these new dwellings, which use urban constructive models, a massive agrarian filling and a new canal system that irrigated all the productive space were done at the bottom of the valley, where the earlier dwellings were sited. The important social investment that this works supposed can be explained as the result of an attempt to increase the rents produced by the residents of Zaballa.

This reduction of the demographical entity of Zaballa explains the vulnerability of the peasant community that determined the final desertion of the 15thcentury. At the beginning of the century the village belonged to the Canciller of Ayala's widow, who donated it to the monastery of Santa Catalina de Badaya. The monastery, which was interested principally in the gathering of rents through the exploitation of Zaballa, not only did not prevent the demographical reduction of the village, and, in fact, ecclesiastical dominion also led the establishment of rent contracts with the peasants of others villages, such as Subijana, first, and Nanclares afterwards. For this reason, since 1450 AD the site lacks of any kind of archeological evidence of permanent inhabitants and only the old church of Saint Tirso –restored in this period– remains in place.

At the beginning of the 17th century the monastery of Badaya sold Zaballa to some neighbours of Nanclares, probably because they were not able to obtain sufficient resources from it. At this moment, and in a short period, the old church was transformed into a dwelling. But around the middle of that century this construction was abandoned as well and plundered. Its ruin closed for ever the long story of Zaballa.