Monday, July 15, 2013

Digging the Dead

Map showing location of Vaccean territory with Pintia highlighted.
Madrid is due south of Pintia. (Map courtesy of Carlos Sanz and
the Centro de Estudios Vacceos 'Federico Wattenberg').
As my Fearless Readers will know, I am in Spain on a trip of which the main event is a month-long archaeological dig in an ancient Celtic cemetery, or necropolis as they say in the business.  After a couple of days in the capital, I met the dig organizers and other volunteers (eight of us in total) at the airport, and we piled into a van and a car and off we drove north in the direction of Burgos.  After about an hour and a half of traveling in some of the most beautiful and rugged countryside I have seen, through the Sierra de Guadarrama and onto the broad plateau lands of the Meseta Central, we reached the Duero River and turned west towards Valladolid.  After passing through a town called Peñafiel, which you can spot from a couple of miles away due to its brooding
The Peñafiel castle looming over the Plaza de Coso where they hold
castle perched on a high tor above the town, we arrived at the little town of Padilla de Duero, official population 68 souls on a good day (see below).
  This is where the center for the dig is located, and where we call home; the actual dig site is a mere quarter mile or so from town. 

The area of Spain we are in is part of the dual province (or Communidad Aútonomo – roughly the equivalent of a U.S. state[1]) of Castile-Léon.  This is the breadbasket of Spain, while much of the rest of the country is either too mountainous or not fertile enough for large-scale agriculture.  The Duero River Valley, locals will tell you, is the most fertile of all the lands of Spain – here is where much of the nation’s grain is produced, as well as fruits, vegetables and, most important of all to hear the locals talk, wine.  (On which topic more later…).

This region was just as fertile and varied millennia ago as it is today, and therefore was magnet for human settlement from the dawn of modern man.  2,500 years ago, a large part of the Duero Valley was home to a group of Celtic-speaking people called the Vacceans (or Vacceae).  The rest of Spain was inhabited by various other Celtic and ‘Iberian’ peoples.  The Vacceans controlled a vast territory and developed quite large city-states, of which the Celtic (and subsequently Roman) town of Pintia was prominent.  The site we call Pintia
The fertileDuero River valley from the castle of Peñafiel.  The landscape is
dottedwith fields of wheat, potatoes and, most especially, vineyards.
today had a population of as many as 5,000 or more, at any given time, pretty much continuously for some six centuries.  The oppida (a Roman word for a fortified settlement, typically situated on a hilltop) itself was protected by an impressive wall and ditch system and has been extensively excavated since the 1870s.  Called Las Quintanas, it had an adjacent artisanal quarter where the production of ceramics reached industrial proportions, as well as an extensive necropolis, which was discovered in the late 1970s.  The current focus of excavation is that cemetery, with the intention of getting a better grasp on the day-to-day lives of the Vacceans through the ‘archaeology of death.’  Thus far 260 tombs have been discovered and excavated, most since the outset of the current century.  This may seem like a lot of tombs until one starts to do the math.  Conservatively, if one takes 5,000 as the average population over the course of some 20 generations, simple math hints at tens of thousands of tombs in this place over the six centuries of occupation. 

The majority of the burials in the vast necropolis of Las Ruedas, as it is known, are cremation interments  in which the ash and bone products of a massive funeral pyre were placed in urns and buried in pits along with various personal items as well as ritual offerings (in the biz these ‘grave goods’ are known as the funeral trousseau).  Some of the warrior-aristocratic elite were ‘exposed’, rather than cremated; they were left in the open for the vultures to devour and then the bones were collected and buried as customary.  This may sound gruesome and even insulting to modern sensibilities, but these ‘sky burials’ were a great honor, since the vulture was regarded as a sacred bird which transported one’s soul directly to the afterlife.[2]

The dig site on the first, hard, hot day at work.  It is a bee-hive of activity,
with people using pick and shovel to remove the soil, screeners sifting the dirt
for artifacts, and people moving wheelbarrows full of dirt to the ever-growing mound
in the background, as well as loads of large stones and gravel.
All this is a rather abbreviated introduction to what your Intrepid Traveler is doing grubbing around in the dirt of north-central Spain.

We dig from Wednesday until Sunday, with Monday off for rest and recuperation (much needed, believe you me!) and Tuesday for excursions.  There are also lecture-seminars and workshops here and there.  We typically arrive at the site at about 7:00 am – I love watching the early-morning sun rise over the hills in the east as we walk to the site.  We work until about 1:00 (with a break for snack), by which time it is getting quite hot, and close up shop for the afternoon.  Lunch is at about 2:30, followed by that lovely, eminently civilized institution known as the la siesta.  You can nap or not; I usually opt for nap rather than not.  By 5:30 we are back at the site for 2-3 hours of work in the evening.  Dinner is at about 9:30, after which most of us are to be found around the corner at Padilla’s only pub talking and laughing and socializing with the locals.  Bedtime is…well, rather late some nights shall we say.  I feel as if I am operating on a constant sleep deficit, but that is also partly due to the arduous nature of the work.
Start of the day at the site our second day (note awning and umbrellas).
In the eastern quadrant you can see the beginnings of the large stone
stelae we uncovered.  By now these are all completely exposed and
will be removed on our next day at the site.
The first day just about did most of us volunteers in.  We started on a Saturday at the peak of a heat wave.  They had not yet set up the awning or brought out the café umbrellas, so we worked in the blazing sun for the two shifts.  And it was hard work – not the neat, trowel and brush work one associates with archaeology, but tough pick-and-shovel digging to get down to the level of the tombs some four feet deep.  Over the next few workdays we moved tremendous amounts of earth and rock (lots of rock!) in buckets and wheelbarrows to a growing hill of debris.  Each bucket had first to be screened for artifacts, for even though the tomb level is pretty deep, after the first few inches of dirt, one starts to find shards of pottery and, as one delves deeper, fragments of bone (both animal and human) and some iron and bronze objects.  All the time we were being given directions in Spanish (translated by ‘Lovely Rita,’ the wonderful young Portuguese translator and archaeological staffer), as well as in mixed Spanglish and a lot of hand gestures. (More on the staff here at Pintia later…).  At any rate, given the heat, the hard work, and the inevitable confusion due to language and unfamiliarity to the work for most of us, by the end of the first day we were a sweat-drenched, bone-tired, and mentally exhausted bunch by the end of that first day at work.  I am sure many of us – myself included – wondered just what the hell we had gotten into.
Heading back to Padillo de Duero after a long day 'in the trenches.'
Still, Sunday and subsequent days were much better as the temperature moderated somewhat (from over 100° F to the upper 90°s and gradually downwards).  Plus, blissfully, the first thing we did evening shift on the first day, was to set up an awning over site and bring in some café umbrellas to shield those screening the dirt from the unrelenting sun.  That definitely perked us up!  Also, as we got deeper and deeper, and found more and more and varied artifacts and bones, we began to sense the presence of tombs beneath us.  One dead give-away was the emergence of a number of large limestone stelae that were typically used as grave markers by the Vacceans.[3]  These are concentrated in the eastern quadrant of our double excavation (each unit is 4 x 4 meters – so we are excavating an 8 x 4 meter pit), so digging that section is pretty interesting as well as extra challenging and quite a bit slower going. 

Just two pieces of pottery I happened upon at the dig in the first days.
At left, the bottom of a ceramic jar; at right, a lovely, handmade and
decorated part of a child's rattle.
As I write this, it is the second Monday of the dig, and I have been enjoying the first morning of quiet to write before everyone wakes up for a day of leisure – involving a trip to Peñafiel for personal supplies, and perhaps some local touring.  We have worked feverishly the past few days under a deadline to get the site ready for the removal of the largest stelae on Wednesday when we return to the site.  That will be a pivotal moment, a sort of starting gun for the real fun work of finding and excavating the tombs below.  About which, as I am wont to say, more later….

In descending order of prominence, here are the major cities and towns in the area:

Valladolid (elev. 2,290’, founded 1072, current population 311,501) is the closest city; it is 190km/118mi NNW of Madrid . Originally settled by the Celtic Vaccae (same as we're digging up), then inhabited under Roman occupation until it was officially re-established when King Alfonso VI of Castile gave it to some bloke he owed a favor to (Count Pedro Ansúrez). The town lies at the juncture of three wine regions. Also, Cervantes lived here for three years while finishing up Don Quijote de la Mancha in 1606. Currently, it is a university town and a center of the auto industry. 

Peñafiel, 55km/34mi due east of Valladolid, is the nearest medium town (elev. 2766’, pop. 5,500). It known for its Reconquista-era castle, and its medieval town square, the Plaza Del Coso, which is used for bullfights. Also, during the Middle Ages it had as many as 19 churches. 

Padilla de Duero (elev. 2,477’) is a tiny hamlet of 68 souls 4km/2.5mi west of Peñafiel. The dig site is a few hundred meters north-west of the village. There is no castle, or anything else (1 church only), for that matter, of fame or import. Just a few local bodegas (wine cellars) and one very convivial pub.

Pintia, the site of a Celtic city-state (Las Quintanas) and necropolis (Las Ruedas), is the name the Romans gave the site when they got around to naming stuff. Population some tens of thousands of 2,000-year-old dead Vacceans.

[1] Governmental power in Spain has, for centuries, vacillated between centralization in Madrid, and a more decentralized (quasi-Federal, in US terminology) impetus.  This dialectic has been especially pronounced in the last 150 years or so.  Currently, after four decades of extreme centralization under Franco ended in the mid-1970s, decentralization prevails. 
[2] To this day there is a continuity of belief regarding the vulture.  It is the custom here to leave dead livestock in the open to feed the vultures.  Unfortunately, the government has decided that this is ‘unhygienic,’ and is trying to put a stop to it.  Besides disrupting long-held custom, this has had the effect of turning carrion-eating vultures into birds of prey – for lack of already dead food, they have begun killing young livestock.  Apparently our government in the US has no monopoly on idiocy.
[3] They have confirmed that at least some of these large stone monoliths were quarried some four miles away; there is no limestone in the immediate vicinity of the necropolis.  This must have been quiet a production, dragging these huge rocks across the valley; the Vacceans clearly took death and the afterlife very seriously.

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