An Archaeological Field Report- ZC’18

This is an academic style field report of Gabby Richardson’s excavation experiences in Zorita Castle. 

Field Report: Archaeological Field Excavations in Zorita Castle – July 1st-19th, 2018
By: Gabby Richardson

History of Zorita Castle

Located in the small village of Zorita de los Canes, Zorita Castle was an occupied functioning medieval fortress from the 9th to 15th century. Using stonework looted from the Visigoth Recopolis nearby, Zorita Castle was built by northern African armies during the Berber and Moorish conquests of Spain (ArchaeoSpain 2018). It was a central location during military endeavours and conquests between Muslim and Christian armies, and at one point the castle even controlled one of only three bridges along Spain’s longest river – the Tagus (ArchaeoSpain 2018). 

The main occupants of the fortress were the Calatrava Order. Born in Castilla-La Mancha region during the 12th century, the order defended Christian positions and territory. Zorita Castle provided the Calatrava order refuge to re-strengthen and re-organize their army after defeat during the Battle of Alarcos in July of 1195 (ArchaeoSpain 2018). Throughout the 15th century, occupants moved their living quarters to nearby villages and towns- leaving the castle to ruin (ArchaeoSpain 2018).

Zorita Castle, Zorita de los Canes, Spain
Tagus River – Zorita de los Canes, Spain

History of The Cemetery

I participated in the excavation that took place at the castle’s cemetery located south of the castle’s San Benito Church built in the 12th century by the knights of the Calatrava order. A disruption occurred in this area when part of the Church collapsed in the 1950s (Interview with Dr. Dionisio, July 17th, 2018).

There are few known details about the cemetery – it was only vaguely mentioned in documents outlining repairs made during the 16th century and the only initial physical evidence was a possible tomb stone cover (ArchaeoSpain 2018). Excavations conducted in this cemetery have and continue to shed light on information regarding the inhabitants of the castle, along with a timeline of the castle structure constructed by different occupants. Based on previously excavated skeletons, the cemetery was primarily used for males aged 25-50 years old- supporting the idea that such individuals were Calatrava knights or clergy (Dr. Dionisio, July 17th 2018). Tombs and graves discovered at this 12th century cemetery- despite the time period, contained one or a combination of: wood coffins, stone walls, tomb stone covers (Dr. Dionisio, July 17th 2018).

Details surrounding a room located in the east section of the cemetery, supposedly designated as a temporal living quarters for the Zorita priest, leaves questions about the room’s inhabitants and use (Dr. Dionisio, July 17th 2018). This room was found to be built on top of the cemetery in the 14th century and was referred to in repair documents during the 16th century (ArchaeoSpain 2018).

Excavation Experiences

Site Clearing/ Unit Measuring

The first day on site was spent clearing the area of plants and debris. The unit we were going to be digging in for three weeks was measured 4 metres wide and 18 metres long using the Pythagorean Theorem. Our site director, Dr. Dionisio, then designated different areas within the unit. Area 1 a)- the west side of the unit where superficial tombs were found, Area 1 b) – the trench, Area 2 – “The Room” and Area 3-tombs 26 and 27.

While clearing the entire unit my team and I found skeletal remains and pieces of ceramic. Some bone fragments were animal bones and the majority were human remains. Ceramic/ pottery finds in this area were small, mostly white in colour and some were glazed. A few members of the team began clearing the trench (Area 1. b) and found larger fragments of a human tibia, pelvis and rib. As these were our first finds, Dr. Dionisio and our osteologist expert Victor Barrera Alarcón taught us how to make labels and bag artifacts found, listing the location, date, stratigraphic unit, area and type of object. We were also instructed to leave bone fragments in the shade as sun exposure leads to bleaching, in turn destroying DNA material the bone may have. This first day acquainted myself and the rest of the team with the tools we would be using which consisted of large and smaller brushes, trowels, pick axes, tape measures and buckets.

On the second day, the team and I learned how to calculate the zero point – a base level measurement that changed daily according to where and how the site level was set up. Each time we calculated a level measurement on site, one person would stand in the area with a measuring stick and the other would look through the scope and record the measurement they could see in the centre of their view. The zero point was then subtracted from this level, and level measurements were always negative. Levels were calculated throughout the dig when an area was dug significantly deeper, or an artifact/ skeleton was found.

Zorita Castle Cemetery – Pre Dig
Zorita Castle Cemetery- Post Dig

Digging in “The Room”

The first day spent in this area consisted of picking through the first layer of the room floor, about 10-15cm down. I worked alongside two other team members to pick through layers of gypsum plaster, pebbles and sandstone. While digging in this area we came across many roof tile fragments. According to Dr. Dionisio, this was evidence that the floor was made of a variety of leftover building material, or the floor of the room was actually built on top of an existing structure. Some of the most interesting initial finds to come out of this floor excavation in the first day were ceramic fragments. Part of a handle of a jar – honey in colour, was found, and rounded pieces perfectly fitting the ceramic’s colour and shape like a puzzle were found. There was also a manganese and green piece of ceramic found, along with a rock that was worked into a half circle crescent – probably part of a vessel. Based on the stratigraphic unit (SU), 127, these pieces dated from the mid 14th century to the beginning of the mid 15th century.

“The Room” – Zorita Castle Cemetery
Part of a jar handle – Zorita Castle Cemetery

The discovery of baby bones by my teammates and I were some of the most interesting finds during the excavation. Within the first few days on site baby bones were found in the floor of the room (Area 2) at SU:128. This discovery rose questions as to why a child was buried in this cemetery area that consisted of tombs belonging to older males. Based on observations of our osteologist expert, the baby’s radius and tibia length would give it an approximate age of 9 months to 1.5 years old (Victor Barrera Alarcón, Personal Communication, July 26th, 2018).

Baby bone found in “The Room” – ZC’18

In addition to the discovery of a baby’s grave, coins were found in Area 2. During this time we learned how to conduct triangulation measurements to pinpoint the exact location of the coin. This involved using a pointed metal weight hanging from a string called a plumb bob (invented by the Romans). Old film canisters were used to store the coins and protect them from sunlight exposure. The coins were especially valuable finds in confirming the dates of the stratigraphy we were digging in and the area itself. The two coins found in the room can be dated back to the time of Alfonso XI: 1312-1350 (Dr. Dionisio, Personal Communication, July 29th 2018). Two other coins found in Area 1 a) require additional analysis in order to definitively date them.

Days 7 and 8: Area 1. a)

While digging in Area 1 with my partner a week after beginning excavations of the cemetery in Zorita Castle, we found stone tomb slabs in the superficial layer of SU:1. Our site director has a phrase regarding the discovery of rock walls and tombs- “One rock is a rock. Two rocks in a line are a coincidence. Three rocks in a line is a wall”. Once we found the third stone slab we knew this discovery was promising. As we dug deeper around this apparent tomb I came across a large hole on the east side of the tomb edge. Dr. Dionisio believes it was an animal hole, and we found it led directly underneath the tomb. This was one of the many signs of the natural decomposition process we found while digging in graves – along with small mouse skeletons found by my colleagues in the vicinity of tombs in the deep trench (Area 1. b).

Area 1 Tomb “animal hole” – ZC’18

Tombs 22, 26 and 27

On Day 9 in the field, I began excavating Tomb 22, which was an uncovered grave in Area 1. a). There were several finger bones such as phalanges, carpals and metacarpals found scattered in this tomb, along with half a mandible, three femurs and a tibia, meaning it belonged to more than one skeleton and was likely disturbed during the Church’s collapse in the 1950s. While excavating this grave I got my first hands-on experience working with bones. Removing the remains involved a lot of careful brushing (around the bone, not on the bone itself) and using picks and airbrushes to remove dirt. Some bones were quite damaged or frail, making it nearly impossible to remove without the bone fragmenting into tiny pieces.

After excavating this tomb, I began digging close to the Church wall (north part of the site) to bring down this area layer by layer to roughly the same level as tomb 22. While digging through the first few layers there were several human foot bone fragments, especially beside tomb 22. We also found several wood fragments – part of what would have been the coffin. It was especially evident that this was another area of tombs once we found several coffin nails in close proximity to the wood, and bone fragments also in the same area. These tombs were clearly disrupted at some point, and large rocks were found scattered throughout these superficial layers. However, one large stone found by my partner and I was believed to be a broken tomb stone, based on the shape and indented pick marks. We removed this stone and found several shattered bone fragments underneath it. Such evidence led the site director and osteologist to designate this area as containing two separate tombs – 26 and 27. As this area was much lower than the level of Area 1. a), almost like a trench of its own, it was labelled Area 3.

For the last four days on site, I was digging in tombs 26 and 27. During my first day digging and carefully brushing in this area, my partner and I found a very significant amount of coffin wood – some in perfect lines and others very fragmented. We also found several coffin nails, some even in rows while brushing the surface of these graves. Tomb 26 had part of a stone wall outlining the grave, while tomb 27 had no apparent walls but a significant amount of coffin wood. The most common bones and bone fragments found in these two tombs were foot bones – metatarsals, phalanges, calcaneus’s, and tarsals. They were scattered and located on the east side of the tomb and unit.

Coffin Wood – Zorita Castle Cemetery 

On the second last day while continuing to dig deeper in tomb 26 we found two feet of a human skeleton in perfect anatomical position. They were found within the only part of the tomb’s standing wall. While brushing this area and leveling the tomb to the same level at which the foot bones were found, there were no femurs or fibulas found connecting the feet to a full skeleton. However, on the last day to our surprise, as we dug a thin layer deeper we found another human skeletal foot in anatomical position farther down but in between the two other feet shown. These new foot bones found were different in colour and as they were found at a different layer, our osteologist expert Victor explained there were two bodies buried on top of each other in this grave. In order to find a fourth foot in this tomb, my partner and I removed the dirt wall we formed around the tomb, and the other foot did lie towards the left of the third one found. This skeleton’s feet were attached to a tibia and fibula- also in anatomical position. These bones were all found within the outline of the stone wall in tomb 26- and likely well preserved because of it as the rest of the body was fragmented and scattered. Perhaps the most surprising find in tomb 26 was part of a cranium in the centre. Part of a mandible and several teeth were found close to the cranium along with several metacarpals and finger phalanges. In order to discover if tomb 27 was the same in nature my partner and I dug deeper in the area but bones were no longer found. There are possibly more bones buried deeper in this area, but as this was the last day of our excavation, this was a task left for the next team.

“The Three Feet” – ZC’18
Tomb 26- ZC’18

Additional Important Findings Throughout Excavation

Members of my team had interesting discoveries and different finds while digging in this unit. In the first week, the most captivating find was the covered tomb of the skeleton later named “Lord Brock”. This tomb – Tomb 17 was located in area 1. b) – the deep trench. The tomb had solid and intact stone covers, and upon removal there was a skeleton in perfect anatomical position. Based on the level of the stratigraphy, this skeleton was likely from the 12th century.

“Lord Brock”- Zorita Castle Cemetery

Additionally, several bones were found in what was designated Area 1. b) – the narrow hallway-like section east of the main trench area where “Lord Brock” was found. This hallway contained several skeletons’ remains that were scattered and appeared to lack order. To name a few, a pelvis, a cranium, scapulae, mandibles were found throughout this narrow area.

 (Source: Anna Stormoen)

In the deep trench of Area 1 another skeleton was found in an extremely narrow tomb – the walls were so close together that the skeleton in between was crushed. Although the side of the tomb’s stone wall had a part of the wooden coffin still intact. In order to consolidate the wood a solution containing glue and acetone was applied, left to dry and eventually removed.

Two of my teammates excavating Tomb 21 in the trench also found the mandible of a skeleton completely open. Our osteologist expert Victor explained that this is a cadaveric movement which signifies the individual was buried in an empty tomb. In the vicinity of this skeleton a metal belt buckle was also found – which could be additional evidence these individuals were in fact Calatrava knights.

Overall, these findings by my team members and I contribute to the body of evidence supporting the timeline estimated for castle inhabitants and construction. Ceramic pieces found contributed to evidence dating stratigraphy but also to the cultural knowledge of people inhabiting Zorita castle at that time. Structural discoveries of walls and building materials contribute to our understanding of construction practices used by groups that supposedly inhabited the castle at that time. Skeletons found were identified as male on site (based on observational characteristics) and are similar in description to previous ones excavated – supporting the claim that Calatrava knights were buried in this cemetery. Although some findings add detail, there are many that stir up more questions, such as: “Why was a baby found in ‘The Room’?”, “Was this room actually used by a Priest?” and “Why were only some individuals buried in stone tombs?”. These are just a few of the questions that keep us digging!

Zorita Castle

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