The Gatas Project

Gatas landscapeThe Gatas project studies the social and economic changes of the successive prehistoric communities that occupied the site of Gatas, and exploited its immediate hinterland in the lower Aguas valley, on the southern edge of the Vera basin (Almería province, southeast Spain). The site has been known since the excavations of the Siret brothers in 1886, but there have been no systematic excavations since that date, and no reliable stratigraphic data or absolute dates were known for Gatas, or for sites in the south of the Vera basin, before the current project.

Within the broader context of southeast Spain, the Vera basin has a key sequence of Copper and Bronze Age settlements which show evidence for the emergence of social inequalities from the third to the second millennia BC.

Aerial view of excavationsThis sequence is viewed by many as being one of increasingly 'complex' societies, and is widely cited in textbooks on prehistoric Europe. Although the archaeological record of this basin has been known since the 1880s, it is only in the last three decades that models of local development have been proposed, albeit without the kind of controlled data on absolute chronology, subsistence, environmental change etc. that is required. Models differ especially in terms of the degree of environmental change that is supposed to have taken place since the third millennium BC. Given that lowland southeast Spain is the driest area in Europe, and subject to desertification at the present day, this is a critical problem that requires new fieldwork.

Cist burialCurrently they have revealed a structural sequence of Bronze Age houses and their internal cist and urn burials, proceeded by traces of Copper Age occupation and succeeded, after a gap of a millennium, by Moorish occupation. Gatas has also yielded the largest number of radiocarbon dates of any later prehistoric settlement in Spain, enabling the proposal of a detailed absolute chronology from c.2800-900 BC.

Among the most exciting discoveries at Gatas has been the evidence for political control of the subsistence economy during the Bronze Age. Faunal and floral samples support the inference of predominantly dry farming of barley, with some wet farming of legumes, as is also seen at the contemporary settlement of Fuente Alamo, in the north of the Vera basin. Barley monoculture was practised c.1700-1500 BC and production was intensified.The larger Bronze Age population in the Vera basin was concentrated at this time in hilltop settlements like Gatas and Fuente Alamo, away from the larger areas of cultivable land. What is surprising is the concentration of evidence for the processing of food in these sites, as opposed to the valley bottom sites also known from the Bronze Age. The numbers of grinding stones at Gatas and Fuente Alamo, as well as other Bronze Age settlements in southeast Spain, suggest that surplus production was under way and under centralised political control. This evidence of social exploitation, whereby primary producers in the valley bottom do not have control over the crops they cultivate, is unparalleled in the western Mediterranean at this time.

Axe mouldAnother line of enquiry has been the source characterisation of metals used for Bronze Age artefacts at Gatas and other sites in the Vera basin. This has been undertaken by the Isotrace Laboratory at Oxford University. Although it has been argued that Copper and Bronze Age settlements in the Vera basin were self-sufficient in metal production, using immediately local sources and not requiring specialised production, lead isotope analyses do not so far support this interpretation.

No matches can be found with local sources and the nearest possible sources analysed are in the upper Guadalquivir valley, or even further away in the region of Seville and Huelva. Further analyses of metal sources and artefacts (including those of Copper Age date) are needed to support this inference of the use of distant rather than local sources. If distant sources were used, then we need to think carefully about the extent to which they were politically controlled. Evidence for the production of artefacts such as axes is found on Bronze Age settlements in southeast Spain, whether or not the sources exploited were local.

The study of environmental change at Gatas has to be placed within the context of data derived from a variety of other, recent excavations and surveys within the Vera basin, as well as from two European Union projects, Archeomedes (1992-94) and Aguas (1994-96). Oxygen isotope analyses of sea shells from stratified and dated contexts at Gatas show that the average annual temperature was the same, if not slightly higher, at the beginning of the second millennium BC, but fell by 2.5°C from c.1500-1000 BC. Evidence of soil erosion occurs before the Copper Age and before the Roman occupation, while vegetation degradation is traced through pollen and charcoal analyses from the third to the second millennia BC. This degradation was a response to expansive cultivation systems (such as barley monoculture) and the clearance of timber. Further evidence of environmental change is documented from historic periods, and especially from recent centuries. This sequence of environmental degradation provides a long-term record that needs to be considered by those framing and implementing policy on landscape use in the Vera basin at the present day.

In addition to publications in Spanish, details of the Gatas project may be seen in Antiquity (volume 73, 1999, pp.846-56), while the longer term record of population and environmental degradation in the Vera basin is published in the European Journal of Archaeology (volume 3(1), 2000, pp.31-50).


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