How fascinating is a buried soil?

If you read my last post, you’ll recall how I got excited about the impressive waterlogged remains of pressed grapes, hinting at agricultural change in 8th century Byzantine Italy. This time I’m staying in the 8th century but shifting onto Spanish soil. Soil, in fact, is the star of this show, but don’t let that put you off. To non-archaeological folk, the idea of a buried soil may seem surprising or boring, but it’s actually a very useful thing to study.

I was privileged recently to have the opportunity of presenting some of my work on Anglo-Saxon grain ovens to the Society for Medieval Archaeology’s student colloquium, hosted by the University of Cardiff. It was a great conference, with that vibrant and encouraging atmosphere that you often get at “early career” gatherings. But anyway, one of the papers particularly caught my attention, for it was directly concerned with “farming unearthed”. What’s more, the research has just been published in the Journal of Arid Environments (I confess, not one that I’d read before), so I thought it deserved a little review here.

The context here is the creation of al-Andalus, which is to say, the
Iberian peninsula under Arabic control after the incursions of AD 711. This change of government also seems to have entailed changes in agriculture, involving exotic new edibles like lemons and cucumbers, and the related introduction of new irrigation systems (p.46). This paper looks at the development of an irrigated terrace system in the Ricote valley in south-east Spain. Essentially, they excavated part of an agricultural terrace and took samples of the soil from both within and below the terrace. The latter is the buried soil, representing the ground surface prior to the construction of the terraces. Charcoal was recovered from this soil, and radiocarbon-dated to between AD 647 and 778 (2-sigma, if you like to know that sort of thing). Puy and Balbo offer the theory that this charcoal concentration represents the clearance of vegetation by intentional burning, in order to make room for the terraces in the Arabic era – the radiocarbon range would seem to allow for the possibility of pre-AD711 burning, but post-AD711 arguably offers a more plausible historical context.

I’m not a geoarchaeologist, so some of the other results in this study aren’t quite intelligible to me. But it’s interesting to see how, despite the shortage of surviving plant remains (possibly due to alkaline conditions), the authors can make suggestions about growing conditions before the terraces were made: “shallow, coarse, poor in organic material and nutrients, dry and saline” soils (p.51).

In all, this work provides a neat little window on Andalusian agricultural change in the 8th (or, just possibly, 7th) century AD, using approaches which the authors reckon could usefully be extended to other such sites in the region. I’ll watch with interest. And by the by, isn’t it rather interesting that once again we have significant innovations in farming in the 7th/8th century? For it’s in the 8th century that things seem to have changed in the Byzantine heel of Italy. Likewise, contemporary changes are evident in Irish and Anglo-Saxon farming too, as I recall, and possibly elsewhere in places I haven’t investigated yet. Innovative farming around the same time, in wildly different places with different climates, politics and economic situations? I think this is a phenomenon which may in itself call for another blog post… or else a thesis.


Puy, A. & Balbo, A.L. (2013). “The genesis of irrigated terraces in al-Andalus. A geoarchaeological perspective on intensive agriculture in semi-arid environments (Ricote, Murcia, Spain)”, Journal of Arid Environments 89, pp.45-56.


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