Cebreiro in galicia

Landscapes in Early Medieval Galicia

Galicia in the Early Middle Ages experienced a remarkable series of economic and cultural transformations. In spite of being overrun by barbarians in the beginning of the fifth century, the region quickly bounced back. This evidence is carefully being pieced together by the archaeologist, José Carlos Sánchez Pardo

Iberia 409-429Since Edward Gibbon published his “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” at the end of the 18th century, historians have debated what actually happened after the barbarians swept across Europe in the 5th century. However, as specialists are well aware these scholarly debates were fuelled by a series of political interests from the veneration of what was believed to be the roots of the nations states of Europe to the Pan-Germanic myths embellished by the Nazis in the 20th century. Post WW2 this caused a major trend where historians began to sift the sources once more and discovering that Roman and Barbarian were not in any way distinct categories. In fact, these diverse identities fed upon one another in Late Antiquity and continued to do so up and beyond the Carolingians.

Although this pendulum does seem to have swung back in the 21st century, the main new inspiration fuelling the debate is currently being produced by archaeologists working their way through the masses of unpublished records of excavations carried out in the wake of the large investments in infrastructure, which have been funded by the EU since 1990.

One hotspot of all this seems to be Galicia in the North-Western Part of Spain, where José Carlos Sánchez Pardo – inspired by the work of J. A. Quiros Castillo [2] – have worked to uncover what really took place on the ground.

Despite its many limitations the archaeology has simply revealed a surprising vitality in the economic and social fabric until around AD 650. After this a socio-political fragmentation set in, which dominated the region until the progressive incorporation of Galicia into the Asturian kingdom began to take place.

Galicia – a vibrant periphery

suevic coin
Suevic Coin. Source: SMB, Berlin

Anyone following the old Camino on their way to Santiago de Compostela will have experienced a change in scenery from the flat plains and into a hilly and often mountainous landscape interspersed with forests, lakes and streams, which finally peters out into the ragged coastal landscape characterised by fertile valleys and inlets. As such Galicia enjoys a variety and wealth of natural resources, which was not only used for a diversified agricultural and pastoral economy in the early Middle Ages, but also mining.

This region was vigorous part of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity complete with vibrant cities, smaller towns and many Roman Villas. However, in 468 a Roman, Hydatius [1], who was bishop in Aqua Flavia, present day Chaves in Northern Portugal, wrote a chronicle about the events in the early 5th century after the Sueves, Vandals and Alans had crossed the Pyrenees in Ad 409 and settled in Iberia. As a young man Hydatius had been on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he had met Jerome. At some point he succeeded in laying his hand on his continuation of the chronicle of Eusebius, and Hydatius obviously decided to follow it up until its near-approaching zenith, the long-expected second coming of Christ. To end up there, though, it was of course necessary to experience the Apocalypse. Accordingly his chronicle is interspersed with records of all sorts of ominous portents as well as a depressing catalogue of the barbarians slaughtering and sacking Galician cities as if they were in fact the incarnated Jerusalem in the last days.

Now, there may have been serious warring going on in the first half of the 5th century in Galicia and people may have experienced hefty and violent upheavals in their daily lives, while trying to accommodate to their new barbarian lords and masters. However, it does not seem to have had any long-term effects. Pardo writes how late Roman Galician sites obviously survived the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Small vici (towns or semi-urban settlements) continued to be liveable, as did a number of Roman villas, especially those located on the coast, which benefitted from maritime trade and the production of salt. Although the level of luxury – mosaics, baths, stucco – seems to have been comparatively modest in Galicia, they were not abandoned. To this should be added a network of minor agrarian sites: farms, factories and hamlets, which were spread across the region. Re-occupation of hill-forts seem to have taken place, but cannot univocally be understood as part of a local defence strategy (few traces of hidden treasures).

AD 550 – 650 – a period of consolidation

Santa Comba de Bande near Ourense
Santa Comba de Bande near Ourense. A Visigothic church from the 7th century

Until approximately AD 550 pollen-analysis has shown a sequence of continuous reforestation. But from AD 550 – 650 deforestation and reclamation of land was on the agenda. One particular feature was the intensive reclamation of hilly slopes through terracing (dated through radio-carbon analyses). This is also the time, when Chestnuts were introduced into the landscape.

Linked to this intensification of rural exploitation were also the intensified mining/metallurgical activities, which took place at the same time. This has been documented through analysis of atmospheric lead dispositions. It can be no coincidence that the increase in these mining activities coincided with the end of the Byzantine trade with South-West Britain, writes Pardy. At the same time a peculiar number of local mints have been detected in the region. Suevic and late Visigothic coins were obviously minted “on location”. Perhaps, speculates Pardy, were mining and minting activities run by local elites, given the privilege by the king.

At the same time the inhabitants began to bury their dead in new and fashionable sarcophagi. However, they did not appear to have changed the exact location of the burial ground.

The earliest Christian Chapels and churches in the Galician countryside were of course a number of small buildings located near late Roman villas and can be dated to the fifth and sixth centuries. However from around AD 550 it seems as if proper rural churches does appear in the countryside. In the beginning they were mainly linked to major roads, coasts of major cities (Episcopal sees). These churches were often rich in architectural details. But from around AD 650 a growing number of smaller churches can be detected. This development seems not to have stopped post 714 – 740, when the region was partially occupied by Muslims.

Added to this should be the evidence from Vigo on the West Coast of Galicia, where a vibrant and continuos export-import business have been excavated. It appears that from around AD 550 – 650, Galicians exported gold and tin and imported high-status ceramic ware as ell as wine and other luxuries.

“All the evidence indicates that this was a very specific commercial productive system, controlled by a small but very rich elite”, writes Pardy.

A continuos process

Although it is obvious that transformation was a continuous process and not something, which might be neatly periodised, the changed might be summed up like this:

  • AD 400 – 550 was a complex, but dynamic period characterised by a transformation less than a revolution in the socio-political economy, characterised by a local territorial adaption to the decline of the large cities and villas. The result was a vibrant local territorial form of organisation characterised by scattered hamlets and farms laying the foundations for the new physical reorganization of the landscape and settlement structures, which unfolded during the next period and which is still in existence today.
  • AD 550 – 650 was a vibrant period, in which a rich elite succeeded in controlling an important export/import trade of metallurgical products, the result of decentralised and local mining operations pared with local agricultural intensification – terracing, new crops etc. Part of the visual remains of this system was the development of a new fashion for rich burials as well as the erections of new fortified places, located high up and supervising the roads transporting the metallurgical products from the mining communities to the coasts. Central to this flourishing was the activities of a royally privileged supra-regional elite.
  • AD 650 – 800 It is conceivable that the period after 650 was characterised by a retreat to the local level and the slow unfolding of a village structure. Long-distance trade from Vigo petered out while community elites seem to have taken over, witnessed by the increased foundations of private churches and the bishops’ progressive loss of control. Finally it was during this period that reoccupation of local hill-forts increased, witnessing to the growth of more local elites. A certain rural though not necessarily poor isolation can thus be detected.
  • Post AD 800 witnessed a new period of growth spurred on by the immigration of people from Southern Spain and the construction of a new supra-regional elite connected with the Asturian kingdom, plus the reconstruction of a more organised religious landscape dominated by reinvented episcopal structures, the building of new monasteries and the formation of the cult of St. James post 813 linking Galicia with the rest of Northern Spain.

The work of Pardo is extremely interesting. More than anything it documents the need to incorporate the results of last 50 years of medieval archeology into our present rewriting of the history of the middle ages. If old myths and tales are sifted carefully once more we may in fact know much more than which biblical texts the ancient chroniclers reformulated in their need to comprehend what happened during the formative years of the beginning of the Middle Ages.

Karen Schousboe


Power and rural landscapes in early medieval Galicia (400–900 ad): towards a re-incorporation of the archaeology into the historical narrative
By:  José Carlos Sánchez Pardo
In: Early Medieval Europe, Volume 21, Issue 2, pages 140–168, May 2013 (Open Access)


[1] Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana. Two contemporary accounts of the final years of the Roman Empire. Ed. and translated by R. W. Burgess
Clarendon press
Oxford 1993

[2] The Archaeology of Early medieval Villages in Europe.
Ed by J. A. Quiros Castillo
Bilbao 2009


Santa Mariña de Augas Santas


Turismo prerrómanico


José Carlos Sánchez Pardo is Honorary Research Assistant at University College London, Institute of Archaeology and affiliated to the University of Santiago de Compostela, Historia I, Marie Curie CIG Postdoctoral Researcher / Plan I2C Xunta de Galicia