15.05.12, Valor and Gutiérrez, eds., Archaeology of Medieval Spain

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Miguel Dolan Gómez

The Medieval Review 15.05.12

Valor, Magdalena, and Avelino Gutiérrez, eds. The Archaeology of Medieval Spain, 1100-1500. Studies in the Archaeology of Medieval Europe. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing, 2014. pp. xiii, 336. ISBN: 9781845531737 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Miguel Dolan Gómez
University of Dayton

The study of material culture has long been central to understanding the history of medieval Spain. Experts such as Thomas Glick or Maria Rosa Menocal, to name but two, have demonstrated the ways in which the dynamic cultural changes of the Middle Ages manifested themselves in the art and architecture of the Iberian Peninsula. Nevertheless, the artificial walls that delineate our academic fields and specializations often prove particularly hard to climb or talk over. This seems to be especially true of archaeology, which often appears quite foreign to humanities scholars. Perhaps it is the scientific characteristics of archaeology that reinforces this barrier, but whatever the reason, the study of the culture and history of this complex region and period would certainly benefit from overcoming it. To that end, The Archaeology of Medieval Spain is a well-organized, nicely produced, and most welcome book. Lavishly appointed with pictures, maps, and diagrams from a wide variety of archaeological sites, this book certainly accomplishes the stated goals of its authors, "to introduce the current state of Spanish archaeology of the Middle Ages to fellow experts in other academic fields, as well as to a wider reading public (13). Although the book is an edited volume, with seven major authors and more than a dozen others who contributed smaller "Special Topics" essays, the bulk of the work was done by the principal editors and writers, Magdalena Valor of the Universidad de Sevilla and Avelino Gutiérrez of the Universidad de Oviedo. It is part of the Studies in the Archaeology of Medieval Europe series published by Equinox Publishing, and edited by Neil Christie and John Schofield, who wrote the forward for the present volume.

The Archaeology of Medieval Spain is divided into eleven thematic chapters that cover an impressive breadth of archaeological investigations. The first chapters outlines the history of medieval archaeology in Spain, noting in particular the importance of the 1985 Patrimonio Histórico law, which reorganized and helped to fund a swell of new projects, especially "rescue digs" of threatened sites (8). The chapter also emphasizes the embarrassment of riches that archaeologists are confronted with in Spain, as the country's modern economic and political history have left a relatively large proportion of medieval sites and buildings intact today. The second chapter, "Rural Settlement and Landscape," is divided into a section on al-Andalus and a section on the Christian north, a pattern that largely persists through the rest of the book. The ensuing chapters each cover distinct areas of archaeological research: urban patterns, domestic structures, crafts and industry, transportation and trade, and religious architecture. The surveys of the buildings of the (mainly) secular elite are usefully divided into a chapter (seven) on military architecture and a chapter (eight) on palaces and residences, which enables the authors to give due-attention to the extensive excavations, research, and restorations conducted on these prominent sites. The final thematic chapter, entitled "Life, Death and Memory," focuses primarily on funerary practices with some consideration of medical care and disease as seen in the archaeological record. This chapter discusses the interdisciplinary anthropological work required to properly conduct archaeological surveys that involve human remains and very briefly discusses the potential that the "very active" field of paleopathology is bringing to our understanding of life in the Middle Ages (56).

The most praiseworthy--and most striking--aspects of this book are certainly the plentiful (well over 140) photographs, schematics, and illustrations that decorate the chapters and provide an instructive and attractive supplement to the text. The material focus of archaeology makes such a visual supplement critical; if anything, the book could have used even more illustrations. The numerous short "Special Topics" sections, designed to add historical context, focus on a particular site, or explore a topic only touched upon in the main text are also a strong addition. The book has a very extensive bibliography, which ultimately might be its greatest contribution to scholarship outside of archaeology. The accessible text and engaging pictures are enough to sell the importance of the topic, and the rich list of works for further reading provide access to the extensive work the book summarizes.

My initial criticisms of the book are relatively minor. Since most of the text was written by Valor and Gutiérrez themselves, their own archaeological projects make several more appearances than one might expect from such a broad survey. Sometimes illustrations and diagrams appear with labels and apparatus appropriate to their original context, but here awkwardly pasted in and not explained. The book contains a very useful appendix, which lists many medieval archaeology websites, but one suspects that, given the protean nature of the internet, most of the cataloged URLs will be out of date sooner rather than later. Perhaps a permanent link to an updated list on the publisher's website would work better for this purpose. Perhaps more substantively, many of the topics that appear to warrant significant attention are brought up only briefly. For example, I am sure I am not alone in the opinion that the conversion of mosques into churches is an archaeological topic I'd like to hear a lot about. But The Archaeology of Medieval Spain only gives us about a page on the topic. Similarly, the juncture between archaeology and art history, which the authors identify in the study of still-extant medieval architecture, is never fully explored, nor is, subsequently, much medieval art. But any good book leaves the reader wanting more, and most of these quibbles are simply an acknowledgment that the book has successfully stirred my interest in its subject.

However, I found myself returning over and over again to a deeper question, perhaps a criticism of the book. Put simply, I was often left wondering what sort of book The Archaeology of Medieval Spain is supposed to be. To a North American reader, the book appears--in its format (246x189 mm, which is standard for the whole series), paper quality, and many pictures--to be a textbook for teaching. But I do not believe this book really is designed for teaching at either the undergraduate or graduate level. It appears to lack the technical detail that would make it a useful archaeology textbook, and is too expensive to justify as supplementary reading in a history class. Moreover, the book is not comprehensive enough to offer non-archaeologist researchers (like this historian) a very complete understanding of any given archaeological site. It nicely demonstrates the breadth and depth of the archaeological work, but I suspect that I and other scholars would be likely simply to mine the bibliography rather than use the book as a reference guide or teaching tool. Ultimately, the book is a very beautiful, very broad survey, but one with limited utility beyond a simple introduction to the world of medieval archaeology in Spain.

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