In the 5th century, in the northwest corner of the Peninsula, a Suevo group was established, a population of Germanic origin that created their own kingdom taking advantage of the decomposition of the Roman Empire. But the irruption in 427 of the Visigoths in Hispania, who would end up defeating them after 170 years, created a border between the two kingdoms, or limes, 275 kilometers long, which was established between the valley of the river Esla (Zamora) and that of Sabor (Portugal), and which took advantage of the existing Hispano-Roman structures.
Now the study Late-ancient fortifications on the border between Swabians and Visigoths, written by the archaeologist José Carlos Sastre Blanco and published by the Institut Català d’Arqueologia Clàssica, reconstructs that defensive line ―or of coexistence― and gives an account of the latest discoveries made in those fortified cities, including that of El Castillón (Santa Eulalia de Tábara, Zamora), built by the Swabians, with a wall eight meters high and five meters wide, two large habitable buildings, wildlife and grain storage areas, as well as an important metallurgical area for the processing of iron ore. “These findings make this enclave a benchmark for research on late antiquity in the Iberian Peninsula,” explains Sastre, a member of the Scientific-Cultural Association Zamora Protohistórica.
“The latest archaeological investigations that have been carried out in some sites such as El Castillón or Quinta de Crestelos (Mogadouro, Portugal)”, says the archaeologist, “together with the existing information, allow a broader vision of the period late ancient in this area and learn how historical and political events affected these towns, as well as their configuration in relation to the two great kingdoms that occupied the Iberian Peninsula at that time, and very especially with regard to the economy, the commerce and society in this area ”.
The settlements were raised in elevated places to easily control the fords and the communications. They were linked to local Swabian elites, but far removed from the power centers of the Goths and Swabians – Braga, Toledo, Lugo or Astorga -, which gave them a certain autonomy.
These castra or castella of border “present features that indicate a certain military function and control of the territory at the time when space is the scene of a dispute between the two kingdoms.” Their number is abundant, “especially in the more mountainous areas of the northwest and in the fords of the Esla and Taste, where there are numerous cases of reoccupation during this period of ancient protohistoric settlements ”: Castro de los Frenos (Nuez de Aliste), Cerro del Castillo (Almaraz de Duero), Dehesa de Morales-Brigecio (Fuentes de Ropel), El Castro (San Pedro de la Viña), Virgen de la Encina (Abraveses de Tera), El Castillón (Riego del Camino), El Castrico (Abejera), Castrotorafe (San Cebrián de Castro) or Sao João das Arribes (Miranda do Douro), among others ”.
The town of El Castillón, the last one excavated, was one of the main ones due to its location and ease of controlling natural resources, trade and the economy. It maintained commercial relations with others, as well as an important livestock and agricultural activity, as confirmed by the archaeozoological analyzes carried out by the University of Salamanca and the CSIC. It rose on an important cliff that gave it, to the east, a great defensive character. However, to the west he was forced to erect imposing protective elements. Archaeologists have detected a perimeter wall built with large blocks of quartzite that, in its western part, reaches up to five meters wide and eight meters high. It was built at the end of the 5th century AD. C. and lasted until VI. It had a second line of defense that ran parallel to the first.
In the western part of the town, “housing structures that are attached to the main wall” have also been described. One of them has been identified as a possible casemate destined to store products and animals or, even, troops. A house with eight rooms has also been located, built in the second half of the 5th century, but which was destroyed by a fire. Inside it, a large amount of remains of sheep, goats, birds, pigs, deer and rodents have been recovered.
The central warehouse was destroyed by fire in the 5th century, but it was rebuilt. The remains of a goat animal buried in the ground and covered with slate slabs belong to this second phase. “This burial responds to some type of ritual whose objective we do not know, but it is very significant when it occurs, just after the aforementioned fire occurs, and just at the time of creating the new functional space,” says Sastre. It would be a ritual burial, like others that have been identified in certain sites in the United Kingdom.
Occupancy levels related to the storage of large quantities of cereals, especially common wheat, have been found in the area’s housing. This cereal would have been used to feed the people of this town, as well as for planting and commercial activities. Associated with it, storage ceramics have been recovered, which shows the great agricultural importance of the town. Experts have also found three iron arrowheads that could be both hunting and warlike, as well as five bear claws.
Starting in the 5th century, these fortified settlements ended up becoming the headquarters of the local aristocracy, which collected taxes and distributed cereals in case of famine. “In many of these places,” says Sastre, “the construction of the original walls usually occurred in the first half of the fifth century, which could respond to a need to defend against some type of continuous threat to the populations,” mainly banditry or others castella close.
In the case of El Castillón, the wall remained stable from the end of the 5th century until its abandonment in the 6th. “The restructuring that can be seen in the northern part of the wall seems to correspond to repairs typical of the passage of time and the loss of stability of the structures, never associated with an event of a warlike nature.” That is, its imposing defenses deterred its enemies from attacking it. But it is still unknown why they abandoned it.