Granaries and Irrigation: Archaeological and Ethnological Investigations in the Iberian Peninsula and Morocco

Article excerpt


Recent work in the Iberian peninsula (De Meulemeester forthcoming) includes investigations of the medieval agricultural system through field survey and urban excavation. The results, in an Islamic context, are greatly enriched through analogies drawn with current practice in Morocco, where the social and economic structures have a greater continuity with those of early Islam.

In this paper I compare the results of two inquiries; one primarily archaeological and concerned with the medieval use of irrigation and granaries in the hinterland of Murcia, Islamic Andalucia; and the other primarily ethnographical, conducted in the Marghane/Awnil area of Morocco which throws light on the function of the fortified granary and its role in society.

The Valle de Ricote project (Murcia, Spain)

The archaeological investigation of the medieval (Muslim, Mudejar and Christian) settlement in the valley of the middle Segura and its historical region of the Valle de Ricote, started in 1987 and combines urban as well as rural archaeology. Part of the medina Siyasa (Cieza) was excavated and studied by Julio Navarro Palazon (Navarro Palazon 1988: 207-14, 1990: 177-98, 1991: 97-125; Navarro Palazon & Jiminez Castillo 1993, 1995:117-39, 1996: 525-59; 1998:99-113). Aspects of the rural settlement have been studied through examination of the different castles dominating and/or controlling the valley, through the investigation of the irrigation systems, through the location and study of the habitat and finally through the investigation of a fortified granary (De Meulcmeester & Matthys 1995: 181-96, 1998:161-71 ; De Meulemeester 1998: 97-112; Bazzana & De Meulemeester 1998: 152-60; Amigues et al. 1999:181-96; Bazzana et al. 2002: 239-43). The term 'castle' is used for convenience since the Islamic castle has a different juridical and social, even military character than the one given to the feudal 'Christian' castle. Excavations of the thirteenth-century fortified granary also formed a starting point for an ethno-archaeological analysis of the former Berber systems for long-term conservation of grain in Morocco, a study extended to a large scale landscape archaeology project.

The Cabezo de la Cobertera forms an isolated mound in the middle of the valley of the Rio Segura (Figure 1). The plateau of the Cabezo, some 30m by 40m wide, rises some 100m above the river. Its topography makes it only possible to climb the site from the north-west; the other sides are too steep. The excavated structures on the hilltop correspond to the storehouses of a fortified granary of Berber tradition; it dates back to the late twelfth or first half of the thirteenth century, and it was in use until the period of the Christian conquest (around AD 1250). The site was re-occupied in the fifteenth century, probably by a single family (of shepherds).


Some 30 structures occupy the surface of the plateau; in the centre some space is left over as an open area (drying-floor?), a cistern and an oratory (Figure 2). Circulation inside the granary was possible through some pathways no wider than 0.6 to 1m. In general, the buildings are rectangular in shape (4/5m by 1.50/2m). A first group has a multipurpose quarter at the front of the cell and a storage box (cereal receptacle) at the back. A small wooden door (max. 0.6m) gave access to the inside. A second group has no storage box and was probably in use for storage of non-agricultural products.


The construction of the fortified granary at the top of the Cabezo de la Cobertera is the result of the reaction of a rural community to insecure times. In the absence of a refuge system set up by the state, the insecurity characterising the late Almohad period probably pushed the Muslims of the Ricotian huerta to build this fortified granary.

The granary constitutes only one feature in the rural settlement pattern of the Valle de Ricote; cultivated fields, irrigated by a string of acequias or water canals, a series of alquedas or hamlets complete the picture. …