Agricultural Production and Social Change in the Bronze Age of Southeast Spain: The Gatas Project

Article excerpt

The site of Gatas is located in the foothills of the sierra Cabrera, on the southern edge of the basin of Vera, in the east of Almeria province, southeast Spain (FIGURES 1-2). The hill on which the settlement is located occupies an area of about 1 hectare, and is naturally defended by vertical slopes on all but one side. It was discovered in 1886 by Louis and Henri Siret, who excavated Bronze Age structures and deposits, including burials, on the top of the hill (Siret & Siret 1887: 165-77). No further fieldwork has taken place at Gatas until almost exactly a century later. The settlement and funerary records of sites such as Gatas, El Argar and Fuente Alamo within the Vera basin testify to the existence of stratified society in the late 3rd and early 2nd millennia BC (for details of sites, cultures and dating, see Chapman 1990; Castro et al, 1996). It is this record of social change which makes the Vera basin sites and sequence of wider importance in the study of the European Bronze Age.


Debate on the local origins of stratification has centred on the nature and role of Copper and Bronze Age production and on the degree to which the palaeoenvironment was different to the degraded, semi-arid one visible today in the Vera basin and other parts of lowland southeast Spain. The link between production and environment is seen clearly in the debate over the existence, or not, of capital investment in irrigation and polyculture, and their role in enabling (by whatever means) agricultural settlement and social stratification. Central to this debate has been

a an evaluation of the actual evidence for these practices (e.g. Chapman 1978; 1990),

b different interpretations of the local climate in later prehistory (given existing palaeoenvironmental data) and the extent to which it determined particular productive practices (e.g. semi-arid climate -- see Chapman 1978; 1990; Gilman 1976; Gilman & Thornes 1985; humid climate -- see Lull 1980; 1983; Ramos 1981), and

c contrasting ideas as to the role of agricultural production in social change (e.g. the adaptationist position of Chapman 1978, as opposed to the capital investment model of Gilman 1976, the complementary production model of Lull 1980; 1983, and the social storage model of Mathers 1984a; 1984b).

The main objective of the Gatas project is the evaluation of these models. This is to be achieved by the analysis of the successive occupations at Gatas, within a context of critical evaluation of contemporary prehistoric settlements in the same region. Three phases of fieldwork began with archaeological and palaeoecological survey in 1985 (Chapman et al. 1987), followed by sondage excavations in 1986-7 (Castro et al. in press a) and more extensive, area excavations in 1987, 1989, 1991 and 1995 (Castro et al. 1991; 1993 in press b; Buikstra et al. 1995).

In the rest of this paper, we present data from Gatas principally on changing production during the Copper and Bronze Ages, developing the arguments proposed in an earlier paper (Ruiz et al. 1992). Most of this data comes from phase 2 of the project (Castro et al. in press a), although none of the data so far available to us from phase 3 in any way contradict our broad interpretation. Wherever possible, the Gatas data will be placed in a more regional context (for site locations, see FIGURE 2). The data are presented by radiocarbon-dated occupation phases at Gatas (see Castro et al. in press a).

Agricultural production at Gatas

Phase 1. Copper Age: c. 2850-2650 BC

The earliest occupation at Gatas consists of Copper Age lithics and pottery found in two areas of the hill, in S1 and Zone C (FIGURE 3). In neither case is there any trace of structures in situ, which, along with small sample size, restricts the weight that can be placed on this data. Nearly 90% of the plant remains consisted of one cereal, Hordeum vulgare, while the remainder consisted of legumes. …