Weekly Article #11 – A Brief Archaeological History of Andorra (Part I)

This week’s article is slightly different, being an extract from a forthcoming guidebook  (in time for Christmas with any luck) dealing with the archaeology and culture of Andorra. In this extract, a broad brush archaeological history of Andorra’s human occupation is provided, from the Palaeolithic to the Visigoths highlighting some of the best sites …


The Retreat of the Glaciers

As the ice sheets began to melt and withdraw from the deep valleys that they carved out, the small pockets of human inhabitants began to emerge from their isolated refuges in the Pyrenees. As these nomadic, hunter-gatherer tribes began to roam the emerging landscape, looking for fresh game and foraging for edible plants, a small seasonal band discovered a comfortable and vast rock overhang in what we now know as Andorra. Discovered in 1959 by the godfather of Andorran archaeology, Pere Canturri, this site, the rock shelter ‘Balma de la Margineda’ dates back to the Epipalaeolithic period, and is the first known evidence of human occupation in the Andorran valley (Sant Julia de Loria parish). It is thought that these settlers came from the Ariege and the Segre regions, and used this rock shelter as a seasonal summer camp. The climate of snow, harsh winds and rains would not have rendered it useful during the Autumn, Winter, or early Spring. It is also worth noting that the valley floor at this time would have been dominated by the river.


(Balma de la Margineda, taken from http://www.jordicasamajor.com)

Located in the middle between the two boundaries of the Pyrenees (now Catalonia and the Ariege/Aude), it acted as an ideal stepping stone for travelling hunters and tribes. Another helpful feature of the site was that it offered excellent resources for hunting, with eel, trout, chamois, boars, deer, and goats roaming the surrounding mountainsides and forests in abundance, as well as some competitors in the form of bears, wolves and lynx.

Material culture from this initial Palaeolithic period is slim, however that which survives belongs firmly to the Azilian culture, an Epipalaeolithic industry rooted in northern Spain and Southern France. This culture follows the more refined (artistically) Magdalanian culture, and the cruder aspect to the materials produced is thought to derive from the melting of ice sheets reducing available resources, both for nutrition and also for tool manufacture. In terms of the Epipalaeothlic finds at Balma de la Margineda, archaeologists discovered harpoon points (which are very typical of the Azilian industry, and presumably were used for trout and eel fishing), flint spearheads engraved with abstract figures, and geometric microliths used as arrowheads. Sadly, none of the items are available for the public to view, as they are still under analysis by the Cultural Dept. of Andorra, which is preparing a National Museum at the time of writing.

Moving into the Mesolithic, the situation at Balma Margineda seems to remain broadly the same, with the site remaining seasonal and occupied by nomadic population groups, however evidence of another site emerges a short distance away, that of the Madriu-Perafita-Claror valleys (now a UNESCO site). These two valleys have an immensely long history of human exploitation and management, whose beginnings reach back to the middle of the Mesolithic period in the form of a circular stone structure.


(Madriu-Perifata-Claror Valley – photo by Perennial Pyrenees)

It is during the Neolithic however when we begin to see substantial changes in both these sites, and newly established ones throughout Andorra. In caves near the settlements of Pal, Arinsal, La Massana and at Balma del Llunsi (Encamp), evidence has been discovered of human occupation dating back to this period. At Balma de la Margineda we find the grave of a woman, the oldest human remains found in the country, in which were placed ceramics, arrowheads and lithics. Other ceramic fragments have been found that were typical of the Neolithic Revolution, when communities turned from a nomadic existence to a sedentary one, fuelled by early forays into agriculture and land management. The population here increased during the 6th millennium BC, and the site appears to be used partially as a cattle enclosure before being largely abandoned in favour of the Madriu-Perafita-Claror valleys. Several round stone structures are built, likely functioning as huts and a mixture of early agricultural cultivation and hunting/gathering sustains the population. Traces of wheat and barley have been found by archaeologists, as have the remains of goats, sheep and oxen, and archaeobotanical evidence for the clearing of areas of pine forest indicate that these animals had managed grazing areas.

Other sites in Andorra display a complex culture emerging in the valleys, with funerary monuments existing at Juberri (Sant Julia de Loria) and Segudet (Ordino). These contain extensive grave goods, including bracelets, bangles, and ceramic ornaments, and these ‘cist’ monuments (a stone burial chamber) also contained pottery. One pot in the Segudet burial contained a pot within which traces of various cereals, milk and even honey were found, displaying evidence for a both budding land exploitation and, along with the presence of non-local materials, possible contact with other communities in the region. Votive axes made from serpentine and other items fashioned from variscite suggest trade with (for example) the mines of Can Tintorer in Gava, 135km to the south of Andorra. The funerary practices of sites in neighbouring Catalonia and Languedoc suggest that the bodies may have been left in grottos to rot and be stripped of their flesh by animals before the remaining bones were interred in the cist and walled in.

Pollen analysis indicates that as the Neolithic wore on, the lowlands of Andorra began to see pastoralism and cultivation, including the practices of forest clearance and using fire as a management tool.


(Feixa del Moro Neolithic cist burial at Juberri – taken from http://www.dolmen.wordpress.com)

From Bronze to Iron

The Bronze Age in Andorra was a mixed economy, with predominantly livestock farming but also a persistence of small scale hunting and gathering. As the Neolithic period came to a close, several small settlements became established between what is now Santa Coloma and Andorra la Vella, just above the valley floor, which was still largely occupied by the river and various lagoons and had a ‘prairie’ aspect to it (the valley sides were still heavily wooded). These seven sites are known as the ‘Estacions del Cedre I – VII’ (Cedar Stations I – VII), and occupy the sunnier side of the valley. These small encampments have yielded a small amount of artefacts, including polished stone axes and ceramic materials decorated in styles typical of the early Bronze Age, many of which find comparisons with other sites of a similar date in the Pyrenees (e.g. Bescaran, Grotte Montou, Les Escaldes, Llo, Grotte d’Enlene, Cova Negra etc.) A small hand-operated millstone was also found with traces of wheat on its surface, indicating a small level of agricultural activity around the Cedre sites. During the early Bronze Age a new culture that shared similar features with the Polada culture in Italy began to emerge in the South of France, Catalonia and the Pyrenees, and the occupants of the Cedre sites began to integrate aspects of this culture into their own, specifically in terms of ceramic vessels. A typical feature of the Polada culture are the cylindrical protuberances on the handles, which serve to make gripping easier – these begin to appear on the vessels of the Cedre camps during this time, as do decorative ‘buttons’ on the vessel body. A bread oven was also discovered by archaeologists at ‘Cedre IV’, a typical conical affair built from branches and dried mud (the imprints of the pine needles could still be seen) that bears great resemblance to furnaces used by the Berber tribes in the Atlas mountains. Within the furnace were found several chunks of granite forming a partial floor on which the bread could lie.

Towards the end of the Bronze Age, the camps at Les Cedres were abandoned, for the likely reason that the organisation and way of living had changed beyond the need for these small outposts, evolving into more complex settlements that demanded greater space. It is also possible that the strategic territorial uses that these small outposts provided were no longer relevant, and thus their function became outdated.

Another feature of the late Bronze Age that made itself felt in Andorra is an abundance of rock carvings – many of which can be seen today and have Medieval carvings alongside them, providing an unusual continuity of use. The best examples of these carvings (and directions of how to find them) will be provided later in this book. Many of these carvings have motifs which can be compared to very famous sites such as Val Camonica in the Alps, and other sites throughout the Pyrenees, Ariege and the Cantabrian region of Spain. Without a doubt, the most famous of these carvings are found on the upper surface of the ‘Roc de les Bruixes’ (Rock of the Witches) in the parish of Canillo. Overlooking the sanctuary of Our Lady of Meritxell, this site has a wide range of motifs engraved upon its surface, including pentacles, stylised stars, anthropomorphic figures, networks of deeply incised lines and many more. On its eastern side are representations of warriors that are thought to be Medieval in date. Other examples of Bronze Age carvings can be found in the petroglyphs of Sornas, Montalari (Les Bons), La Gonarda (Ordino), Puy (la Massana) and Mas del Diumenge (Vilars), as well as a host of incised (Medieval) crosses on various rocks throughout the country, and undoubtedly many more as yet undiscovered due to Andorra’s mountainous terrain.

Further up the Andorran valley, near Encamp, we find another site with Bronze Age origins (but its fullest expression was in the Iron Age). Roc l’Oral has yielded a wealth of artefacts. Established in the Late Bronze Age, Roc l’Oral couldn’t be more different in terms of aspect to the Cedres sites. Situated on a cliff overlooking the river and valley path of Encamp, it occupies a far more defensive prospect and at its base lies the previously mentioned Balma dej Llunci. Identifiable now by a long strip of cultivatable land and protected from erosion by surrounding rocks, local folklore tells of great treasures buried here and wells sunk deep to access the river below. In reality the only holes discovered are made by moles, and in these molehills and tunnels have been found a plethora of archaeological material, due to the disturbances to the stratigraphy from successive ploughing. Numerous bronze objects have been found at this site, including bracelets with incised decoration, a fibula brooch, various pins and 2500 ceramic sherds. There is also evidence that the site crossed over into the Iron Age, with iron needles being discovered. The most exciting find however is undoubtedly the bronze foot of a (likely) votive vessel that has a probable Roman origin, dated to between the 2nd and 1st century BC. Comparisons with other Roman votive vessels revealed that this was likely taken from a sanctuary or church, and a ring attached on the top of the foot may have allowed it to be worn as an amulet.

This raises all sorts of interesting questions regarding the interactions between the proto-historic populations of Andorra, and the Romans, who by the 3rd century BC had begun to extend their empire through Gaul, across the Pyrenees and into the Iberian Peninsula (although this conquest would not be completed until the Cantabrian wars in 19 BC). The ‘Via Cerdanya’, ‘Via Augusta’ and other Roman route ways would have facilitated trade and communications with Romanised populations. The ‘Andorran’ population is referred to by Polybius as belonging to the tribe of the ‘Andosins’, and is recorded by the historian as attacking the passage of Hannibal through the Pyrenees in 218 BC. The Andosins are said to have existed between the 7th and 2nd centuries BC, and some experts believe that they spoke an Iberian language, as did many of the tribes in the Pyrenees, possibly influenced in their language and script by the arrival of Iron Age Greeks along the Catalan coastline in 750 BC. However, other experts claim that they spoke a derivative of Basque. In addition, the surviving material culture of the Andosins does not appear to resemble particularly the assemblages found at other Iberian sites, so the degree to which they (and indeed other Pyrenean tribes) could accurately be described as ‘Iberian’ is in doubt. As with so many of these historical questions, we may never truly know the answer. Either way, the collection of people that lived within and around the Andorran valleys became known as the Andosins and began to be seen within a collective identity.

Through the early Iron Age the Andosins lived in relative peace within Andorra, with the degree of archaeological (and actual) Roman presence being a hotly debated topic. It is said that the hot springs in Escaldes (that now fuel the huge Caldea spa) were frequented by Romans, however there is no firm evidence of this despite Andorra falling under the broad Roman territory of Hispania Citerior. However, excavations at the Romanesque church of Sant Vinceç d’Enclar (Andorra la Vella) have yielded evidence of Roman interaction. This site (the ‘Roc d’Enclar’) is known to have been occupied since the 3rd Century AD, and coins bearing the image of Emperors Galienus (260 – 268), Magnus Maximus (382 – 388) and Honorius (395 – 423) have been discovered in the archaeological deposits. Whilst this does not prove an actual Roman presence in the Andorran valleys, it does point towards firm contact and possibly trade with either Roman or Romano-Iberian populations.

March of the Visigoths

In the early 5th century AD a momentous change was to remold the political and social fabric of western Europe. The Visigoths (‘Western Goths’) who had settled near the Danube in Roman territory became unhappy with their treatment at the hands of local Roman governors and rebelled. This started a chain of events that would begin to unravel the Roman Empire in the west and saw the Visigoths sack Rome and move into Gaul and the Iberian Peninsula, both wresting territory from the Romans and eventually establishing their own kingdom whose centre was in Toulouse. When the Huns invaded Gaul, the Visigoths turned their attention from challenging Rome to beating back the Attila’s forces, and having done this they began to move into Spain. By the early 6th century the Visigoths had lost most of their Gaulish territory to another ‘barbarian’ horde, the Franks, and were established almost exclusively in Spain.

The Visigothic presence in Andorra is invisible, at least archaeologically. There may have been passage of Visigothic peoples through the valleys however there is no legacy of their being in Andorra in the archaeological record. This is not surprising due to the relative isolation (or ‘comfortable isolation’) of settlements in many Pyrenean valleys, however one important site does begin to develop during this period in Andorra, that of the aforementioned Roc d’Enclar in the Enclar valley. Previous phases of occupation and exploitations saw a small Bronze Age and Iron Age presence, and some evidence of viniculture (i.e. terracing, sherds of glass amphora and the remains of a rough granite press) between the 4th and 6th centuries. However, in between the 5th and 7th centuries, changes began to occur on this site. New areas began to be cleared near the terraces, and it has been suggested based on the archaeological deposits that foundation walls and structures were built using wooden props and trellis branches covered with raw clay and straw. Ceramics associated with cooking were also found, as well as a staggering 52 burials that ranged from simple pits to stone tomb-like structures. Carbon 14 dating and documentary evidence from the 9th and 10th centuries point towards these burials being from between the 6th and 8th centuries. The still extant old Roman route ways such as the Via Cerdanya and Via Augusta, combined with numerous other more localised route networks, would have facilitated the trading of goods such as the wine produced at Roc d’Enclar, and experts believe that by the 7th century this site along with others across the Andorran valley would have been well linked into existing trade networks throughout the Pyrenees, Catalonia, the Cerdagne and beyond. The path created by the Valira river that runs through Andorra down to La Seu d’Urgell and beyond would have been of particular importance. Political and military shifts in power and territory during the 5th to 7th centuries saw the building of hill forts and high altitude villas for defensive purposes in the Visigothic Narbonne, and some believe that the development of Roc d’Enclar might be linked to this trend too, becoming a self-sufficient and easily defendable settlement.

Next: Charlemagne, the Romanesque style and power games for control of Andorra by Fois and Urgell! More soon…

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