7. Conclusions

We would like to return to compare the results presented in Sections 2-6 with the objectives outlined in our original research design (Section 1). It will be immediately obvious that our original aim of studying change from the Iron Age to the early medieval period has only been partially fulfilled, as the pottery collected from the survey did not make it possible to address the question of the later Roman to early medieval transition. Indeed, as noted by Steven Willis, there are major contrasts between the Roman pottery assemblages found in this region and those from the Tarragona area which also make it more difficult than originally envisaged to offer direct comparisons between the regions. Nevertheless, the distinctions in the Roman ceramic assemblages between the two areas are themselves interesting (Section 5) and suggest a much lower level of economic interaction between northern Portugal and the rest of the Roman world than might have been expected.

The research design posed six specific questions to which we now turn:

a) What is the distribution of archaeological material across the valley within the survey area? How does this vary through time?
There was a dense distribution of sites across the landscape (Table 7.2), although the overall amounts of Iron Age and Roman pottery were lower than those found in other surveys in the Mediterranean. The number of Iron Age sites was unexpectedly large and there was a very strong pattern of continuity into the Roman period (Table 7.1). The lack of closely dated Roman wares and the general absence of dateable early medieval fabrics does not allow us to address the problem of continuity in the middle ages.
b) How does this distribution of material relate to the known sequences of the castros? In particular is there any evidence for the High Empire when many castros appear to be deserted?
The most important new information relates to the numbers of newly discovered Iron Age sites in the lowland areas around the castros. Although such sites were known in the region prior to the survey (e.g. Martins 1990), the number of such sites found and their density (an average of 4.94 sites per square km) is much larger than previously estimated. Even allowing for this statistic being distorted by the bias in our survey towards land in valleys, it completely changes any understanding of the character of Iron Age settlement in the region. Our difficulties in dating sites to narrow ranges makes it difficult to address the issue of shifts in settlement use between the castros and surrounding areas. Two features emerge clearly from the data. First, there is a very strong pattern of continuity of lowland sites from the Iron Age into the Roman period. Second, the density of Roman rural settlement is much higher than that of the Iron Age (averaging 8.42 sites per square km in the Roman period compared with 4.94 in the Iron Age: see Table 7.2). Whether this increase in settlement density results from population growth or relocation from castros remains uncertain, but we suspect the former is the more important factor.
c) Is material in the valleys the result of cultivation (manuring) and/or the dispersed agricultural settlements?
Although there was a very light background scatter of material across the valley floors, it was too little to suggest any systematic pattern of manuring. In general, the volumes of pottery found were very small, suggesting a comparatively low level of ceramic use with the result that any such manuring is unlikely to have been archaeologically detectable. Equally, pottery of Iron Age date was not very robust and is unlikely to have survived in the ploughsoil over long periods.
d) Does the distribution of material and the composition of assemblages vary with distance from the coast up the valley?
The modification to our research design which resulted in the reduction of the number of transects to two makes it difficult to answer this question with certainty. The patterns of site distribution show a relatively even distribution of Iron Age sites across the two transects, but a higher density of Roman sites in the coastal transect (Table 7.2, Transect 1). This pattern of change is supported by the larger proportion of new sites established in the Roman period which were noted in Transect 1 (Table 7.1). Equally, the small quantities of traded Roman wares appear to have been more common near the coast than inland. Although these data are insufficient to sustain much confidence, they do suggest some shift in the balance of activity towards the coastal zone during the Roman period.
e) Does the distribution of material and the composition of assemblages vary with distance from Braga?
Again the quantity of material recovered is such that our results need to be treated with care, but Steven Willis has noted a marked distinction between the rural assemblages from the survey and those he was able to examine from Braga. The town had a higher proportion of fine wares than are found in the rural sites, as well as a broader ceramic repertoire. Although we cannot distinguish differences in assemblage composition with distance from the town, a clear urban-rural dichotomy is evident, suggesting differing supply patterns and varying cultural norms, most likely reflecting the contrast between the continuities of settlement in the countryside and the newly established lifestyles urban centre.
f) Are there geomorphological changes within the river valley which can be correlated with changing land use in antiquity?
The scale of geomorphological change observed within the landscape were not such as to suggest any major phases of landscape change. Rather, we would see a pattern of continuous geomorphological change through time. There was little evidence for radical alterations to the river valleys. However, there may have been substantial erosion of the schist areas. Although it is by no means clear whether the general absence of Iron Age and Roman settlement in areas on the schist is real or a result of more recent erosion, it is likely that these areas have been more altered by erosion than others in the region.

More generally we set out to apply the techniques of fieldwalking and detailed surface survey to an area where the techniques had not previously been applied. We found that the landscape was more intractable than others in which we have worked. The small fields, intensive agriculture and relatively small numbers of dated finds meant that the results were less spectacular than had been hoped. Equally, the problems of soil type, terracing and field size meant that the results of the geophysical surveys were disappointing, although by no means negative. In contrast to these rather negative impressions, we have found that the analysis of the results from such a topographically varied area has greatly benefited from the use of GIS. This has enabled us to obtain new perspectives and to address questions which it would otherwise have been difficult to approach. We trust that the insights drawn from these analyses will encourage others to apply the techniques in other studies of Iron Age and Roman rural settlement.

Finally, some broader contrasts with the Tarragona region as originally envisaged are instructive. Three contrasts can be drawn.

  1. First, the density of sites found in the Ave Valley field survey (Table 7.2) was greater than that noted in the Tarragona area where there were 3.22 Iberian (i.e. Iron Age) sites per km² and 3.125 sites per km² of the Republic and Early Empire (Carreté et al. 1995, 248). This is certainly partially a result of the more constrained landscape in this survey area, meaning that settlement sites were preferentially constructed where the survey was concentrated in the valleys. Nevertheless, this high density of sites suggests a much more prosperous agrarian society in the Iron Age and Roman periods than has often been suggested.
  2. Second, the range of sites represented in the Ave Valley is much more limited than found in the Tarragona region. Although it has not been possible to measure site size in this survey, the overall impression is predominantly of small farmsteads (aside from the castros). In contrast, the Tarragona survey found a wider range of site sizes and a pattern of increasing differentiation of sizes and forms through time (Carreté et al. 1995, 2323, 249).
  3. Finally, we should note that in comparison with the Tarragona area, there is a stronger pattern of site continuity in this area (Table 7.1). These last two features together suggest a much more stable society, with the establishment of new sites in the Roman period but little evidence for the emergence of dominant rural sites (i.e. villas) or the accumulation of large land holdings. Although our evidence is insufficient to allow much further speculation, we can surely point towards a society in this part of Portugal that was far less influenced by the Roman world than that around Tarragona. Nevertheless, the all too common stereotype of a backward and poor region has been comprehensively demolished by the work in this survey. In the Roman period, as today, the lower lying parts of the region were heavily occupied, arguably by groups who retained social structures focused on local centres at the castros. Whether or not the latter remained in occupation, they certainly seem to have remained in the view of the occupants.

Some broader issues concerning the transition from Iron Age to Roman in this part of Portugal are developed further elsewhere (Millett forthcoming).

7.1 Future work

The extensive data from the survey offer much scope for future work, although such studies will probably rely on the future analysis of excavated material from the region providing a more refined chronology. Equally, more spatial analysis of material in the GIS would be worthwhile, investigating, for instance, the influence of drainage across the study area. Further viewshed analysis and cost analysis would also be worthwhile, using improved models which take into account the influence of changing climate, vegetation and watercourses.

In a broader context, additional fieldwalking surveys would certainly improve our knowledge of the region. Such work is certainly needed in the areas where development pressures are most intense, as our work has shown that there are many more sites to be found than previously believed. Such work might be best targeted on discrete regions rather than sample transects. It would also benefit from being undertaken over longer seasons throughout the year. Finally, any further work in the region would undoubtedly benefit from a detailed geomorphological assessment of the areas studied, as we still do not fully understand the processes of very localised erosion and deposition which characterise this area.


© Internet Archaeology URL:
Last updated: Sat Dec 30 2000