Digging under the public gaze in southern Spain

By Dr Chloe Duckworth

In July 2016, five students from the University of Leicester accompanied us for our two week excavation season in the secano, the area of the Alhambra where a number of workshops and furnaces are located, as part of the Alhambra Royal Workshops Project. The aim of the project is to learn about how the decorative tiles and other fabulous objects of the royal palaces were made. They joined the experts in our team, led in the field by Ben Moore and Eleonora Montanari, and worked alongside Dr Alberto Garcia Porras and his postgraduate students from the University of Granada, for our first ever ‘trowel to ground’ field season.

We opened two trenches, located on either side of one of the main tourist walkways. In both trenches, the remains of furnaces were already visible, and we wanted to excavate them to understand more about the date of the furnaces, and their relationship to surrounding structures.

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University of Leicester students Ashleigh Goss and Beth Davies working with the reconstructed Alhambra walls behind them.

The Leicester students were working in a relatively sheltered spot close to the reconstructed walls of the Alhambra. Here the topography is very uneven, so we were constrained to excavating a strip of land running approximately east from the remains of a furnace. The archaeology here was very shallow, but it was clear from our work that we had some sealed contexts, lying over a number of structures which related to workshop and habitation sites. They postdate the Muslim phase of occupation at the site, and provide instead an important insight into its organisation under Christian rule.

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Planning the trench after removal of the topsoil

Meanwhile, Alberto’s team were far more exposed to both the sun and the tourists. They were working in a more heavily reconstructed area, clearly visible from one of the main walkways through the site. Visitors to the site were able to witness archaeology in action, with all the sweat and toil that it involves! Working under such scrutiny was just a tiny bit like being in an archaeological zoo, but it was great to see how interested people were in what we were doing. Chatting to visitors from many parts of the world including Spain, Italy, France, Morocco, the US and the UK, we got some great feedback, too:

“It was inspiring to see that there was so much … that we do not know about” (Kamalia Roubat)

“The Alhambra is an active excavation site … there’s so much more to discover” (Meri Escandon)

“Good to know that it is evolving and being looked after” (Lucy Fromings)

And, a personal favourite: “Archaeology is hard work” (Nico van der Gaag)

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Collecting feedback from interested visitors

This area was previously subject to some reconstruction work and the archaeology was more disturbed than in the other trench, but we were still able to expose some information on the structure of the furnaces and the remains associated with them. When you work in pyrotechnology as I do, some of the most exciting finds are waste products which have been affected by heating – a bit of tile which was not glazed properly, or a deformed piece of kiln lining.

One of the innovative techniques that we are developing in the field is the use of handheld pXRF during excavation itself. The technique fires X-rays into the ground, allowing us to ‘read’ the chemical composition of the soil, which is immensely useful when we are investigating production sites – it basically lets us identify where chemical pollution is most intensive, and see which pollutants are present. Our resident pXRF expert, Dr Derek Pitman, couldn’t make it out this summer, albeit for rather a nice reason (the birth of his second daughter). But not to worry, as project director Prof. Kate Welham was ready to fill in with the pXRF in hand. She analysed the remains of vitreous materials found at the base of a furnace, and demonstrated that they were used for either glass or glaze production.

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Prof. Welham analyses dumped production remains with handheld pXRF

Of course, excavation is only the beginning. The results of this first field season demonstrate just how much more work needs to be undertaken at the site. We’re currently studying the pottery, bone, and industrial remains recovered, to understand more about the phases of occupation, and use of these two areas of the secano.

Not the Nine O’Clock News

It wasn’t just the tourists who were interested in us. Our hardworking students appeared on the cover of two local newspapers, and David Govantes Edwards made it onto the main national news slot one evening – the Spanish equivalent of the UK’s 9 O’Clock news. There are two types of archaeologist: those who run and hide whenever a camera is in sight, and those who thrive under the limelight. David certainly falls into the latter category, and he braved the many microphones and cameras to deliver a fantastic short piece on the work we were doing at the site, which went out to viewers across Spain that evening.

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Front page of two newspapers in Granada
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