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Archaeology of Commons: cultural Heritage and Material Evidence of a Disappearing Europe

Final Report Summary - ARCHIMEDE (Archaeology of Commons: cultural Heritage and Material Evidence of a Disappearing Europe)

My name is Anna Maria Stagno and I am rural archaeologist. My project examined the history and archaeology of common lands in Europe, that is to say lands whose uses are in part or wholly communal rather than private and shared by different local social groups or communities. Common lands could indicate different land configurations (grasslands, pastures, woodlands, wooded pastures, etc.) whose management could be highly complex, as the same piece of land could be used, during a single cycle, for different uses: pasture, temporary cultivation, hay cut, timber and wood collection. A good example of this would be a medieval woodland in which timber might belong to a local lord, but the inhabitants of the neighbouring hamlets grazed their livestock in it and collected wood for fuel or fencing.

These spaces still exist nowadays. All European countries have common lands, even if differently preserved, and their roots can be traced back at least to the Roman period. The stratification of uses, their complexity, their transformation along centuries and the permanence of common rights on lands were crucial in shaping rural landscapes. As a consequence, nowadays they are protected as natural (Natural parks, Sites of Communitarian Interest) and cultural (UNESCO sites) heritage. However, their historical material organization and their changes along the times are still not well known.

I studied the archaeology of common lands thanks to a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship with the project ARCHIMEDE - “Archaeology of Commons: cultural Heritage and Material Evidence of a Disappearing Europe" ( based at the University of the Basque Country, within the Research Group in Heritage and Cultural Landscapes (GIPyPAC) directed by Professor Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, my scientist in charge. The project was developed thanks to the collaboration of the GIPyPAC with other two research groups: namely, the Laboratory of Environmental Archaeology and History (LASA) of the University of Genoa and the Laboratory FRAMESPA-Terrae of the University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès.

The main goal of the project ARCHIMEDE was to understand the intimate social dimension at the base of the management of common lands in the context of mountains of Southern Europe, by means of historical and archaeological analysis. Drawing on the combined research experience on rural and environmental archaeology acquired during my PhD and post-doctoral research at the University of Genoa and the experience working on agrarian archaeology gained by the GIPyPAC, ARCHIMEDE aimed to investigate common-lands in order to decipher their historical transformations, going back in time, since the present day.

Through litigations, whose written records are stratified in local and central archives, local communities and social groups maintained commons access rights and shaped mountain landscape throughout centuries. This history can be approached in different ways, usually as a matter of historical geography, legal history or social anthropology. I used an archaeological perspective. I examined local strategies for the management of resources and the claiming of commons access rights, focusing in the upland and in mountainous areas of continental Europe (Fig. 1) based on the comparison of case studies from the Basque mountains (Comunales of Llanada Alavesa Oriental and Sierra de Aizkorri), the French Pyrenees (Commons of Llò and Eyne, in Cerdagne) and the Ligurian Apennines (Trebbia Valley).

The work was organised in four phases:
1. collection and analysis of bibliographical, cartographical and aerophotographical data, aimed to select specific areas of study in the Basque Country and to have a first idea of the present organisation of commons. During this phase, I had a first survey in local archives, designed and set out a Geographical Information System platform in order to manage all spatial data and, finally, organised a research group of students and scholars who helped me during fieldwork.
2-3. Through fieldworks based on historical ecology and archaeological surveys, I sought to identify in the present landscape traces of past agro-forestry-pastoral practices and to relate them to different stages of appropriation. Then, archaeological shovel tests, together with subsequent archaeobotanical and geo-chemical analyses, allowed the identification of different phases of use in the sites selected. Radiocarbon dating, performed by the Laboratory LABEC - INFN of Florence in the framework of a research collaboration, allowed us to date the identified phases of use. I defined different physical markers which let me distinguish between temporary appropriation, usurpation and permanent appropriation of common lands. For example, terraces, boundary markers, tree cover and pottery scatters indicate more permanent forms of occupation, whilst archaeobotanical and geochemical analyses can distinguish between different cultivation, grazing activities and manuring practices. This work contributes significantly to our understanding of a hitherto under-recorded archaeological resources and provides an opportunity to identify legal practices (forms of property, assessment of the land, transformation of uses, organization and access rights) related to the historical dynamics which shaped commons.
I tried to consider all the spaces related to the management of the agro-silvicultural and pastoral resources, both outside and inside of settlements (studied through archaeology of architecture), and to decipher the relation between their transformations and changes in access rights to commons.
4. Comparisons with archival sources related to jurisdictional conflicts and statistical enquiries concerning the situation of agro-sylvo-pastoral activities in the area of study, allowed correlations between periodizations based on different sources: transformations in the landscape (cartographic analysis, archaeological surveys and excavations), conflicts (archival investigations), settlements (archaeology of architecture). In this way, I could decipher the changes in access rights to commons and their material consequences.

The project made it possible:
- to compare different archaeological methods and to identify the most suitable ones for the archaeology of commons;
- to make a list of indicators of the different forms of appropriation and occupation, to identify the “productive” space of the studied local communities, which could be located really far from the permanent settlements;
- to connect the transformations of landscape with those of settlements and, in doing so, to reconstruct fragments of collective and individual stories of management, and of ‘conflictuality’ too, which form an enormous heritage and should be discovered and preserved through its continued use.

I had the occasion to share and test these methods with a number of researchers and to create with them the European Network of the Archaeology of Commons, which involves scholars from the University of Toulouse, University of Montpellier, the Autonomous University of Barcelona, the University of Primorska, the University of Genoa, the University of Reading, the University of Durham and the Departament de Patrimoni Cultural of the Govern d’Andorra, as well as, the University of the Basque Country.
This will be the base of future projects on the topic. I would like to continue investigating the archaeology of commons and I will do it thanks to a Senior Research Fellowship at the Department of Archaeology of the University of Durham on “Landscape of rights” and through an on-going research project grant application (ERC).

Today, most of the traces that I investigated are disappearing due to the abandonment of rural activities. These are the consequences of this process: uncontrolled wood-land growth, fires, hydrogeological instability and loss of biodiversity. The work conducted during these years can contribute to cultural and natural ‘heritage-isation’ processes, because it gives to figures of natural protection a historical dimension, it provides useful data for the enhancement of common land heritage and for the maintenance and, maybe, the reintroduction historical local practices of environmental resource management. In addition, the results of such investigations constitute an important key for planning present management of European common land heritage. This emerged clearly during all the meetings and public conferences: from archaeology, we moved to discussions concerning present management, the possible role that multiple uses and local practices could play and the importance of transferring this historical and archaeological knowledge to young generation. The question is how to enhance the role of local actors and how to bring this knowledge and its application to policy makers.

I made these investigations thanks to a group of undergraduate, graduate and PhD students and post-doctoral researchers who collaborated with me during the different phases of the project. Carlos Tejerizo García, Riccardo Santeramo, Josu Narbarte, Gonzalo Ibarzabal, Aitziber González García, Francisco Gómez Diez, Maialen Galdós Jauregi and Josu Santamarina Otaola from the University of the Basque Country and Alessandro Panetta, Dr Claudia Parola and Valentina Pescini from the University of Genoa helped me in fieldwork. Samples and laboratory analysis were performed by PhD students and post-doctoral researchers: Dr Begoña Hernández Beloqui (pollen), Dr Marta Portillo (phytoliths) Amaya Echazarreta Gallego (non-pollen palynomorphs), Arantzazu Jindriska Pérez Fernández (physicochemical analyses) from the University of the Basque Country and Valentina Pescini (anthracology) and Dr Valentina Moneta (pollen and non-pollen palynomorphs) from the University of Genoa. To all of them I would like to express my gratitude for their hard work, enthusiasm and interest in this research topic. I am really happy that Aitziber, Valentina, Alessandro, Carlos and Pako decided to continue developing their own research projects on commons and their archaeology & history.