Rural Settlement and Soil Erosion from the Late Roman Period through the Medieval Islamic Period in the Lower Alentejo of Portugal


This article presents the results of a site survey of Late Roman period and Medieval Islamic period rural settlements in the Lower Alentejo of southern Portugal, and of geoarchaeological investigations that evaluate the role of human activity and environmental change in the pattern of settlement growth, decline, and abandonment documented by the survey. The survey revealed that some time after the dissolution of Roman control of Iberia in the 5th century A.D., small hamlets and villages began to appear in the study area. Over the next 500 years, and particularly following the Muslim invasion of A.D. 711, settlement density increased sixfold over what it had been during the Roman period. The most salient transformations in settlement patterning and material culture that occurred during this period, however, coincided with the consolidation of the Umayyad Caliphate in Cordoba in the mid-10th century, rather than the Arab and Berber invasion of A.D. 711. Subsequently, during the mid-12th century, the majority of rural villages were abandoned, nearly a century before the Christian Reconquista in A.D. 1238. The region remained largely depopulated until the mid-late 1400s, and settlement density in the region was never again as high as it was during the later Medieval Islamic period. Geoarchaeological evidence of widespread erosion and soil loss suggests that overuse of the land may have been a factor in the abandonment.

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Journal of Field Archaeology