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The El Castillejo Islamic settlement in Los Guajares, Granada

New research into a medieval village in southern Spain has found that an earthquake likely caused its abandonment in the 13th century. 

Our archaeologists have been investigating the El Castillejo Islamic settlement in Los Guajares, Granada, as part of the ArMedEa project (Archaeology of medieval earthquakes in Europe AD100-1550). 

Previous excavations suggested that the site was occupied between the 11th and mid-14th centuries but didn’t explain why it was destroyed and largely abandoned at some point in history. 

Fresh excavations by Durham Archaeology Research Associate, Dr Paolo Forlin and his team found clear evidence that the site had been affected by a destructive earthquake. 

Their findings have been published in the journal, PLOS ONE , in collaboration with palaeoseismologists from RWTH Aachen University and archaeologists from the University of Granada. 

Analysing the evidence 

The researchers used radiocarbon and OSL (optically stimulated luminescence) to date excavated materials such as plant remains, sediment and fired ceramic brick. 

They analysed the cracked, tilted and collapsed walls of the settlement and by opening new archaeological trenches, uncovered occupation surfaces sealed by fallen debris. 

Importantly, the team found burnt beams and charred plant remains which indicated that a fire was triggered by the earthquake that hit the settlement. 

This was likely started by hearths, braziers or candles falling over during the seismic tremors, thus indicating the settlement was occupied at the time of the earthquake. 

Predicting future earthquakes 

The team concluded that the earthquake hit the El Castillejo settlement within a period of around 40-years between CE 1224-1266. 

This makes it the earliest recorded earthquake in the Granada region and solves the mystery as to why the village was largely abandoned and later reoccupied on a smaller scale. 

The research also shows how archaeology can inform contemporary seismic disaster prevention and reduction, because in order to estimate earthquake risk today, we need to know what happened in the past. 

The team is now hoping that further archaeological excavations in the wider Granada region will reveal whether other sites surrounding El Castillejo were affected by the same earthquake and to what extent they were damaged. 

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