A one thousand years old cultural landscape for terraces and wine

The terraced landscape of Vilachá, in the Galician Ribeira Sacra (NW Spain) were built in the X century

At the end of 2018, the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage of the Department of Education and Culture of the Xunta de Galicia, proposed to Incipit to study the chronology of the terraces of the Ribeira Sacra to reinforce the candidacy of this area of Galicia to the World Heritage List. The Incipit has a long experience in rural Archaeology and in particular of terraced cultural landscapes. It was a research developed by Paula Ballesteros in her doctoral thesis (http://hdl.handle.net/10261/226968 ).

To develop this study, we joined our forces with Os Conventos research project that was being carried out by Xurxo Ayán, in Val do Frade (in Vilachá, Pobra de Brollón, Lugo). We decided to work in the terraced environment of that site while his team worked the site itself. Doing this, we knew that the synergistic effect would generate a better historical synthesis. Data and results are available on the web https://adegasdamemoria.com/es/ , including a series of documentary videos that present the project in an attractive style.

Previous studies carried out in other areas of Galicia led us to anticipate that the terraced landscape of the Ribeira Sacra could have been built between the 7th and 10th centuries AD. Archaeological surveys and dating demonstrated that the first agrarian terraces (socalcos or pataos, in Galician) are contemporary with the construction of Os Conventos, in the 10th century. These results confirm that the history of the cultural landscape of the Ribera Sacra is between 1050 and 1100 old, and come together with the oldest chronological reference for the cultivation of wine in the area, recorded from 876 d.C. in a document of donation of vineyards to the Ourense monastery of Santa Cristina. The data coincide well with the peak of church construction in the s. X recently identified by JC. Sánchez-Pardo and Rebeca Blanco-Rotea (DOI: 10.1484 / J.HAM.5.115940).

Our results also confirm that this landscape was rebuilt and intensified at certain times, placing the first moment of intensification in the middle of the 13th century as part of the reorganization of the Ribeira Sacra by the Cister Order. This came to the area in the second half of the s. XII (monasteries of Ferreira de Pantón, Espadañedo and Montederramo). The Cister caused a total reorganization of the previous landscape of small family and community monasteries. It raises a landscape dominated by the feudal relations of production and dependence that terraced architecture petrifies and consolidates at the global scale of the entire territory, tying people to the land and making it then susceptible to be controlled and exploited.

We wish to continue this research. We will foster the studies of the 110 samples obtained with palaeoenvironmental and archaeometric techniques that will allow us to find out if the terraces were raised from their beginning for the cultivation of vine. We want to extend this work to other areas of the Ribeira Sacra. And we would especially like to quantify the effort involved in the construction of this form of landscape in the area, how many people and how long worked for it? Only that will give us the true measure of the social processes that were involved. If we take together the construction of terraces, churches, monasteries and castles, a panorama of a strong feudal society emerges that added to its agrarian capacities an enormous power to mobilize and exploit the peasantry.

The public presentation of this news has removed the weak foundations of the vision that links the terraces and the wine of the Ribeira Sacra to the Romans. A newspaper headlined that the myth of the Roman origin of the vineyard in the area is over. But this is actually more complicated. Nothing ever ends myths, not even when they are, like this one, amateur, romantic and recent discourses, promoted by a minority, that function socially and defend individual interests. People believe what they want to believe. The Roman myth of Ribeira Sacra is unequivocally attractive and has gained some strength. But what we will simply say is that what cannot be done is to revert a myth into history. This is now called "fake news" or "alt-reality", and it has always been called "manipulation". Without any evidence, and without the minimum basis to even raise it as a working hypothesis, it is silly to bid the future of an area, its promotion and the promotion of its excellent wines to a myth that, when presented as true, turns into a lie. The data we knew did not allow us to support, not even as a conjecture, the Roman origin of the terraces. But the data that we know now, show that the terraces began to be built in the 10th century of our era.

This puts us in a very simple dilemma. How can an unproven conjecture about the origin of the Ribeira Sacra two thousand years ago be more important and useful than the evidence that it is at least 1000 years old? How many wine terroirs in the World historic wine-producing areas can defend that they have been cultivating grapes and wine yards in the same pieces of land for 1000 years?

*Affiliations: XAV belongs to Universidade Nova de Lisboa (Portugal); CF to ICArEHB of Universidade do Algarve (Portugal); and FCB, EC and PBA to Incipit CSIC (Santiago de Compostela, Galiza, España)