A Capstone to my Harvard education: Discovering the Buried Capital of Visigothic Spain without a Shovel in the Summer of 2015

By: Richard Rush, Eliot House, College ‘ 15.

Freshman fall when I stepped into a Sever Hall classroom during shopping period, I had no idea that in four years I would be helping create new historical data with that energetic Professor McCormick who was pacing the front of the room. I remember that over the course of the semester I was entranced not only with Romans and the Germanic 1“barbarians” he was introducing the class to, but also with the scientific methods with which he and his colleagues were able to learn so much about the past. The narratives provided by historical documents were beautifully supplemented and even explained by biology, chemistry, and geology. McCormick made it obvious that the sciences were welcome in his critical engagement with human history. I was not surprised when I learned that McCormick was heading the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past (SoHP).

 

Over the next four years McCormick involved me in the SoHP where I brainstormed with other students and professors at Harvard and helped build a digital database of of medieval travelers. However, the highlight of my involvement in the SoHP began when Professor McCormick invited me to join an international expedition that he was organizing. A few months later, in July, I found myself under the hot Spanish sun, surveying land to be measured with the magnetometer, and surrounded by a team of crack archeologists from Germany, Spain, and the United States. To say that it was a unique –amazing– learning opportunity would be an understatement. Our goal was to explore the area surrounding the small excavated area of Reccopolis. We were quite sure that most of our areas of interest were directly in or just adjacent to the city walls and thought that stone foundations could still be present despite 1400 years of conquest, erosion, and farming. Our tool of choice was not the trowel, but a magnetometer.

The geomagnetometer detected the very small differences that soil and stone generate in the Earth’s magnetic field. Therefore, if there was a line of stones just below ground level indicative of a building foundation, it would appear in the measurements taken by the magnetometer. However, before the magnetometer could be used, we had to carefully and precisely survey the area to be geomagnetically prospected. Using a laser transit, we were able to measure out our plots to within a handful of centimeters and make sure that all of our individual plots were perfectly square with fixed local coordinates so that the image produced by the magnetometer could be fixed absolutely to their respective areas and not get mixed up.

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While the expedition was filled with its challenges and charms, the best part was undoubtedly working with top notch archeologists from three different countries. Not only was everybody pleasant to work with, I learned so much from them. From using the surveying equipment and magnetometer to getting advice on how to proceed with my postgraduate education to Leovigild, the Visigothic king who built Reccopolis, there was always something new to learn. A unique experience was the odd mixture of English, German, and Spanish that our team spoke. Occasionally, simply speaking with the other team members was an adventure in and of itself. While confusing at times, this conglomeration of languages served to richen the overall experience.

Naturally, everyone was excited to learn more about Reccopolis and we did. The grayscale images that the magnetometer produced yielded wonderful results. It was amazing to see the outlines of buildings, streets, and larger avenues emerge from the old barley fields that we were working in. 2By the time we had completed our two weeks at Reccopolis we had at least quintupled our previous knowledge of the layout and street plan of the Visigothic city. While these results are very exciting and have contributed greatly to our understanding of Reccopolis, our results also serve as a stepping stone for the ongoing excavations at Reccopolis by providing a map of the buried city.

Overall, this expedition was a success in every way imaginable. Not only did we produce incredible results, we also made some wonderful friends, enjoyed ourselves in a beautiful location doing something everybody was passionate about, and proved what can be accomplished both when we cooperate with our colleagues and when are not afraid to let the sciences and humanities mix. Truly, our results were made possible largely through mixing technology, geology, and history into archeology, thus turning the study of the human past more and more into an interdisciplinary science.

To accompany this expedition and assist in the process of creating new archaeological and historical knowledge served as a most fitting capstone to my undergraduate education. For four years I studied the data that past historians, archeologists, and scientists had produced. Finally, I was able to complete the circle and contribute my muscle and brain power to the discovery of something new that will be studied by future generations.

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