By taking a look at the fields surrounding two medieval settlements abandoned in the 15th century, archaeologists are beginning to piece together a more detailed history of the sites. 

Located in northern Spain, Zaballa is one of more than 300 deserted settlements in the province known as Alava-Araba. The beginning of the end for its inhabitants was the construction of a manor monastery in the 10th century that led to the creation of a rent-seeking system. Later, the manor was converted into a factory and as the local lords attempted to maximize their profits, a "flight" of its settlers toward the towns resulted until eventually, the place was abandoned.

Published in the journal Quaternary International, the study outlines the discovery of a forgotten vineyard laid out in terraced fields around the settlement. Also included in the paper was the discovery of cereal fields once incorporated into the village known as Zornotegi, also located in Alava.

"Archaeo-botanical studies of seed remains found in the excavations and pollen studies have provided material evidence of the existence of vine cultivation in a relatively early period like the 10th century," explained Juan Antonio Quiros-Castillo from the University of Basque. Corroborating this finding was the discovery of metal tools designed for the specific type of plant cultivation.

In order to fully understand a people, Qurios-Castillo argues, more than an understanding of the layout of their buildings is needed. The lands that surrounded those buildings - and what they might have supported - have an important role in any ancient civilization.

"It is not so much about excavating a site, but about excavating landscapes," he said. "In other words, it is about abandoning the traditional concept of the site, understood as a monumental or [monumentalized] place, in order to get to know the context in which these places are located."

Despite being founded at roughly the same time as Zaballa, Zornotegi was a far more egalitarian society "in which such significant social differences are not observed, and nor is the action of manorial powers which, in some way, undermined the balance of the community."

According to Quiros-Castillo, by better understanding these areas of production, they have begun to leave behind the stereotypes that cast the medieval period "as a time of technical simplification, as a meagre period in economic terms, since they point to considerable social and economic complexity. Specifically, it has been possible in these studies to see that there are various important moments in the Basque Country, 5th to 6th centuries and 10th to 11th centuries, which were decisive in the construction of our landscapes."