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Investigating a medieval and Roman archaeological mystery

CMU team working to create a three-dimensional model of a medieval Spanish city

​​​​Beneath the soil in Nájera — a small town in northern Spain — sits an untouched Jewish Quarter left in ruins after the Jews ​​were expelled in 1492. And, just a couple of valleys west in the modern village of San Vicente, stands a church with walls containing Roman and medieval gravestones.

These are two mysteries studied by Central Michigan University assistant professor of art and design Scott de Brestian and his team.

De Brestian is co-director of the Najerilla Valley Research Project, an international multidisciplinary endeavor investigating the medieval and Roman era mysteries of the city of Nájera. The project, sponsored by CMU, is a collaboration between de Brestian and Victor Martinez of Arkansas State University.

“We are trying to deconstruct the inner life of the city over time,” de Brestian said. “The Jewish Quarter, located along the Najerilla River, was one of the biggest and wealthiest Jewish communities in Spain.” 

SpainTo create a digital, three-dimensional model of the terrain and the cultural remains of the region, de Brestian uses photogrammetry, drawings and historic maps — including a map from 1763 showing churches no longer in existence. Photogrammetry uses photography in surveying and mapping to measure distances between objects.

The Jewish Quarter has never been studied and its size adds to the city's political and religious significance, de Brestian said. Nájera is located on the Catholic pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela and home of the Santa María la Real, an influential monastery founded by the kings of Navarre where it is believed that the Qur’an was first translated into a western language.

De Brestian describes the San Vicente church built with gravestones as a time capsule involving various stages of the community’s past. For many years, the town’s residents thought it was only a few hundred years old — a common sight in Spain. But, after it caught fire, a mystery was uncovered beneath the cracked plaster.

GravestoneWithin the walls are about 100 gravestones, dating from the first to 13th centuries. The nearest known Roman site is about eight miles away, which was a great distance at the time for moving large stone blocks across valleys without modern equipment.

De Brestian said it is common to find Roman gravestones used in churches throughout Spain because of their rectangular construction. But, the use of medieval gravestones is unusual.

“Part of what we are trying to do is reconstruct history,” he said. “We can look at how they were reusing gravestones over time. The big, architectural blocks were used in the earlier phases. Then they used the rectangular gravestones. Later on, they used the medieval gravestones.”

About 80 medieval gravestones were used to build a room in the church after its original construction. De Brestian said they must have been desperate for building materials because the medieval gravestones have a round top and a long bottom, making them more difficult to use in building.

This summer, de Brestian and his team will continue to create a picture of the region across a 1,500-year period in history using modern techniques including photogrammetry, reflectance transformation imaging and possibly drone photography. Reflectance transformation imaging enables the viewer to display objects under varying lighting conditions.

“We’re introducing and expanding the techniques into a medieval city where they haven’t been used before,” he said.

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