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Chance find opens new chapter in Spain's history

A CHANCE discovery of a medieval clay oven has revealed that Moorish architects used powdered animal bones to protect the walls of fortresses close to the Alhambra Palace in southern Spain.

The finding represents the first evidence of powdered bones being used in protective coats, or patinas, in Moorish architecture, said Granada University geologist Carolina Cardell, who headed a year-long scientific research project at the site.

"We know this method was used in Greek, Roman and Celtic structures, but this is the first report of it in a Moorish building," Cardell said.

The discovery began when archaeologists restoring a 4-meter rampart a short distance from the Alhambra stumbled across the remains of a clay oven beside a pile of bones and ashes.

The wall was built sometime between 1333 and 1354 by Moorish ruler Yusuf I, who also constructed a key section of the Alhambra Palace complex. The palace is the architectural jewel near the city of Granada from which Moorish caliphs ruled most of Spain until King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled them in 1492, ending 800 years of Muslim rule. The palace is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a major tourist attraction.

Suspecting the find had something to do with the wall's coating, the archaeologists asked Cardell and her colleagues at the city university's mineral and petrology department to investigate. The team first found that the oven -- estimated to have measured some 2 square meters -- had operated at temperatures of around 1,000 degrees Celsius.

"This was far higher than the temperature normally used in firing ovens, so it was obvious they used it for something else," Cardell said.

Traces on the oven's brickwork revealed hydroxyapatite, a mineral that is the main component of bone. High temperatures must be reached before bone can be powdered.

The scientists then used a series of ultra-sensitive detection methods and found the same substance on the wall. "The bone powder would have strengthened the wall's coating better than any other substance," Cardell said.

Cardell said there was evidence that the bone powder, mostly from pigs, may have been used in other Moorish structures in the area but so far there is nothing to indicate it was used in the Alhambra itself.


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