“Damn,” we swore, arriving on a Monday to find the Côa Museum closed, its Brutalist architecture looking not unlike the walls of a dam. We had come to see Vila Nova de Foz Côa, 5,000 pieces of open-air rock art, ancient engravings created by artists who peopled the banks of the Côa River—22,000 years ago! Described as the first manifestation of Land Art, the origin of symbolic artistry and the genesis of cultural development, it is an unrivalled source for understanding Palaeolithic art and illuminating the lives of our early ancestors.
Droga barragem (“Damn dam“) was what a lot of Portuguese citizens likely said—actually a few decades before, they, and many outraged people around the world, were probably shouting words far more blasphemous. If not for their outrage, this outdoor gallery of rock art would have been dammed.
We returned to the museum the next morning as soon as it opened after breakfasting on fresh bread drizzled with honey, coffee cake and local cheese at the Candeias do Souto Hotel. “Damn,” we repeated; no tours of the rock engravings until mid-afternoon.
“Do you want me to see if one of the private guides is available?” asked a helpful attendant. After a few calls, he beckoned us over. “Marco can be here at 11:30 if there is a group of four. Should I book him and see if you can find someone to join you?”
Like pickpockets, we hung around outside the museum scrutinizing new visitors. Did they speak English? Were they likely to take a tour? Soon a young couple rode up on bicycles. Yes! James and Emma from England’s Lake Country would join us. (We didn’t realize how lucky we were until Marco told us that only 1,200 people per year take a guided tour.)
While waiting for Marco, we wandered the museum. Large, Vila Nova de Foz Côa covers three main archeological sites with twenty-two different groupings of art. There are 137 rock faces of the oldest artwork from the Paleolithic, 1,000 naturalist engravings of horses, bovines, ibex, deer, fish and a small group of geometric and abstract shapes—including a zig-zag wave that scholars think represents a comet. During the Iron Age and Bronze Age representations of dogs, birds, weapons and a few anthropomorphic figures were added.
Drawn in silhouette with a pronounced sense of movement, the engravings were made by creating incisions with hard stone tools, pecking and hammering, scraping to expose different coloured stone and painting with red ochre or black manganese. To show movement, an animal was often depicted with multiple heads. Variations in the rock surface were exploited to add relief to the figures. Most of the artwork was produced in the spring during hunting and fishing season, although there are no scenes of interaction between humans and animals.
The Côa Valley’s low precipitation and low temperature during the Last Glacial Maximum helped preserve the art but as you’d expect, the rock engravings are very fragile and many are very indistinct. For that reason alone, it’s helpful to visit the museum to see the blue-light depictions of the more famous pieces. And for you dear readers, the talented Magellan learned how to superimpose drop-shadows onto our photos to outline the rock images. (Click on the photos where he has done that and you can see before-and-after images.)
Right on time Marco arrived. “It’s too hot to go to the site on the plains. Besides, it’s a three-kilometre walk to get there,” he advised. Instead, we climbed into a jeep with his driver and visited Canada do Inferno (nothing to do with our country), Hell’s Canyon and three “slabs.”
Driving to the first site, Marco gave us a quick version of the scandalous “Damn Dam” backstory, coloured with darker shades of intrigue that we read about after our visit, starting with Miguel Torga’s 1976 poem “Requiem” to the death caused by five dams the government built along the Douro River. (The waters of the Lethe, also called the River of Forgetfulness, had the power to erase one’s memory; those who crossed the Lethe were freed from the past.)
Now the dammed silence of the Lethe
Covers with oblivion
That sacred world
In 1983 when a sixth dam was built eight kilometres from the mouth of the Côa River, outcrops of the first Ancient Bronze Age rock art were found—all of them subsequently submerged by the dam.
In 1991, the Social Democratic government of Portugal and its state-owned electrical utility EDP government signed an agreement to construct a massive three-hundred-million-dollar dam, a 136-metre-high wall on the Côa River. In November that year Nelson Rebanda, an archeologist working for the government, identified Paleolithic motifs (32,000 to 20,000 years old!) here. The discovery was kept quiet.
When the water level was lowered for dam work in the summer of 1993, Rebanda found even more artwork—sixty different sites along seventeen kilometres of the Côa River. Thousands of horses, bovines and other animals, and human and abstract figures. At major river points, some of the artworks were up high, territorial markers designed to be seen from a distance.
A remarkable, remarkable discovery.
Until the 1990s, Paleolithic art was thought to exist only in caves. Outdoor rock art was almost unknown except for in Australia.
Portugal’s national archaeological authority found out about the discovery but, as Marco said, they kept it under wraps and downplayed it as long as possible. Until November 1994 when the world learned of this huge assemblage of open-air engravings.
Duplicitous, the government’s line was that the outdoor images were so well-preserved they couldn’t be that old and besides, only cave art was attributed to the Palaeolithic era. (Radiocarbon dating has since confirmed the stylist dating and it’s now believed that open-air art was more common than cave art.)
Stating the drawings were “just doodles” (that came from the Minister of Culture), the Portuguese Government banned journalists from the dam site.
To vouch for his “just-doodles” finds, Rebanda hired archaeologists Mila Simões de Abreu and her husband, Ludwig Jaffe, who represented the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations, inviting them to the dam site for three short days when the water level was lowered. His plan backfired. They refused to become his accomplices, immediately denounced his cover-up and wrote open letters to their professional federation, the government and the press.
What do you think happened next?
Can you believe it—EDP carried on, building a concrete wall that buried the engravings under alluvial deposits and 100 meters of water. Shamefully arrogant, arrogantly shameful.
Furious, Portugal’s citizens took to the streets. They set up the Save the Côa Rock Art Movement. Lisbon residents launched a symbolic hunger strike. And Portugal’s ceremonial president from the left turned against the right-wing Prime Minister and his dam project.
And what do you think happened next?
Can you believe it—the dam construction continued, continued, even on holidays. And the water began rising.
A report on the scandal in Le Monde in March 1995 spurred Duncan Caldwell, a world-renowned paleontologist, researcher, explorer, artist and writer, to go to Portugal. In his excellent exposé of this disgrace, Duncan writes:
What I found made me so indignant that I wrote a call to arms called “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” which was widely disseminated, published and excerpted during the summer of 1995, while launching an international petition campaign called Prehistoric Art Emergency.
Caldwell’s petition ignited protests around the world calling for preservation of the engravings. Without a doubt his actions led to the government losing the election of October 1995 and persuaded the triumphant Socialist party to cancel the dam construction.
In August 1996, the Prehistoric Rock-Art Site of the Côa Valley was opened to the public. A year later, the complex became Portugal’s first archaeological park and in 1998, UNESCO declared the assemblage a World Heritage Site—a process Marco said usually takes decades.
It took about twenty minutes for our little tour group to reach Canada do Inferno, where, as at most of the sites, the engravings are on vertical rock faces about 140-220 metres above ancient beaches. A lone car was parked nearby, a lone older man fingering his cell phone. Marco said it’s essential to have a sentry posted here 24/7 to guard against vandalism or outright theft of these ancient treasures.
Harmoniously integrated into the natural environment of the Côa Valley, in the shimmering glassy brightness of the mid-day sun the artworks would have been blindingly impossible to locate if it wasn’t for Marco.
A hush fell upon us. Silence in the presence of astonishing art. Then, a radiated sense of delight, that to this day, I can still feel. Not as intimate or mystical as the Covalanas Cave in Spain, but here, in the plein air, a feeling of emotional unity with humankind in our ancient desire to mark our existence.
Bovines, ibexes, horses and goats Marco showed us. Is there a reason many were pregnant? There are no smaller animals such as squirrels or rabbits. Why? At Canada do Inferno and Penascosa, a few panels feature geometric symbols, two even have anthropomorphic figures. What do they mean? Etchings were entangled, superimposed and crisscrossed with intersecting lines from other eras. Did they run out of “rock paper” Magellan whispered to me?
Pick your favourite(s) from the six theories to scratch the meaning of why this art was created and you’ll find yourself in the company of undecided scholars. Totemism, showing kinship with the animals. Magicalism, believing that drawing animals would result in more of them. Structuralism, making and placing specific images according to underlying principles. Territorial, marking one tribe’s territory from another’s. Shamanism. Or art for art’s sake.
Several months after our visit, the Côa Valley Sites and Museum were added to the Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe, joining illustrious prehistoric sites such as Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. Damn good news we’d say.
Marco Ambieduca, a bioengineer, conducts excellent cultural and educational tours at Vila Nova de Foz Côa in summer and autumn and lives in Porto for the winter. He can be reached at 00351-966-544-220. From photos we’ve seen, a night tour appears to be an excellent way to see even more detail on the engravings.
Caldwell, Duncan. Prehistoric Art Emergency. 2010. This links to “a description of the strikingly modern and inspiring museum on a ridge overlooking the valley,
contact information concerning the Côa Valley Archaeological Park and its guides, signatures that were sent to the President of Portugal by Prehistoric Art Emergency during a typical month in September 1995, an annotated archive of IPPAR and other documents from the author’s trip to Côa in April 1995, my investigative report as it was circulated in May 1995, with revised footnotes that give it more historical depth, an archive of press clippings and PDF links to articles covering disputes generated by the Côa scandal, and a report on the flooding of the Bangudae Petroglyphs showing whale hunters, felines and even a rhinoceros. The fight goes on! I encourage you to see these cornucopias of ancient art in haunting landscapes for yourself—and to involve yourself in the continuing efforts to preserve them.”
Candeias do Souto Hotel; watch for a story of getting, and being there.
Carvalheiro, Nelson. Côa Valley in Centro de Portugal. June 29, 2016. Great photos and description of the Côa Museum and photos of both nighttime and daytime visits to the archeological sites.
Luis, Luis. The Art and Artists of the Côa Valley. Portugal: Instituto de Gestao deo Patrimonio Arquitectonico e Arqueologico (IGESPAR), 2011. A wonderful resource we purchased at the museum.
A video of Dr António Batarda, Archaeologist & Rock Art Specialist, who coordinates the Conservation Program and Educational Services at the Coa Museum & Archaeological Park.