Archaeology Cultural Landscapes

A Time Machine of Stone

It may be the first animated cartoon in human history. Tens of thousands of years before Eadweard Muybridge first documented the movement of a horse and pioneered the medium of film, the people in the Côa Valley in the northeastern part of Portugal etched a mountain goat with two heads and interlocking horns. If you look closer, the animal appears to simultaneously look in two directions, indicating movement. It is a remarkable image from a remarkable site, probably one of the most enigmatic places in the world and certainly one of the oldest locations for human art in Europe. The images are scratched, incised or chiselled on the surface of the rock, often on top of one another.

Perhaps the most difficult dimension in these works of art is time itself. The images can be recognised as mountain goats, horses, deer or (very rarely) humans but the deeper meaning is elusive. We have to bridge tens of thousands of years to try to get into the heads of the artists and the communities that lived here. Why were these engravings made? Why were they made here? Why were they made over such a long period of time? The answers to these questions are as varied as the scientists involved. Perhaps they were drawn for simple practical and artistic reasons or they may be part of shamanistic rituals and religious beliefs. Our interpretations of the images reflect more about our own times and attitudes than of the people who created them. António Batarda of the Côa Museum: “We can study the drawings but we do not know exactly what they mean. We do not understand the context.”

More than 30,000 individual drawings, 10,000 motives and 70 sites have been catalogued so far and new discoveries are being made almost every week. The Côa Museum is the largest open-air palaeolithic rock art site in the world and the surrounding areas contain still more evidence of ancient human presence. Just across the border in Spain, the Siega Verde Archaeological Site and Interpretation Centre works closely together with the Côa Museum. The Portuguese government stopped the already advanced plan to build a hydroelectric facility in the Côa Valley in 1995. That decision not only saved a unique archaeological site for generations to come but it also created an economically viable and sustainable future for the Côa Valley villages and towns. The site was classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1998. All across Europe, governments still build dams to create a better future for the local communities, thereby potentially destroying cultural heritage sites of international importance. Even though much better solutions are available and viable alternatives are presented, governments in some cases push ahead as planned.

The real open-air sites are still the main attraction of the museum but you have to strain your eyes to be able to see a picture emerge through what at first glance can look like random scribbles. The museum shows them at a gigantic scale and separated them from the other layers, making the art accessible and intriguing for the visitors. Travelling 25,000 years back in time is an amazing experience.

Mountian goat looking both ways

Mountian goat looking both ways

Côa Museum

Côa Museum

Côa Valley

Côa Valley

The rock surface

The rock surface

Côa Museum presentation

Côa Museum presentation

Côa Museum presentation

Côa Museum presentation

3 Comments

  1. I had the privilege of doing a three-day educational trip in Foz Côa and the Douro Valley. It was an incredible experience and this museum was definitely one of the highlights from the trip!

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