I learnt about this rock art site by talking to the owner of the local pharmacy in the village where I live. We were having one of those conversations that started off by him asking how I was doing, me nearly crying (lockdown blues) and us talking about some of the stuff I’ve been doing since I moved to Portugal.
I mentioned that I’d been to visit the dinosaur footprints down south near Ourem, and he told me that I should really take a trip up north, to see the rock art of the Vale do Côa.. so I took his advice, did some more research online, jumped in my car and went.
Here’s the excerpt from the Côa Valley website that really got my attention:
As an immense open-air gallery, the Côa Valley features more than a thousand outcrops with rock art, identified in over 80 different sites, predominantly from the Upper Paleolithic, some 25,000 years ago.
What I didn’t realise before I got there, was that these sites were under threat of being flooded by the construction of a dam on the river, and a huge battle was fought in the 1990’s, to save them.
Thanks to lots of young locals kicking up a storm about the dam and its potential to submerge the rock art (they coined the slogan “Petroglyphs can’t swim!”) the engravings gathered so much international attention, that “in 1998, in the fastest classification process ever, UNESCO included the Prehistoric Rock Art of the Côa Valley in the World Heritage List“.
Power to the people! The dam project was cancelled and the sites have been preserved ever since.
The museum that I visited lies on the hilltop overlooking the Côa valley. It was pretty cool to imagine out ancestors making homes, making tools, hunting and fishing on the river banks below some 25,000 years ago.
The museum houses a great exhibition including replicas of some of the major rock art from the valley, interactive video / touch screen displays that launch a 20 foot wide video on the wall above you, and some day-glo oversized drawings of some of the most notable engravings on the walls around the museum.
There are a number of depictions of animals that at first glance, appear to have two heads, something I don’t think I’ve seen at any of the other cave art sites I’ve visited.
They seem to be capturing two images of the same animal, body fixed in place, but turning its head from side to side. Like this one above, of an Ibex. Maybe it was meant to signify the animal in motion, like an early form of 3D?
There are also a number of animals facing eachother or superimposed on top of one another, as if they were nuzzling eachother.
And then there are the strange human-like engravings, like this one below, which reminds me of something I’ve seen from another site, maybe the “Sorcerer” at Les Trois-Frères cave? Is it all human or part human part animal? Are they wearing something made of fur?
I spent hours in the museum (even though it’s not particularly large) looking at the tiny stone flakes that had been excavated from different sites along the valley, and staring through magnifying lenses at some of the more delicately engraved portable rocks that had been discovered.
I had planned on hiking down into the valley to see some of the rock art up close, but it was 35 degrees C by the time I’d finished wondering the museum halls and picking up a book at the gift shop.
Maybe I’ll go back and do one of the kayak visits to the valley when it’s less hot.. what a great idea, seeing rock art by boat!