Art and Culture in Northern Portugal: From Ancient Rock Art to Contemporary Installations

Article excerpt

"Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist."--Rene Magritte

Deciphering ancient rock art is controversial. Some believe the images functioned as a shared diary of past communities, portraying a society of nomadic hunters and gatherers. While some art historians consider the mythical and spiritual meanings of the images, scientists prefer to date them. Others reflect on the fate of contemporary graffiti, considering if it will be protected and become the rock art of centuries to come, imparting information about our society to those in a distant future.

Some of these issues are explored at the stunning Coa Museum, opened in 2010 in northeastern Portugal. It is an interpretive center considering what is art and why did we feel the need to engrave rocks with art? Whether you appreciate the mysteries of art on a purely aesthetic level or prefer to understand it by examining our earliest creative endeavors, pre-historic art beckons. Rock art is a global phenomenon, once serving as the all-encompassing media of the ancient world. Displayed in open-air galleries, it functioned as books, newspapers, diaries, movies, and social networking.


There are thousands of rock sites around the world (on every continent except Antarctica) with schematic representations of animals and human beings, but only a few are part of the official UNESCO World Heritage rock art sites. Portugal's first archaeological park--designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998--exhibits an enormous and permanent open-air art gallery from pre-historic times with many engravings of animals. The most common images are four large mammals: the aurochs (an enormous wild Eurasian ox, which became extinct in the 1600s), as well as the goat, deer, and horse.

These animals are engraved in the approximately 70 rock art sites in the Foz Coa area. They are well preserved because of the ideal environment in this valley. The hot, dry climate (one of the driest places in Portugal) coupled with limited human intervention in an undeveloped region of Portugal where few people lived, was key to the preservation of the art, which dates back to pre-historic times with the aid of both carbon 14 and thermal luminescence methods as tools for the dating process.

The rock art was discovered when a dam was being built in the Coa Valley. There were protests against the dam and a slogan--inspired by a Portuguese rap song--emerged. "Our petroglyph art can't swim." Musicians arrived at the site and there was a national discussion about the topic. Suddenly art was more talked about than sports in the town of Foz Coa, with a population of about 3,000. In an unprecedented decision in 1995, the government decided to stop the construction of the dam to preserve the rock art sites that were discovered there.


Set within the dramatic landscape between the Coa and Douro rivers, the architecturally striking modern Coa Museum of Art and Archeology (with a carved stone facade) came later as a culmination of this project. And behind the clean lines of the contemporary stone exterior of this building--designed by architects Camilo Rebelo and Tiago Pimentel as an installation in the landscape--is a world class museum. It contextualizes the the nearby findings in the archeological park, introducing rock art from a variety of perspectives: geographic, historic, scientific, social, and spiritual. It's the perfect place to contemplate rock art as a way of navigating the human landscape, aiding in the discovery and understanding of masterpieces both inside and outside the Foz Coa Museum, nearby the UNESCO World Heritage sites that are among the largest paleolithic rock art sites in the world. Three of these sites are open to the public, but only with advance booking and a licensed guide. (Note there is a strict limitation policy in place for the number of visitors each day.)

On a recent trip to Foz Coa, Archeologist Antonio Batares reminds me, "art cannot be explained by a single approach. …