This month's World Heritage Site

Portugal’s Coa Valley

By Dabbs Posted on History


The Coa River wends through almond and olive treed mountains in the northeastern region of Portugal. Since prehistoric times, rocky outcroppings along its banks have served as an outdoor art gallery. The exceptional concentration of engraved and painted figures in the region has been called the world’s most outstanding example of early human artistic activity. As such, it constitutes the Coa Valley Archaeological Park and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.The art works are spread along the last 17 kilometers of the Coa’s course, reaching as far north as where the Coa flows into the Douro River and penetrating valleys of several tributary streams.Themes of the engravings are basically zoomorphic, with most featuring large herbivores such as ibex (mountain goats), horses and aurochs (cattle-like mammals) that were common to the region 25,000 years ago. However, some rare engravings of fish and a single rendering of a human form also exist.

The engravings were made with quartzite and flint tools using several techniques, either alone or in combination: fine line incision, delicate cuts that can be difficult to discern; pecking, a succession of points hammered into the stone; and abrasion or scratching, infrequently used but providing greater visual impact.The most important images are at Canada do Inferno, Ribeira de Piscos, Penascosa, Quinta da Barca, Fariseu and Faia. These sites feature engravings of animals from the Paleolithic age and, at Ribeira de Piscos, a human figure from the same period. Neolithic and Copper Age paintings of human beings and animals also exist at Faia.Of these sites, three may be visited on organized park tours.Canada do Inferno.Canada do Inferno is the 130-meter-deep canyon excavated by the Coa River as it flows into the Douro. Most of the 36 carvings at the site have been submerged under shallow water since 1983 as a result of construction of the Pocinho Dam, which forms a six kilometer lake along the Coa.

Prior to flooding, this area was a beach lined with east facing, vertically layered escarpments that served as ideal panels for petroglyphs. Paleolithic engravings of ibex, horses and aurochs decorate the escarpments, with fish found on two rocks, one created by pecking (now submerged) and the other by fine line incision (still above water). Stylistically post-Paleolithic engravings of deer and goats also are present.Visits to Canada do Inferno begin at the Park Office at Vila Nova de Foz Coa.Ribeira de Piscos.Ribeira de Piscos merges with the Coa at the south end of Canada do Inferno. Although this area has fewer petroglyphs than the canyon, its images are perhaps better known.One rock panel depicts two horses crossing their heads. A few meters away, another panel bears a human figure drawn over a large auroch. At higher elevation, yet another panel features extraordinarily realistic fine line engravings of four horses.Visits to Ribeira de Piscos start at the Visitor Center at Muxagata.PenascosaPenascosa is situated one kilometer south of the Ribeira de Piscos site but on the opposite side of the Coa. Here, where the valley opens up, a relatively extensive beach formed from river deposits. Even more engraved rocks than those already known might still lie beneath its sands.

As at Canada do Inferno, all known images were etched into the vertical surfaces of schist rocks. Several were executed in such a way as to take advantage of spaces defined by the fragmented blocks. Some better known panels feature engravings created with pecking and abrasion techniques, while some recently discovered rocks are covered with incised motifs.Carvings depict ibex, horses, aurochs and some fish. In several cases, the artist tried to convey the concept of animation. A good example of this is a possible mating scene in which a mare is mounted by a stallion whose three heads suggest the downward movement of his neck.Visits to Penascosa depart from the Visitor Center at Castelo Melhor.The conservation policy of the Coa Valley Archaeological Park limits the number of daily visitors to these sites, so reservations for individual sites must be made in advance. Trained guides drive visitors in park vehicles to the rock art sites, with each tour lasting approximately 90 minutes.

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