Prehistoric tombs of Monchique and Alcalar take pride of place at international megalithism congress

Municipalities have a fundamental role, in conjunction with universities and other entities of the so-called civil society, in defining policies that promote their heritage singularities

The Soto Dolmen, discovered and excavated 100 years ago – Credits: Ayuntamiento de Trigueros

The Algarve region has notable prehistoric monuments, with Alcalar standing out for its monumentality and the tombs of Caldas de Monchique for their uniqueness. Both had a prominent place at the VII International Congress of Rock Art and Megalithism, held in Trigueros (Huelva).

For several years now, the Municipality of Trigueros, in the neighboring Spanish province of Huelva, has maintained the regular organization of international congresses on rock art and megalithism, in a dynamism that is rare to be observed in small municipalities, whether on this side , like on the other side of the border.

In the case of Trigueros, this effort has been applied to a notable prehistoric monument, the Dolmen de Soto, which, by conscious and deliberate decision of a Neolithic community six thousand years ago, was built in that precise location, in the center of extensive plains — cereal lands that gave rise to the name of this friendly village — which still today, as yesterday, impresses with its vastness.

What makes a municipality, with less than eight thousand inhabitants, invest its resources (and affection) in the care and valorization of an ancient stone tomb, far from the town, which can only be accessed by rural roads?

Because, although Trigueros is a town rich in traditions, with popular festivals and beautiful religious and private buildings, the Soto Dolmen is, in itself, a heritage of not only local or regional relevance, but also international relevance.

Now, this year 2023 marks the centenary of its discovery and its first archaeological work. As expected, this anniversary had to be celebrated.

 

Scientific committee of the Trigueros congress in the final debate – Credits: Ayuntamiento de Trigueros

 

Thus, on the 14th and 15th of November, the seventh edition of that congress took place, this time dedicated to “Discovery and biography of the great megaliths of the Iberian southwest”.

It was an ambitious, but exemplary, joint organization that involved not only the Municipality of Trigueros, but also the Junta de Andalucía, the Diputación de Huelva, and the Complutense Universities of Madrid and Huelva, having been present, as directors scientific and academic professors José Antonio Linares Catela and Juan Carlos Vera Rodríguez, from their respective universities.

The objective was, taking advantage of and valuing this event, to bring together in the same event a group of 26 researchers from six countries (Germany, Spain, France, Portugal, United Kingdom and Sweden), who have been working on the study of the Soto Dolmen, the carry out research projects on other classic monuments of megalithism in the southwest of the Iberian Peninsula or other regions of the European continent.

The success of this initiative could also be seen in the assistance of the non-specialist public: 128 people in person and 20 via videoconference, from several European and South American countries.

Without going into details about the conferences presented, whose authors and titles are still available online (for example, on the Facebook of the Municipality of Trigueros and on the website www.trigueros.es), it is worth highlighting that three major research projects were present on these realities in the south of Portuguese territory, more specifically in Alentejo and Algarve.

Regarding the first region, Ana Catarina Sousa dealt with “Megalitism(s) in Alentejo (Portugal): from the research of the Leisner couple (1929-1972) to the current situation”, in a work also signed by Victor S. Gonçalves.

These prehistorians from the University of Lisbon have been directing archaeological excavations in megalithic tombs, but, in this communication, they gave special attention, from a historiographical perspective in line with the theme of this year's edition of the congress, to the work of the German couple Georg and Vera Leisner, who , during those decades, he dedicated himself to studying this phenomenon in Alentejo and also in the Algarve.

 

Closing of the congress work with all speakers on stage – Credits: Ayuntamiento de Trigueros

 

And it was precisely the Algarve that the other two communications focused on. One dealt with the notable monuments of Alcalar, in Portimão, in which a review was made of the long (almost) continuous investigation that has been carried out in these great temple tombs — which require no introduction — since their discovery, back in the XNUMXth century. XIX.

It was titled “Biography of the buildings under the tomb of the town of Alcalar: 143 years of breaking silences”, and was brought to us by Elena Morán Hernández, from the Lagos Museum, and Rui Parreira, from the Regional Directorate of Culture of the Algarve. The authors could not fail to mention, and rightly so, the effort that they have dedicated in particular to rehabilitation and enhancement of these five thousand year old monuments, which, as is known, is open to the public and can be visited using the infrastructure that has been built for this purpose on the site for years.

The other communication, presented by the author of these lines, was entitled “On the 70 years of the 'Archaeological Studies of Caldas de Monchique'. New data on the Neolithic phase”, and had a double objective. As in the case of the Soto Dolmen, it also marks an important anniversary: ​​the 70th anniversary of the main publication made about these tombs, thus honoring the contribution of the three great pioneers of Monchiquense archeology.

It is to Abel Viana, the great driver of these works, to O. da Veiga Ferreira, a geologist at the then Geological Services of Portugal, and to José Formosinho, who today lends his name to the Lagos Museum, that we owe the persistent study, carried out between 1937 and 1949, of this authentic prehistoric sacred territory that surrounds, perhaps not by chance, those hot springs in the Serra de Monchique.

 

The authors of the excavations in the tombs of Caldas de Monchique in a photograph from September 17, 1947. From left to right, José Formosinho, O. da Veiga Ferreira and Abel Viana (photograph kindly provided by João Luís Cardoso)

 

Unlike Soto or Alcalar, however, these tombs are small in size, “poor” in archaeological objects, “hidden” on terraces on the mountain’s mid-slope but enjoying a remarkable view over the Atlantic coast.

As far as we know, they were built even further back than those monuments. These facts led several prehistorians from the mid-XNUMXth century, Portuguese and elsewhere, to consider that in these simple but ancient tombs we may be faced with the origin, the prototypes, of the large dolmen-type tombs.

But these peculiar testimonies of that remote past were slowly falling into oblivion. For this reason, the second objective of the communication was also to present the results of the excavations that were recently resumed in Monchique, putting an end to these decades of almost oblivion.

This new field work, not yet completed, was initiated by the Municipality itself in collaboration with the University of Algarve within the scope of the “MEGA Monchique” project, approved by the Directorate-General for Cultural Heritage.

The work has already made it possible to obtain an unexpected and important volume of scientific data which will be published during 2024 in works of the specialty. The main results were also disseminated to the general public, namely on the pages of Sul Informação, where they can be reread.

In the end, the organization of the congress, through its scientific committee, produced a synthetic summary of it, very brief but which proposed some ideas on options and strategies for the preservation, rehabilitation and enhancement of the megalithic heritage of the Iberian Peninsula.

Two basic ideas stood out. One is that it is possible, even for municipalities with a small territorial or demographic scale, to undertake projects to enhance their archaeological heritage, especially if they have particularly monumental or unique elements of international interest (and not just on a local or regional scale). ).

The Algarve prehistoric tombs of Monchique and Alcalar, as different as they are complementary to each other, and for these reasons both invited to be present at the Soto Dolmen celebrations, are on this larger scale.

 

Presentation of the results obtained in the “MEGA Monchique” research project – Credits: Ayuntamiento de Trigueros

 

Another basic idea is the use of formal collaboration projects between distinct “megalithic territories”, sometimes separated by modern political-administrative borders, for their joint, articulated promotion.

The creation of routes within the scope of agreements — of course, cross-border — for the valorization of these monuments, promoting exchanges and bringing added value of a wide variety of orders, is a possibility of valorizing not only the archaeological monuments themselves, but the surrounding territories themselves. , especially in those classified as low density.

It was no coincidence that, on the eve of the congress, a general assembly of the “Megalithic Routes” also took place in Trigueros, a cultural route of the Council of Europe of which the Soto Dolmen is now part.

On a more personal note, I have had the opportunity to formally collaborate with inter-municipal communities and several Portuguese municipalities, in the Algarve and beyond, as a teacher and researcher on these topics at the University of Algarve.

This experience of mine has allowed me to see the fundamental role that municipalities, in conjunction with universities and other entities of the so-called civil society, can have in defining policies that solidly promote their heritage singularities and thus catalyze events and actions. far-reaching concrete actions.

I know well that these are words that we have long been accustomed to reading and hearing. Today, however, they finally seem to correspond to a broad movement, still silent and diffuse for now, but which is gradually growing, expanding and taking shape.

 

Author António Faustino Carvalho is a professor at the University of Algarve, archaeologist and author of several books and scientific articles on the Neolithic

 

 

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