Prehistoric Rock-Art Site of the Côa Valley

Prehistoric Rock-Art Site of the Côa Valley (Núcleos de arte rupestre do Vale do Côa)
Prehistoric art (Arte Rupestre)
Animal sketches on the granite stones of the Penascosa Prehistoric Site
Official name: Conjunto dos núcleos de arte rupestre do Vale do Côa
Country  Portugal
Region Norte
Sub-region Douro
District Guarda
Municipality Vila Nova de Foz Côa
Length 17,000 m (55,774 ft), South-North
Area 200 m2 (2,153 sq ft)
Origins Unknown, António Seixas, Alcino Tomé
Style Pre-historic
Materials Schist, Granite, Ocre/Black paints
Origin 22-20,000 years B.C.
 - Final 17th-20th century
 - Discovery c. 1990
Owner Portuguese Republic
For public Public
Visitation Closed (Mondays and on 1 January, Easter Sunday, 1 May and 25 December)
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Name Prehistoric Rock-Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega Verde
Year 1998 (#22)
Number 866
Region Europe
Criteria i, iii
Management Instituto Gestão do Patrimonio Arquitectónico e Arqueológico
Status National Monument
Listing Decree No. 32/97, 2 July 1997
Location of the Côa Valley within Continental Portugal
Wikimedia Commons: Conjunto dos sítios arqueológicos no Vale do Rio Côa

The Prehistoric Rock-Art Site of the Côa Valley is an open-air Paleolithic archaeological site located in a region of northeastern Portugal, along the Portuguese-Spanish border.

In the early 1990s rock engravings were discovered in Vila Nova de Foz Côa in the course of the construction of a dam in the valley of the Côa River. They include thousands of engraved rock drawings of horses, bovines and other animals, human and abstract figures, dated from 22,000 to 10,000 years BCE. The sites were reviewed by archaeologists and other specialists of UNESCO and other agencies. Public support grew for preservation of the archaeological artifacts and rock paintings both within Portugal and internationally, and in 1995 elections led to a change in government. The new prime minister cancelled this dam project.[1]

Since 1995, a team of archaeologists have been studying and cataloging this pre-historical complex. The Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley (Portuguese: Parque Arqueológico do Vale do COa (PAVC)) was created to receive visitors and interpret the findings, and the Côa Museum was constructed here following a major design competition.[2]


Carvings of various zoomorphic creatures, including in particular, a horse
Paleolithic rock engravings breaking the natural rock formation
Various zoomorphic and anthropomorphic designs on granite slabs

The first drawings appearing in the Côa Valley date between 22-20,000 years B.C., consisting of zoomorphic imagery of nature.[3] Between 20-18,000 B.C. (Solutense period), a secondary group of animal drawings included examples of muzzled horses.[3] There was greater elaboration during 16-10,000 years B.C. (Magdalenense period), with a Paleolithic style. The essentially anthropomorphic and zoomorphic designs included horses identifiable by their characteristic manes, aurochs with mouths and nostrils indicated, and deer.[3]

Other paintings dating back to the Epipaleolithic period were of zoomorphic semi-naturalist design.[3] Another phase of anthropomorphic designs were encountered during the Neolithic, that also included zoomorphic designs that were both geometric and abstract.[3] Anthropomorphic designs also appeared dating back to the Chalcolithic and Bronze Ages; these were primarily anthropomorphic in character.[3]

Between the 5th and 1st centuries, early organized humans were responsible for producing anthropomorphic and zoomorphic designs that included weapons and symbols.[3]

The final era of recorded rock art, corresponding to the 17th to 20th centuries, include religious, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic designs, inscriptions and dates. The later part of these designs include representations of boats, trains, bridges, planes and representations of various scenes, including drawings completed by António Seixas and Alcino Tomé.[4][5]

20th century

In the 20th century, the construction of the Pocinho Dam and creation of its associated reservoir likely resulted in the immersion of many rock cliff drawings.[6] By the 1990s, prospectors revealed a group of important Paleolithic, Neolithic and Chalcolithic carvings in the lower part of the Côa Valley, likely in November 1991 by Nelson Rabanda (articles were not published on this work until November 1994).[6][7][8] Later, António Martinho Baptista would determine that Iron Age carvings corresponded to works by Celtic-Iberian tribes, specifically the Medobrigenais or Zoilos.[6] Some of the peoples were identified from this period for the first time and had not already been identified in other archaeological investigations.[5]

In 1995, a plan to construct a dam was approved and principal work began in the Côa Valley.[6] But, following the original discovery of rock art, an archaeologist had been investigating the kilometres-long Côa valley under the direction of the national Portuguese energy producer (Energias de Portugal - EDP) and the agency responsible for monitoring architectural patrimony (Instituto Português do Património Arquitectónico - IPPAR).[6] Both agencies were made aware of the prehistoric art along the Côa, much earlier than the general public and scientific community were informed.[6] Archaeologist Nélson Rabanda, studying the site under an agreement between EDP and IPPAR, reported the case to the press, as well as other organizations interested in prehistoric art and patrimony, such as UNESCO.[6][7] There was an immediate move by EDP to disprove the age of the carvings, in order to continue the dam project despite the damage it would do these irreplaceable works.[6]

The local scandal forced IPPAR to petition UNESCO for a review of the site. In December 1994, Jean Clottes came to the region to investigate the discoveries. But, the UNESCO reports were not unanimous about whether or not the power plant should be built; Clottes, the head of prehistoric department, noted that rising water may protect the engravings from vandalism, but also confirmed that Coa Valley "is the biggest open air site of palaeolithic art in Europe, if not in the world".[6] At the time, the number of carvings were limited and many suspected that many more had already been submerged by the previous Pocinho Dam project.[6] This was proven by Nelson Rabanda, who investigated the submerged Canada do Inferno site, finding several other examples. The national government provided little resources to the investigation. Outside archaeologists discovered other sites in the areas of Penascosa, Ribeira de Riscos, Quinta da Barca, Vermelhosa, Vale de José Esteves, among others, and they quickly published their discoveries or promoted them on national media networks.[6] A citizens group, Movimento para a Salvação das Gravuras do Côa, arose with a slogan, "As gravuras não sabem nadar" (The carvings don't know how to swim), which they plastered on the side of the local secondary school.[9]

A second UNESCO team, led by Mounir Bouchenaki, director of the World Heritage branch, was sent to definitively conclude the case. His team determined that a great part of the carvings dated as far back as the Palaeolithic.[10] The dam construction which had damaged such resources produced a scandal within the Portuguese government, and pressure from the international community to preserve these sites. The dam project was denounced in international newspapers such as The Sunday Times, The New York Times and International Herald Tribune, as well as by public broadcasters such as BBC.[10]

Meanwhile, after the visit of the UNESCO delegation, the IPPAR created an international scientific commission to accompany the study of the art in the Côa valley; this was considered controversial.[10] It included António Beltrán, E. Anati and Jean Clottes, and met in May 1994. EDP continued to promote other methods of "saving" the prehistoric art (such as creating moulds or carving the panels from the cliff faces), while still promoting the continuation of the dam project.[10] EDP was also helped by the direct dating controversy; Robert Bednarik and Alan Watchman, in addition to Fred Phillips and Ronald Dorn, used an unproven methodology to affirm that the carvings were not Palaeolithic.[10] These events displeased the archaeologists and the public. A broad-based movement against the dam developed, which was resolved only through a complete change in political thinking.[10] The 1995 Legislative elections resulted in a change in government; under Prime Minister António Guterres, the dam project was cancelled in November 1995.[10]

A government established a system to monitor and conserve the archeological resources; the events of the "Battle of Côa" contributed to the establishment on May 1997 of the National Centre for Prehistoric Art (Portuguese: Centro Nacional de Arte Rupestre (CNART)) and the Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley (Portuguese: Parque Arqueológico do Vale do COa (PAVC)), by the Ministry of Culture (Portuguese: Ministério da Cultura), the Portuguese Institute of Archaeology (Portuguese: Instituto Português de Arqueologia, as well as the dependent agencies. The National Centre for Aquatic and Subaquatic Archaeology (Portuguese: Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática (CNANS)) was opened in August 1996, without legal authority.[10][11]

The Prehistoric Rock-Art Sites in the Côa Valley were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1998 (from an advisory board report on 25 June 1997).[10][12][13]

21st century

In 2003, a study was begun to study the viability of introducing the Przewalski horse in the area, a species related to those portrayed in the Paleolithic rock art.[14]

By May 2004, a public tender was commissioned by the Portuguese Order of Architects to design the Côa Museum (it was won by architects Tiago Pimentel and Camilo Rebelo). It was followed by a competition to construct the museum. On 26 January 2007, the Côa Museum construction was started with the placing of the first cornerstone by Minister of Culture, Isabel Pires de Lima, and work initiated by Monte Adiano.

Formal excavations began in Fariseu on 19 September 2005, completed in October, under the direction of Thierry Aubry, which discovered several slabs of schist (10 x 20 centimetres) dating to the Paleolithic.

The conference HERITAGE 2008 - World Heritage and Sustainable Development International Conference took place at Vila Nova de Foz Côa between 7–9 May 2008.[15] The conference was conceived to examine the relationships between heritage and human development, and the natural environment and building preservation, and promoted significant discussion, organized by the Portuguese Ministry of Culture (Portuguese: Ministério da Cultura).

In August 2010, the World Heritage Committee extended the UNESCO world heritage extension to neighbouring site of Siega Verde in Spain.[11] The Siega Verde Archaeological, with comparable carvings/etchings in 94 panels along a 15 kilometre stretch across the border includes over 500 representations. Its dating to the similar period, allowed its inclusion in the world designation with the Côa Valley sites.[11]


The prehistoric site can be accessed from EN102 motorway (Vila Nova de Foz Côa-Celorico da Beira), via Muxagata, or alternately via the EN222 motorway (Vila Nova de Foz Côa-Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo) detouring from Castelo Melhor. The territory includes parts of the municipalities of Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo, Mêda, Pinhel and Vila Nova de Foz Côa.

The lower portion of Côa River Valley runs south to north, at about 130 metres above sea level, spread over an area of 17 km (10.56 mi) of the lower Côa river valley. The watercourse is flanked by rolling/undulating hills, surrounded by rare species of river brush, vineyards, olive and almond trees, with the higher elevations occupied by pasturelands and fields. At about the 17 kilometre mark, there relief is rocky with granite and schist outcroppings common.

The Prehistoric Rock Art Sites of the Côa Valley are actually 23 sites with engravings or paintings, along the last 17 kilometres of the River Côa (with ten sites located along the left bank and eight on the right bank of the river). In addition five sites are located along the tributaries along the Douro River, constituted into three different nuclei: Faia, Quinta da Barca and Penacosa, along the mouth of the Ribeira de Piscos, in an area of 20,000 hectares.

Of the 23 archaeological sites, 14 are classified:

Nine sites are in the process of achieving classification:


The prehistoric art is either carved, incised or picked, combining various techniques, but rarely painted, utilizing the vertical schist slabs as canvass. These schist rocks, along the northern part of the Côa River, are large drawings in contrast with smaller depictions in other parts of the region.[3][5] Their size vary between 15 cm (5.91 in) and 180 cm (70.87 in), but most are 40-50 centimetres in extension, often forming panels and compositions.[5] The style often features bold lines, but many are touched with fine, thin lines.[3]

Prehistoric Rock-Art Site of the Côa Valley - Penascosa - Bull

The art near Faia, occupies several vertical panels of granite. Two groups of authors were identified in this region, including 230 carvings from the Epipaleolithic and Bronze Ages.[5]

The more archaic period of Côa corresponds to 137 rocks with 1000 carvings and rare paintings, by artists who concentrated on zoomorphic representations: equine (horses), bovine (aurochs), caprines and deer (the latter primarily associated with the final phase of the Magdalense period).[3][5] There are also representations of fish, intermediary animals, along with a small group of geometric or abstract shapes (including lines and symbols in Penascosa and Canada do Inferno).[3][5]

In one of the rarer depictions, there is a solitary anthropomorphic figure with phallus, dating to the Magdalenense period in the Ribeira de Piscos site.[5] The artists motives are unclear, and the image appears isolated and over-drawn by other figures.[5]

At the Rock Art Site of Faia, there are unique painted carvings, with ocre paint tracing the image and highlighting the nostrals and mouth of the figure.[5] Other groups of carvings in Vale Carbões and Faia, dating from the Epipaleolithic and Neolithic, include zoomorphic designs, also painted with ocre.[5]

There are also Iron Age sites along the mouth of the Côa in the valleys of the smaller ravine tributaries of the Douro.[5] They include anthropomorphic figures and horses, in addition to some dogs, deer and birds, accompanied by weapons (swords, lances and shields).[5] These armed warriors could represent scenes from battles or hunting parties. Generally, these images are stratified, with new designs drawn over the pre-existing carvings.[4][5]

The last period of art dates from the modern era, and includes religious motifs, both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures, in addition to inscriptions, dates, boats, trains, bridges, planes and landscapes.[5]

The importance of this prehistorical art site remains its rareness and extension; although there are numerous prehistorical art sites in caves, open-air sites are rarer (and only include Mazouco (Portugal), Fornols-Haut (France), Domingo García and the Siega Verde (both in Spain). Yet, the importance of the Côa Valley is the extent of these designs, which extend sporadically in a space 17 kilometres. Archaeologists acknowledge sites like this as open-air sanctuaries of prehistoric humankind.

See also


  1. "Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega Verde". UNESCO World Heritage Centre 1992-2016. Retrieved December 3, 2016.
  2. "Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley". Douro Valley 2011. Retrieved December 3, 2016.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 António Martinho Baptista and Mário Varela Gomes (1995), p. 350–384
  4. 1 2 Baptista (1999)
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 CNART (1999)
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 António Martinho Baptista (2002), p.62
  7. 1 2 Nelson Rebanda (1995)
  8. António Faustino de Carvalho (1995)
  9. António Martinho Baptista (2002), p. 62–63
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 António Martinho Baptista (2002), p.63
  11. 1 2 3 IGESPAR, ed. (2011). "Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega Verde". Lisbon, Portugal: IGESPAR - Instituto de Gestão do Património Arquitectónico e Arqueológico. Retrieved 1 August 2011.
  12. UNESCO, ed. (25 June 1997), "Advisory Body Evaluation (1998)" (PDF), World Heritage Committee Session, Paris, France: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, retrieved 1 August 2011
  13. UNESCO, ed. (29 January 1999), "Report of the Committee", Convention Concerning the Protection of the World and Natural Heritage, Paris, France: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, retrieved 1 August 2011
  14. Fatima Monteiro (11 January 2006)
  15. UNESCO (ed.). "HERITAGE 2008- World Heritage and Sustainable Development International Conference". United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Retrieved 1 August 2011.

Coordinates: 41°02′N 7°07′W / 41.033°N 7.117°W / 41.033; -7.117

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