TRACCE no. 5 – by M.S. Abreu, A. Arcà, A. Fossati, L. Jaffe
The Vermelhosa site and the “Etched in time” project.
The Vermelhosa site is situated in a small lateral little valley on the orographic left side of the Douro river, less than 1 km down from the Côa confluence in the Douro.
The engraved rocks were discovered in June 1995 by José Pilerio, a Vila Nova de Foz Côa researcher.
In this area (and also in most Côa Valley areas) it is easy to find many vertical red surfaces of Xisto Grauvaquico Ante-Ordoviciano, a sedimentary metamorphosed rock where silica, quartz and aluminum components make water erosion quite impossible. So the rocks are very well preserved, not eroded, only (sometimes hardly) affected by the natural detaching of (sometimes large) blocks along the schist fractures.
As in all open air rock art concentrations, the rock itself plays a fundamental role, making possible the execution of the engraved figures. In this sense it is very probable that many other engraved sites are present in the adjacent areas (where the schist is largely diffused), mainly along the Douro river sides, perhaps sorrowfully submerged by the Pocinho dam water.
Looking at the large extension of the open air engraved areas it seems that the common idea of a cave limited hidden Palaeolithic Art is to be differently considered. In the same way the diffused presence of engraved panels close to the river sides, clearly related to the sites of animal watering, probably obliges to shift in this case the definition of a prehistoric “sanctuary” into something more related to the hunting practice and to the seasonal relationship with a vast territory.
Most Côa Valley engravings consist in pecked animal figures. On the contrary engraved rocks at Vermelhosa site show only scratched figures (more common than pecking in Palaeolithic rock art), with representations of animals and of schematic elements.
The work at the Vermelhosa site, still in progress, is conducted by an International (P – I – USA – PL) team (coordinated by M. S. Abreu, A. Arcà, A. Fossati, L. Jaffe) in the joint project of AARP-Footsteps of Man “Gravado no Tempo – Etched in Time”, funded by “Ministerio da Cultura – IPAAR – Plano Nacional de Trabalho Arqueologico”.
In the geological field J. A. Bravo Nunez and S. A. Marques are working, B. Campos and M. Coelho in organization and tracing, P. Firnharber in photographic documentation, J. Kolber in sketching and conservation consultation.
The first traced surfaces, in particular rocks n. 1 and 4, have suddenly offered largely interesting results.
Two points are to be outlined:
- without doubt there is the presence of Palaeolithic kinds of figures: female representations, extinct fauna depiction (Megaceros, a probable Mammoth head, schematic elements (roof-like figures, undulated bands, fish-like figures)
- Iron Age figures (horses and a riding warrior raising a spear), still white and without patina, cover Palaeolithic ones
It is not possible for the moment to offer a detailed chronology: many typological comparisons suggest anyway a Solutrean-Magdalenian range.
We can very well compare Vermelhosa scratched figures (in particular of rock no. 1) with:
- animal representations of Escoural Cave-
- roof-like figures of Altamira, Lascaux and Escoural
- Palaeolithic plaquettes (goat and deer Solutrean shapes, branch-like Magdalenian figures) of Parpallò Cave
- female images of the engraved Final Magdalenian stone slab of Lalinde , of Pech-Merle, of Hohlenstein, of Gönnersdorf.
Even if stylistic-based chronology has been recently doubted (though by not yet well tested methods), such a large array of comparisons renders statistically unlikely any not Palaeolithic-culture related interpretation. All Côa Valley pecked figures add favorable elements. No not Palaeolithic Rock Art complex, even in the Spanish Levant style, show a similar range of figures, themes and scenes.
The clear evidence of Iron Age figures, whose scratched lines are much whiter than the overlapped Palaeolithic ones, added to the presence in the surrounding area of Bronze Age, Middle Age and contemporary engraved signs, show a complete longtime range, still continuing, where Palaeolithic figures are taking an incontestable place of authenticity and of main European archaeological and cultural interest.
Returning to the Vermelhosa particular evidence, we should add for the descriptive side a probable lion or feline figure, the representation of a horse-like or gazelle-like figure (also whiskers are scratched) hit by a javelin -fig. 3-, and the particular dorsal lines of two deers, which humps, joined to the large neck, render the figure more similar to a Megaceros than to a Cervus Elaphus -fig. 4-. A particularly big figure shows, though in doubt because of the undemonstrated existence of this animal in Portugal during the Upper Palaeolithic, a Mammoth/Elephant-like head shape.
One female figure without a head is depicted in sector A , apparently inside (or overlapping) a roof-like or hut-like figure. Two other female figures have been detected in sector B: one of them shows head, arms and breast.
Most of the animals are scratched in a fine way, with a little head and body, head and legs filled by parallel curved lines, depicting coat or muscle shape. They are oriented to the right size, being probably involved in a large scene.
Regarding the Iron Age, rock no. 4 shows an interesting duel scene, with two warriors handling double pointed spears, with typical head-dress or helmet and ithyphallic attitude -fig. 10-. This scene should be compared with a similar one depicted in a Liria vase.
The documentation work involved (and still involves) complete scientific tracing (contact tracing over transparent plastic sheets with natural or artificially improved grazing light), detailed photographic recording, and geological analysis.
We would like to thank the Portuguese government and archaeological and political authorities who made possible (we hope in a definitive way) with a noble decision the saving of the area and scientific research.
Angelo Fossati, Ludwig Jaffe
Gravado no Tempo – Etched in Time research project