The IFRAO position

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TRACCE no. 13 – by Mila Simoes de Abreu, IFRAO Portugal

The International Federation of Rock Art Organizations applauds the important discovery of rock-engravings by the river Guadiana in Spain and Portugal, in a zone that will be flooded by the Alqueva dam.

13 – April 2001    special issue devoted to the Guadiana Rock Art

Thursday, 3 May 2001
Rock-Art Discovery in the Alqueva Dam Zone of the River Guadiana in Spain and Portugal

Em Português



The International Federation of Rock Art Organizations applauds the important discovery of rock-engravings by the river Guadiana in Spain and Portugal, in a zone that will be flooded by the Alqueva dam.

A Spanish archaeologist disclosed the rock engravings in Spain early last April at a course on European prehistoric art, held at the Polytechnic of Tomar (IPT) in Portugal. His talk was on fieldwork carried out at Cheles during January and February this year.

IFRAO rock-art researchers promptly went to Cheles and confirmed the importance of the discovery. The Spanish archaeologist sent them a report, which they forwarded to the president of the Federation.

An absence of similar engravings further downstream in Portugal puzzled the researchers. There was not any presentation about engravings like these at last February’s archaeology colloquium of the Alqueva Development and Infrastructure Enterprise (EDIA), the agency building the dam that also handles the archaeology and other impact studies.

Then the Liga para a Protecção da Natureza (LPN), a nature protection league founded in 1948, received an anonymous tip-off about engravings just like those of Cheles, except they were spread along ten kilometres by the Guadiana river in Portugal.

In response, members of Movimento Cota 139, a movement aiming to limit the level of the Alqueva dam reservoir level to 139 metres, went to see the engravings on Wednesday 25 April (Portugal’s Liberty Day) and called in Manuel Calado, an archaeologist from the University of Lisbon.

An environmental Web site called Ambiente Online broke the news of the engravings on Thursday evening, 26 April. Next morning, the rest of the Portuguese mass media pounced on the scoop.

Position of IFRAO

Although people from the international scientific community are delighted by the discovery, they are also very concerned because the dam is nearly finished and it will be difficult to avoid the destruction of this important rock-art area.

IFRAO, with thousands of amateurs and specialists on five continents that belong to the Federation’s organisations, now calls for the prompt nomination of a genuinely independent international commission to follow the situation and ensure international participation in the exploration and documentation of the rock-art area.

The Federation considers the plight of the Guadiana rock-art area to be far worse than that of the Côa rock-art area, in Portugal, in 1994-5 for the following reasons: –

Work on the dam is nearing completion.

It seems that the lesson of Côa dam was completely forgotten, resulting in an appalling threat to or loss of the rock-art and a massive burden on citizens and taxpayers that pay the colossal cost of such mistaken projects.

Today there are bodies that did not exist in 1994: IPA (Instituto Português de Arqueologia), the Portuguese Institute of Archaeology; and CNART (Centro Nacional de Arte Rupestre), the National Centre of Rock-Art. These bodies are responsible for keeping an inventory and register of all rock-art in the country and advancing the conservation and public awareness of it (law no. 117/97, 14 May 1997).

IPA and CNART should have been constantly inspecting what EDIA was doing. As the current president of IPA, Prof. Dr. João Zilhão, was severely critical of a similar situation during the fight to save the Côa rock-art area, IFRAO fails to understand why he does not resign-so showing his total opposition to the destruction of the Guadiana rock-art area.

IFRAO upholds the protection, study, and public awareness of rock-art on all continents, irrespective of its age or connected traditions. We are therefore once again deeply concerned that an attributed age is once again being used as criteria in determining the importance of rock-art and whether or not it is worth protecting.

Rock-art areas like the Guadiana, stretching two kilometres in Spain and ten in Portugal, are always of great value and importance. If claims that most of the engravings are Neolithic (New Stone Age) prove to be true, this corpus would be quite rare because there is very little rock-art in Europe attributed as Neolithic-Chalcolithic (Copper and Stone Age). Corresponding epochs only exist in Valcamónica, Italy (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Mont Bego, France.

Position of IFRAO (ctd)

IFRAO asks the Prime Minister and Minister of the Culture in Portugal to consider the following points:

  • A need for timely action to do everything possible to investigate the engravings with the most appropriate and up-to-date methodology and with adequate time to do so, even if this means delaying or suspending the filling of the dam reservoir.
  • The merit of creating a genuinely independent international commission to assess the importance and value of the rock-art. Aside from questions over the competence of IPA, CNART and EDIA, the commission should not fall under these or other state bodies-thus helping to ensure the integrity of the commission is not compromised.
  • State bodies cannot be both players and referees. This was one of the most heavily criticised aspects of the Côa syndrome.
  • IFRAO has formed an emergency delegation with specialists from four continents to follow the situation. It would be extremely beneficial if this delegation were part of an enlarged commission with representatives of Portuguese universities, archaeology associations and other groups.
  • IFRAO can promptly indicate suitable specialists to organise training courses for all the archaeologists and students who will be needed for the tremendous effort a time sensitive investigation requires.
  • We remember the political courage shown by the Prime Minister, António Guterres, in saving the Côa rock-art area. To enable constructive dialogue, IFRAO requests an audience with the Prime Minister and his Excellency, the President of Portugal.
  • Finally, IFRAO wants to tell people in Portugal they can and should be proud of this discovery.

When people respect the past, there is hope for the future.

Mila Simões de Abreu
Representative in Portugal of IFRAO
(Archaeology Unit – Department of Geology –
University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro – UTAD)

Links (no more available, try Google or Web Archive):,4273,4177255,00.html – Stone Age find will not halt dam – by Eduardo Gonçalves in Outeiro, Portugal and Giles Tremlett in Madrid – The Guardian, Saturday 28 April 2001 – Há gravuras neolíticas no Alqueva – News scoop by João Rabaçã – Ambiente Online, Thursday 26 April 2001 – Descobertas gravuras rupestres na área do Alqueva – PÚBLICO Online, Friday April 27 2001 – Figuras Rupestres Descobertas no Vale do Guadiana – by Carlos Dias – PÚBLICO, Saturday 28 April 2001 “Instituto Português de Arqueologia e Centro Nacional de Arte Rupestre acusados de negligenciar Alqueva” PÚBLICO Online, Saturday 28 April, 2001 – Descobertas de Arte Rupestre no Guadiana – Instituto Português de Arqueologia (N.B., large picture files slows page loading) – Liga para a Protecção da Natureza (LPN), a nature protection league founded in 1948

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