Wednesday, December 07, 2011

How the new imperils the ancient in Portugal

(Almendres cromlech; photos by your humble blogkeeper)
Stonehenge is the Xerox of Neolithic monuments; guides to and promoters of every other such monument compare theirs to Stonehenge, usually to note that theirs is thousands of years older.

The Almendres cromlech, a group of ninety-five standing stones outside Évora, is about 7,000 years old, predating Stonehenge by 2,000 years, our guide told us this morning, and he's no Portuguese chauvinist. In fact, he said, Portugal does a bad job of protecting the ancient monuments in which the country's southwest is so rich and of educating the public about the monuments.

The three we saw today [the cromlech, its accompanying menhir (left), and the Great Dolmen of Zambujeiro] lack the most basic facilities. There are no visitors' centers, no explanatory plaques, no trash cans or bathrooms. No postcard sellers, no bookstores, nothing to let visitors know they are in the company of anything but what locals, ignorant of the monuments' origins, traditionally called "castles of the Moors."

The dolmen (right), in fact, a high-end burial chamber from late in the Neolithic age, about 2,000 years younger than the cromlech, has been stripped of the earth that covered it, subjected to a series of half-arsed recovery efforts, and left in such danger of collapse that it looks like a row of dominoes about to tumble, or like a mouth full of horribly misfit teeth.

Back to Stonehenge. The British, our guide said, are the models for archaeological preservation and education. In Portugal, he said, appeals to history fall on deaf ears that hang off the head of mercenary politicians, and some of the most important monuments are in private hands, which bars UNESCO from stepping in and declaring the area a World Heritage Site.

Portugal's rich landowners are greedy and uneducated, he said, and the local people, loath to give up their traditional ways of life, resist the idea of rebuilding their local economies around tourism. So, in the end, I'd say I learned at least as much about contemporary Portugal as I did about its Neolithic predecessors.

The guide was an eloquent spokesman for public archaeology, and that's the cause to which he and the group of which he is part devote themselves. The group is called Ebora Megalithica, and I hope you'll join me in reading up on the group and, above all, on the wonderful landscape and history it seeks to protect.

(Read Detectives Beyond Borders' thoughts on some Bronze Age monuments.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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17 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Leave the stones alone. No need to turn them into tourist attractions. They've lasted a long time without special protection. Much better to just wander across the land and happen upon them.

Besides, we might not like knowing how they came about and what their purpose was. Ancient customs were rarely pretty or admirable.

December 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

We could get a nice discussion started. Mario (the guide) was explicitly against enlarging roads, say, and turning the monuments into theme parks. They already get plenty of visitors, he said. But he's got education on his mind, and conservation. He showed us some shocking examples of vandalism perpetrated on the stones, the sort of thing that a bit of education and protection might prevent.

December 07, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

A graffiti! Modern art meets ancient art. Or maybe both "artists" had too much time on their hands.

December 07, 2011  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I once made a Snickerhenge on top of a cake for a friend's birthday. Couldn't resist confessing that. Another lovely post!

December 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., this wasn't graffiti, this was some eejit who dug a chunk out of one of the stones.

December 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. Kelly, did your Snickerhenge duplicate the fallen stones of Stonehenge's current state? If so, I salute your thoroughness. And if not, Snickerhenge is an enjoyable coinage nonetheless.

December 07, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I don't know. I think there is some sort of instinct to make your mark on things, even if it wrecks them, so if there isn't some kind of security in place, it's going to happen.

Beautiful stones, though. I have to say that defacing them wouldn't actually occur to me.

December 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Some sort of security might help. But, believing occasionally in the better instincts of my fellow humans, some sort of explanatory material might also dissuade a potential vandal from exercising his or her artistry.

December 08, 2011  
Blogger Caroline Gerardo said...

Peter, first I start with the caveat, I'm portuguese. There is pride in the access to ancients in some of the people, sad that someone would vandalize. Many years ago I hitchhiked to Salisbury to see Stonehendge. At that time it was in the middle of nowhere. A couple years ago I returned with my children now there is a tourist center, hotels, golf course and ropes to keep viewers from touching the stones. I wonder what is better?

December 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. I visited the Salisbury Plain a few years ago, and I was surprised by the relative lack of development around Stonehenge. Even the visitors' center was underground. I was disappointed not to be able to wander into the middle of the monument. Even so, there was talk of plans to divers a nearby road underground.

I should add that our guide in Portugal, a Portuguese archaeologist, was proud of the archaeological riches the country possesses and wants it to be able to put its best face forward to visitors.

I was not so much shocked by the vandalism at the Almendres monuments as I was by the utter lack of facilities and explanatory materials. A few signs with a bit of history on them would not hurt.

December 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There's no reason the name "Evora' should not produce the same frisson of excitement in archaeology-loving tourists that the name "Salisbury Plain" does.

December 08, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

which bars UNESCO from stepping in and declaring the area a World Heritage Site

Peter,

Working on the periphery of cultural heritage conservation, I have often read that a WHS site declaration can be a double-edged sword. The process is becoming increasingly politicized and is seen, particularly in developing nations, as a financial quick-fix via tourism. Attempts are made to get dozens of sites, many with questionable world heritage value, that coveted WHS designation.

Also, as you point out "local people, loath to give up their traditional ways of life, [often] resist the idea of rebuilding their local economies around tourism." This is particularly the case with buildings and sites associated with the world's religions. How to accommodate tourism while maintaining the ritual, ceremonial, liturgical, etc. functions of these sites?

Questions of authenticity, one of the main reasons people want to see works of art, visit archaeological sites, etc., also arise and "conservation" and "interpretation" have different meanings around the world. For example, the Chinese have re-created a large section of the Great Wall of China in the belief that tourists want/expect to see a completed monument and make little distinction between the original and the modern materials, thus turning the Wall into more of a theme park than a historic site. This approach is, of course, quite different from that of most Western countries.

UNESCO at least has addressed this problem by publishing such guides as Managing Tourism at World Heritage Sites: a Practical Manual for World Heritage Site Managers in order to help heritage managers develop sustainable tourism programs.

And I.J., I strongly disagree with your view that heritage sites like Évora/Ebora should just be left alone because "they've lasted a long time without special protection." Twenty-first century development, agriculture and industry (and their associated pollution), armed conflicts, etc. negate the option of leaving alone cultural heritage monuments. At least in the West.

As for "besides, we might not like knowing how they came about and what their purpose was. Ancient customs were rarely pretty or admirable"... knowing that you write historical crime fiction, I'm hoping this was a bit of sarcasm on your part. History is full of unpleasantness and things we don't practice or even like to think about today. But just because some of my Norwegian ancestors drank the blood of their vanquished foes out of their helmets doesn't mean I don't want to know anything about Viking heritage.

PS When I was 9 yrs. old (shortly after the Druids had abandoned the site...) I saw Stonehenge for the first time. We parked very close to it, wandered around the stones (and being 9, I probably clambered around on them), and generally got a feel for this ancient and mysterious that is, unfortunately if necessarily, denied today's tourists.

December 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Managing Tourism at World Heritage Sites: a Practical Manual for World Heritage Site Managers."

I bet the folks at Ebora Megalothica would be intetested in this if they don't know it already.

As for the Salisbury Plain, a sense of the ancient and mysterious is still available for those who wish to stroll out from Avebury along the West Kennett Avenue from the Avebury henge, or at least was a few years ago.

December 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, those effing Druids! Reputable books and guides to Stonehenge are properly dismissive of the belief that Druids had anything to do with the site.

December 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And yes, I do realize your reference to Druids was a self-effacing joke!

December 09, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When locals refer to the stones as castles of the moors, they aren't referring to the North Africans from the islamic invasion. They are speaking about the enchanted moors (elves, fairies, gnomes or whatever you wish to call them) from pre-christian mythology. It is a vocal tradition passed down that is often confused with the islamic moors.

January 12, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. Are you one of those locals? And here, thanks to our infallible friends at Wikipedia, is a bit about the moura encantada.

January 12, 2013  

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