In the mountains of northeast Portugal is the Côa Valley, home to a remarkable set of prehistoric rock carvings that have been designated a World Heritage Site. They are located west of Salamanca, Spain, and northeast of Tomar, Portugal.
History of Coa Valley Rock Art
The rock art at Coa was created over several thousand years, beginning in the Upper Paleolithic Era (40,000-10,000 BC) and continuing intermittently all the way to the 20th century AD! The themes of the earliest engravings are mostly of animals, especially mountain goats, horses, aurochs (wild hulls) and deer. The first three are the most common and are characteristic of the earliest phases of art in western Europe. There are also some rare engravings of fish and one instance of a human form during this period, at the end the Upper Paleolithic Age (at Ribeira de Piscos).
The petroglyphs from the Iron Age include many panels of fine line engravings of figures, especially warriors with long legs and tiny heads, armed with swords and lances and riding stylised horses with long, thin bodies and high necks.
The cycle of rock art began again in the 17th century AD, with the engraving of religious and profane motifs. This continued until the mid-20th-century with engravings depicting the various ''creatures'' that are most typical of our age: fish and birds, boats, trains and airplanes.
These Palaeolithic rock engravings in the Coa Valley were discovered in the late 1980s as part of the planning for a major dam project, which, if completed, would have almost entirely submerged the rock art. But after an international campaign of scientific and media pressure (under the slogan, "Petroglyphs can't swim"), combined with a change of government in Portugal, work on the dam was stopped.
In 1996 the Coa Valley area became a designated archaeological park and the site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998.
What to See at Coa Valley Rock Art
The rock-art sites of the Coa Valley are all protected inside a vast archaeological park. There are three main sites: Canada do Inferno, which was the first group of engravings to be discovered, very close to Vila Nova de Foz Coa; Ribeira de Piscos, at Muxagata; and Penascosa, close to the village of Castelo Melhor.
Canada do Inferno is a 130-meter-deep canyon made by the Coa River as it flows into the Douro. Most of the 36 carvings at the site have been submerged under shallow water since 1983 as a result of construction of the Pocinho Dam. Prior to this, the area was a beach lined with east facing, vertically layered rock panels ideal for petroglyphs. Here you'll see paleolithic engravings of ibexes, horses, aurochs and fish. Stylistically post-Paleolithic engravings of deer and goats can also be seen. Visits begin at the Park Office at Vila Nova de Foz Coa.
Ribeira de Piscos is at the south end of Canada do Inferno. This area has fewer petroglyphs than the canyon, but its images are better known. One rock panel depicts two horses crossing their heads; another shows a human figure drawn over a large auroch. At higher elevation there is a panel with extraordinarily realistic fine line engravings of four horses. Visits start at the Visitor Center at Muxagata.
Penascosa is 1 km south of the Ribeira de Piscos site on the other side of the Coa. Here, where the valley opens up, a relatively extensive beach formed from river deposits. More engraved rocks may yet be discovered beneath its sands. Carvings depict ibex, horses, aurochs and some fish. In several cases, the artist tried to convey the concept of animation: in one apparent mating scene, a mare is mounted by a stallion whose three heads suggest the downward movement of his neck. Visits begin at the Visitor Center at Castelo Melhor.
At the Quinta da Ervamoira, in the heart of the archaeological park, is a museum that describes of the region and its ancestral customs, including ancient bread making and Douro wine production.
Quick Facts on Coa Valley Rock Art
|Names:||Côa Valley Paleolithic Art · Coa Valley Rock Art · Prehistoric Rock-Art Sites in the Côa Valley|
|Categories:||petroglyph sites; World Heritage Sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||41.032994° N, 7.116619° W|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Coa Valley Rock Art|
- Prehistoric Rock-Art Sites in the Côa Valley - UNESCO World Heritage List
- Coa Valley - World Heritage Site (unofficial but excellent website with visitor reviews)
- Foz Coa - Portuguese Tourist Office
- Coa Valley Archaeological Park on the Internet (Instituto Portugues de Arqueologia) (official site, lots of info)
- Portugal's Coa Valley - The Cultured Traveler
- Upper Paleolithic - Wikipedia
- Photos of Coa Valley Rock Art - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Coa Valley Rock Art, Portugal
Below is a location map and aerial view of Coa Valley Rock Art. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.