MEGALITHISM IN PORTUGAL

Maria Joao Leite

Megalithic Art in Portugal: a country full of magic, ancient rituals and lost traditions with a high symbolic value, waiting to be discovered!

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page” –

St. Augustine

Portugal is a country mainly known for the hospitality of its people, its long Atlantic coast merging with a blue sky, and its monuments… but, not all of them!

Despite being widespread in several regions of the world, it is along the european Atlantic coastal area that the megalithic art presents the biggest quantity and variety of these kind of constructions, classified as being some of the oldest monuments of Europe. Although they are spread all over the portuguese territory, many in areas of difficult access and far from the main roads, it is mainly in the southern part of the territory, Alentejo and Algarve, that we find the biggest concentration of this kind of monuments built during the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods (5000 BC – 1200 BC). And it is in the Alentejo region that we can find the richest and best preserved megalithic area of Portugal, with organised itineraries and fairly easy accesses. 

The climate changes led to the establishment of sedentary communities of farmers and shepherds, giving origin to big economical and social changes. These communities started building structures of large dimensions, symbolic and magical-religious or with funerary functions, built with big stones (Mega – Big + Lithos – Stone, Megalith), the work of people who still didn’t have writing skills or had advanced techniques of architecture.

There are mass graves of collective burial (dolmens), often located in high areas and close to watercourses. In these ones, the interior of the construction imitated the atmosphere of a cave, with big vertical and horizontal stones. The access to the burial chamber was made through a low corridor. These dolmens were surrounded by an artificial hill made of stones and mud, built to conceal the structure.

Some of the most significant dolmens are the “Anta-Capela de São Brissos”, transformed in chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Deliverance in the 17th Century; as well as the “Anta Grande do Zambujeiro”, one of the largest megalithic monuments of the Iberian Peninsula.

Anta-Capela de São Brissos
Anta-Capela de São Brissos

On the other hand, the non burial monuments were built with single vertical blocks of stones, the menhirs, or organised in groups, in parallel or circular rows, the chromelechs. These monuments are possibly related with fertility rituals  and with the botanical cycles of rebirth and death, but also with rituals related with the movement of the stars, natural cycles and the changing seasons. 

The “Menir dos Almendres” and the “Cromeleque dos Almendres, discovered in 1964, is the biggest set of menhirs in the Iberian Peninsula (95) and most likely the oldest european megalithic monument, used as an astronomical observatory. But we also have other examples as the “Menir da Rocha dos Namorados”, associated to fertility rituals of pagan origin; the “Menir da Bulhoa”, with decorations representing the sun, wavy lines, zig zags and a crosier; the  “Menir do Outeiro”, with phallic characteristics, and one of the tallest menhirs in Portugal; as well as the “Menir e Cromeleque do Xerez” composed by a large menhir in the center, surrounded by 50 smaller monoliths placed in a quadrangular plan.

Cromeleque dos Almendres
Cromeleque dos Almendres

It’s a Portugal full of magic, ancient rituals and lost traditions with a high symbolic value, waiting to be discovered!

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