Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega Verde, Portugal and Spain

Rocks with memory

By UNESCO World Heritage

Côa Valley present-day landscape (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

The Côa River is a Portuguese left-bank tributary of the Douro River, one of the major watercourses that cross the Iberian Mountains from east to west. Upstream, the river flows within a deeply gorged valley, through granites, and the last 17 km grades to a meandering pattern into metasedimentary rocks. This portion of the Côa river valley and its confluence with Douro preserve one of the largest concentrations of open-air rock art in the world. Of a total of 1200 decorated rocks identified, 580, have Pleistocene motifs.
The rock art was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998, based in the following criteria:
“The Upper Palaeolithic rock art of the Côa Valley is an outstanding example of the sudden flowering of creative genius at the dawn of human development”
“The Côa Valley rock art throws light on the social economic, and spiritual life of the early ancestors of humankind in a wholly exceptional manner.”

Canada do Inferno panel no. 1 (30,000-25,000 years old) (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

Prior to the discovery of the Côa valley open-air rock-art, it was largely assumed that the Palaeolithic rock art was circumscribed to caves and rock shelters In 1981, at Mazouco, 40 km to the northeast from the Côa mouth, a figure of a horse, obtained by pecking, was attributed to the Palaeolithic.
Unexpectedly, during the 80s and 90s, more carvings, stylistically attributed to the Palaeolithic, were found elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula and in southern France. The first rock art site of the Côa Valley to be discovered was Canada do Inferno, during an assessment of the impact of the construction of a dam. After a period of intense debate, in December 1996, the construction of the dam was cancelled.

Penascosa panel no. 6, superimposition of carved figures attributed to the oldest phase of the Côa Valley Rock art (30,000-25,000 years old) (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

The Côa Valley rock art is essentially carved. Pecking is the technique more common during the older phases and consists in the hammering of the rock surface with a stone tool prepared for that purpose, which produces a deep and broad line. Abrasion is also common. It consists in the production of a broad line by a repeated back and forth movement with a prepared stone tool prepared.

Ribeira de Piscos panel no. 1 (30,000-25,000 years old) (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

The Palaeolithic rock art of the Côa Valley was produced during a large span of time, between 30,000 and 12,000 before present. It is characterized essentially by the representation of large herbivores selected from the indigenous fauna. Horses and aurochs (ancestors of the domestic ox) are the most represented motifs but ibexes and red deer are also very common. Chamois and fishes are occasionally represented.
Human figures are only present in rocks that were engraved between about 18,000 and 14,000 before present, and even so very rarely, in only two rocks of the Ribeira de Piscos site and on another two of the nearby site of Fariseu. The cold species, extinct at the twilight of the ice age, occasionally present in Central Europe cave art, are mostly absent from the Côa Valley.

Quinta da Barca panel no. 3 (18,000-15,000 years) (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

The art of the Côa valley is one of the greatest open-air collections of Palaeolithic art in the word. Prior to its identification, it was largely assumed that the oldest human art was circumscribed to caves and rock shelters. The hypothesis that it is now being put forward is that the major part of the open-air rock-art has been destroyed by erosion, and only preserved in specific climatic and geological conditions like in the Côa Valley.
The Côa valley open air rock-art thematic and stylistic conventions present a lot of similarity with images preserved in caves and rock shelters from southwestern Europe. However, the Côa valley open-air has some specificities, namely the depiction of movement. This is achieved by the representation of a single animal body with two or even three heads in successive positions of its movement.

Fariseu panel no. 1 (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

In December 1999, the excavation of Fariseu allowed the archaeological dating of some of the Upper Palaeolithic rock art. Several layers, dated from 20,000 to 11,000 years before present, covered rock 1 of the site.

Archaeological dating of the rock art (30,000-25,000 years old) (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

Stratigraphic correlation established between the engraved sequence of motifs and the archaeological layers covering them, permits us to infer a minimum date of 18,400 years before present to the engraving of the panel. This panel yields only motifs stylistically attributed to the older phase of engraving in the Côa valley.

Public tours (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

After the decision to cancel the dam, in view of the specific characteristics of the Côa Rock art, the Côa Valley Archaeological Park was created. This institution has defined a program to regulate tours to three of the rock art sites. The public tours are made in 4-wheel vehicles in the company of a specialized guide. They depart from the Côa Museum (Ribeira de Piscos, Canada do Inferno) or from the visitor Centre of Castelo Melhor (Penascosa). The tour should be booked in advance.

The Côa Museum (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

The Museum was opened on the July 30, 2010 and it is located on the top of a hill over the mouth of the river Côa into the Douro. The Côa Museum uses state-of-the-art technology to present a view of the Côa Valley's rock art, particularly from the Palaeolithic, and its archaeological context.

The Côa Museum (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

The museum also offers experimental archaeology workshops and other Educational Services activities.

La Unión or Siega Verde bridge (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

The La Unión or Siega Verde bridge (local road SA-V-88 from Castillejo de Martín Viejo to Villar de la Yegua) over the Águeda River, seen from downstream. The engravings are identified on the rocks on the left bank (to the right in this photo), over the course of a little more than a kilometre. From the town of Ciudad Rodrigo to the mouth of the Agueda river in Duero, in about 60 km, there is no other river passing, which runs embedded in a rugged terrain. This is a natural ford that should have been used over time.

Photo montage valley and carved horse (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

View of the valley, upstream of the bridge. Again the engravings are located on the left margin, right in the photograph, on the different schist rocks. In the grove, in the background, the first find was made, a magnificent, fully chip carved horse, recreated in the upper left of the photograph.
You can also see the path of the route prepared for the visits and some milestones indicated on the panels. An itinerary has been prepared, in the central part, that groups fourteen significant panels, next to the bridge, which can be visited. We can see that the river is fitting in despite the fact that we are in the most favorable stretch for the passage.

Panel 25 (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

Partial detail of panel 25 in which the remains of up to 17 figures have been identified, mostly horses. The lower left one stands out. Its head was mutilated by the pillar of the bridge built in the early years of the 20th century, which is indirect evidence of its antiquity.
Also because of its configuration: measuring 40 cm in length and, despite the disproportionate aspect of the body, an inner quartering and the detail of the extremities -one per pair- can be identified, which simulate movement, especially the front one, reproducing typical models of those identified inside the caves.

Panel 15 (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

Panel 15, upstream of the bridge, with ten figures and seven precise signs. There are two large ones -more than 50 cm- of an aurochs -looking to the right- and, under it, of a horse -looking to the left- made by chip carving The horse provided, details the cervical-dorsal line and tail, with extremities, between the ventral line just started. On the head: double mane, ears and eye. On the aurochs, of heavier proportions than the previous one, the cross on the back and the head, elongated with details of the snout and the horn towards the front, stand out. Both figures are situated in the oldest phase, Solutrense, within Style III.

Panel 21 (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

Panel 21 is engraved in a pot formed by river erosion and dismantled over time.
Top left, a horse, a body of about 40 cm wide with the head provided with double upright mane line, strong jaw, eye and mouth. The inner parts are interpreted as representing the fur. Partially overlapping, the cervical-dorsal line of the great aurochs, measuring over one metre. Also with muzzle, eye, neckline, chest and large horns that rest on the relief of the rock.
All these details manage to place the group in the initial Magdalenian.

Panel 63 (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

The engravings are located on the schist rocks that emerge by the river. In this case downstream - it can be seen on the horizon of the bridge parapet -, it contains two different panels. The one we see, the 63, shows a horse with an "M" cut out looking at the water. Just over 40 cm long, made with chip carving -the most repeated technique- it is very detailed: double mane, ears, tail and legs in "animation or movement". Its study details the existence of double lines, possibly by sketches or rectifications. These details manage to place these figures in an advanced moment, the initial-medium Magdalenian.

Panel 89 (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

It constitutes a continuous painting perpendicular to the riverbed. They are three figures that star in a "moving scene" of almost two metres in length. It shows three horses in the race, although the figure on the left has different formalisation and proportions, which leads you to assume it is a younger individual and even another type of animal. Executed with chip carving, it is not inconvenient for the high definition of the details: double mane, ears, eye, ventral quartering, double line of the start of the tail, hooved legs and position of movement or jump. It belongs to a full stage of the Magdalenian.

Panel 51 (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

It contains about twenty figures, both large and carved as well as small precise figures. In detail the protome of a precise caprid animal barely 10 cm in size. The cervical-dorsal line is represented with unique incisions. The elongated head with strong jaw shows detail of the nostril, one eye, as well as the ear and a small horn, both indicated by open convergent lines. On the neck some small oblique incisions are interpreted as the fur.
Chronologically these figures with an abundance of detail and perspective conventions are in the most advanced stages.

Panel 12 (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

In the centre, there are many figures, all of them precise. The one detailed in the photograph on the right represents a magnificent deer whose head and antlers unfold in the central plane while the body approaches the erosion fractures.
Again, the detail obtained in spite of the size of the figure stands out: with careful incision the rectangular head is drawn, with the nose and eye. The antlers, with the lamps in perspective, provide volume. Despite the flaking of the rock, the cervico-dorsal line and the tail can be distinguished, as well as the ventral line and the forelimbs.

Visitor Centre (1998) by Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega VerdeUNESCO World Heritage

Next to the bridge of Siega Verde, dominating the valley, a visitor and site interpretation Centre was constructed at the end of the last century. It is a modern building that leans and camouflages into the hillside, taking advantage of a base similar to rocky outcrops at which they were chosen to record the Palaeolithic representations, that unfold several tens of metres below. It has different areas: exhibition, audio visual and workshops, as well as toilets. This centre is adapted for all types of groups to make visits to the site.

Credits: Story

Information and reservations for visits:
www.siegaverde.es

www.turismocastillayleon.com/es/arte-cultura-patrimonio/yacimientos-arqueologicos/siega-verde


More on Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega Verde and World Heritage: whc.unesco.org/en/list/866


The information provided comes from the investigation of diverse teams and people, as reflected in the various publications on the whole and especially in:
J. J. Alcolea y R. de Balbín: Outdoor Paleolithic Art: The Siega Verde cave site, Salamanca. Archaeology in Castilla y León. Memories, 16. Government of Castilla y León. Salamanca, 2006
J. J. Fernández y M. Burón (Eds.): Siega Verde. Outdoor Paleolithic Art: Government of Castilla y León. Salamanca, 2011
C. Vázquez y J. Angulo: Siega Verde. Outdoor Paleolithic Art: Migrobrigenses Study Centre. His Honour. Ciudad Rodrigo Town Hall, Salamanca, 2019

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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