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12 August 2007
The wonders of Côa River Valley

Outdoor drawings discovered in Foz Côa, a remote Portuguese valley, have changed the way experts think about prehistoric art. The whole area is securely fenced off from the outside world and officials use four-wheel drive jeeps to transport visitors to and from the site. "We keep it this way to discourage people from driving here themselves," says guide Pedro Nuno. "We let the roads deteriorate because at first, we had some problems with vandalism."
     Foz Côa contains some of the most stunning prehistoric artwork ever found, employing techniques that have revolutionized the way experts think about paleolithic art. The collection of rock art here spans eons the oldest work dates back 25,000 years, the most recent is 20th century. And it is also the largest collection of outdoor paleolithic drawings anywhere in the world. Prehistoric people drew what they saw mountain goats, horses, aurochs, deer and the occasional fish. The canvasses were vertical rock faces and he used a variety of techniques fine-line incision with a sharp tool, pecking (creating a deep line of indentation by hammering a pointed implement into the stone) and abrasion. Remnants of red paint have been found on some of 1,000 or more engravings that have been discovered to date.    
     Outlines of animals overlap and are layered on top of one another. But one thing that really got archaeologists excited were that some of the animals' heads and shoulders are shown in different positions the artists' way of indicating movement and something that is unique to the Foz Côa engravings. "Some are also 3D, using the shape of the rock to create the body of an animal," Nuno says. "Others are more than two metres long and were painted, so that you can see them from the other side of the river."
     It's something of a miracle that the Côa Valley Archaeological Park exists at all. It all began when Electricidade de Portugal decided to build a hydro dam near the mouth of the River Côa. In 1992, a government survey team conducting an environmental impact study found some of the carvings at a site that would have been flooded by the dam. It was no surprise to the locals. "All the people here had known about the carvings for years," says Nuno. When the existence of the drawings was made public in 1994, archaeologists and others immediately campaigned to save the site. But many of the locals would have preferred the hydro dam and the prosperity that it would have brought to the area. And the then-governing Social Democrats also sided with the electricity company but were hotly opposed by the Socialist Party, which made halting work on the dam an election promise. When the Socialist Party won the election in the fall of 1995, work on the dam was stopped and Portugal's first archaeological park established along the 17-kilometre valley. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. Construction has started on a visitors' centre and museum perched on top of a nearby hill. It is slated to open in 2008.
     The Park office at Vila Nova de Foz Côa is open every day, except Mondays. Call (+351) 279-768-260/1 or go to www.ipa.min-cultura.pt/coa. Reservations are necessary; email visitas.pavc@ipa.min-cultura.pt. A bottle of water and a hat are also essential.

Source: The Star.com (11 August 2007)

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