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14 December 2011
Economic crisis saves Spanish ancient sites

The Aljarafe region outside the city of Seville in southern Spain is believed to house Europe's most extensive grouping of tholos dolmens, dating back some 5,000 years. Many were buried under new construction during a decade-long building craze that swept across Spain.
     Dolmens were erected around Western Europe, from Ireland to the Baltics, starting about 7,000 years ago. Human remains have been found in or near many of them, leading to the theory that they are tombs.
     The debt crisis ravaging Spain's economy has saved some of the dolmens by freezing funds for construction, but also means scarce money to explore these little-known Copper Age settlements. Plans to create an archaeological park in Aljarafe with a visitors' centre, museum and route from the dolmens to the nearby Phoenician artefacts of El Carambolo and the Roman city Italica are at a standstill.
     Juan Manuel Vargas is head archaeologist in Valencina de la Concepcion, a small town outside of Seville and home to many dolmens, two of which - La Pastora and Matarrubilla - are open to the public and receive about 10,000 visitors a year. La Pastora boasts the longest corridor ever discovered in a passage grave in Europe, while Matarrubilla houses a stone altar inside its burial chamber.
     In neighbouring Castilleja de Guzman, the unique two-chamber Montelirio dolmen was nearly suffocated by plans to build a supermarket and a retirement home. In 2007, archaeologists discovered in one chamber the remains of what they thought was a chieftain, and to their surprise, 19 women believed to have drunk a poison in a ritual to accompany their leader on his journey to the netherworld sitting in a circle in the adjacent chamber.
     "Montelirio offers important clues into these societies and their possible burial rituals," said archaeologist Vicente Aycart. "Spain has enormous opportunities to further boost cultural tourism linked to music, history, architecture and archaeology," said Jose Luis Zoreda, CEO of Spanish tourist lobby Exceltur. Jorge Arevalo, vice president of a dolmen protection association said, "The real gem of these places is the scientific depth that we don't even know yet. If we don't take care of it, future generations won't be able to enjoy it. We have a responsibility to history."

Edited from Reuters (12 December 2011)

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