Coa Valley Rock Engravings, Portugal
Open Air Rock Art: Vila Nova de Foz Coa, Pinhel, Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo, Faia.

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Engraving of an Ibex
Vila Nova de Foz Coa,
Coa River Valley.
Oldest art in Portugal.

Coa Valley Engravings Portugal (22,000 BCE)
Oldest Open Air Rock Art in Europe


Location and Discovery
Characteristics of Coa Valley Engravings
Engraving Techniques
Open Air Paleolithic Rock Art
Related Articles


The Coa Valley is a major area of prehistoric art in Portugal, which lies along the Portuguese-Spanish border in the northeast of the country. According to Jean Clottes, one of the world's leading specialists in Stone Age art, the Coa Valley is the largest open air site of Paleolithic art in the world. It contains thousands of open air rock engravings of animals and human figures, dating back to about 22,000 BCE, which makes it the oldest Stone Age art yet found in Portugal. Equally significant is the fact that almost all the Coa engravings were created outdoors. This is an extremely rare phenomenon in the European Palaeolithic: exceptions include Siega Verde (Spain) and Fornols-Haut (France). Since 1995, a team of archeologists and other scientists have been examining and cataloging the ancient art in the Coa River Valley. At the same time, a museum and an archeological park (Parque Arqueologico do Vale do Coa) have been created to receive and inform visitors. Many different bodies have been involved in the Coa Valley art project, including: the Portuguese Ministry of Culture, the Portuguese Institute of Archeology (Instituto Portugues de Arqueologia) and the National Centre for Prehistoric Art (Centro Nacional de Arte Rupestre). In 1998, the Prehistoric Sites of the Coa Valley were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Other notable sites of prehistoric art in Portugal include Casa da Moura and Lapa do Suao, both of which date to the Upper Paleolithic.

To see how Coa Valley engravings fit into the evolution of cave art across Europe, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (2.5 million BCE).

Location and Discovery

There are 23 archeological sites located in the lower Coa River Valley, all of which contain a variety of petroglyphs and engraved pictographs. Spread across the three municipalities of Vila Nova de Foz Coa, Pinhel and Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo, the sites include: Alto da Bulha, Broeira, Canada da Moreira, Canada do Inferno/Rego da Vide, Fonte Frieira, Meijapao, Moinhos de Cima, Penascosa, Quinta da Barca, Quinta do Fariseu, Ribeirinha, Ribeira de Piscos/Quinta dos Poios, Vale de Cabroes, Vale da Casa, Vale de Forno, Vale de Jose Esteves, Vale de Moinhos, Vale da Figueira/Teixugo, Vale de Videiro, Vale dos Namorados and Vermelhosa.

Located just outside the zone of Franco-Cantabrian cave art, the Coa Valley engravings were discovered in the early 1990s by Nelson Rebanda, a local archeologist, just before the valley was flooded as part of a huge dam project. They were identified as Paleolithic by the scholar Mila Simoes de Abreu - a discovery which eventually led to the cancellation of the dam and saved the art from destruction. The art consists of well over 5,000 engraved drawings of horses, aurochs, bison and other animals, as well as human figures, along with numerous abstract signs and symbols.

Note: for another significant prehistoric site on the Iberian peninsula, please see: Tito Bustillo Cave - 14,000 BCE.)

Characteristics of Coa Valley Rock Art

The earliest art in the Coa Valley - which is all outdoor, except for the parietal art in the Faia rock shelters - consists of naturalistic engravings of animal figures which date back to a period of Gravettian art (22,000-20,000 BCE). A second group of animal drawings, notably muzzled horses, were engraved during the following era of Solutrean art (20,000-18,000 BCE. A third and final phase of Paleolithic engraving occurred during a period of Magdalenian art (15,000-10,000 BCE), when artists created a series of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic designs. Engraving continued at Coa throughout the eras of Mesolithic art (semi-naturalist zoomorphic designs), Neolithic art (zoomorphic and geometric designs), Bronze Age art (anthropomorphic designs) and Iron Age art (anthropomorphic figures armed with swords and lances, plus animals and birds).

The Coa valley rock art occurs in three clearly defined clusters. In the south is the small group of granite rock-shelter sites at Faia. About 5 miles further downstream is the cluster on both sides of the river at Penascosa and Quinta da Barca, where the rock is schist. Lastly, to the north there is a cluster of sites beginning at Ribeira de Piscos and continuing along the river Coa until its confluence with the Douro.

In total, some 214 engraved panels have been discovered in 22 different groups. Among the animals featured are aurochs, bison, deer, horses and ibex. In addition, there are several images of fish, as well as a small group of geometric or abstract symbols (at Penascosa and Canada do Inferno), and one engraving of an anthropomorphic figure complete with phallus (at Ribeira de Piscos). At the archeological site of Faia, in the south, there are a number of rare painted engravings, in which red ochre paint has been applied to outline the engraving and highlight the mouth and nostrils of the animals.

Rock Engraving Techniques

The Paleolithic engravers employed several techniques: (1) Incision with a hard stone tool: the style varies between bold deep lines and thin shallow lines. (2) Pecking/hammering, with both direct and indirect percussion. (3) Scraping: a method of drawing by exposing different coloured stone underneath the surface. (4) Painted engraved drawings, using either red ochre or black manganese. Only rare examples of painted engravings have survived (mostly at Faia), partly, it is thought, because the colour pigments were made of vegetable material and have faded. (For pigments used, see: Prehistoric Colour Palette.) In keeping with Palaeolithic convention, variations in the morphology of the rock surface are exploited in order to give added relief to the figures. The engravings always appear on vertical rock faces, in varying sizes between 15 centimetres (6 inches) and 180 centimetres (6 feet), but most often about 40-50 centimetres in height, frequently making up multi-image compositions.

Despite their age and obvious beauty, however, the rock engravings of the Coa Valley are very fragile, and many are too small and too fine to appreciate without a magnifying glass and good light. Even some of the rock art exhibits in the museum were too indistinct to appreciate fully.

For the oldest form of creative stonework, see: Cupule Art.

Open Air Paleolithic Rock Art

Outdoor rock art is almost unknown during the Upper Paleolithic period. Only in Australia was it a common feature of the time. The best examples of open air Aboriginal rock art include the Burrup Peninsula Rock Engravings (c.30,000 BCE) in the Pilbara; Kimberley Rock Art (c.30,000 BCE) in the northernmost area of Western Australia; and Ubirr Rock Art (c.30,000 BCE) in Kakadu National Park, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.

Related Articles

For more about Stone Age engraving methods and materials, see the following articles:

Abri Castanet Engravings (c.35,000 BCE) Dordogne, France.
Carved pictures of female genitalia.

Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures (Cave of Two Openings) (26,500 BCE)
Noted for its engraved figures of aurochs and mammoths.

Cussac Cave Engravings (c.25,000 BCE) Dordogne, France.
Engraved drawings of bison, horses and mammoths, noted for their large size.

Roucadour Cave Art (c.24,000 BCE) Lot, France.
Noted for its engraved animal drawings and hand stencils.

Roc-de-Sers Cave (c.17,000 BCE) Charente, France.
Greatest centre of Solutrean engravings.

Cave of La Pasiega (c.16,000 BCE) Puente Viesgo, Spain.
Iberian rock shelter famous for its engravings of bovines, equines and cervids.

Cap Blanc Frieze (15,000 BCE)
Foremost example of Magdalenian rock carving.

Rouffignac Cave (14,000-12,000 BCE)
Renowned for its engravings and black paintings of mammoths.

Font-de-Gaume Cave (c.14,000 BCE) Dordogne, France.
Has more than 200 high quality engraved drawings of prehistoric animals.

Roc-aux-Sorciers (c.12,000 BCE) Angles-sur-l'Anglin, France.
Contains rock engravings and outstanding frieze of relief sculpture.

Les Combarelles Cave (c.12,000 BCE) Dordogne, France.
Renowned for its huge collection of about 600 engravings of animals.


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