Getting back on the road after a couple of days exploration of historic Evora, we headed further inland towards Monsaraz and the Spanish border, travelling several millennia into pre-history as we went. Surrounding Evora, and throughout this region of Portugal, are numerous wonderful Megalithic sites dating back 7,000 years or more to the Neolithic period of human history.
Megaliths, literally ‘giant stones’, can be seen all over the world, everywhere from Stonehenge to the Maoi of Easter Island. Europe is littered with them and this region of Portugal has more than its fair share. Time travel may not be possible, but visiting these atmospheric ancient sites built by our distant relatives is as close as it comes.
The Neolithic era could be considered the final hurrah of the Stone Age. It culminated in the Neolithic Revolution, when humanity developed agriculture, cultivated crops, domesticated farm animals and moved away from a hunter gatherer lifestyle to one of permanent settlement and increased population growth.
An improved diet and more settled communities presumably gave people more time and inclination to build things, rather than chasing wild animals around for lunch…and build things they did. The Neolithic Revolution saw incredible cultural change and led to the Bronze Age, the first time humanity developed and used metal tools.
The great flourishing of human enterprise throughout the Neolithic Revolution has bequeathed the world some of its most dramatic and extraordinary ancient monuments. The stones of Almendres, or the Cromeleque dos Almendres, remain enigmatically silent but this collection of standing stones make a powerful statement.
The Cromeleque dos Almendres wasn’t ‘discovered’ until the 1960s, possibly because it is located in a wooded cork tree landscape in the middle of the countryside. You reach it by driving off the paved road and down a dirt track. The last part of the journey is on foot between the trees and with only birdsong for company. There was a time when people could drive right to the stones, thankfully the authorities have changed that.
Early morning, with soft sunlight illuminating the stones, this is a magical place. The site was 3,000 years in the making – between 6,000BC and 3,000BC – and is one of the largest in Europe and one of the oldest in the world. Despite our best efforts we know precious little of the people who built the Cromeleque dos Almendres or what it was used for, but there is likely a connection with the sun and fertility – both critical to these emerging farming communities.
Some of the stones have shapes carved into them – time and weather have taken their toll, but you can still see them. Some shapes appear to be crook shaped, like a primitive agricultural tool and is repeated on Megaliths across the region.
Just down the road from the Cromeleque dos Almendres is another, entirely different, Megalithic site. Instead of dozens of stones crowded together, the Menhir Dos Almendres is a solitary giant stone standing three metres high amidst more cork trees. It dates from the same period as the Cromeleque dos Almendres, give or take a 1000 years. Aligned along the sunrise of the winter solstice it had a role in the functioning of the Cromeleque.
Leaving the Menhir Dos Almendres behind we decided to take the scenic route towards Monsaraz, and spent the next hour driving around country roads completely lost. We spotted a brown ‘tourism’ sign pointing down a bumpy dirt road and decided to see where it took us. After we’d driven through a large puddle, that went over the top of the wheels of our hire car, I began to doubt the wisdom of this decision.
Finally, we arrived in the middle of nowhere. A small bridge led over a stream and a path weaved its way across a field. After a few minutes walk we discovered the answer to the mystery, the Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro. Dating from 3,000 – 4,000BC it is a dramatic sight in the middle of a field, although the horrible protective tin roof over the top takes away some of the glamour.
This was a Neolithic, Megalithic burial site of some grandeur, the largest of its kind on the Iberian Peninsula. Excavations – which were probably a bit more like tomb raiding – in the 1960s discovered stone, ceramic and metal ceremonial objects. Today little remains beyond the the huge stones but it is set in a wonderfully atmospheric place – surrounded by open countryside and cork trees, cow bells ringing in the distance.
I hadn’t realised, but there are Dolmen structures all over the world that have similar characteristics: from Ireland to India to Korea. Standing in a field in the middle of Portugal we’d found a structure that, 7,000 years ago, would have been recognised and understood by cultures as diverse as those.