Arriving at the site of the 22,000 year old rock art in northwestern Portugal was uncomplicated—too uncomplicated. I enjoyed getting there so much that I was hoping to drag the experience out more. After sharing jeep ride with our guide from the Museu do Côa and another couple, we hiked a short distance through a valley of terraced olive trees next to the Côa river.
The rock art of the Côa Valley is in the open air, carved onto sheered off surfaces of granite.
The last time we saw prehistoric art, in the Font-de-Gaume cave of southwest France, I was overwhelmed with emotion. Here my reaction was more like “Wait, where’s the art?” (The honey-toned light of the Côa Valley bathes every surface in a warmly gorgeous glow, but it is no friend to tourists squinting to make out prehistoric line drawings.) Fortunately, our guide’s expertise, along with some reproductions she provided for reference, brought the artworks into focus.
The rock art was also difficult to photograph, but if you compare this image from the museum’s website you can better make out the body of the cow. Notice the swoop of her belly—is she pregnant?—and the delicate ridge of her tailbone.
The valley contains about 5000 rock carvings, which came horrifically close to being destroyed in a dam construction in the early 90’s. While many of the carvings are large, perhaps the size of a bathtub, many others are the size of a pack of cards and quite a challenge to see.
You know me: I want to go to the primary source and, whenever possible, to experience that primary source in its original context. Of course, having the opportunity to see prehistoric rock art in the specific location of southwest Portugal had me thinking “What does this mean? Why is it here?”
We’ll, the last prehistoric art we saw was in a cave, and the placement of the art was quite specific, as a cathedral’s art would be, and it was obvious that the remotest areas of the cave had been designated for the work of the most skilled artists, who worked with scaffolding and supplies just as artists do now. My conclusion was that those cave artists had created a pantheon of the Great Ones, the high status animals. Here in the Côa Valley, the artists were also selective of the animals they depicted—like you don’t see any squirrels or rabbits—but mostly the larger animals, some clearly bulls and horses, and others that could be goats or deer or some kind of extinct animals. (Somewhere in the site there are images of fish, but we didn’t see those.) Our guide told us that a few of the larger drawings had been painted with ochre and could perhaps have been seen from the opposite side of the valley.
Before any interpretation of intent, the rock carvings of the Côa Valley should first be recognized as art.
Art varies in quality in the Côa Valley, just as it does during any time period. This horse head is kind of meh, though the perspective of the two ears pointing up is rather charming. Other art in the valley is much more advanced—there are even instances of early animation, where the artist depicted the animal’s head in several locations to simulate movement.
I don’t think these animals represent a pantheon, as they do in the caves of France. These are more like family portraits. Hear me out: this art was made 22,000 years ago by adults who had extremely limited exposure to art, so in a way the artists were like young children. Watch any little kid with crayons and she will invariably draw her Mommy and Daddy and siblings over and over because those are the most important people in her life. Animals were the the most important beings in the lives of prehistoric humans: they were food of course, but also shelter (in the form of fur clothing/blankets and dwellings covered with animal skins). Prehistoric humans lived in small tribes and, since they didn’t have agriculture, they couldn’t accumulate property (and though property, wealth). Humans weren’t important enough to be the subject matter of art until they started acquiring status through property. Those high status animals seen in the rock drawings were critical to survival—-they were family. And you know how parents post their kid’s drawings on the refrigerator? That’s what these open air rocks were—a kind of refrigerator-gallery in a family hub where everyone could admire your handiwork.
This sweet goat (who is used as the logo of the Côa museum) was my favorite of the drawings we saw. He’s tiny, the size of a hand, and there’s something tender about the lines of his neck and horns. If all those bulls and horses are family portraits, this goat is the kindergarten school photo of an adored child tucked into a wallet that brings a smile when you notice it during a busy day.