Portugal # 9 : Dolmens

Portugal # 9:  Dolmens                                                           23 November 2011

Linda and I have a long history together of hunting dolmens. Give us the slenderest hint of a dolmen within thirty kilometers of where we are busily doing something else, and without hesitation we drop everything and set out to find it.

A dolmen, for those of you without Paleolithic funerary monuments in your back yard, is an artfully arranged pile of stones in which to bury a person of some distinction and thus (a) facilitate his (presumably only males merited this) passage to the world of the dead; (b) please the gods and ensure their favored treatment for the tribe; (c) create a tribal center, a locus, for a (presumably) migratory group of hunters and gatherers; or (d) other. Actually nobody really knows why people built them, although the massiveness of their construction, the homogeneity of the architectural style from northernmost Scotland all the way to northwestern Morocco, and their links to some sort of funerary practices lead archaeologists to a few strong surmises:

            These groups were structured.

            They had an oral tradition that communicated the activity, its purpose, and the architectural style.

            They were socially stratified. Somebody had to organize the labor force, choose the site, manage the engineering, etc.; and somebody else had to lug and lift a lot of very heavy stones.

            They must have conceived of an afterlife, and some superior power who governed it (and them), or else why go to all the effort.

            They are related to Celtic peoples. Where there are or were Celts, there are dolmens (though the dolmens undoubtedly predate the modern Celtic cultures we’re familiar with). The great-great-grandchildren of the people who made dolmens play bagpipes.

So what sorts of massive thingeys are we talking about? Monumental paleolithic European stuff comes in three varieties: menhirs, cromlechs, and dolmens. Menhirs are huge vertically planted rocks. In size we’re talking anything from fence-post to upended school bus Phallic? Probably. Simple to build? Yes: just find a really long thin rock and upend it. Harder if it weighs several tons. Calendrically or astronomically useful? Maybe. There are over a thousand of them arranged in rows at Carnac in Brittany and they must have been used for …. well, something. Take two menh

irs, bridge them with another massive stone (think π), and arrange them in a circle, and you have a cromlech. Make a really big one, you get Stonehenge.

Dolmens are more complex. Generally they are made of two parallel lines of large menhirs, capped, cromlech-like, with a flat roofing stone. Lined up next to each other  they form a kind of tunnel. The tunnel usually leads to a burial chamber composed of vertical flat stones tightly fitted into a circle, which is capped by some other massive flat stone. After burying the dignitary or dignitaries, the whole structure is covered with earth so that it looks like a low mound. Though dolmens can be found in almost any topographical setting, from river basin (like the Cueva de Menga in Antequera in Spain, which is the largest dolmen we’ve ever seen), their builders seemed to favor high ridgetops in the bleakest, windiest, rockiest, gorsiest, most uncomfortable places with the best views imaginable. If you’re hunting dolmens, hang onto your hat.

How do we find out about them? The biggest and best known make it into the guidebooks and onto the maps. Often a road sign shaped like a π with an arrow pointing up a hill will cause us to slam on the brakes. What’s fun, of course, is hunting for the ones that are not quite so well known. When we’re about to travel someplace I often scan the archeological literature for clues. I take out my maps (the more detailed the better), and mark where I think they are: π π π.

How do we actually find them? That’s harder. The literature tends to give only approximate locations. From the road, one rocky hillside looks pretty much like another, and dolmens, with or without their mounds, tend to be low to the ground. Over the years I’d say we’ve found about 30% of the dolmens we’ve gone looking for, which isn’t bad, considering. And, frankly, it doesn’t matter all that much. While we’re looking for them we find the most extraordinary, off-the-beaten-path things. We get to places, generally remote, that we would never otherwise have ventured into. When it looks like we’re really lost and are never going to find the dolmen, whoever gives up first starts to honk, signaling that they have relegated the search to the status of wild goose chase.

From time to time we even have an adventure. Twice in the past our targeted dolmens have turned out to be on ranches in Spain where they were raising fighting bulls. Both times we climbed the fence and made our way between the placidly grazing black bovines. Both times we found the dolmens. Only once did we have to sprint for the fence on our way out.

No wild adventure this Monday though; just a normal, perplexing, uncomfortable ramble. We were driving from Coimbra north to Lamego over rough, rock-strewn, mountainous terrain. The map I’d brought with me (1:100,000) had a dolmen sign about 15 km east of Castro Daire. It was not yet raining when we wound down from the heights (3,000 feet) to the bridge over the river (± 2,000 feet), and then corckscrewed up to the next ridge top where our east-heading road branched off. Uncharacteristically for dolmen chasing, it was paved, painted, and guardrailed. Thank the gods, because the sides were also precipitous. The map suggested that just past the village of São Joaninho we were to turn south for another five kilometers, and then, where the road ended, look for the dolmen. San Joaninho was

a medieval hamlet clinging to the side of a hill that seemed to drop back to the river valley we had recently crossed, now maybe 1,200 feet below. We drove into the down looking for the road south. We found tiny, stone, largely windowless and sometimes roofless houses, stone grain bins (hórreos) in the fashion of Galicia, and a small church with the door open and a hearse parked out front. We tried every road out of town. The first took us to a farmyard where we had to jig and jag to turn the car around without scraping anything. The second seemed to peter out in 50 feet or so, but had some nice hórreos, so we took some pictures. When I rolled down the window we could hear hymn singing from the church. The third road went through a narrow arch and seemed to narrow even more at the far side. None seemed to go anywhere and that’s all there were.

No one to ask, everyone was in church, and it didn’t seem appropriate to interrupt. Honking was heard.

But as we drove out of town, Linda spotted a π on a small signpost a couple of hundred meters further up the road. Pointing north, not south. So up that road we went. We were above the tree line now, just broom and prickly blackberry thickets. It still wasn’t raining, but it was growing very dark

and the fog had descended to just above the aerial of our car. After a kilometer or so of climbing another small π sign pointed into a boulder strewn and fire scorched field that rose into the foggy distance. We parked, and picked our way up the hill. Rocks, more rocks. We split up, looking for any low mound or vertically raised stone.

Finally I found a small burial chamber and—simultaneously, a hundred feet distant—Linda found a small mound that had entrance passages cut into all four sides. Pretty small for dolmens.


In fact, they may well be the smallest dolmens we’ve ever found. They looked like salesmen’s samples. Also, they were pretty much destroyed. We took a few pictures anyway. There may have been a full-size dolmen out on that hillside someplace, but the sky was preaching haste and we decided not to plead for ten more minutes, please.

As we worked our way back down the hill toward the road where we had left the car, we passed two definite mounds with their massive capstones uncovered, and another couple of mounds that seemed like possibles. The fog was thickening into rain and the cold wind was driving it into us like BB’s. We made it to the car just as the clouds opened up.

All in all, a thoroughly satisfying excursion. We failed to find the dolmen we were looking for, but found some others that we hadn’t had a clue about. Or, maybe, the map just got the location wrong. And the hórreos were a nice bonus.

We’ll try again tomorrow.

D&L

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