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A Victory for Rock Art in Portugal

João Zilháo

To archaeologists, rock art experts, and all those who stood for the preservation of the Coa Valley rock art:

Construction of the Foz Coa Dam is now canceled! The new Portuguese administration has decided to turn the Coa Valley into an archaeological park!

On November 7, 1995, during the submission to parliament of his government's program, the new prime minister, Antonio Guterres announced the suspension of construction work at the Foz Coa dam until the value of the archaeological heritage it would flood was adequately established. He made it clear that if confirmation of its worldwide importance was obtained, as he hoped, construction of the dam would be abandoned altogether.

The position of the new Portuguese authorities on this matter has since evolved very rapidly. On November 17 a group of seven cabinet ministers visited the site to explain the new policy to the local population. The worldwide importance of the archaeological heritage was assumed and, accordingly, it was announced that the dam was to be definitively canceled, that preparations for transferring the dam farther downstream, to the Sabor River, would begin immediately, and that the Coa Valley was to be turned into an archaeological park. An integrated plan of regional development centered on the establishment of that park was to be prepared under the coordination of the minister for economic and territorial planning. It was promised that this plan would be completed within two months and that work toward implementing it would begin immediately after its approval. Meanwhile, construction work at the dam location would continue for about a year for consolidation and landscape reconstruction.

These decisions were subject to parliamentary debate on November 24. Mira Amaral, the minister for industry of the previous government and EDP's (the Portuguese electric utility building the dam) principal supporter, and now a member of parliament, condemned them. Invoking once more the results obtained by the dating "experts" hired by EDP, he attacked archaeology as a nonscientific field with a "wishful thinking" approach toward reality and said that construction of the dam should be completed. In a devastating reply, the new minister for culture, Manuel Carrilho, attacked the attitude of Mira Amaral and the preceding administration toward the Coa dam issue: instead of receiving the news of the discovery of the Paleolithic open engravings as a justified motive for celebration, they had turned it into a nightmare, wasting a year trying to come up with clumsy tricks that would rescue the dam project. This attitude was classified as "ineptly demagogic" for trying to convince people that the impossible (building the dam while preserving the engravings) was feasible; as "uncultivated to a horrifying degree" for ignoring the basic premises of archaeological investigation and site preservation; and as inspired by a "technocratic barbarism" that had shocked the Portuguese public.

These statements were wholeheartedly supported by the Portuguese archaeological community. At the same time the new government announced a major reorganization of the field and and formation of a new agency to oversee the country's archaeological heritage. Vitor Oliveira Jorge, a professor from the University of Oporto and one of the leaders of the "Stop the Dam" movement, has been selected as president and will report directly to the minister.

The national and international protest to stop the Coa dam and preserve its rock art has won a tremendous victory. I should like to remind you, however that all these decisions carry the implication, for the Portuguese taxpayer, of a loss of some $150 million (U.S. dollars) already spent in the work so far carried out at the dam. These were not easy decisions; I believe that the new Portuguese authorities are to be strongly commended for their vision. What they have decided to do deserves the support of archaeologists and rock art researchers from all over the world, much as what the previous administration almost did, with the unfortunate help of the "direct daters," deserved our strongest protests. If you wish to manifest your views on the above, please write to the following addresses:

Antonio Guterres
Rua da Imprensa a Estrela, 2
1200 Lisboa

Manuel Carrilho
Ministro da Cultura
Palácio da Ajuda
1300 Lisboa

João Zilháo is a professor at the Department of History, Faculdade de Letras de Lisboa, president, of the history section, Associação dos Arqueólogos Portugueses, and member of the Permanent Council, Union Internationale des Sciences Pre- and Proto-Historiques (UISPP).

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