The Coa Valley Archaeological Museum

(Otherwise known by the cumbersome title of

The Museum of Art and Archaeology of "Vale do Côa")

Here’s a preview of the museum, which I wrote just before it opened.

As one drives up to a cliff overlooking the gorge, the museum is nowhere in sight, since one arrives on its roof, which is worked into a crest overlooking the valley. To make it even more fitting, the same slate that the art is engraved on at over 60 sites along the Côa was powdered into the cement, which was then held in place by huge slate slabs that lent their grain to the rock-colored walls. They're so suggestive that one can't help but look for engravings of animals even in the reinforced concrete! 

The only thing that suggests that there is a building below is a fissure with a ramp down into the darkness. After descending it with trepidation, one finds oneself in a palace of halls lit by tall narrow slits. It's all state-of-the-art and very flashy, but my favorite rooms are unfortunately the ones housing replicas of art panels that were found when the water dropped for a few days behind an existing dam at Pocinho. Hundreds of aurochs, deer, horses and ibex cover a single monumental slab that deserves to be turned into a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right! Even though I knew much of the art that remains above water because of my clandestine survey of the valley while a 300-million-dollar dam was being built to create a second, higher reservoir 15 years ago, I was blown away. This was like flooding the Grotte Chauvet! 

Although the museum seems to have been influenced by such bold works of modern design as the Pulitzer Museum in Saint Louis by Tadao Ando, its megalithic architectural vernacular works especially well here with its setting and subject - rock art in a region of cliffs.

A view from the museum’s roof looking up the Coa Valley towards the former construction site of the abandoned dam, which is visible as a series of huge terraces in the distance. 

After looking at real petroglyphs all day, I couldn’t help but look for more among the patterns imprinted onto the museum’s walls, which were ingeniously made out of cement laced with powdered slate - giving the concrete the same color as the rock on which the art outside is engraved. The walls’ natural texture is made by making the forms out of huge slate slabs rather than plywood.

The museum provides one of the best introductions to Paleolithic rock art to be found outside of a book - using everything from explanatory wall panels to magnificent replicas of friezes to examine the art from multiple perspectives.

How many contours of animals can you pick out from just these small sections of a vast panorama that was found during recent excavations near our former hideout at Fariseu? The actual slab from which this replica in the museum was cast remains submerged by the water behind the coffer dam erected in preparation for building the giant dam that was stopped. If you look closely, you will see finely incised animals among the more obvious pecked ones.

Architect’s link:

© 2010 Duncan Caldwell